Preface

Summary

Anabasis: a journey up away from the coast, cf. Xenophon, Alexander.
Katabasis: a journey towards the coast, or, descent to the underworld, cf. Persephone, Orpheus.

 

The world is being torn apart and remade. The ripper of Carthage thinks to help with the tearing; a desert prophet is ready to be remade.

Notes

I probably owe thanks to too many people to name here; but thank you in particular to chaotic_plotter and dreamerinsilico for betaing, and to Hope and Bees for constant encouragement and tolerance of cannibalistic-historical obiter dicta.

I had originally planned to write a more extensive set of historical notes, but it felt too much like “explaining,” and I stopped; there is a short bibliography at the end, but if you ever want to know whether an element is real or imagined or where it came from, I will be very happy to tell you.

All dates indicated in chapter headings are BCE.

Phoenecian-controlled Tyre, Summer 332

From the temple, the city sounds remarkably peaceful. Where there would usually be the shrill cries of merchants, the scuffling feet of children, and the chatter of women gathering water, there is silence. The streets are empty of carts and horses. Even the dogs are silent, scavenging scraps warily and in increasing desperation, knowing that something is afoot.

The dogs are lucky, Hannibal considers: they are likely to have some decent meals soon, at least those nimble enough to have escaped being eaten themselves. When the city falls, the carrion-birds will arrive just in time to share the meal with their canine fellows. The men that fall in the streets will be the dogs’ portion, to be eaten where they lie or dragged away to a private spot to munch on at leisure. Crucifixtions, while inaccessible to dogs, are the favourites of the birds; they provide a handy place to perch while eating, and the meat is fresh for days as it hangs between life and death. After a siege of seven months, with the city barricaded by citizens pushed on by defiant leaders, there will certainly be enough crucifixions to keep all the winged scavengers happy.

All of the usual noise of the city is concentrated on its perimeter. Tyre’s walls are 150 feet tall and proportionately thick, surrounded by the sea on all sides. A god protected by such a wall– as Melqart, son of Baal, Protector of the Universe, is– ought to feel himself untouchable. But Hannibal has been on the walls: he has seen the narrow sand-spit that connects the island to the mainland being built up with stones and wood wide enough for siege-engines, and then the engines themselves placed on towers screened off from the flaming arrows being hurled from the Tyrian walls. He has also seen the ships: the initially weak Macedonian navy has expanded, and it has expanded with Hannibal’s own kinsmen. The Phoenicians serving in the Persian navy had deserted to the league of Hellenes in the spring; now, in the heat of summer, a true naval force has gathered around the inevitable victors in the Tyrian siege, hoping to take part in the spoils.

Not that having Phoenicians in the enemy fleet will soften the fate of the city Phoenicians hold dear. The Macedonians are too eager to finally see the spoils of war to be held back, once the incessant pounding of the siege-engine on the wall finally results in a breach. Tyre will fall, and its men will die. The women, who had been evacuated to Carthage back when it had seemed like just a precaution, will be widows. That fate was sealed on the day the Tyrians had refused Alexander admittance to the city to sacrifice to Melqart, the god he calls Heracles.

Standing at the front entrance of the temple of Melqart, his hands clasped behind his back, Hannibal cannot bring himself to regret it. That he will die with his blood-feud unavenged is unfortunate, but that is what sons are for– or at least, so he is telling himself. He could not have made better choices with the available information. Perhaps nothing at all would have prevented this.

Behind him, the priests huddle around the god. There are no worthy sacrifices left to be made to him; they have been cut off from trade for months now. Ahirom, the chief among the priests, is chanting something to the god, as if he might make excuses for the empty altar. Ahirom, though young, has taken de facto leadership of the Carthaginian envoys trapped in Tyre for the past seven months. He’s honest and hardworking, if somewhat cowardly. But then, Hannibal cannot expect priests and the sons of priests for generations to comport themselves like the hoplites whose company he remembers fondly from his own early manhood.

Ahirom’s fear is getting the better of him now. For days he has been praying to the god day and night for the benefit of the city; now, his entreaties take on a desperate edge that speaks of their being mainly for himself. He does not want to die.

Hannibal doesn’t want to die either. He enjoys life– enjoys it perhaps more than the others around him see or understand. And yet, the value of life can only be made clear by the presence of death. He wants even less to lose his dignity. If Melqart wills them to die, then die they will– and it is beginning to seem that that is precisely what he wills.

Hannibal, and the Tyrians whose vote on the matter he had not been allowed to participate in but whose outcome he had wholeheartedly supported, had had good reasons to choose as they did. They had thought that they were protecting sacred traditions, by refusing Alexander entrance. And after all, they had given up much to the would-be conqueror: they had sent to him that they would obey any command of his, but would not receive any Persian or Macedonian inside the walls of Tyre. It should have been enough. But it was not, and it is beginning to seem that the god was on the young Macedonian’s side all all along. Melqart should have received sacrifice from him months ago, and how he is angry.

Ahirom comes to join him in the entranceway, peering out into the empty street. His face, clean-shaven to mark him as a priest, looks younger than he really is. “Maybe we should barricade the temple,” he says.

Hannibal keeps his face entirely still, not betraying his scorn at the suggestion. It’s an idea born of panic, nothing more. There is nothing in the temple to barricade the entrances with; and even if they did, once the Macedonians have entered the city, there will be no keeping them out of any building. Hannibal plans on dying in combat. He is determined that his remains, whether or not they receive a burial, will at least wear their wounds on the front and not the back. Barricading the doors will decrease the dignity of his death without prolonging his life by more than a few moments.

“Walk with me,” he says to Ahirom.

The priest glances nervously around the street, as if marauding Macedonians might burst around the corner at any moment. Which isn’t too far off from the truth, but they will at least have a few minutes warning: the temple is in the heart of the city, and they will hear the roar of the wall being breached.

“We will only go around the perimeter of the temple,” says Hannibal, and Ahirom reluctantly steps out to join him.

Before Hannibal can say a word, Ahirom is rambling. “I can’t believe this. We should be home by now. My sister is getting married. He must be telling us something. If we can just find the right sacrifice, the god will turn the tide of the battle. It must be so, I can think of no other explanation–”

His stream of words stops suddenly short as Hannibal steps up behind him, takes hold of his chin in one hand and his forehead in another, and snaps his neck.

Ahirom, son of Ahinadab the high priest of Melqart in Carthage, spiritual head of the Carthaginian expedition to Tyre for the festival of Melqart and ceremonial bearer of a tenth of all Carthaginian revenues to the god of its mother-city, crumples to the dusty ground in a heap of limbs.

Hannibal stands over him. His heart is still very steady, as it always is, but he’s breathing hard. He feels elated.

He hadn’t been at all sure that that was even going to work. He’d seen the manouvre once, years ago, during the squabbling over control of Syracuse. Carthage had sent her army in to take advantage of the chaos, nothing more. Hannibal and his fellow hoplites of the Carthaginian Sacred band– that pale imitator of its Theban namesake, a copy in title but not in concept– were fighting for Hicetas, tyrant of Leontini, when Hannibal had badly wounded a man who then got away from him before the killing blow. He’d seen from afar, while otherwise engaged, the man clutch the innards spilling from his belly and stumble towards his friend, who disengaged himself from the fighting for long enough to attend him somewhat out of the fray, by a small stand of trees. The friend had removed the wounded man’s helmet, kissed him tenderly all while turning him around to face forward, then taken his forehead in one hand and his chin in the other and twisted sharply. Hannibal had nearly been run through himself, distracted as he was by the movement; its grace, its efficiency in either dispatching an enemy or kindness in showing mercy to a friend. He’d always wanted to try it. Now he has.

It was impulsive, but he cannot bring himself to regret it. He considers his options for a moment. If he stays out until the Macedonians take the city, he will be killed in the street and the dead body beside him will hardly matter. But the idea is unpleasant, cowardly in its own way. Ahirom ought to be in the temple of his god when the Macedonians come, no matter what they choose to do with the corpses of their defeated enemies. Hannibal makes his decision swiftly, and bends down to scoop up the body in his arms. He’s light; since Carthage, unlike the Greek states, has no mandatory military service for civilians, the sons of priests destined to be priests themselves are rarely as burly as their Greek counterparts.

All eyes turn to him as he re-enters the temple. The native Tyrian priests and acolytes are all here; it has been weeks now since they performed, in the presence of the delegation from Carthage, the annual ceremony of death and rebirth that they thought they had come to witness. The remaining members of the delegation from Carthage hover around the edges. Some are priests, and still more are like Hannibal, well-regarded fighting men attached to the delegation for practical purposes. Not that a small attachment of former soldiers is going to do much good now.

Their faces are shocked as he enters with Ahirom in his arms, but a kind of shock worn down by horror and approaching resignation. Nothing can truly horrify them any more. Ahirom’s body is still warm and lax in Hannibal’s arms, as if he were merely sleeping. His eyes are open, staring. The noise outside has gotten louder. And changed in timbre. The Macedonians have breached the wall, then. The door bangs open, but it’s only the Tyrian king Azemilcus, with a small gaggle of magistrates, come to cower in the temple. Hannibal pays them no mind.

Instead he positions himself in the centre of the room, equidistant from the entrance and the altar. Facing the god. The silence rings, even the new arrivals cowed into confused acceptance of the scene, and he takes the time to enjoy it. This is probably the last time in his life that he will hold the attention of others, and it is sweet.

“A final sacrifice,” he announces.

For a moment, everyone just stares. Then they start nodding and murmuring. “Yes,” Hannibal hears the young priest Himilc whisper. “Hannibal is right. It was the only thing to be done. “It’s just,” he hears Barekbaal answer– silly old man that he is– “Melqart prefers children in times of crisis. And Ahirom was more than twenty.” “Well, if you’d guessed that he wanted a child, you should have said so before we packed them all off with the women to Carthage!” comes a hissed reply, the provenance of which Hannibal can’t identify. He simply waits for them to come around to his point of view, which they do.

There’s no official consensus; with Ahirom gone, there is no obvious person to take charge of such a thing. But all eyes in the room turn to him in desperation; begging for the help that only he, with the sacrifice in his arms, can bring.

Hannibal makes his way towards the altar, the never-extinguished fire. There are voices in the street, the yelling of elated soldiers growing closer. Soon all of this will be lost to screams, blood, the stink of sweat and rot. The next few moments, however, still belong to him.

In any other situation, he would retreat to the edifice at the centre of his mind for such a moment: the temple of Athena and Zeus the City-Protectors at Rhodes, a place that he had seen once and immediately decided he must bring as much of it back with him as possible. He had managed two pieces: the first one being the airy atrium of the temple, filled with scrolls, as an entrance to the building that houses his memories. The second was Alanat, who had come back to Carthage with him, and given him two strong Rhodian sons and one daughter. The first among them, Hamilcar, is old enough to take care of his mother and sister; Hannibal has nothing to fear on that count from his own absence.

Since he is already in a temple, however, retreating to a different temple in his own mind would be superfluous. No, he will stay here until his flesh is pierced by bronze and his eyes can see no longer; only in the final moments, as he waits for death to overcome him, will he retreat into his own mind. Outside the doors of the temple, the timbre of the clamour changes. There are men at the door, but they do not burst through. Instead, Hannibal hears the scraping, shuffling and muttering of a guard being posted. Now they are trapped in here. Hannibal advances towards the altar and places the body of Ahirom gently down on it. Desperate eyes follow him, and he wonders what kind of deliverance they expect the god to send.

Bright sunshine bathes him from the gap in the roof where the smoke escapes, and for a moment Hannibal stares up. His last view of the sky, filtered through a round opening like an eye. Like Melqart is watching from above, as well as within.

It would be appropriate to cut Ahirom’s throat, even though he’s already dead, and Hannibal reaches for the small knife he always keeps on him. It was a gift from his father after an expedition to Libya and Egypt– intended for practical purposes, not self-defense. After the first time he’d tested it on human flesh, he had only ever used it for meals and sacrifices. All of the weapons in the city had gone to the men on the wall, but Hannibal had kept the knife back.

But before he can draw the knife out of its leather sheath, and before Ahirom’s clothing can even begin to catch fire, the door swings open. Hannibal turns. He has no weapons but the knife, but he will fight with that, and then with his hands, until he can’t any more.

The soldiers who enter the temple cluster around the Macedonian king like iron to Magnesian stone, such that it would be immediately obvious which one he is even without the plumed helmet he holds in his hands. Hannibal’s first thought is that if Melqart did want an adult man as a sacrifice today then Alexander son of Phillip, and not Ahirom, is exactly the sort of victim he would choose. He is shorter than many of the men around him, and clean-shaven; he would be easy to mistake for a youth, if it weren’t for the gravity in his eyes and the obvious regard of his bodyguards. He is also virtually drenched in blood.

He stares past Hannibal, grey eyes focusing immediately on the altar. “Were you preparing to sacrifice?” he asks. His Greek is slightly lopsided, the merest tinge of his Macedonian native tongue seeping in. He had the best tutors in it, surely.

Tell him it’s for him,” Hannibal hears a hiss in Phoenician from behind him. He is, he realizes, the only one among them with passable Greek; that had not been considered an important quality in choosing the delegation to Tyre.

It would be the intelligent thing to do. Step back, tell the conquering barbarian that the sacrifice was killed for him, to welcome him, and all that is left for him to do is burn it. He does not know, surely, that Melqart demands human sacrifices only rarely, and children on such instances. He will readily believe that the wild lands he has entered regularly dedicate men on their altars.

Hannibal would rather die. He had been prepared to die, after all, and is still unsure what form this question means such death will take. If they are enslaved, he will find a way to take his own life before he is sold. It would be easier to get it over with now.

“We were,” he says instead, and nothing further. Although none of the Phoenicians behind him speak fluent Greek, they can certainly understand well enough to know that Hannibal had not just invited Alexander to share in the dedication. The tension is, if anything, even tighter. Why, Hannibal wonders, when they are all dead men anyway? Surely the Macedonians will have no compunctions about slaughtering men even in a temple, for all their civilized Greek trappings and airs. His travelling-companions from Carthage would therefore, surely, be much more comfortable if they relaxed with the inevitability of their own deaths. They are all dead men.

Alexander looks almost amused. He shares a private glance with the man standing beside him, then says, “Well, I’ve waited this long; surely your Heracles will accept two sacrifices on the same day. Finish your sacrifice; you, Tyrian priests, will have your lives. And–?” he turns to Hannibal.

“I am one of the thirty men come from Carthage for the festival of Melqart,” says Hannibal.

Alexander looks thoughtful. “And how did you get here?”

Hannibal briefly considers the insulting answer– on a boat, or did you think we swam?— but decides against it. There is nothing to be gained or lost at this point. “The sacred ship upon which we sailed has been carrying the Carthaginian tribute to Tyre for many centuries.”

“Good. I will have it to dedicate to the god. And you, seafarers, will have a trireme to get home on; so that you can tell your city that her turn will come once the conquest of Asia is complete.”

And with that, the dead men assembled in the temple of Melqart live once again. They had come to Tyre to honour the death and rebirth of the god in the heat of the sacred fire; instead, they had died and are now reborn themselves. As Hannibal builds a pyre with which to annihilate Ahrom with the Macedonian king watching interestedly, he wonders whether the god may be present not just in front of him in bronze, but also behind him in flesh.

There is no particular moment when he decides to step back and hand the torch to the king; he simply finds himself doing it. “Hannimelqart,” he says to Alexander, a naming; for that is how he will think of him from this day on. Beloved of Melqart.

Alexander flinches for the sparest moment; he has never sacrificed a human before, Hannibal deduces. But in an instant– and with a barely-perceptible nod of encouragement from the friend who has been standing at his side this entire time– he takes the torch and set the pyre ablaze. There is reverence in his face as he stares up at the flames. Whether his belief that Melqart is one and the same as his god Heracles is sincere, or whether he merely understands that a strong sense of syncretism will serve him well as as conqueror, Hannibal does not know.

But he knows for certain that when the Carthaginian delegation sets out for home, he will not be among them. He has stood on the banks of the river today, and found that the idea of leaving this world with his sister unavenged is more disturbing that he had thought it would be. If there is anywhere in the world that one should begin, to commit one’s self to honourable blood-feud, it is here: among the followers of Hannimelqart, scion of Heracles, soon to be Great King of Persia, Alexander.

So ends the siege of Tyre for Hannibal son of Lectis, in the month of Hekatombaion, during Niketos’ archonship at Athens.

Siwah, Libyan Desert, Summer 332

The vision always starts the same: blood.

It’s a sea of blood, stretching out towards the horizon. The water of this sea moves differently from the calm lapping of the oasis, and differently too from the dancing of sand over sand beyond the village walls. It roars and jumps. Wel has never seen the sea with his own eyes, but he knows that must be what it is.

The sea rushes towards him, and he is terrified. But there is nowhere to go; in the vision he is not inside the temple but pressed up against the sheer face of rock upon which it sits. Unlike in reality, there is no set of stairs up the rock. All he can do is watch the blood bear down on him.

When it hits, Wel forces himself to continue breathing. His body, cowering against the figure of King Amasis offering vases of wine to the eight deities, still needs air. There still is air, in the sanctuary. In the vision the blood rushes into him, up his nostrils and into his ears and eyes, under his arms and between his legs. He floats. He has been here before, so he must hold on; every time, the vision goes a little bit farther. Next, he knows, comes the knife. It is both in front of him and pressing into him, nowhere and everywhere; it cuts his skin into strips of agony. He just needs to reach out and grasp it.

He doesn’t; he never does. This time, though, the ghostly presence of the knife coalesces into a single point. It is at his belly, just below his navel. He stares downwards, through the thick red cloud of blood engulfing him, and watches helplessly as it presses in. It hurts, it hurts, but it also–

— Wel gasps, and lets go of the vision. It feels, every time, like he has been holding onto something brittle at a very great height, and letting go is both failure and relief. His body aches like he has just fallen a long way. His head might as well be split open on the stone, judging from the pain. But his belly is warm, like there really is blood spilling from a wound there. He clutches at it and finds fabric unstained except for his own sweat; and as he curls in on himself on the stone floor, clutching his stomach with relief, he also realizes that his cock is hard. That’s new. It is neither welcome nor unwelcome, just another aftereffect to be waited out. He opens his eyes and stares across the room; there is a pitcher of watered wine in an alcove, but he is too weak to get up and pour himself some. He closes his eyes and waits instead, his mouth parched and tasting of dry blood.

It recedes physically, the sweat drying from his skin and clothes as the memory of the vision tries to run out of his mind like water. This is the crucial part, that he not forget; or rather, not lose the urgency of the vision, the feeling it gave him. He will remember the details, but they will gradually start to seem irrelevant, not worth treating as true prophecy. Joh has assured him since childhood that this is normal. It’s why prophecy cannot be done alone: it must be imparted before the conviction of the moment wears off. It’s why sacrifice, done under the influence of the ecstasy of the gods, is in some ways easier; the victim is still dead when he comes back to himself, even if he can’t remember doing it with any body that belongs to him.

Joh. He has to visit him. Wel had entered the temple towards the end of the first watch; it is now entirely dark outside, the moon only a sliver hanging behind the temple. He manages to scrape himself off the floor, and pours a libation of wine for Ammon-Re before spilling most of his own cup down his chest. He curses, pours the god more wine in apology, and somehow stumbles down the stone steps of the temple without falling flat on his face.

Joh’s house isn’t far from the temple, but it’s out of the way of the main road that leads from the spring to the temple staircase. All of the most coveted dwellings are; nobody wants to have supplicants sniffing around where they live, and in the peak season the garden planted around the spring can be almost as busy as the marketplace in Memphis. Wel is generally occupied in the temple during those periods, and has only seen the hustle and bustle from above. The first and only time he had been taken into Memphis, to bring the oasis’ famed salt as a gift to the satrap, he had nearly fainted from the sheer volume of humanity pressing in on him. Visions had swarmed him like bees, too numerous to understand, interpret or even count. Joh has tried to convince him to go again, that it would get easier. He’s probably right, but Wel refused. He has never imagined any future but spending the rest of his life at Siwah, so why bother?

It’s a cool night. Most people are sleeping inside their houses, instead of on the flat canopied roof that they use on the hottest nights. Sure enough, Wel can hear Maia waking Joh as Wel approaches the house, before Wel even taps on the door. Her soft meow is quickly followed by a rustle and the soft glow of a lamp spilling out underneath the door. When Joh opens the door, he ushers Wel in without greeting him. He looks tired. More than that, he looks old; his beard is definitively grey, and the loose skin under his eyes overlays a mottled purple on brown. Wel wonders if that’s something that happened gradually, and he simply never noticed the change in the closest thing he has to a father, or if it’s recent.

Wel has been making more night-time visits, recently.

Joh hands him a cup of beer without asking if he wants it, and Wel, still parched, actually manages to get all of the liquid in his mouth this time. Only when he’s drained one cup and been provided with another does he subside onto a stool next to the table and rub at his eyes, trying to remember where to start.

He can’t remember. The end tumbles out first, the vision in reverse, Wel’s half-formed conclusion the only part of it he can formulate: “I think I’m going to die.”

Joh doesn’t react hastily, which is one of the reasons he’s attained the position he has. He also doesn’t say something trite like we all will. He knows what Wel means. Interpreting the inexpressible is his job. “What makes you say that?”

Wel doesn’t answer. He rubs at his eyes and the black on the inside of his eyelids turns to red, which turns to memory: the knife piercing his belly, the sea of blood around him. Who else’s blood can it be?

He feels strong hands on his shoulders, shaking him slightly. “Weldjebauend, son of the sand. Tell me the vision, and allow me to be the judge of its meaning.”

Wel does. He had been trying to sleep, as the second watch approached, but he was restless. His body knows before his mind does when the god wants him; the knowledge always pools somewhere just out of reach until it reaches some sort of tipping point and he rockets upright, gasping. It feels like a fever, like having to vomit; but unlike the involuntary action of vomiting, the vision cannot start until he is in the temple. When Wel had moved out of Joh’s house and into his own small hut, he’d taken one near the temple for this exact purpose. It’s irritating to be surrounded by the crowds in peak season, but he needed to be close.

He tells Joh about the rush to the temple, his station against the statue of Amasis. He tells him about the roaring sea, that body of water he’s never seen except in his visions, his submersion in it, the knife. Joh nods; he knows all this. When Wel tells him about the knife stabbing him, he looks thoughtful. When he tells him about his physical state afterwards, Joh has the gall to actually look amused.

“Perhaps you should take a boy, Wel. I can think of a few who glance too long at you; you’d have your pick.”

Wel snorts. “Maybe,” he admits. Privately, he thinks that any boy who would want to be initiated into the pleasures and responsibilities of manhood by Weldjebauend son of nobody at all, unstable foundling seer of Siwah, would do better to have his head checked by a doctor.

Joh shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s your death.”

Even though he objectively has no more information than he did before, Wel can’t help but relax a little. Joh isn’t always right– Wel has witnessed him interpret the gods spectacularly wrong, in fact, in ways Wel could have prevented if he’d just had the gumption to oppose Joh in public– but on this, Wel believes him. Or wants to believe, anyway, which is the problem with prophecy: it’s easy when it’s only about other people, but it’s almost impossible to separate it from your own desires when it comes to yourself. A prophet who reads his own signs has a fool for a client.

He breathes out, pent-up air that feels like he’d drawn it in hours ago rushing out of him, and leans back in the chair. He realizes for the first time that his back aches. “So what do I do?”

“The same thing you have been doing. Go when Ammon-Re calls you, and listen to what he has to say.”

That’s it. The same thing he’s been doing his whole life, basically, but this time it feels different. It feels like something is happening, and it itches in the back of Wel’s mind that he can’t figure out what.

“And get some sleep. You look like shit,” Joh adds.

Wel nods. Maia winds her way around his feet. When he had still lived here, Wel had found her curled at the foot of his bed each morning since she was a kitten. She’s an old, sleepy cat now, and wary of him since he’d moved to his own hut and ended up keeping most of the village’s stray dogs in scraps. There’s probably dog hair on him somewhere, underneath the scents of sweat and spilled wine. He gives her a few perfunctory strokes in her head, and she ducks out from underneath him and shuffles towards Joh instead.

“Goodnight, then,” says Wel, and Joh is lumbering back towards bed almost before he’s out the door.

Wel’s route home takes him past the spring at the centre of the village. Now, just past the second watch, the water is at its warmest; it will gradually cool until it runs coldest at midday and then begins to warm once again as the sun sets. He only realizes how chilled he feels as he passes it, and reaches down to drag his frozen fingers in the warm water of the sacred spring. Steam rises from the water and buffets his face. It’s comforting. It feels like the god is his father, and is now embracing him after delivering a beating for his own good. He imagines that such things happen like that, with fathers and sons. He’s never had a father, at least not one he remembers; Joh could have claimed him as a son had he wished, but he never had. He resolutely calls him son of the sand, and only he can make it sound like an honour. Wel hears the implied message, though: not my son. He can hardly blame the elder priest for not wanting responsibility for him, now that he’s grown. He’d done enough in taking him in, convincing the priesthood that Wel was a gift from Ammon-Re and ought to be brought up to interpret the god’s desires. Whether he was correct about that remains to be seen.

That Wel is of the god is indisputable. But a gift… perhaps not. Perhaps a challenge. Hopefully not a curse.

There is a rustling in the grass, and Beddwyk bounds up– waddles, really, as he seems to be the best out of all the Siwah dogs at begging food. He’s an old dog, and fat; Wel had stolen him from a litter of puppies out behind the High Priest’s house when he was a boy, carrying away in his arms at a sprint and terrified of being caught. He hadn’t realized until Joh had laughed at him that Ahmos could care less about dogs, and probably hadn’t even realized that there was a bitch giving birth out back.

Wel scratches him in between the ears, and stares at the stars, and breathes. His hand drags in the spring, and tingles with warmth, and Ammon gives him one last thing, opens his mouth and gives him words that ring in the air, heard only by Beddwyk, who couldn’t care less: “The son is coming.”

Hellenic-controlled Tyre, Summer 332

Chapter Notes

It’s odd: he’s been to Tyre three times, and he’s never been to the theatre.

The first two, of course, were short trips. The egersis of Melqart takes place each year at the end of the cold season, and being appointed to the Carthaginian embassy had seemed an ideal assignment for an ex-soldier with a thirst for novelty. The first two years, the Carthaginian embassy had brought their tribute to Tyre, participated in the sacrifices of quails and the ceremonial death by fire and subsequent rebirth of the god, and been on their way home within two weeks. There had been no time for any entertainment besides that of Melqart’s festival itself. This time, Alexander’s arrival had trapped them in the city for seven months; and there had been of course no theatre during the panic of the siege, during which every scrap of human creativity in the city had been solely devoted to thinking up new ways to set Macedonians on fire.

But there is theatre today. The Macedonians who managed to avoid being set on fire– most of them, admittedly– take up most of the seats. Their language has enough in common with Greek that Hannibal can make out some of their conversation, if he concentrates; since they are mostly recounting their glorious deeds in the siege to each other, he doesn’t bother. The conversation of the actual Greeks peppered throughout the audience is more intelligible, and more interesting. They talk about food and women and arms, but every so often in their gossip an intimation slips in– well, but he’s serving in Darius’ force now, so who knows how that’s going to work out— an edge of simultaneous relief at their own relatively secure position, and wonder at the world reshaping itself around them with alarming rapidity. They are here because the treaty of the Hellenes has required their cities to send them, but they are beginning to view their presence as something other than a dour requirement.

Hannibal crinkles the parchment on his knee. It’s good quality; better than could have been found in Tyre during the siege, and no worse than could have been found before. On it is an ink sketch of the same face– always the same face, as accurately as he can recall it. He glances down at it, and away from the revival of Alcmaeon in Corinth playing out on the stage. Each time he reproduces it, he wonders if it is a more perfect reproduction of the true image, or if it gets farther and farther away. Would any man who has seen the face on the parchment even be able to recognize it, should Hannibal choose to show them?

On the stage, the actors are making jokes about matricide. “I killed my mother, to put it in a nutshell,” says the fellow playing Alcmaeon, and the actor across from him waggles his eyebrows suggestively and leers, “So was this a consensual thing, or were you both reluctant?” The soldiers of the audience snigger. Hannibal looks to where the young king is sitting. Alexander doesn’t look amused, and as Hannibal watches, his ever-present friend places a discreet hand on his thigh and squeezes reassuringly.

Alexander can’t leave without causing grave offense, but Hannibal can; and apparently unlike the Macedonian, he is not so in the thrall of Athenian culture that he’ll venerate their first-rate playwright’s second-rate work. He slips out of the theatre, and heads towards the market.

In the week since the Macedonian army had punched a hole in the wall of Tyre and taken the city, the place has undergone one of the oddest transformations Hannibal has ever seen. The atmosphere of grim duty edging on panic, the deserted streets, the poor provisions: all of that seems like a distant memory. Tyre is bustling with life again– just not quite the life it had had before. The luckiest of the Tyrian men are already dead and burned, killed in heroic action as the Macedonians took the city. The less lucky were loaded onto triremes a few days ago, headed for the slave markets of Greece; and the hopefully-dead bodies of the unluckiest are attracting flies as they hang from their crosses on the beach. The marketplace is alive again, but the mix of Phoenecian, Aramaic and Persian that used to fill it has been replaced by an intricate linguistic war between Macedonian and several different dialects of Greek, some of which are simply merchants from surrounding Phoenicia flooding into the city and shouting out the few Greek words they know to advertise their wares.

Hannibal speaks Greek to them, because he is proficient enough that they at least don’t recognize his accent, and because it is better not to speak Phoenician, now. Not when he is very possibly the only living being in this city– excepting the dogs– who survived the siege from the other side. His Carthaginian compatriots had embarked their own trireme home days ago, and without him. They will interpret his failure to appear at the ship as evidence of his death, probably, and not enquire too much farther. He will need to send a letter at some point to correct the record on that point; Alanat the Rhodian is a practical enough woman that she will remarry, and though his eldest has proven rather frivolous, Hannibal is glad that he had reserved his own name to pass on to his younger son. Hannibal the Younger would no doubt find suitable men for his mother and sister as quickly as possible, should he believe his father dead, and Mismalka the Younger would be absolutely furious if she were forced to marry for the sake of her own upkeep, only to find out later that her father wasn’t dead after all. It is only with the admirable practicality of his progeny in mind that he drifts towards the stalls of the Greeks with their hide parchment, and stops also at the stall of an Egyptian selling his reed papyrus. He buys some of each; he’ll use it all eventually. He enjoys sending letters, and the more he travels, the more cause he has to send them.

Any other man would, perhaps, feel troubled strolling through the stalls of merchants come to sell to the army of the Hellenic League; would wonder if he was truly worthy of being the sole remaining survivor, basking in the afternoon sunlight and the joy of being a human in a seething mass of humanity. Hannibal is no longer troubled by the thought that there are things that ought to trouble him.

He is enjoying himself so much, in fact, that he barely minds that the crowd has become thicker; the men who had been watching the play are flocking out of the theatre and wandering the market in search of some wine or fruit. He doesn’t pay them any mind, that is, until he is inspecting a stall of pottery and someone strides purposefully up beside him to say, “You missed your boat, Carthaginian.”

Hannibal doesn’t turn to look at him, instead joining his hands loosely behind his back and leaning in as if merely interested in the detail on a vase. He had been granted safe passage from the city, and had chosen not to take it. Any of the victors would be within his rights to cut him down where he stands. “I watched them go. I cannot say the return vessel rivals the one we arrived on, but they will no doubt sacrifice in thanks for safe passage on it nevertheless.”

Hannibal had watched the dedication of the Carthaginian sacred vessel, alongside the the war engine that had made the first hole in the wall. Amid all of the death and destruction, the first time he had felt annoyance at the conquerors had been watching a builder inscribe Greek letters on the ancient Carthaginian vessel.

Alexander’s friend– for that is who it is, Hannibal confirms with a quick glance out of the side of his eyes– doesn’t return the barb about the sacred ship. He mirrors Hannibal’s posture, pretending the vases in the stall interest him too, and surely the two of them look for all the world like they are merely making idle chat while strolling in the marketplace. “And to what will you sacrifice now, with your god having received such a glut of prizes in the past few days?”

“That the shield of the man on my right may not fall from his arm, and that my shield may similarly protect that man on my left,” Hannibal answers promptly, “As has been my habit since I was a youth.”

“You are a hoplite?” Hannibal can hear him disguising the surprise in his voice quickly. Carthage is a naval power. For land war, she relies mostly on Libyan and Greek infantry and Numidian cavalry; some of the best in the world, but expensive and not guaranteed to be loyal to Carthage. It was the uncertainty of those allies that had caused the city to try to create an elite hoplite force, though limited in numbers.

“I was a member of the Sacred Band of my mother city, as a young man.” Hannibal takes pity on his obvious confusion, and clarifies, “We had little in common with our namesake; neither the particular means of unity of the Thebans, nor their ending. Most of my unit was cut down at the river Crimissus by the Syracusans almost ten years ago, during Theofrast’s archonship at Athens. It was not widely advertised that not all perished, since the unit was never reconstituted under the same name. That, we share with the Thebans.” He turns a little to see the other man’s face, and notes the amused twitch of his lips. Although taller and broader, he looks hardly older than Alexander. If he had fought alongside his friend when the latter had been only a youth under the command of his father at Chaeronea, perhaps he had helped annihilate the lovers of the Theban Band himself.

It would be easy for the Macedonian to make a joke at the expense of either Hannibal or the dead Thebans, but to his credit, he doesn’t. “And now?”

“I was hoping to find employment in my old profession,” Hannibal says bluntly. He had been planning on going about it more discreetly; but perhaps Melqart had approved of Hannibal’s final sacrifice in the temple after all, for now the god has sent him a powerful man asking him directly what his aims are. The king’s friend seems curious about him, but not hostile, as he had first assumed. It would be folly not to use this opportunity.

“You have never held a sarissa, I assume.”

“No.” It would take a man much crazier than Hannibal actually is to pretend expertise with a weapon more than twice as long than any he has actually held.

“Visit Parmenion son of Philotas, who for our stay here has taken up a residence between the shrine of Agenor and the Sidonian harbour. Do not go tonight, he will be drunk; but tomorrow not too long before noonday, when old men are active. Tell him that Hephaestion son of Amyntor has allowed that you be given a place among the allied Greeks. If he refuses nevertheless, however, I think you would do better to leave the city without protest than to insist.”

Hannibal nods. The arrangement is both generous, and revealing of precisely the sort of information about the Macedonian leadership that Hannibal would like to know. Hephaestion is powerful, and has the ear of the king, but he is not so secure in his military position that he would like to be perceived as giving orders to this Parmenion; therefore, although he could stick his neck out on Hannibal’s behalf if he wanted to, admitting a Phoenician envoy into the phalanx of the allied Greeks is not a cause he cares to use his influence on behalf of. Fair enough. “I will do as you say, son of Amyntor,” he says, “And either way, you have a gratitude of Hannibal son of Lectis, of the city of Carthage.”

*

Parmenion is not, as Hephaestion had half-implied, a senile old man. He is old, but his age is of the kind that the gods seem to bestow on certain old campaigners; instead of the life leeching slowly out of him it seems to have drawn in, making him wizened and compact. He has indeed taken over a house in the city, near the Sidonian harbour; his few possessions, including a hide tent, are scattered in the courtyard where he works, while the remains of the previous inhabitants’ lives still surround them. It will all be sold off eventually, just as the previous owners of this house will be, and the money will make its way to Alexander’s coffers– assuming it encounters no sticky fingers on the way. But the details of the plunder of the city are beneath a man like Parmenion; he will simply live here until the army moves on, a comfortable place from which to conduct his business.

Hannibal has to wait in line to see him, and easily ignores the curious looks of the other men who have business with the old general. Most of them speak Macedonian to him, and Hannibal is relieved that he can pick out words from it, and will no doubt with some small effort soon be able to understand it entirely. Other visitors speak Greek and a few, their heads bowed low with the deference of the recently conquered, speak to him in Aramaic through a translator who had been lounging in the corner writing something on wax until he was needed.

Hannibal speaks to him in Greek when his turn comes. “I am Hannibal son of Lectis, hoplite of the Carthaginian Sacred Band and lately envoy to the egersis of the Tyrian Heracles. Hephaestion son of Amyntor has sent me, generously suggesting that I may find employment in the infantry of Alexander Hannimelqart, the chosen one of my god.”

Parmenion, sitting at a desk covered in clay tablets and papyrus both, draws his arms together, as if he is preparing to be told a story. He has a close-cropped grey beard and bushy grey eyebrows, which draw together as he peers up at Hannibal. “The chosen one of your god. Do you think so?”

Hannibal tilts his head curiously. “Do you not?” He had gathered already that the Macedonians do not worship their king as a god, as the Persians or Egyptians do. They even choose him by the acclaim of the men of the army. It’s an odd custom, one that he’d like to know more about.

“I think that Alexander is a worthy commander– as good as his father, perhaps someday better. If you wish to serve him, I have no objection, Carthaginian. What arms do you have?”

“None. I came here as a religious envoy, not an infantryman; I brought my short-sword, but as I lent it to a Tyrian defender, it has been relieved from my possession.” That seems to Hannibal like a more than fair way to express it was looted by you lot. He’s done his fair share of looting himself, of course; it’s the traditional reward of the rank-and-file solder after a long and successful action. That doesn’t mean he enjoyed watching his stuff being carried off.

Parmenion chuckles, evidently having expected something of the sort. “Kleandros son of Polemocrates will see you outfitted, and placed with a battalion of his Greeks. Your speech is good, though I think you had best remain on good terms with your fellow-soldiers, or sleep with one eye open.”

“Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me,” says Hannibal. “I would not exhibit it, but nor would I tolerate it.”

The old general scoffs, not unkindly, and pulls a piece of papyrus towards him. “You’re a soldier again,” and there is an edge in his voice suggesting the shared experience of those used to being older and more experienced than those around them. “I suggest you learn to tolerate it. Take this to Kleandros, who is still camped with his Greeks on the mainland. It is an order that you be given a place in his battalion, and provided with the necessary panoply.”

Hannibal takes the slip. At the top, it says “A very odd type. Thought you might enjoy a Carthaginian for your menagerie. Best of luck.”

“I–” can read Greek, is about to come out of Hannibal’s mouth, but perhaps it would be better for that to not be known. “–thank you,” he finishes instead.

Parmenion nods brusquely, and turns his attention to his next supplicant.

Hannibal has no belongings of note to gather; he has been sleeping at the temple with the other spared Tyrians, but it has been emptied of all goods of value. He is unsentimental about the men inside of it; but there is, stashed away in a loose tile in a back room, the remainder of the money that he had brought with him. He had intended to use it to buy some pretty things to bring back to Alanat; but once the siege had started there had quickly been nothing much in the city worth buying, and now it sits unused. He glances at the papyrus again. Kleandros had been ordered to see to his panoply, but Hannibal suspects that supplying him with a tent will not be a high priority for his battalion leader, and all of the eight-man tents are likely filled. They won’t appreciate an interloper asking to sleep in them. The coins are decent electrum shekels from the mint in Lilybaeum; there should be no issue finding a merchant who will take them.

All of the men of the temple of Melqart are in the sanctuary, praying, when he enters; he doesn’t greet them as he makes his way past, and he doesn’t say goodbye on his way out. The marketplace is still bustling, though Hephaestion is nowhere to be seen. Hannibal has no problem in acquiring a small tent-skin, as well as an extra plain linen chiton, a Greek-style wool cloak, and a broad-brimmed Thessalian sunhat– a somewhat distasteful form of headgear compared to the pointed Phoenecian silk cap he had left behind in the temple, but more useful for keeping the sun off of one’s face during long marches. The only problem with the items is that they are rather too new and nice; a foreigner with a too-nice tent is liable to find it snatched from the baggage train and replaced by someone else’s ratty old garbage. Still, nothing to be done about that but hope that he is able to identify the offender and have a word with him later.

A row-boat used to be required to get from the island of Tyre to the mainland. Hannibal walks out of the city through the rubble of the gates, and marvels for the first time from ground level at the mole the Macedonians had built linking the island to the land. Already the water lapping against it has begun to deposit sand and silt on the sides of the artificial pathway; unless it is somehow dismantled, which seems unlikely at this juncture given that most of the Tyrian citizens who might attempt such a thing are now either dead or enslaved, the water will continue its work until no casual observer will know that Tyre was once an island.

He makes his way out onto the mole, mud and rocks infiltrating his sandals. Waves lap at the sides of the pathway. He’s not alone out here; it’s busy with soldiers camped on the mainland making their way in and out, and merchants from all over arriving to take advantage of the glut of business. He steps to the side to allow people to pass around him, and turns around to look at the city. It’s the view of the men who had spent months toiling to overthrow her; thick, imposing walls, which up until a few days ago were bristling with flaming arrows.

Hannibal has never felt particularly close to his fellow man. The closest he has ever felt to humanity has been in phalanx formation: a part of a whole that moves, lives and dies as one. And yet the reason those moments call to him are intensely individual: the smell of blood, the crunch of your spear punching through flesh, the knowledge that death could come for you at any moment. So he tries to imagine the sense of purpose and togetherness of the men who built this pathway through the sea, the shared bloodlust and brotherly love, and in the absence of the warm press of bodies around him, he can’t quite do it. All he can feel is his own bloodlust, staring up at the ruined wall like he could storm the city on his own.

He turns around, and heads towards the mainland. Soon he will be back in the phalanx, feeling the reverberations of his neighbour’s spear hitting home in his own body, knowing that his neighbours can sense his kill as well.

Chapter End Notes

Tyre is, indeed, no longer an island.

Siwah, Winter 332/1

It’s sweltering hot, but the High Priest has decided to hold this meeting outside. Such practicalities are unfit for the eyes of the gods; apparently this is how it has always been done, in advance of a major arrival. Wel squints into the sun at Ahmos the High Priest, grizzled, stooped and thin, who is handing out duties to the temple workers who are not themselves soothsayers of the god. Unlike most visitors to the shrine, who find their way to the temple themselves, receive what wisdom Ammon has to dispense, and leave, this one is to be greeted at the entrance to the oasis village. A house has been prepared for him and several other huts emptied out for whatever friends he wishes to give them to for the duration of their stay, and arrangements for food and water to be brought immediately to the soldiers he would be bringing with him.

Wel is sitting beside Joh, who has been muttering steadily this whole time about how the contents of this meeting could easily have been decided in advance and sent to the homes of those involved on wax, instead of sitting in the sweltering heat listening to Ahmos get deep into the weeds of salt rations. At the mention of soldiers, though, he raises his head from where he had been staring at his fingers and says, slightly louder, “What soldiers?”

Ahmos ignores him. The High Priest had received a messenger from Memphis that morning, a Libyan with a lovely tall dromedary who specializes in traveling quickly through the desert and not losing his way in the sand-storms. Age has not tempered Ahmos’ love of importance; clearly, whatever information the Libyan had given him has made Ahmos feel very important indeed, and he is loathe to distribute it too quickly. Wel lets his mind wander back to the dromedary, whom he had been permitted to feed and stroke as Ahmos and the messenger had talked. He’d rather go back and spend some more time with it, or with the dogs.

Eventually most of the temple staff have been assigned duties and dismissed, and it is only the actual priests of Ammon left. “Thothmose son of Ramessu, Menes son of Seth, Weldjebauend son of the sand. Which among you speaks the best Greek?”

Joh looks up from where he’s been scratching designs into the dirt with a stick; it’s the first hint of the visitor’s identity they’ve had. Joh had insisted that Wel learn Greek as a child, since the shrine does get wealthy Greeks sometimes, and is always looking for more temple acolytes or priests on hand to prophesy or translate for them. It had been, transparently, a way of making Wel useful even if Joh’s prediction that the desert foundling would grow up to be favoured by the sight of the gods turned out to be wrong. Wel had sensed as a boy, though not understood the reason until much later, the edge of desperation to the subjects that Joh had chosen to have him educated in, and consequently had studied them carefully. Since Wel’s gift for prophecy had turned out even stronger than Joh had hoped, however, his Greek is merely convenient, instead of a necessity to maintain his usefulness to the temple.

It’s also not particularly fluent, since his only opportunities to practice have been the occasional Greek visitor. Menes, who had spent time traveling before joining the Siwah priests, speaks much better. Wel gestures to him, and Thothmose– who can barely speak Greek at all, but is confident enough with his limited skills that visitors tend to find his rustic accent charming even when incomprehensible– concurs.

“Good. The son of Seth will interpret the will of Ammon for the guest. Myself, Joh son of Ḫanabeš, Khafra son of Paphnutius, and Thothmose son of Ramessu will carry the vessel.”

There is an odd silence over the entire assembly. Wel is mostly irritated that he’s been forced to attend a meeting about a special visitation only to be told there is nothing for him to do; but he can feel, too, the edge of surprise about what Ahmos has just announced.

The vessel of the god is in the shape of a long, flat boat, from which many precious objects, including the heavy round stone that symbolizes Ammon-Re, are hung; the vessel is held with long poles on the shoulders of the priests. There are basically an inexhaustible number of poles stored in the back room of the temple, because the vessel is damn heavy and it’s best to have as many people as possible help hold it. Ammon-Re’s will is translated through the movement of the vessel into the bodies of the priests, who dip and sway in response to the shifting of their burden. The priest charged with interpreting the will of the god for the supplicant– in this case, Menes– reads the prophecy from the movement of the vessel and the men underneath it.

On a busy day a dozen men can work the vessel from sunup to sundown, with one or two taking a break at a time. On a slow day, six or eight will do. Four men could probably carry out a single prophecy, with difficulty and aching legs for days afterwards. But there are priests to spare in Siwah, and there has never been any reason for them to.

“Who the fuck are we prophesying for here, anyway?” says Joh.

Only Joh– acknowledged as second-in-command to Ahmos, although there is no official ranking of the full priests– could get away with addressing him like that under normal circumstances, but Wel watches the high priest draw himself up to his full height and take a deep breath and thinks that actually, this time anyone could have said it: Ahmos has been just bursting at the seams with excitement over getting to say whatever he’s about to say, and Joh had set him up perfectly.

“The Pharaoh!”

There is a silence. The air seems to be buzzing slightly. Wel feels the approach of the tide of blood from his vision as if it were lapping at his toes. He has the absurd urge to take off his sandals and wade in.

Thothmose, who is brave and cheerful but not all that bright, blurts out “Er, not to state the obvious, but if Darius of the Persians is coming to seek prophecy, then we ought to address him… in…”

He trails off at the absolutely withering look directed at him by Ahmos. It would be warranted even if he weren’t completely failing to put together the information he’s been given; nobody calls Darius the Third Pharaoh unless they’re being paid to do it, just as they hadn’t called Artaxerxes Pharaoh before him. The Pharaoh is appointed by the gods, to serve as messenger between them and the mortals of Egypt. Why would the gods appoint a conqueror who prohibits their worship? Why would the gods appoint a Pharaoh from among the Persians, who killed the sacred calf of Hapi-Ankh and put to death the Egyptians showing him his proper rites? Few in Siwah, isolated enough to allow them to form their own opinions, could believe it. The Persians must therefore be usurpers, pretenders, hated by the gods. If it were Darius making a visit to Siwah, they would prophesy for him in Aramaic and call him Pharaoh to his face; but certainly not at this meeting.

Thothmose’s stupidity works in Ahmos’ favour, who was waiting for an opportunity to continue with the appropriate rapt attention from his audience. “I have received credible information that a month ago Alexander of the Greeks, who sent Darius of Persia running like a little boy from battle at Issos, entered Memphis. And on that day a flash of lighting came from the heavens, and a calf was born such as has not been for these last ten years of false rule: with the white square on his forehead, and the eagle on his back, and the beetle on his tongue. And Alexander was the first to sacrifice to the newborn calf of Hapi-Ankh, and gave splendid sacrifices also to the other gods, and was crowned Pharaoh Setpenre Meryamun by the people of Memphis on behalf of the gods, who have received at long last their proper worship. Setpenre Meryamun then founded a city near the sea which received favourable omens from those that read the birds, that it will be prosperous in every way and feed many other nations. He now desires to consult Ammon-Re, as is good now that he knows that he has been chosen as liberator and leader of Egypt.”

In the thoughtful silence that follows, Beddwyk ambles into the clearing where the meeting is being held. When nobody immediately holds out anything for him to eat, he turns by default towards Wel, who silently reaches out to scratch his ears. A wave of recognition washes over him; he’s been here before, sitting with Beddwyk and knowing, on some level, exactly what he has just been told. The son is coming, he had prophesied, one of those off little one-offs where his mouth is commandeered for the use of the god without an accompanying vision. He tends not to pay them much mind; prophecy is one thing, and has always come to him with no effort, but interpreting prophecy is quite another, and a single phrase rarely gives enough information to be interpreted with any accuracy. But now the meaning of this one is clear enough. The Pharaoh is, by definition, the son of Ammon-Re; though many had privately not considered the Persian Great King to be Pharaoh, the omens associated with this new one– and Wel’s own prophecy– show him to be truly appointed.

Wel comes back from his contemplation to conversational chaos; now that the identity of the guest has been revealed, everyone has questions. Where is this Greek from? Who was his mortal father? Is Darius dead? What kind of bird provided the omens at the site of the new city, and what did they do exactly? Has he a wife? A son? Does he also give orders in Aramaic, like the Persians? Or perhaps does he even speak Egyptian? What will he ask of the god?

Ahmos, who clearly doesn’t have good answers to any of these questions, vaingloriously tries to answer them anyway. Meanwhile, the one real question that Wel had had has been answered: why only four men to carry the vessel? Clearly, because Setpenre Meryamun will desire privacy for his questions, and the fewer men present the happier he will be.

Wel looks around. It seems like the main point of the meeting has been disseminated, and Wel’s contribution to the Pharaoh’s visit is to be sitting at home twiddling his thumbs. If that’s the case, he might as well get a head start on it. He’s pretty sure nobody but Joh notices when he slips away.

Paraetonium, Winter 332/1

Chapter Notes

“So,” Briareos son of Zenos says. He is waving in the air the long stick he had used to scratch four lines in the dirt, which themselves had written on top of countless other sets of lines. “As AB is to ΓΔ, so E is to Z. AB is the greatest, and Z the least. And let’s add H on AB and Θ on ΓΔ, so that AH is equal to E and ΓΘ is equal to Z. So as AB is to ΓΔ, AH is to ΓΘ, and as…”

Hannibal leans forward as Briareos continues in a kind of maniac mutter, tracing lines on lines. He does in fact seem to be saying only true things about his lines, though he’s the only one quite so excited about it. “Thus, if four magnitudes are proportional then the largest and the smallest of them is greater than the remaining two,” he winds up triumphantly, “Which was the point all along!”

“Sure it was,” says Jason son of Prokopos, who is lying back against a tree in a fashion that suggests he’d not watered his wine very well at dinner. “You’re always right to the point. Very pointy. Positively priapic.”

Bacaxa taps her fingertips on her chin, and says what Hannibal’s thinking: “Okay. Is that all?”

“What, like there should be more?”

“Well. Let’s just say you talked up this teacher of yours enough that I started to wonder why I hadn’t heard of Eudoxos’ innovations to the construction of siege machinery, and now I know.” She returns to what she had been doing, which was carving a wooden doll for a child out of a broken piece of wooden winch-handle from an oxybeles. She seems to be making decent money selling them– any campaign picks up wives and children the longer it goes on, and this one has technically been on the road for five years now– and Hannibal hasn’t seen her without her knife and a piece of scrap wood lately.

Though she probably has other reasons for carrying the knife, which Hannibal tries not to think on. Despite Jason and Briareos’ warnings not to, he’d once offered to escort her safely back to her tent with the rest of the Phoenician engineers. It had been the very first night of his own presence by Jason and Briareos’ evening fire; she had lingered, and he’d thought perhaps she’d accept from a Carthaginian the courtesy she wouldn’t from an Athenian. He’d found himself instead with the sharp point of a blade pressed to his belly. “Say that again and I’ll eat your insides for breakfast,” she’d hissed, which entirely cleared up all his previous objections to her presence.

Now she sets aside the knife and picks up a minuscule chisel to work on the face. Briareos slumps back down in between her and Hannibal, scuffing the remaining lines into the dirt with the sole of his sandal. “All right. But don’t blame me when you shrivel and wilt for lack of intellectual stimulation. You won’t be able to siege anyone for at least a few weeks. Are you sure you’ll survive?”

“There’s plenty to do. All of my babies are going to have their sinew replaced before the next one. Wait, what do you mean, won’t be able to? We could have the machines ready for tomorrow, if we needed to.”

“Paraetonium wasn’t just a sight-seeing expedition,” cuts in Jason. “Word is, there’s that oracle in the desert near here, that Heracles supposedly visited. And–”

“–what Heracles did, our boy does too,” says Briarios.

“But more ostentatiously.”

“Right. But only the ugliest and hairiest– sorry, strongest and fastest– Macedonians get to go starve in the desert with him. The rest of us will be camped out here until they come back with him having sprouted horns behind his ears or whatever he’s hoping to do out there.”

Bacaxa drops her tools into her lap. “Wait, Alexander’s going to Siwah?” she says. “Well shit, I want to go.”

Jason and Briarios glance at each other skeptically in a way that they either don’t realize is incredibly obvious every time they do it, or don’t care. “Er,” says Jason finally, “I don’t think… I mean, I doubt even the common Macedonian men are going to get anywhere near the temple. So I’m not sure a…”

He trails off before saying Phoenician woman, but when Bacaxa just glares at him, he finally finishes “…engineer would really have much to do.”

Bacaxa pushes herself to her feet, and levels a scathing glance at Jason as she says, “Everyone needs… engineers. It must be geometers you’re thinking of, who don’t have anything to do.” She stomps off into the night, her shadow flitting between fires, gatherings of men who watch her pass uneasily.

It not that late, especially on a night when there is no early march in the morning. But Jason and Briarios are clearly just warming up for the kind of bickering that old married couples can only dream of, and they wave him good-bye absently when Hannibal announces his intention to turn in. He returns to his tent, which had indeed been stolen and replaced by a lower-quality item in the baggage train within three days of his presence. He knows the culprit by sight, but it can wait. The tent does well enough. Just before he is about to enter, he changes his mind, and skirts around a couple fires to follow Bacaxa.

She doesn’t seem all that surprised when he catches up to her. “Come to remind me that I’m inevitably going to be raped, murdered, and my body picked on by desert birds?” she snipes, in her stilted Greek. Her speech has the aggressive oddness of one who knows they don’t speak a language well, doesn’t care all that much, and speaks confidently anyway. It’s both charming and somewhat repellent.

Though rape has never much appealed to him, Hannibal has admittedly already considered murdering her and throwing her body to the birds. Bacaxa had been on the team of Phoenicians who had come over to Alexander along with the navy at Tyre. Habsan, their leader, had offered the group as a whole: a dozen of the famed Phoenecian military and naval engineers, take it or leave it. Alexander, never one to turn down allies just because they didn’t look like he thought they would, accepted. The fact that Bacaxa was part of the package didn’t seem to bother the high-ranking Macedonians, but the common men and the Greek allies were a different story. And Hannibal, who had grown thinner inside the walls of Tyre while Bacaxa had fine-tuned the machines knocking them down, would easily be able to justify killing her for her betrayal.

But whatever pleasure would be gained from the crunch of her bones and the tear of her flesh would be outweighed by her absence. He likes the world better with her in it. And in any case, if Bacaxa has betrayed her people, so has he: he’s here, well-fed and warmed by fire after sitting in friendship with Alexander’s diffident Greek allies.

The Greeks, so far as he can see, aren’t called upon to do much. As a member of the Athenian unit of the phalanx– Kleandros’ idea of a joke– Hannibal’s main contribution to the siege on Gaza, taken immediately after Tyre, had been to have a fire ready for Bacaxa for whenever she was finished repairing the day’s wear and tear on the war engines. Jason and Briarios, despite their tendency to finish each others’ sentences and descend into bickering at the slightest provocation, turned out to be the most welcoming of his Athenian fellows. Almost too-stereotypically, they both frequented the same philosophy teacher back home, who had encouraged them to view their mandatory military service to the near-barbarian at the head of the Hellenic League as an opportunity to view the peoples of the world like specimens, and report back to the civilized bastion of Athens with their findings. Hannibal and Bacaxa are their two favourite oddities to study.

“What is there at Siwah that is important to you?” he asks her in Phoenician. It’s a small intimacy, to speak in their own language together; he’s mostly curious if she’ll allow it. She glances at him warily, weighing him as they exit the portion of the camp housing the Greek allies and turn to skirt the edges of the Macedonians. Bacaxa’s colleagues are on the far side, well out of the way of any drunken soldiers happening to wander off. Most of them are old men, and guard their sleep preciously.

“The oracle is said to be truthful,” she replies– in Phoenician, and Hannibal feels a small glow of triumph. “Isn’t that enough?”

“Not if you never get near enough to consult it,” Hannibal answers, because Jason is right: even setting aside the issue of her womanhood, there will surely not be enough time or will for the common soldiers to ask questions of the god who lives there.

Bacaxa thumbs the handle on her knife absent-mindedly. “Oracles are a place for meetings,” she says finally, softly.

That’s true enough: such a meeting had supposedly produced Alexander. “Whom do you wish to meet?”

“Nobody. I won’t see them again on this earth. But my parents met there. I guess I want to see what they saw.”

“Are they dead?” Given how far they’ve all already travelled, it seems unlikely to Hannibal that there’s any place on the earth her parents could be that Bacaxa would not be able to visit. But he wants to hear her say it; he wants her to have said it to him.

She is very good at this: she sounds merely like she’s telling an interesting story as she says, “My mother died in battle when I was little. It was supposed to be just a patrol, nothing major– you know how those years were on the island outposts.” Hannibal does; he had spent the years of uneasy peace between Carthage and Syracuse on similar patrols, which turned bloody just infrequently enough for it to be unexpected every time. Some of the Libyan tribes train women in war; he’d never seen them, but he’d known they were present in Carthage’s mercenary force.

“And your father?”

“Fever. Just a few years ago. My mother had intended to bring me home to her village and train me in her profession, but she died before I was old enough. My father was Phoenician; he trained me in his instead. I think it was his way of honouring her.”

“And do you expect her shade would be pleased to see what you’ve become?”

Bacaxa stops, turns to look at him. They’re in a gap in between the nearest fires of the Macedonian camp and the outskirts of the engineers, a no-man’s-land of darkness. “I think she’d say I’m too skinny and should carry a longer knife. Other than that, yes. Hannibal, what do you want?”

Hannibal is surprised to realize he’s not actually sure. His desires are usually clear to him: bloodshed, good bread, good meat, pleasant company. But he had followed her knowing that there was something for him here, and he’s not sure what it is.

Bacaxa, it seems, does. She inclines her head at him, an odd half-nod that she throws casually at soldiers like she’s studied the offhanded casualness of manhood and is mimicking it back to them. “You want to go. Don’t you?”

“What reason would I have?”

Bacaxa’s eyes narrow. She studies him like Briarios and Jason only wish they could: like she can see right through him. “You have every reason,” she says. “You act like you know exactly who you are and what you want, but really, you’re as lonely as a shipwreck survivor. You’re alone, even when you’re charming Athenians left and right until they almost forget you’re not one of them. You’re looking for something. I don’t know what it is. But I think you should go.”

For a moment, Hannibal sees red. It would be so easy to reach out and snap her neck, just like he had done to that idiot outside the temple of Melqart in Tyre. It would be so easy to turn her from knowing something about him, into a slab of meat.

He doesn’t. Life is full of many such opportunities; they must be chosen with care. “How were you planning on being assigned to the expedition?” he asks instead.

“Don’t know. I was going to ask Habsan. I think he’d want to help, but– even if he could get an engineer assigned…” she trails off unhappily.

In a moment, Hannibal makes a decision. It may not be a good decision, but he has rarely regretted his impulses in the past; and Bacaxa is right. If the evidence of Hannibal’s unavenged blood-feud is truly that obvious, written on his body as if he were already drenched in the blood he is owed, then perhaps a sacred place is what he needs. “Have Habsan put me forward, under the names of one of your colleagues,” he says, “and claim you are my wife. Of the Macedonians only Alexander, Hephaestion and Parmenion could know me by sight; we’ll have to keep out of the way during the march, you especially.”

He can see her jaw clench. He already knew that it was rarely a good idea to point out to Bacaxa the consequences of her womanhood; she knows them all already. And yet it’s a better shot than she’d have on her own, and he’d left an opening for her: a deliberate vulnerability that might soften the blow of the one being forced on her.

“So I was right,” she says. “You want to go.”

Truth is the price of her agreement to his terms. It’s one he’s demanded often enough; he has no issue with offering it to her. “Yes.”

Chapter End Notes

Locations of chapters so far: Map Base image from from The Landmark Arrian: Campaigns of Alexander.

Siwah, Winter 332/1

That night it rains, and hard. Wel can hear the droplets bouncing off the roof of the house, practically taste the salt on his tongue. He’s felt feverish all night, some sort of anticipation that’s different from the feeling of an impending vision, and the rain sounds welcoming. He leaves his clothes in a heap on the floor and steps out into the downpour. It hits him like a solid weight, and it takes effort to turn his face up to the sky and squint into the clouds. Rain isn’t so unusual at Siwah, but it’s usually a polite sprinkle; sent by the god to replenish the waters of the village and keep the crops growing, nothing more.

This is different. The enormous raincloud stretches out to the horizon. Wel has the sudden urge to take exercise; he’s been sitting all day, and something about the rain’s wildness requires matching in the body. He runs through the streets of the village in loops until he tires at the same time as reaching the edges of the oasis. He stops, staring out into the desert. It is raining there, too; soaking the sand and packing it down tightly. It will dry up quickly, Wel knows. But for now the vast stretch of desert between Siwah and Paraetonium, the closest coastal city, seems almost hospitable. Setpenre Meryamun and his soldiers must be making their way across the desert, and Ammon-Re has sent rain to ease their journey. Then Wel bursts out laughing, imagining the Pharaoh arriving at the oasis right this minute and being greeted by a grouchy, tired priest naked and soaked in sweat and rainwater. He heads home and spends the rest of the night shivering, cuddled up to Beddwyk to try to regain his warmth.

The next morning the water has dried up from the desert, and from the edges of the oasis, there is a sand storm visible on the horizon.

Joh finds Wel standing there, watching it. It’s far enough away not to threaten Siwah, but they’re both thinking the same thing. Joh is the one who actually says it out loud: “Well, so much for our new Pharaoh.”

Wel swallows. Joh is right. A Libyan, Egyptian or Nubian accustomed to the desert, with a good dromedary and wise in the ways of snakes and birds, might be able to find his way back to the coast after a sandstorm. But the storm has no doubt buried the markers that show the way from Paraetonium to Siwah, and the Pharaoh is a Greek. Anyway, the sand would be entirely capable of burying an entire army if Ammon-Re willed it.

Still, Wel feels nothing; no oncoming vision or prophecy, no sense of whether Setpenre Meryamun is dead or alive. The god apparently wants him to wait. That’s its own kind of prophecy, he thinks, and shrugs. “Whether he is dead or alive is the god’s decision.”

A few days pass in a state of stasis. Few other travellers arrive; apparently the Egyptian coast-dwellers, who had received the news of new new Pharaoh significantly more promptly than the Siwans, have temporarily lost their appetite for prophecy amidst the excitement. The news of Setpenre Meryamun’s exploits prior to his arrival in Egypt also explains why the number of Persian visitors has dropped off significantly: they’re all being called up to military service as Darius prepares for a final confrontation.

A couple Libyans and Nubians show up, ask counsel in small matters, and depart quickly. They have no interest in sticking around to see the new Pharaoh. “Sounds like he’s got quite enough to be getting on with. I’d rather he never know where my village is, thank you very much,” says a Nubian named Hedjkh, who has come to ask about his brother’s health, when Wel mentions it to him after finishing his prophecy.

Wel figures that’s fair, and watches the man point his dromedary south across the desert with a strange sense of envy. Persian control over the Nubians was shaky to begin with, and certainly not guaranteed to Setpenre Meryamun as a matter of course. Hedjkh’s village can now do whatever they like with the tax collector appointed by the third Darius, and from the sounds of it “whatever they like” is going to be very unpleasant indeed for the Persian. They have no need for the Pharaoh, liberator or no.

Hedjkh’s dromedary’s hooves kick up dust in the desert. Wel has ridden a dromedary a few times; to the marketplace in Memphis the one time he went, and around the village when a visitor has brought an especially fine one and is in the mood to show it off. He’s ridden a horse once, when a Greek had brought one and allowed it. But he’s never really gone anywhere.

Most of the time, he doesn’t feel it as a loss. Being at the oasis, far from the city, suits him. Living in a hut of his own suits him, and spending what time the god allows him vision-free with the village dogs suits him. He’s not sure exactly what it is that Hedjkh has that he wants, but he watches the man grow smaller and smaller as he makes his way across the desert and almost wishes it was him disappearing into the horizon.

He retreats home, and lets in all of the dogs that show up at his door. As well as the ever-present Beddwyk, tonight he is joined by Mesdr, so-called because his ears are so large they nearly drag on the ground, and Hamhamt, who if allowed outside at night howls at the moon like he’s rallying the troops to make an attack on it. He sits down on the floor to play with them, then lies down intending just to rest for a moment, and the next thing he knows he’s waking to banging on his door.

Wel opens his eyes. He’s rolled a little bit in his sleep, so that he’s staring up from the floor at the underside of the grass woven across his bedframe, and is momentarily disoriented by the small space above his head. He spends a single instant wondering if he can simply ignore whoever it is and go back to sleep– perhaps on the bed this time, instead of under it– before Hamhamt starts barking his head off, and Wel reluctantly rolls out from under the bed and staggers to the door.

It’s Joh. Wel is instantly awake. Even when he’d been a child in Joh’s home, Joh had hardly ever woken him when he was sleeping, or indeed forced anything upon Wel that he didn’t want to do. Wel had understood as long as he can remember that it was a way of avoiding being his father. Fathers discipline and guide their sons; Joh had treated him more like a miniature coworker from the moment he’d brought him in half-dead from the desert. But now Joh is here at his door to ask something of him.

The older man is gasping for breath like he’s been sprinting. He places a hand on Wel’s doorframe and takes a deep breath to force out, “Menes has taken fever. It hit him just as the Pharaoh arrived at the village, as if Ammon-Re had planned it that way. Setpenre Meryamun is at the temple now, and wants to hear the word of the god.”

A strange sort of calm settles over Wel. Usually, when he gives a prophecy in Greek or Aramaic, he has time to prepare: he’ll look over his books as other visitors are attended to and remind himself of the pronunciation of important words, say them out loud to himself alone in his hut. He’s usually nervous for it, though the nerves always disappear as soon as the god takes hold of him. Now, though, there is no time to prepare. He’s going to go, right now, and prophesy in Greek to the most important man in Egypt. There is nothing to be done about it.

He looks himself over. Since he hadn’t intended to go to sleep, he’s still dressed, and his skirt is reasonably clean. The leopard skin worn for prophecies by the interpreting priest will do just fine to cover the smudges of dirt on his chest from rolling around on the floor. “Okay,” he says, somewhat absently. “Let’s go.”

Although the night is advanced enough to be dark, the sudden appearance of an entire army at the oasis gives the village the feeling of daytime. Fires glow from the edge of town, where the common soldiers have made camp. Temple workers have been roused from their homes and are scurrying around with baskets of water, bread and beer to bring both to the men who are camped and to the ones who are, Wel sees as they approach the temple, assembled in front. The temple has a back entrance, however, which Joh and Wel pass into unnoticed.

There are more priests gathered in the back rooms of the temple than were called by Ahmos to attend to the Pharaoh; apparently the Pharaoh’s companions desire to ask questions of the god as well, and it has been agreed that any other priests at hand will prophesy for them outside, with the help of the translator they had brought with them from Memphis. The prize leopard-skin, however, has been reserved for Wel.

In the corner near the entrance to the sanctum, Ahmos, Joh, Khafra, and Thothmose roll their necks and shrug their shoulders in preparation for the weight of the god’s barque. “Are you ready?” Wel asks them. Despite Ahmos’ technically being head priest, and his own tender years, he can hear an authority in his voice that doesn’t belong to him, but to Ammon-Re. Already he can feel the god beginning to fill him, push out what belongs to Wel as a mortal man and replace it solely with truth.

“Yes,” says Ahmos, and Wel is struck by a sudden wave of appreciation for the head priest. Ahmos would surely prefer to prophesy to the Pharaoh himself; but despite his inclination to self-importance and long-windedness, he ultimately cares more for the reputation of the oracle than for his own prestige, and he can’t speak Greek. Although it’s clearly irritating for him to place Wel above himself for this, his voice is gentle and kind as he asks, “Are you?”

Wel closes his eyes. A pendulum of fire swings across the blackness, and everything that isn’t the baetylus of Ammon disappears. It will speak to him as if in words. “Yes,” he says.

When he opens his eyes, the four men have hoisted the vessel on their shoulders and are standing with their feet firmly planted. As he is now, Wel is their superior. He is, at this moment, the oldest being in the universe, and all men are his sons. He leads them down the hallway towards the sanctum, their heavy footsteps echoing off the stone walls.

The doors of the temple are open, such that the men assembled in front can see Wel and the barque-bearers enter, and he can see them. They are all dressed alike, in linen chitons made brown by desert dust. None among them is obviously superior, until they all turn to watch his entrance. Then, a tall broad man takes a shorter, almost delicate-looking one in his arms to embrace him quickly, whispers something in his ear, and gives him a small push towards the doors of the temple. The shorter man strides through them, and his friends close the doors behind him with a thud. Pharaoh Setpenre Meryamun is alone with the god.

Wel opens his mouth, and the standard greeting comes out. Or it should. In here, with him as he is now, everyone is a child; herd in Egyptian, agrud in Libyan, and in Greek–

“O Paidios,” he intones, and the Pharaoh’s grey eyes go wide.

For a moment, Wel’s head is completely empty of his own thoughts, as it always is when he is invaded by Ammon-Re– or rather, Zeus-Ammon, to this Greek Pharaoh. The words had not come from Wel himself; they cannot be wrong. And yet, he realizes intellectually, even as his voice still rings on the stone, that it wasn’t what he meant to say. He knows the word he had meant to address the Pharaoh by: o paidion, child. Paidiospai Dios— that would mean–

–Child of Zeus. Not just the metaphorical child of Zeus-Ammon, as all supplicants are. His true child.

If Wel had grown up to be the thing Joh most feared– a faker, a minor priest, not at all the fulfillment of Joh’s insistence that taking in the half-dead child of the desert was Ammon-Re’s will– he might be tempted to walk it back, at this point. He could apologize, correct himself, pretend not to know what he had said at first. He had opened his mouth intending to say one thing, and said another. It happens to everyone when speaking an unfamiliar language.

Wel is not what Joh feared. He is what he hoped for, or rather, more than he hoped for, so much more that at times it seems that Joh’s feelings have come all the way around into fear again. Wel is the most powerful prophet that Siwah has seen in generations. He is incandescent; his gift is too large for his body. It splits his head open with pain and keeps him up at night drenched in sweat. It scares people away from him, and he from them. If there is one thing in the world he can be sure of himself in, it is this.

He had said what the god meant. The barque-bearers are beginning to move; the heavy stone swinging from their burden directing their movement, and their movement in turn feeding back into that of the stone. None of them know what has just passed; they are merely conduits for Zeus-Ammon. Wel is a conduit, too, but he is also here, paying attention. He is present, he feels, in a way he rarely is to prophesy. Most days he could do this in his sleep, and sometimes does. He is no longer asleep.

“What questions do you have of Zeus-Ammon?” he asks.

The Pharaoh’s voice has the clarity of one trained in singing, wedded with the strength of a general. “Have my father’s murderers been punished?” he asks immediately. It is clear he has practiced the question, thought it over to himself night after night, imagining the moment that he can ask it.

It’s the wrong question. “Speak with more respect,” Wel says sharply. “Your father is no mortal.”

The Pharaoh draws back, simultaneously chastised and elated, and for a moment he looks every bit the child that Wel had intended to address him as. He looks barely older than Wel, if at all– and after all, he had travelled days through the desert to ask a question that is quintessentially a child’s. He wants reassurance that the man who raised him, father or no, is at peace in death.

“Are any of those who murdered Phillip of Macedon yet unpunished?”

The barque swings, dips. The men carrying it are breathing hard, trying not to grunt in front of the Pharaoh, but Wel doesn’t hear them.

He is walking through a Macedonian royal wedding party: the bleating of sacrificial victims, altars to the Greek gods. Thirteen of them. Blood itches on Wel’s fingertips, but won’t drip down. Why are there thirteen? He tries to smear the blood off on his thigh, but feels something sharp. He looks down to see that he is wearing a Greek chiton with a dagger tucked in the folds near his right hand. The twelve Olympians are followed in the procession by a bust of the Pharaoh’s mortal father. Phillip’s image sits on a throne with an eagle at the head; his arms rest on leopards, and his feet upon a bull wearing a Persian crown. The man himself is small and scarred, but the bust is enormous– larger than the busts of the gods themselves. The crowd mutters. It’s not seemly. No good will come of it.

I will come of it, Wel thinks viciously, and then he is striding across the dais towards the real article. A trusting arm reaches out towards him, as if to confer. Wel pulls out the dagger and rams it into Phillip’s gut, twisting upwards under the ribs. At the same time, he gasps, blood gurgles from his mouth. The pain lances through him: he is stabbing himself, the knife deep in his own gut. The scene changes, twists. He is being choked, hands around his neck. He is beheaded from behind, a swift cut merciful only because his assailant hadn’t wanted to give him the chance to fight back. He is being poisoned, his skin tightening in on his bones and his throat closing out breath. He is nothing, unmourned, a scant handful of dirt scattered over his body.

Wel opens his eyes to the well-known temple. He’s moved, staggered around somehow, he is drenched in sweat, and his legs feel like they’re about to collapse any minute. “The death of Phillip son of Amyntas is fully revenged,” he gasps. The leopardskin has fallen forward over his face and is about to fall off entirely. He pushes it back into place, and rubs a hand over the spot in his gut where he had stabbed Phillip. He knows that can’t be all.

The Pharaoh nods, and in that moment, he is no longer a child. Wel has seen and heard many things that other men are not privy to; but of all of them, this seems like the most secret. He wonders if the Pharaoh’s friend, who had embraced him and sent him in to seek his destiny, will notice that the boy he loves has come out of the temple a man. Would envy Wel this sight, if he knew to?

If the first question had been the child’s question, the next is the man’s. The Pharaoh takes a deep breath as if preparing to address an assembly, and these words too are river stones worn smooth by the current of long contemplation.

“Priest of my Father,” he says, “I have come far ask advice because, of all the oracles of the world, yours is said to be truthful. Any oracle will willingly give the truth to a poor man; a king must be more careful, lest he be deceived by those who would please him. I have been charged by the Greeks with the sacred duty of vengeance against the Persians, who razed Athens and burned the temples of our gods. In this task I believe I am nearing completion, and must continue whether I am destined to succeed or to die. But when I look into the water of the sea, or the pooled blood of a sacrifice, of the fire held by the wise Persians to be sacred, I see more than merely vengeance ahead. After my Greek troops have fulfilled their commitment to the League of Hellenes assembled by my mortal father, and been sent home to their cities, I want to strike forth with my Macedonians, and any others who would come. I want to see all the corners of the world. If my divine father would have it be so, I want to unite them.”

The Pharaoh takes a long breath, licks dry lips. Wel is acutely aware of his fear, his knowledge that the rest of his life will be decided in the next few moments. He looks straight into Wel’s eyes, and although he wants to look away, Wel can’t: it’s not him being spoken to as the Pharaoh finishes, “Father, I will do as you say. When the Persians are defeated, should I return home with the Greeks? Or is the empire of the world reserved for me?”

Wel isn’t sure he’d survive another vision of the same intensity as the first; and Zeus-Ammon, merciful for once, doesn’t send him one. Wel’s body simply moves instead, approaching the Pharaoh, standing tall in the space before him where any Egyptian would fall to kiss the ground at his feet. He reaches forward and puts a hand against his shoulder, pressing painfully exactly on the spot where– Wel simply knows, because the god knows– there is a barely-healed wound. He winces, and distantly Wel is almost amused. He could have warned the Pharaoh that no answer worth having comes without some kind of pain. Usually Wel is the one paying the price, but for his son Zeus-Ammon makes an exception.

O Paidon,” Wel says, the word finally coming out right only when spoken by the god, “What you ask, you should obtain.”

Siwah, Winter 332/1

“Husband dearest. Gosh, I forgot to make dinner. How irresponsible of me.”

The corners of Hannibal’s mouth twitch despite himself. “Reprehensible,” he says, and reaches forward to impale the meat sizzling on the grille on his knife and turn it over. The cattle kept by the Siwans are not overly fat, but they are healthy. After the desert march — seven days of nothing but barley bread and salted fish, and then one of almost nothing at all– any meat is welcome. And although some of the Macedonians might wonder why Hannibal is cooking for his supposed wife if they happen to walk past, he is too hungry to care.

There is something about this place– its utter impossibility, the way it rises out of the desert like something the delirious starving mind might dream up, the way the hopelessly lost army had been led here by crows sent from the gods– that makes him ravenous. Not for food, though he is also that; but the eternal howling void of his hunger, which had opened in him as Mismalka tumbled into the tophet, is fighting its way out of its enclosure like a tragedian desperate to make his real self known behind his mask.

The feast is life; you put it in your belly and you live. Hannibal had helped with the slaughter of the cattle the Siwans had gifted Alexander’s men, and taken a portion for him and Bacaxa. He wants to watch her eat it. He wants to see his power over life and death at work in the flesh of another.

She’s just glad of the meal. “Well, I saw him go in,” she says. “The Companions are still gathered outside the door of the temple for him like a gaggle of eunuchs around the Queen’s vagina, waiting to see what comes out.”

Hannibal narrowly avoids a very undignified snort of laughter only by immediately asking, “And the water?”

Bacaxa pulls off her heavy necklace, and fiddles with the small stones hanging from her ears before deciding to leave them on. In the army camp, she wears the same knee-length chiton, woolen cloak, and brimmed kausia hat as the men. Hannibal had raised an eyebrow at her insistence on dragging an Egyptian-style long dress and jewellery through the desert, but now he sees the good sense in it: her features are reminiscent enough of her Libyan mother that dressed in the same fashion as the women of the village, she passes easily for one of them. While Hannibal and the Macedonian men wait on the outskirts of the village for news from the temple, Bacaxa can wander about the heart of the oasis unremarked-upon. “Not that warm,” she says. “Hard to tell if it’s the same or cooler than it was a few hours ago, but definitely not warmer.” She looks a little disappointed.

“Oracles are made by the gods, but legends are made by men,” Hannibal reminds her gently. Legend has it, the pool at the center of the Siwah oasis grows cool during the day and warm at night. The first thing she’d done on their arrival, just as the sun was setting, was don her Egyptian clothes and go feel the temperature of the water. Now, close to midnight, is when it is reputed to be the warmest.

Baxaca nods, then breaks out in a grin. “Well, at least I found the spot where my dad claimed he saw my mother for the first time. He’d never seen a Libyan soldier-woman before, and thought she was a boy. He asked a nearby villager if the youths of Siwah are amenable to being approached by men, and the villager said yes, so he approached her as boldly as he would a youth. And here I am.”

Hannibal spears one of the chunks of meat and gestures for her plate, which she hands over. “I would imagine not many men are courageous enough to approach such a woman.” He’s only superficially referring to her mother. In the half-year since Tyre fell, he’s witnessed plenty of discomfort to her face and whispered jokes with an edge of genuine admiration behind her back; but he’s never seen any man approach her with the slightest hint of erotic intention.

Bacaxa shrugs. She clearly takes his meaning. “When a man takes a fancy to a youth, he knows the youth will become a man one day, and start turning him down. It’s part of his charm. But when he takes a fancy to a woman, she’ll never become anything other than a woman.”

“Even your mother?”

Bacaxa takes a bite and closes her eyes, savouring her first bite of meat since leaving the Paraetonium. Eventually she says thoughtfully, “I don’t know. Maybe. She died in battle. I was angry at her when it happened, for leaving, but I think I’m glad now.”

Hannibal chooses to keep to himself the suspicion that if a youth ought to start turning down his lover when he becomes a man, then either nobody has informed Alexander of it, or else their king is not yet a man. He also doesn’t share that the Sacred Band of Thebes, which he had spent his time in its Carthaginian namesake idolizing, is built on a foundation of the knowledge that a youth becoming a man does not necessarily spell the end of his love for a true friend.

“I’m going to go to the temple tonight,” he says.

Bacaxa drops her fork in surprise, then fishes around in the sand for it to buy time for a response. “It’s tonight right now,” she says delicately.

Hannibal manages not to roll his eyes, but it’s a near thing. “Later. When Alexander and the companions have left.”

“And do what? There will be no priest.”

“Perhaps I would prefer to speak with the god directly.”

The words hang in the air. Bacaxa sets down her plate on the ground and stares at him.

“You’re actually insane,” she says.

She’s still a little bit joking, but Hannibal feels a cold prickle of recognition anyway. He’s always known that true oddity can be concealed only by other layers of oddity. He knows he’s not the only man in the universe with blood-feud to avenge, but he thinks he might be the only one who hungers for it as he does. He has never seen any evidence to the contrary. Never met someone else with the same howling absence.

He and Bacaxa have become friends on this journey, even more than they were before the desert. He likes her, enjoys the comfort of her oddness and solitude parallel to his own. That doesn’t mean she can see him.

“I have been told so before,” he says lightly.

There are reasons that priests exist. Not all gods prefer the same customs. There’s a fine line between worship and mockery. Priests– themselves sons of priests, going back generations– hold generations of wisdom about how to remain alive and well as a mortal being for as long as possible.

“If I tell you not to fucking do that, is there any chance of you listening?”

“Listening is one thing; obeying is another.”

“So that’s a no.” She sighs a long exasperated breath and tips her head back to stare into the night sky, cloudless and brimming with stars.

Hannibal smiles. “Eat your dinner, wife of mine,” he says. “There will be no meat on the journey back.”

*

Hannibal leaves camp as the guards of the third watch are waking those assigned to the fourth. Bacaxa is snoring in their tent, and as he makes his way through the camp even the most dissolute of drinkers seem to have stopped wandering around and found somewhere to collapse.

It is not hard to find the temple, which rises far enough above the village to be visible even from the desert. If the oasis were ever attacked, it would be the only place worth attempting to fortify; but Siwah’s position in the desert means it’s unlikely anyone here has ever thought of such things.

For as long as he had been back at the camp with Bacaxa, he had avoided thinking about what he was going to do once he arrived at the temple. Speak to Ammon, yes, or hope to be spoken to. He has only one question, and it sounds like a prosaic one every time he attempts to formulate it in words. Where is the last man living who killed my sister? The thought of how simultaneously common and unusual his question is irritates him. Blood-feud is ubiquitous; the search for those that wronged you is familiar. But for the most part, the search is bounded. The avenger knows the city of the men he seeks, or the tribe. But he final individual to whom Hannibal owed vengeance had disappeared from the city. He could be anywhere. He could be dead.

What is he hoping for, from Ammon? The gods do not hand out maps. As he approaches the temple, Hannibal slows. There is no one around. Nobody to witness him hesitating before the door, wondering if he should go back to his tent with his intention unfulfilled.

“You’re the Carthaginian with the wife who works like a man,” comes a voice.

There is someone here. Hannibal suppresses his start; usually he would be able to smell the presence of another person, but the sand of the desert seems to coat the inside of his nose with every breath, dampening his senses.

A man is sitting in the shadows in the corner of the stone courtyard outside the temple. Hannibal walks towards him, carefully. He has carried no weapon with him tonight, and perhaps he should have; but the man stays slumped with his back against the side of the temple even as Hannibal approaches.

He has the same pale grey eyes and dark waves of hair as Alexander, but seems taller and broader even when sitting down. Hannibal has seen him before, and is fairly sure his name is Ptolemy; but there are so many named Ptolemy among the Macedonians that it would be a fair guess anyway.

“Yes,” he says cautiously. “I am Hannibal son of Lectis. My wife is skilled with machines, and contributes to campaigns according to the customs of the tribe of my ancestors.” If Ptolemy knows him to be from Carthage, then the ruse of putting Hannibal forth under the name of one of the Phoenician engineers seems to have failed; but nobody seems particularly bothered about it if they do know that he’s here under false pretenses. He hopes the other man doesn’t ask about the women of his tribe, since it’s a complete fabrication.

Apparently, however, the Macedonians are quite content to believe that the world beyond their borders contains all sorts of odd customs. Ptolemy just nods. “I am Ptolemy son of Lagos,” he says, then glances up at the stars so that he’s speaking more to the air than to Hannibal when he says, “Or at least, I usually claim Lagos to be my father.”

Hannibal says nothing. There isn’t much to be said to that.

Ptolemy glances towards the doors of the temple. “What are you hoping to find in there, then?”

As any guardsman knows, the fourth watch is the truth-telling hour. As the barriers between the mortals and the gods are thinner, so too are the barriers between men. Ptolemy is still sitting on the ground, as if he and Hannibal were long campaign-friends. Hannibal responds in kind. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I was rethinking if I should go in at all.”

“You were a priest at Tyre?”

“No. Merely a guard with the Carthaginian envoy to Melqart’s festival.”

Ptolemy waves his hand. “That’s close enough. You are a special favourite of your god. Tell me, how do you know what the god means, when he speaks to you?”

Hannibal doesn’t sit– he’s not sure his body would consent to get back up again if he sat down now– but he leans against the wall beside Ptolemy, staring out over the village. “It depends on the speech,” he says. “Melqart spoke to me with the destruction of the city. His will was clear enough.” He pauses, and when Ptolemy just continues staring blankly in front oh him, Hannibal continues, “Did you receive prophecy?”

Ptolemy shakes his head helplessly. “I don’t know,” he says. “I wasn’t going to. The one thing that I want to know… it’s better for me to not know. And for Alexander. We have always treated each other with a friendship like brotherhood, and that is enough. But I waited here for him with his other companions, and the priests came out to speak with us. I asked them no questions, but one approached me. He said, “Be content with Egypt.”

“Be content with Egypt?” Hannibal repeats.

“Yes.” As Hannibal considers that, Ptolemy enumerates the problems he’s clearly been turning over in his mind for the past several hours. “What reason would I have not to be content? We have been warmly received here. The Egyptians are an ancient and distinguished people, generous, intelligent, and grateful for their liberation from Persia. Alexander is Pharaoh. The god sent birds and snakes to lead us safely through the desert. And even if I were not content, if I ignorantly thought the Egyptians too barbarian to be worth even our governance, if I wanted to leave as quickly as possible– what of it? What would they care? Or perhaps, it could be a warning to leave– to be content with the conquest of Egypt, and go home to Macedon. But Alexander asked the god that very question, and was told that the kingdom of the world is reserved for him.”

Hannibal raises his eyebrows. He isn’t certain if the liminality of the fourth watch would extend so far as questioning the king’s honesty out loud, but Ptolemy hears the question anyway and shakes his head. “He’s telling the truth. He told us, at the new Alexandria on the coast, that if Ammon-Re willed it to be his last city then it would be. If he’d wanted an answer from an oracle that was sure to please him, he could have gone to Delphi. But we came all this way because the priests of Ammon-Re at Siwah are known for telling the truth even to the powerful. He wouldn’t disregard the answer just because he didn’t like it.”

Everyone wants to believe the best of their king, Hannibal reminds himself; and having given up so much to be here, he must be especially susceptible to the desire which distorts reality. The Rab Hanno had seemed a godsend to Carthage when Hannibal was a youth, after all, but he died a traitor. And yet– it is so easy to believe in Ptolemy’s trust. A king who has done nothing to make believing the best difficult is a rare thing, too.

“I know,” says Hannibal slowly, “that the gods punish those who try to avoid the fates set out for them. Βut Laius and Oedipus of Thebes understood the meaning of their prophecies, if not their implications. I think that when the moment to fulfill the priest’s words is at hand, you will understand your instructions.”

Ptolemy nods, then leans his head back slowly against the wall and sighs. “You’re probably right. Thank you.”

Hannibal glances towards the door of the temple. “You’re not going to order me not to enter, then?”

“Hm. Me? No.” Ptolemy chuckles. “No, that’s above my pay grade, I’m afraid. You’re on your own.” He stands up and stretches, limbs cracking audibly. “Goodnight then, Hannibal. I hope you find the answers you’re looking for.”

Hannibal watches him go, weaving through the village towards his hut a few doors down from Alexander’s, identifiable from the night guard posted outside the door. He turns over be content with Egypt in his mind again, but it reveals no further secrets. And anyway, he hadn’t come for Ptolemy’s prophecy; he had come for his own. Before he can convince himself not to, Hannibal turns around and pushes the door to the temple open.

Even from the first hall, a sort of lobby separating the open court outside from the sanctuary, it smells like an exercise hall. More than one man has been sweating in here recently. Scent overwhelms his other senses for a moment, the way it does once a battle is over and all that is left are staggered rows of bloody corpses. Sweat, too, is not necessarily an unpleasant smell: just absorbing. It tells him that the method of prophecy here involves some sort of physical exertion.

The entrance to the sanctuary is in front of him. Lit by the glow of the moon, he can see figures on the wall, only some of which he recognizes: Ammon, his consort Amenere, Mut the vulture, Khonsu of the moon, and Maahes lord of the massacre. Three more of the local gods, and the man depicted pouring the libation to them, are unknown to him. He walks through.

It’s a small space, and the smell of sweat is even more intense: whatever kind of physically intensive divination is practiced here, there isn’t a whole lot of room to do it in. There are marks on the walls that look like they might have come from minor collisions with equipment. Hannibal abruptly feels the sense, simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, that he is in a forbidden, secret place. The image of Ammon-Re stares down at him, and he looks up at the ceiling above him.

It could come crashing down on him this moment. It would be a fitting punishment for an intruder. If the god sees his visit as defiling the temple, it would be for the best. Hannibal imagines it: the little spots of moonlight breaking through as the bricks start to crumble, the sound of it surrounding him, the first chunk of rock to knock him over. Staring up at the night sky as he waits for death.

“Do it, then,” he says out loud.

At first, nothing happens.

Then, something does happen.

Hannibal has not asked a question. But the question is inside him, nevertheless, the only question: am i doing right? Does my vengeance lie on the path I have chosen? What am I doing, when I could go home to my wife and children and forget blood-feud, if not the scent of blood itself?

And then the god speaks: and perhaps the language is part of the message itself, because it’s in Greek. Strangely stilted, accented Greek, a voice that is high and almost hoarse.

“Go with him,” says Ammon-Re. “Go with him. Go with him.”

Hannibal blinks. He knows better than to push. The gods give what they give when they give it. It is an answer. He turns and walks out of the temple. He is halfway across the village by the time he is compelled to look back at it. The roof is still there. It has not collapsed. It is still standing.

Siwah, Winter 332- Mesopotamia, Summer 331

Chapter Notes

After the prophecy, Setpenre Meryamun leaves, and Wel tries not to show how watching him walk out the doors of the temple and into the waiting arms of his friends and councillors feels like birthing him. It hurts. Everything hurts. His head, his stomach, his limbs, the inside of his chest, his skin. Ahmos, Khafra, and Thothmose quickly store their poles in the small side corridor beside the sanctum and nod good night to Wel uneasily. Wel watches them do it, then sinks down with his back to the wall in the small passage. It feels closed-in in there, almost safe. Joh watches him for a few moments, then says “I’ll bring some bread and beer.”

After an uncountable amount of time, neither short nor long, the items appear next to Wel, who has now migrated to lying down on the cool floor, his cheek pressed against the smooth stone.

“All right?” says Joh gruffly.

“Mhm.”

“Right. Drink some beer and eat a piece of bread, and I’ll sleep better tonight.”

Wel pushes himself up on an elbow to gulp down some unpleasantly watery beer, and manages a single bite of bread, which seems to require far more than the standard amount of chewing. He even manages a somewhat sarcastic smile. “Sleep well, Joh.”

Joh leaves. Wel is both grateful, and somehow angry. Joh has never pushed. He has never done for Wel anything more than what he would do for any other priest. Wel wouldn’t know what to do with concern at this point, but he still craves it. Sometimes he wants to be picked up and carried out of the temple. Sometimes he wishes he didn’t have–

–no. Impossible to think such a thing. The image of Ammon-Re is around the corner; but Wel can’t expect to just hide from him in an alcove and escape judgment.

He pushes himself up all the way. It hurts to sit, but it had also hurt to lie down. Why is he lingering in the temple? He could go home. It won’t hurt any more to walk than it does to sit.

He is lingering here because it feels like every answer that the Pharaoh whose friends and soldiers call Alexander had received from him left a hole in Wel the shape of a question.

Alexander now knows who his father is. Wel had never bothered wondering such a thing. He has vague memories from before the desert: walking through a field, a woman washing his face. He doesn’t know where the field is, whether his family owned it or worked it as labourers, or whether the woman was his mother or his nurse. He doesn’t remember his father. He remembers the desert, sitting high on top of something or someone, and being so hot and thirsty that the need and pain blocked out everything. He remembers being ready to die, and then he remembers lying on Joh’s cot, crying out as he was only allowed tiny sips of water at a time. Too much water after thirst is just as dangerous as the thirst itself; he knows that now, as all desert people do. At the time it had seemed like the only cruelty worse than death.

Joh is not a father. Wel has no father. There are no other priests of his name in Siwah as would require his father’s name to distinguish him, but when someone wants to address him with special respect, they take a cue from Joh and call him son of the sand. But Wel does have a father: a dead one, likely, but a father nonetheless. He has never wanted to know his name before today.

Alexander also knows what to do with himself. He had asked if he should go home, or travel to the ends of the earth. Ever since the Pharaoh had stepped out of the temple, Wel has been getting little aftershocks of vision: plains, mountains, a solid mass of boats bridging a river, desert sand that looks nothing like the familiar surroundings of Siwah. Wel had never considered leaving Siwah, and he’s not now– except that now he’s aware of the fact that he’s never considered leaving, and the thought process is rapidly spiralling out of control.

He needs to ask for guidance on his own behalf. Ammon-Re will not begrudge him, but even so, Wel is putting off the moment. He’s already exhausted; for all that contact with the divine can be illuminating and useful, it is not easy.

He tips his head back against the wall of the storage corridor, staring into space. Trying to convince himself that any moment, he’s going to close his eyes and let Ammon-Re take over.

“Do it, then,” comes a voice. It sounds simultaneously very close and very far away, but that’s probably the dizzyness talking. It’s also in lightly accented Greek, which is odd; but everything is different now. Why would Ammon-Re not speak in Greek, when the Greek Pharaoh has just walked out of his temple?

Wel closes his eyes.

The vision isn’t violent or even novel. It’s merely a patch of dirt on the outskirts of the village, where children often gather to play. Wel hasn’t been there in years, not by design. He’d simply had no reason to. The sun is high in the sky: in the vision, it is mid-day.

Nothing happens. There is a soft wind, and he can hear the far-off clamour of Alexander’s mens’ camp. The vision is simply the place; it’s an instruction. Wel tentatively tries coming back from it, withdrawing like he can sometimes do when he has permission, and he is allowed. That wasn’t bad at all. As he comes back into his body, into the temple, he realizes he is chanting, again in Greek, which someone certainly seems to think he’s going to be getting a lot of use out of soon. “Go with him,” says his mouth. “Go with him. Go with him.”

*

The next day he is back at the appointed place, with his body as well as his mind.

Unlike in the vision, it’s not deserted when he approaches. There are children playing; he can hear them long before they come into view. When he rounds the corner, he immediately has to duck to avoid what, upon inspection, is a pig bladder full of water. The girl who had thrown it so far off-course– maybe six years old, and completely drenched herself – shrieks when she sees him, “Priest! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” in a kind of half-apology, half-warning to her playmates.

“That’s all right,” he says, not that she hears it, and sits down on a stone to watch the water balloon battle. The boys and girls of the village are late to put on the clothes and roles of adulthood; many of them wander around the village naked and completely devoid of responsibility until they’re old enough that men start looking at them with intent. The oldest playing here today might be twelve. It’s a far cry from what Wel has learned of the norms in Memphis, where the children are taught the trades of their parents as soon as they can take instruction well enough.

That was around how old he’d been when whatever happened to him in the desert had happened, and he’d ended up here. Now that he’s started wondering about the questions, he can’t stop. Had his father had a trade? Had he been taught any of it, before? Had his parents given him a had a carefree childhood or had it been hard? He considers for the first time that he’d ended up in one of the few places slow-paced enough that he’d been given a second childhood; although much of his time was spent in study, Joh had sent him out to play with the village kids often enough. On the off-chance that his first childhood had been hard, it ought to content him at least to know that he’d had a second chance at it.

He’s pulled from that reverie by a change in the timbre of the children’s shouts. Where they were chaotic, they are now focused. “Get him!” They’re yelling, turned towards an interloper approaching from the other side of the clearing, towards the Macedonian camp.

Wel just watches for a little while, because it is pretty funny. The Macedonian, apparently of a mind to see the sights before they leave, is glancing nervously at the mob in front of him and the path behind, wondering if he’s really going to let a bunch of kids with balloons deter him. Then one lands a hit right to his belly and the entire bottom half of his chiton is soaked and dripping. He seems almost able to countenance that, until he realizes that not all of the naked children surrounding him are boys. He stops in his tracks, horrified, and gets soaked by another couple of balloons. Wel stifles his laughter. He already knew that the Persians were prudish: even their men won’t exercise naked in each others’ sight, and they can’t go jump in a river to swim, or throw rubbish on a fire, for fear of desecrating it. Apparently the Greeks and Macedonians are just as bad.

“All right, all right,” he calls finally in Siwan. “Let him alone. He is a priest, like me.”

The kids look skeptically at the Macedonian, and the Macedonian looks at Wel.

“Doesn’t look like one,” says a boy.

“I’m right, though,” says Wel, and then switches to Greek to say, “You are, aren’t you? A priest.”

The Macedonian priest has a serenely flat affect that makes him to look both distinguished and oddly childlike, wringing water out of the folds of his clothes with complete concentration. He does the job very thoroughly before he asks, “How did you know that?”

“I know things when I need to.”

“Ah.” The Macedonian finishes wringing out his chiton, then squints at Wel. “Wait, so you’re a priest? Hephaestion said the High Priest was young. Are you him?”

It hadn’t occurred to Wel until this moment that Alexander might be offended if he knew that he hadn’t been greeted by the actual High Priest of Siwah. Ahmos’ having prioritized language over rank was a good idea in the moment, but he’s not sure if it will stand up to close scrutiny. “I’m the highest priest who speaks Greek,” he hedges. He’s not really sure if it’s true– there’s not actually a ranking, besides that Ahmos is chief among them.

But he seems to have said something right, because the Macedonian’s face lights up. “I am Aristandros of Telmessos, seer of the King. It’s an honour to meet you. And… thank you.” He gestures vaguely at the Siwan village children, who are slowly slinking away from the conversation.

“You’re welcome,” says Wel, and steps into the shade of a tree on the outskirts of the clearing. Aristandros follows. He’s a fairly solid man for a seer, not so much muscular as simply square-looking. He has the look of a scribe who spends all day peering over letters and numerals, and comes to resemble them as a result. But perhaps that is what divining is, in Macedon. “I am Weldjebauend of Siwah,” Wel says.

He can see Aristandros’ mouth working, silently turning over the unfamiliar name. “Wel is fine,” he adds hastily.

“Wel,” says Aristandros. “Perhaps, then, you can answer the question that I was coming into the village to ask.”

“I certainly will if I can.” Wel’s skin feels tight on his bones. This is what he came here for, what he was sent for.

“Alexander wishes to sacrifice to Ammon-Re for victory, and before crossing rivers, and whenever else is appropriate. But…” Aristandros shuffles his feet, clearly considering how to say something delicate. “The gods from whom we most often seek patronage are known to us. The customs and preferences of Zeus, and Herakles, and Dionysus, we know from long experience. Alexander says that Ammon-Re and Zeus are one, and will accept the same prayers and sacrifices. And yet…”

Wel nods, slowly. There are some– mostly Greeks– who believe easily that one peoples’ god is the same as another’s by a different name. Priests don’t tend to be among them; they are too attuned to the desires of their god, and the words that are used to understand and fulfill them, to easily call the same god by a different name. To some extent the blurring of boundaries is inevitable; and clearly, Ammon-Re had claimed Alexander as his own son as surely as if he were the Greek Zeus. And yet Aristandros’ worry is understandable. “You want to know how best to sacrifice to him,” he says.

Aristandros winces. When said out loud like that, it does sound a little insulting: that a priests’ entire life’s work, all his knowledge of the god, could be transmitted in the course of a single conversation.

Ah.

That is why the god sent Wel here, to meet Aristandros. It can’t be.

Aristandros says unhappily, “If you can tell such a thing. Truly, Alexander ought to have a priest of his own father to advise him in the Egyptian fashion, as I advise in the Greek.”

For a moment, Wel is back in Memphis, the single time that he brought the Siwan salt to the satrap and to market. Memphis is an important city, and busy, but it is nothing– he can only assume– compared to the chaos of an army on the move. He had been completely paralyzed even by the activity of the market. How will he survive where the god is sending him?

Perhaps he will simply die. The thought has always been almost calming, before a vision: the worst that can happen is that he dies, if Ammon-Re wills it. This is just like a vision, but it’s real. If he dies, he dies. Nobody can escape fate.

“I offer my services to interpret the god’s will,” he says.

*

The sun has an odd brown glow filtered through the tent-skin. Wel wakes all at once, as he does every day now. Morning in an army camp, unlike morning in an oasis village, is noisy. The fourth watch wakes the commanders, the commanders wake the trumpeters, and the trumpeters wake everyone else. On the off-chance that you manage to sleep through that, the dull roar of tens of thousands of men grinding grain, packing up their tents, and corralling their wives, children, slaves and pack animals will certainly wake you up.

In the half a year that has passed since he left Siwah, he has gotten used to the coarse biscuits from the hand-mills, the requirement that almost all water be mixed with wine to be safe to drink, and the walking. The Median slave in charge of the excess baggage for the section of the camp that the seers’ tent is assigned to had found Wel limping along after the first couple days, and gently suggested that he try sleeping with his feet propped up on a stool; now they barely ache at all in the morning.

But he hasn’t gotten used to the noise of the travelling city that is the army, and Alexander’s army is light compared to the Persians that they’re pursuing. He has heard the soldiers talk, in terms that are half-disparaging and half-wistful, about the enormous travelling city that is the third Darius’ Persian army: the entire households that travel with the soldiers, the merchants and musicians and prostitutes who trail along to sell their services, the pack animals, servants and slaves who take charge of the baggage even for the common soldiers. The Macedonian soldiers, and most of the hangers-on, carry most of what they own on their backs; even the astoundingly long spear that the infantry use comes apart into two pieces for transportation.

(Still, an infantryman by the fire Wel had sat by a few days ago had mused after a long group commiseration about the difficulties of the marches, it’s worth it when the enemy flees just because they hadn’t expected us to arrive yet. Remember the Getae? Those fuckers never saw us coming.)

The roar of the camp getting ready to move on is just beginning. Wel pushes himself up from the mat he sleeps on presses his fingers to his temples, like he could defeat his ever-present headache if he could just arrive in his own head before it does. Around the other edges of the tent, Aristandros, Cleomenes, and Demophon are also stirring. There is an air of excitement: the guides say that they’ll reach the Tigris river within today’s march. Aristandros, the favourite, will no doubt be called upon to read the signs before they cross, as he had been when they crossed the Euphrates. Cleomenes and Demophon, young men who seem more interested in seeing how many soldiers’ wives they can sleep with than divining the future (answer: many, most of them immediately upon pitching the tent, right when Wel would like some goddamn peace and quiet) are mostly called upon to answer questions or do the occasional sacrifice for various infantry and hipparchy commanders.

Wel hasn’t been asked to do much, so far. One of the scribes, Eumenes, had gotten wind that there was a Siwan priest, and had come find Wel to walk beside him nearly every day. Eumenes wants to practice his Egyptian, which is unfortunate because Wel wants to practice his Greek if he has to talk to anyone at all, which he doesn’t. But Alexander ought to sacrifice to Ammon-Re at the Tigris; Wel will suggest it himself if the king doesn’t consult him of his own accord. Really he ought to have sacrificed at the Euphrates, but instead they had barely even stopped there; apparently the Persians had started building a bridge but fled right before they arrived, leaving all of their materials and the mostly-finished bridge. Aristandros had decided that being left a bridge built by one’s enemies is a good enough omen that they must already have permission from the gods to cross, and Wel had to admit the reasoning was sound. But today there will be another river, a promised rest, a sacrifice– perhaps even an inlet to swim in. He should feel better about the coming day, knowing that.

He doesn’t. He wants to talk to Joh, in a way that he never has before. Not because he craves paternal input; if it were merely advice he wanted he could go to Aristandros or Eumenes. But he wants Joh because Joh knew him; he knew what Wel was like before all this, and Wel can no longer tell if he is getting better or worse. It used to be, he’s almost sure, that his visions were distinct events: he knew when one was coming, like a sneeze, and he knew when it was over. The reality around him and the reality that the god sent him were separate, and he was the only link between them.

Now, it feels like every waking hour is spent dancing on the edge of a knife. Reality is on one side and prophecy on the other, and he is no longer certain which is which. He had seen the bridge over the Euphrates before they got there– or had he only seen it afterwards, and what he thought was the Persians’ bridge under his feet was actually foresight? When Cleomenes and Demophon take time out of their busy schedule of seduction to ply their ostensible art of liver divination, Wel sees shapes and colours in the entrails of the victims that they don’t, though he’s never been taught the art. During marches, time stretches and folds in on itself until he has no idea whether he has been talking to Eumenes the whole time, or trudging along in silence, or if he had simply appeared here out of nowhere. But he’s always been fond of solitude, always been afflicted by glimpses of truths more true than the ones his eyes give him. Perhaps he had simply never noticed how unsuited he was to being in the company of others, because he had been given so much solitude in Siwah.

He thinks about Joh as they pack up and begin to move; when Eumenes finds him, Wel asks if he could have some parchment to write a letter when they get to the Tigris. He thinks he does, anyway: or perhaps he is asking Ammon-Re if he ought to write a letter, or if it would be better to leave the past behind in the past. If he gets an answer, he doesn’t remember it by the time they arrive. There is no miraculous bridge at the Tigris, but Alexander insists that they have time to cross it before nightfall anyway: Wel stares into the swift-flowing water as he first waits by the bank, then floats across on a raft made of skin and stuffed with hay. When he drags his hand in the water, it comes away covered in blood.

It’s getting dark by the time the army is landed on the bank and the tents– many of them still damp from their brief re-purposing as raft-covers– are beginning to rise like a city stretching out towards the horizon. As soon as the seers’ tent is habitable, one of the pages whose job it is to stand watch outside the King’s tent at night comes to fetch both Aristandros and Wel.

“We’ll need a ram,” Wel says to the boy as Aristandros quickly rifles though his pack for a clean chiton– he had nearly fallen in the river at one point, and is soaked with mud. The page glances at the elder seer uncertainly.

“You heard him, Hermolaos,” snaps Aristandros, who in this state has something of the aspect of a wet cat and seems about as irritable as a cat would be. “I think we can find our way to Alexander’s tent on our own, don’t you? Go find a ram.”

Hermolaos hurries away, and Wel and Aristandros set out across the camp. Wel’s head is buzzing from the journey, but he has to admit that it’s a peaceful place to make camp. Once the sacrifices have been made, he’ll have time to wash before it gets too dark: either in the river if there’s a spot that’s slow enough, or by its banks. The prospect of sticking his head in cold river water sounds like the best thing that’s happened to him for days.

“Thank you for coming,” says Aristandros quietly, and Wel looks at him in surprise. Aristandros is a man of few words, and not prone to displays of emotion. It’s why Wel likes him. “It can’t have been easy to leave your village for this.”

“It was easy,” says Wel. “It just wasn’t pleasant.”

“Ah,” says Aristandros, in the way he has whenever he’s encountered new information. It gives the impression of him filing it away in some vast inner library.

The light from the setting sun is getting low, and it’s quite dark: darker than it was at last night’s campsite, and they’d arrived earlier today than they had yesterday. Wel looks up at the moon; if it gets much darker, he won’t have time to bathe before sleep.

The moon isn’t there.

He stops walking, blinks. The night sky focuses in his vision. The moon is there after all: a thin, ghostly ring of light.

Beside him, Aristandros also looks up, and for a moment they just stand together, seemingly the first to have noticed the eclipse in the flurry of activity of the camp.

“What does it mean?” says Wel, because the god is giving him nothing. In a way, he envies Aristandros, his solid knowledge. The Greek seer has no inspiration, no direct connection with his gods: but he doesn’t need one.

“The battle that we have come here seeking will find us,” says Aristandros.

Wel nods, hiding his disappointment in the banality of the omen. It’s not that he has no investment in Alexander’s quarrel with the Persians; he is here, after all, and could well be killed or taken captive in the event of a decisive Persian victory. But compared to the reality of the world of the god, men taking up arms against each other seems like a very far-away fact. He has carved out a small piece of reality for himself, even here, and he can’t imagine that anything could happen in the battle that would change that.

Chapter End Notes


Spent his whole life in one place, and walked all this way in the space of a single asterisk. Life is just like that sometimes, I guess.

Gaugamela, Autumn 331

Chapter Notes

Men are their truest selves when they are aware they could soon die.

Anyone could die at any moment, of course. The possibility of death is what gives meaning to life. And yet it takes a special effort to hold death front and centre in the mind. Hannibal makes the effort. Most other men do not, and it takes them by surprise on the day of a battle.

The army is well-rested; they had had an entire day to camp, eat and sleep upon arriving within sight of the Persians. Amusingly, scouts and spies have reported that the Persian camp was up all night, expecting an attack at any moment. Their infantry will be weary and weak, but perhaps with the edge of careless insanity that can lend a man strength once his reason, which sleep restores, is gone.

Hannibal shifts from foot to foot, slightly enough that nothing is visible in his limbs, as Kleandros addresses the phalanx. The Greek mercenaries have been stationed, bizarrely, behind the main Macedonian line; and facing away from the Persians instead of towards them. There was some grumbling about the formation, but Kleandros is a good commander if a somewhat weaselly person, and he has correctly intuited that what his troops need right now is explanation, not encouragement.

“Drift,” he’s saying. Hannibal is close enough to hear him, but the subordinate commanders at the front right of each unit parrot his words anyway for the benefit of those farther away, making the entire enterprise of communication sound like the echo of someone shouting into a valley. “You’ve all felt it. You lean into the shield on your right, the man on your left leans into your shield, and before you know it the entire phalanx is travelling. If the front line is long enough it’s not a big deal. The line isn’t long enough today. The front phalanx is going to be pushed to the right, and the barbarians are going to surround the flank. That’s when we wheel around– and it’s a when, not an if, gentlemen.” There are some grunts of approval at this. The only thing worse than fighting, once you’re in formation, is being ready to fight and then being left out. That much pent-up readiness, with nowhere to go, can kill a man on its own.

He smells fresh urine, and takes a small step back, as he can see it streaming down the leg of the man in front of him. Hannibal is stationed in the second line of the eight-man deep phalanx. The entire front row is made up of volunteers for the position; young men, who recite Homer to each other like a prayer and have yet to prove themselves in battle. Hannibal had done the same, when he was their age. The gods saw fit to let him walk away from several engagements where he took the front line, so that he has now reached middle age: the appropriate time to allow the commanders to station him as they will. He is not yet old enough to be an obvious choice for the last row: the place to station men steadied by years of battle, who will prevent those ahead from running away.

Kleandros is a thorough commander and had assigned a place for each man, taking into account every request to be in front. Hannibal is neither pleased nor disappointed at his position in the second row; there had surely been plenty of requests and considerations to accommodate, and he is something of a leftover. The philosophy of the Thebans had been that lovers are more likely to stay in formation for the sake of their beloved beside them, and resist a rout for longer. The fact that Alexander’s first youthful command in his father’s army had ended with his phalanx cutting down the entire Theban Sacred Band where they stood seems to have only strengthened the Macedonian commanders’ conviction that the principle was true; after all, the Theban lovers had preferred to die together than flee alone. Kleandros’ attention to detail thus includes placing those he knows or assumes to be lovers beside each other; Jason and Briarios are behind him in the third row, and he can see their hands clasped together tightly out of the corner of his eye.

A phalanx battle is a contest for who can stay in formation longer. Despite the wetness soaking his sandals, the terrified man in front of Hannibal is standing tall and breathing deep. So are the men on either side of him. There is a feeling of solidity to the unit, despite the varied cities of origin of the Greeks around him, and Hannibal’s own uniqueness among them. The gods are readying themselves for a great sacrifice of human flesh; whatever the outcome, the Greek reserve will do their part in delivering it up honourably.

Dust drifts, and begins to tickle his throat. It is only the very edges, carried on the breeze, of the enormous cloud of dust rising from the hooves of horses on the move, and quickly. All heads in the rear phalanx crane around to try to make out the front lines of the battle taking place at their backs. When Kleandros seemingly has no objection to this mass breach of discipline, Hannibal’s desire for knowledge gets the better of his dignity and he looks too.

Most of his Greek colleagues’ attention is focused on the elephants. They are posted in the front of the Persian line, interspersed with scythed chariots of the sort that look very impressive until their horses balk at a line of infantry spears. In festivals at Carthage, Hannibal has seen elephants who were supposedly trained to perform some entertaining task accidentally kill their masters, so he knows something the Greeks do not: unless the Persians and Indians are significantly better elephant-trainers than any Africans, the main purpose of war-elephants is to instill fear. Their hides make nice shield-covers, but in a battle the beasts will trample their own side as soon as someone gets up the nerve to throw a javelin at the mahout, and Alexander’s Agrianian javelin-men have nerve to spare.

Hannibal ignores the elephants, and instead watches the dust kicked up from the cavalry on the Macedonian side: Alexander and the Companions, flanked by the Scythian horsemen, are riding like hell towards the rightmost edge of the plain that the Persians had levelled for the battle. Even under Hannibal’s feet, the ground has a newly-razed feeling: there are no tufts of grass, no little divots where water accumulates when it rains. Every inch of the chosen meeting place has been picked over, but the level ground is not an altruistic offering from the Persians. The infantry, cavalry and archers who make up Alexander’s army can deal with slightly uneven ground; but Persian chariots cannot, and a wide open space is needed to take advantage of the vastly greater number of Persian combatants. Darius has chosen his meeting-place where the land itself favours him. But as Hannibal watches, the Persian line begins to stretch out to meet the cloud of dust floating ever rightward; and then, as they realize that they are about to be driven off of their carefully levelled battlefield, curls around in an attempt to prevent the looming disaster. There are distant shouts, and more dust, and the clang of arms; it is impossible to get a sense of which side is falling in greater numbers.

An enormous noise rises from the Macedonian infantry frontline. The clanging of sarissas being lowered mixes with the shuffle of feet and, gradually, war cries: an unsophisticated but admittedly intimidating chorus of alalalalei rises like the mating call of some huge bloodthirsty bird. A couple Greeks start muttering under their breath, trying to make fun of the barbaric noise. The Greeks themselves would prefer to sing hymns as they march into battle, or at least would prefer to believe that they always do so. But the truth is, the war cry is effective. The ground it self reverberates with the movement of thousands of pairs of feet as the front line begins to advance. They are slow and disciplined with their steps, a level of care made necessary by the enormous length of their spears.

Hannibal has held a sarissa a few times, out of curiosity around a campfire; the longer weapon is what makes the Macedonian phalanx nearly invincible to the Greeks. But for the placement that the Greeks have been given today, he’s grateful for the shorter spear that they’re equipped with. A sarissa is only useful so long as you’re in formation with other sarissa-wielding hoplites; in a case of a broken formation or single combat, being left holding such a long and heavy weapon would be more hindrance than help. The young men around him seem to entirely believe Keandros that their job will be to wheel around and meet, in an orderly way, any infantry or cavalry who get past the Macedonian line. Hannibal suspects that if the rear guard sees action at all, it is likely to be chaotic.

The noise from the front lines of the battle is now enormous. Hannibal can feel his heart beating, slowly and steadily. It has always seemed odd to him how men act against their own best interests at such times: quivering, pissing, shrinking away. He knows, from casual comments between soldiers, that most men find their bodies seized by some strange daemon before a battle; their hearts beat faster, their stomachs turn over and empty, their minds become weak. He has never understood it, but he has understood enough of human nature to also understand that he ought not to let on that he feels only curiosity, and the anticipation of bloodshed, before action.

Kleandros paces up and down the line. Every so often a messenger appears to give him some update, but none of the churning clouds of dust and limbs seem to be obviously heading towards them, and he gives no orders to the men.

There are no orders. They do not wheel around to meet Persians who have successfully gotten around the sides of the Macedonian line. Instead, there are simply no Persians there one moment, and Persians the next.

Cavalry: lots of them. The ground shakes with hooves. They must have broken through the Macedonian line somehow, and there is no way to know whether that constitutes a minor inconvenience or a full-scale disaster. Such moments in a battle tend to be when men break and run; but in this case, there would be nothing to be gained by running, and everything to be gained by sticking together. Kleandros probably shouts for the formation to close, but nobody hears him: they don’t need to. They do it anyway, instinctively. Bodies press against each other, the line of spears protrudes solidly from the front of the phalanx. The phalanx has good odds against cavalry: horses usually balk at the wall of spears. It’s their best chance.

But the Persian cavalry don’t advance on them; they barely even look at them. Instead, the riders spur on their horses, advancing at full speed towards where Alexander’s army have made camp, deposited their baggage, and left behind the noncombatants.

For a moment, there is only a silent and still confusion. Then, realization sets in. They are heading for the camp: where the women are, the children, what meager money and possessions the Greeks have brought with them. Hannibal has no family along with him, of course, but his mind does alight for a moment on the Phoenician area of the camp, where he had said goodnight to Bacaxa the previous evening. Bacaxa has been around soldiers all her life; she knows better than to make a big deal of leave-taking the evening before a battle. It’s bad luck. But with no need of their expertise, she and the other engineers will be sitting anxiously in their tents, trying to distract themselves from their own uselessness with songs and stories. Even the men who perhaps could fight are unlikely to have arms close to hand.

Kleandros breaks the stunned silence. “Go!” he shouts.

The sound of the entire battalion dropping their spears on the ground is enormous. They roll around on the sand and trip up some of the men at the back, as the entire group sets off running. The spears are useless in the kind of fight they’re headed for; instead, each man nervously fingers his side-arm as he runs. There is nothing of the controlled advance of the phalanx in this; everyone runs as fast as he can, spurred on by equal parts fear and rage.

Most have chosen their own side-arms, as it is a weapon that could only be used for last-ditch personal defence: Hannibal has a short sword which he had taken off a fever-dead Greek mercenary from the Persian side on the banks of the Tigris river. He’s never had cause to truly test it. He feels mostly anticipation for the opportunity to use the weapon, but somewhere in the anticipation is a hint of discontent. Bacaxa had been teaching him the principles of movement and workmanship used to build the artillery, as well as the complicated system of labelling that Phoenician ship-builders use to prepare ships to be transported in pieces over land and put together in the destination harbour. It would be disappointing if she died before the lesson was complete; Hannibal has been travelling on such vessels his entire life, but never known the pioneering principles that had made Carthage queen of the sea.

They start out at a sprint, but the camp is far enough away that the more intelligent among the hoplites slow to a jog, or even a brisk walk: they’ll be of no use if they arrive too tired to fight. Hannibal walks with broad steps, even when the camp comes into view and his instincts want him to put on a burst of speed.

The camp appears eerily deserted. There are a few bodies on the ground already, but not many; most of the women had simply retreated inside their tents, assuming that if they are bound to be captured and sold, they might as well spend their last free moments in comfort. The wails of children are audible from inside, along with the desperate hushing of their mothers. A few gaggles of slaves huddle here and there, whispering with each other; no doubt debating whether they would do better to stay put, or throw in their lot with the Persians and help out. The Persian cavalry have headed straight for the baggage train. Most have dismounted, leaving a few in charge of guarding their horses, and they are loading up the animals with Macedonian and Greek possessions like they’re pack-donkeys and not warhorses.

Hannibal draws his sword. Plenty of his fellows are engaging the men doing the actual looting; but it would be more efficient to kill the men guarding the horses first, then drive the animals away. He kills one guard quickly, before the others realize they are being targeted; then finds himself surrounded by three Persian horsemen. They carry swords hardly longer than daggers, and are clearly unused to fighting hand-to-hand on their own two feet; each man falters back a little when Hannibal thrusts at them, but eventually one sneaks in as he is occupied with another and manages a slash across his shoulder. It’s his dominant shoulder, and although he feels no pain in the heat of the moment, Hannibal can immediately feel the effect in the strength of his arm. The men who had inflicted the wound is surprised enough that he falls back momentarily, and gives an opening; Hannibal slashes his throat, and blood sprays him across the chest. The other two, oddly, seem spurred on by their colleague’s death instead of frightened by it. Perhaps they were on poor terms. In any case, he finds himself suddenly very well occupied.

He would have prevailed against both. He was not yet in such desperate straits as to need assistance; it is simply helpful, convenient, that’s all, when one of the men suddenly drops his sword and collapses with a strangled yell as a dagger enters his lung from behind. It gives Hannibal the space to finish off the third, and then he is face-to-face with Bacaxa, who is staring at the man she has just killed with her huge dark eyes practically bugging out of her head.

Around them, the Greeks continue to try to pick off the Persian looters; but, preoccupied as they are with trying to load up as much booty as possible, the Persians show no interest in a concentrated offensive action. Hannibal gives her a moment to look, then says, “Was that your first man?”

“Yes,” she says.

Hannibal bends down, picks up the fallen man’s sword, and hands it to her. “The Greeks deride that the savage Macedonians consider a boy to come of age only when he has killed both a boar and a man. But while the civilized Hellenes laugh, I must agree that it is prudent to commemorate one’s first kill. You ought to dedicate his weapon to your mother’s shade.”

She takes the sword, and the touch of the metal to her hand seems to snap her out of her shock. “A couple of them snuck away to the tent of the Persian women,” she says, in Phoenician. “None of the Greeks noticed. I would have followed myself, but…”

Hannibal rarely feels pure, strong goodwill towards his fellows. Strong emotion of any kind is for him a rare and precious experience, to be tucked away and treasured; and it appears more often in the form of ares than philia. But he feels the pure love of true friendship for Bacaxa now, as all that she has left unsaid unspools before him.

The court of women and eunuchs that travelled with Darius the Third had been captured in the aftermath of the previous engagement with the Persians, when the Great King had run from the battlefield as Alexander claimed victory. Despite the rumours, none of the common soldiers entirely know what happened when Alexander had gone to visit Darius’ mother, wife, and daughters in their tent. Some say that the Great King’s mother, Sisygambis, had mistaken Hephaestion for Alexander, and prostrated herself before him. Even if it’s true, there seems to have been no harm done by the gaffe; the Persian women live with every luxury they had had among their own people, with their own attendants to wait on them. Sisygambis and Alexander are even said to call each other by the epithets of mother and son.

As a battle-prize, it hardly gets better than not only to capture the enemy’s harem, but to treat the women honourably enough to be called family. No matter what is happening back on the levelled plain where the main forces are clashing, the Persians can’t be allowed to reclaim Darius’ women. Bacaxa had clearly wanted to follow the Persians entering the womens’ tent herself; it would be a great glory to prevent such a loss. But as much as she dislikes speaking out loud the consequences of her sex, or allowing anyone else to speak them, she knows she has neither the training nor the physical strength to pull off such a defense. Instead, she has handed the honour to Hannibal, speaking what she has seen in their own tongue as the Greeks toil to save cheap Campanian pottery and worn tent-skins around them.

“Show me,” he says, and she sets off at a jog. He follows, marvelling as they dash through the camp at how well-organized the place is even when under attack. The women with children are hiding in their own tents, but the hardier among the campaign wives have now formed little packs and are gathering any large stones they can find on the ground, making little piles in clearings in the event that it comes time to defend themselves with anything at hand. They work with the practiced movements of those who have done this before, and many of them probably have– when their own cities were under siege by the men they now call their husbands.

He probably could have found his way to the Persian womens’ tent, even if Bacaxa hadn’t been showing him the way: it’s by far the largest and most luxurious, even from the outside. Apparently the Persian cavalry had been counting on the looting of the baggage train to distract from this little mission: there is a single guard posted outside, holding two horses. He is easily dispatched, and then Hannibal steps inside the tent.

He hadn’t considered, at the moment he stepped through the flap, that he was breaking a boundary of politeness that he had never broken before. A battle is a great breaking of boundaries; between life and death, the gods and mortals, a man’s soul and his flesh. But as soon as he steps inside, and the spiced scent of incense and perfume washes over him, a curiosity that has nothing to do with bloodlust washes over him as well. Phoenician women are beautiful and modest, but there is no tradition of keeping them secreted away, as the Persians have. Hannibal and Alanat lived in the same parts of the house, in Carthage; she accompanied him to banquets and has spoken several times at the popular assembly. After all, Queen Unmiashtart ruled Sidon justly as regent for her son, and Carthage itself was founded by Dido.

The Persian women are different. The Persian Great King is the prime exemplar on Earth of what it means to be a king, in both the laudable and risible aspect of kingship; thus, the Persian is called Great King even by people he does not rule. So perhaps are Persian women the exemplar of what it means to be a woman. Hannibal is glad not to have married such a woman, but he is nevertheless interested to see how these women live.

At his entry, three tall yet somehow soft-looking men appear in the front portion of the tent. They bear no arms, and are dressed in expensive embroidery; something about them perfectly matches their surroundings, a receiving-room stuffed full of furniture, painted lamps, and wall hangings. Eunuchs. Hannibal has never seen any before; although some of the queens of Tyre supposedly had them, the tradition of desexed men waiting on women has never been popular in Carthage. For crimes that elsewhere might be punished with castration, the sufetes of Carthage are more likely to simply order a crucifixion.

Hannibal places a hand in front of his mouth and holds out his bloody sword in front of him, a universal gesture for “keep quiet if you know what’s good for you.” The eunuchs look at each other, but far from being afraid, they seem to be having some internal debate. Hannibal strides forward towards the tent-flap on the other side of the entrance room; there are voices in there. A man, speaking urgently.

Hannibal has, in the course of his travels, tried to pick up as many languages as he can. As the son of a merchant, the value of speaking many tongues had been instilled in him early. Greek, of course, is the most prestigious; it is even becoming fashionable among the high-born of Carthage. Libyan is useful with the many mercenaries in the Carthaginian army, and some of the Numidian cavalry speak it too. Aramaic, he speaks nearly as well as Greek; it’s hardly anyone’s first choice of language, but enough peoples’ second that it provides a means of communication between many disparate people. Even the Persians use Aramaic in their business and government. But in private, they have their own language; so although Hannibal stops just outside the curtain separating the entranceway from the inner sanctum, he cannot understand what the cavalryman inside is saying.

He pauses with his hand on the cloth, hesitating to sweep it away and reveal himself. There is no flurry of activity inside, no scramble to escape. The man finishes speaking, his voice rising at the end of his sentence like a plea or a question. A pause, then a woman’s voice, strong and authoritative. She says something short.

The cavalryman speaks again, his voice higher, more panicked. When the woman’s voice– surely Queen Sisygambis– speaks again, Hannibal doesn’t need to understand Persian to know what she’s said. The decisive timbre of a frosty no, thank you is recognizable in any language.

The cavalryman answers, a few short syllables growled more than spoken. There is a high murmur of female voices, a muted scream, and then before Hannibal has opened the flap to enter, it opens from the other side and a man still bow-legged from hours on a horse hurtles out of it, trying to keep hold of a thrashing bundle of scarves. The image takes a moment to resolve itself in Hannibal’s mind into the form of a woman: Sisygambis is kicking her legs and trying her best to scream through the broad hand covering her mouth. She’s almost succeeding, too; at the unexpected sight of a swordsman on the other side of the flap, the man holding her is surprised enough that she manages to get free in his moment of weakness. The eunuchs rush forward to catch her, and she collapses into their arms.

Naturally the cavalryman had had to put away his sword to attempt to drag the Queen out of the tent. It hangs uselessly by his side as Hannibal runs him through, choosing drama over expediency. The eunuchs gasp in horror as he falls to the floor, which is fair, since they will likely be the ones to have to clean the carpet. Sisygambis, however, merely watches with interest as her stunningly impolite would-be captor (re-captor, really) gurgles blood from his mouth. Several other pairs of eyes appear at the gap in between the outer room and the inner, feminine murmurs drifting through as if over a long distance of water.

The eunuchs, throwing Hannibal glances that hang squarely between grateful and terrified, immediately try to encourage Sisygambis back towards the inner room. For all that she had received Alexander and Hephaestion here, they were her new lords; it is not fitting for a woman of her stature to be in the sight of the common soldier that Hannibal obviously is. She stops them with a single upheld hand, and turns to face Hannibal.

Even if she has some Aramaic, she has no reason to suspect that he does; and even if they could speak with each other, there is nothing in particular for them to say. The gods intervene on behalf of their chosen ones; today, Hannibal is merely the tool that they have used. Whether he is a tool of her god or Alexander’s, he’s not entirely sure. Instead of speaking, she merely gives him a slight nod of the head.

He knows the Persians bow down not just to the gods but to each other. There must be rules to the thing, rituals, but he doesn’t know them. Still, if rumour is true, Sisygambis herself had bowed down to entirely the wrong person when she had first come to be captive here. Surely he can’t fuck it up any worse than that; and there is something in her gesture that makes him want to respond in kind. It’s civilized, and Hannibal has always been a great admirer of the civilized.

He places his sword on the ground in front of him, gets down on his knees, and touches his forehead to the soft carpet. When he looks up Sisygambis is smiling, as are the eunuchs. He probably has done it entirely wrong; but she seems to understand his intention anyway.

He stands up, and drags the body of the cavalryman out of the tent with him as he leaves. There is still the outcome of the battle to learn; and after that, the feast.

Chapter End Notes

For the curious: with the exception of the Siwans and the characters with NBC Hannibal counterparts, most of the minor characters who’ll show up here were real. Some are internet-searchable (though you may need to change an -os to an -us or -er) and for the remainder I owe Waldemar Heckel’s Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of Alexander’s empire, an astonishingly comprehensive and also expensive book that I’d have to get from the library again if I wanted to recall specifics.

Gaugamela, Autumn 331

Wel’s hand hurts. He’s not sure why. He is choosing not to look at it. It hurts more sharply but with less overall insistence than his stomach, which cramps with the insistence of having been emptied several times without recently having been filled properly. A young Macedonian soldier had found him vomiting behind a bush a while ago and patted him awkwardly on the back, saying “there, there, it’s all over, and now you can wear a man’s belt, eh?” Wel realized belatedly the man assumed he was one of his own, and had just fought his first battle. Then he realized that he was behind a bush specifically in the Macedonian infantry’s area of the camp, and tried to walk in a straight line for long enough to no longer be there.

The bonfires of the Macedonian camp are largest, the fattest of the animals from the captured Persian baggage train being sacrificed and eaten, the wine least-watered, the dancing most enthusiastic. There’s no chance of anyone sleeping in a tent anywhere near it, which the seers’ tent is. The Greeks aren’t much better. They’d been posted at the back of the line for the battle, expecting to be used as reserves if at all, and had ended up saving the entire camp and baggage-train in heroic (according to them, at least) action. There are a couple other little enclaves around the edges of the camp, which gives Wel the impression of being arranged like the great cities that he had only read about before leaving Siwah; where many races of people live together, but prefer to form neighborhoods with those of their own language and tribe. There are Phoenician navymen and engineers, Agrianian javelin-throwers, Thracian and Paionian horsemen, and even a small but growing Persian neighbourhood, consisting both of captured prisoners and an increasing number of nobles present by choice. There is no Egyptian quarter, unless you count the camels added to the baggage train there, though Wel isn’t sure he would choose to stay there even if there were. To the Macedonians, he’s a venerable and exotic priest of a newly important god. To any Egyptians, he would be a backwards country boy.

The outskirts are quieter, though curious eyes follow him as he picks his way in in between the Agrianians and the Paionians. They would be justified in asking him who he is and where he hell he’s going, but nobody does; it’s the kind of night where every man is too absorbed in his own doings to care much about others.

He’s not going anywhere but away; far enough away from the fires that he can shake of the image of them all joining together, each individual sacrifice joining together in a conflagration that will destroy everything in its path; and most stomach-turning, Wel can feel it from the other side. He is the god to whose glory the flesh sizzles and blood flows. Ah yes, he can remember now why his hand hurts. He’d cut it, during the brief period that it appeared the Persians might be coming to overrun the camp. The thought I need blood had appeared in his mind, clear as a trumpet-blast, loud enough to deafen him, and even though it had none of the taste of a communication from the god, he couldn’t think of anything to do but interpret it as such. There was no animal nearby to sacrifice; the Persian cavalry were busy unsuccessfully trying to haul them all off. So he’d spilled his own blood; and perhaps it had worked, since the Greeks had driven off the Persians who’d broken through, and the Macedonians and other front-liners had scared off the third, weakest Darius of the Persians and routed his forces. But then, it seems just even more self-aggrandizing for Wel to assume the gash in his hand was responsible for the victory than the boasts of the soldiers around their bonfires are. At least they had all really been there, spilling blood besides their own.

Finally, he walks far enough that the light of bonfires retreats and the dark of the night envelops him. He’s muttering it, over and over, trying to capture the exact timbre of the voice: I need blood. I need blood. But every time he says it it just comes out in his own voice, sounding like nobody but him. Perhaps it had sounded that way in his head, too.

He walks. He had forgotten to put on his sandals; his bare feet are muddy. He thinks for a moment that he hears footsteps behind him, or maybe the soft padding of an animal, but when he looks around nobody is there. He has no idea how long he has been walking for. His head aches, his stomach aches, his mouth is parched, he needs blood, I need blood

“There’s no shortage of it at the moment,” says someone, and Wel feels the cold line of a blade at his neck.

He opens his eyes. His eyes had been closed; why? Now that they are open, he can see a fire, and first thinks he has wandered back to the camp accidentally. But no: even without moving his head, he can see out of the corner of his eye the glow of thousands of fires lightening the sky behind him. He has wandered far away from the camp, and there is someone out here. Or something; it would be just his luck to stumble into the territory of some strange Northern war-daimon.

Of all the times today that he could have died, hours after the battle has been won is not when he would have guessed. He had thought, for just a moment as the Persians seemed to be overrunning the camp, that perhaps today was his day. It would be a strange lopsided life, to spend nearly all his years in an isolated oasis in Egypt, and leave only to die a few months later. But then, perhaps that was the point; he wasn’t born in Siwah, so he can’t die there. He doesn’t know where he was born or remember what happened before he came to the desert, so the god has demanded that his death provide symmetry with his birth.

It makes sense. He closes his eyes again, relaxes. A skilled priest can cut the throat of a sacrifice such that the blood spurts out in great gouts, right into a waiting vessel, or into the fire; not only does it look dramatic, it cuts short the suffering of the animal. Most don’t even scream before they lose the capacity for it. The head, when it is removed, looks almost peaceful. He hopes whatever daimon is demanding more blood than has already been spilled here today is as skilled. The body behind him feels man-like, anyway; no horns or hoofs, enough dexterity to hold the knife loosely but with intent. The hand at the base of his neck, holding him still, is warm; as is the broad chest supporting his back. He leans into the comfort of it, and waits.

The daimon holds him there, and does nothing. Wel feels his head shifting slightly, peering around into Wel’s face. He keeps his eyes closed. There is no telling what customs the creature might demand or serve, so he might as well please only himself.

Finally, however, the knife shifts down a little, letting up the pressure on his throat but remaining with its point hovering just above his skin, threatening. “Your name?”

Strange. Perhaps it is necessary for the sacrifice to be named. “Weldjebauend of Siwah,” he says. At least, at the moment of his death, he can choose how to identify himself, and it feels right to insist on Siwah.

The knife disappears, and Wel stumbles slightly as so does the support of the daimon’s body as he spins him around and he is forced to open his eyes to keep his balance. “You are Alexander’s Ammon-priest,” says the figure in front of him.

“Yes,” says Wel. In the light of the fire he can see half of his interlocutor’s face thrown into relief; dark eyes, a strange sharpness to the bones of his face. The hair of his face is close-clipped, halfway in between the traditional men’s beard favoured by soldiers nearly everywhere and the bare face ususally signifying a youth or a priest, but coming into fashion as more and more men copy Alexander’s habits.

“Weldjebauend,” he repeats, and although his speech up until this point has seemed to Wel’s limited perception to be native Greek, as soon as he pronounces a word that is clearly not Greek, the shape of his voice around it seems to revert to some other pattern. “You’re bleeding.”

Wel sways on his feet. During the time that he had been wandering through the darkness, the blackness encroaching encroaching on his vision was less noticeable. Now, in the light of the fire, dark-tinged colours and shapes swim in front of his eyes. “Cut myself,” he manages. “Not much compared to…” he means to compare his blood-slick hand to the mass of exsanguinated bodies still lying on the plain. He’s not sure precisely how to sum up the scene in a word. At least they’re lying down, though. Perhaps he should do that.

The fire blinks out of view for a moment, and then he is being lowered to sit on a log by the daimon’s hands underneath his arms. He is now close enough to the fire to feel its warmth on his face, and it makes him realize how cold he was before. He can’t feel his toes, though he can see them there now, covered in blood and muck. At the same time he realizes that he is cold, he realizes that there is food here, meat sizzling on a small grille over the fire, and is suddenly ravenous.

“It’s almost ready,” says the daimon like he can read Wel’s mind, a note of laughter in his voice.

Wel’s education in Greek had been mostly from books; there weren’t all that many people in Siwah who could teach him to the standard Joh insisted on. So Wel’s read the hymns by the poet the Greeks call Homer; he can even remember some of them. He remembers Demeter, now, and her daughter being greeted by her new husband:

I will not be an unseemly husband to you, in the company of the immortals. I am the brother of Zeus the Father. High-minded Persephone rejoiced; but Hades gave her, stealthily, the honey-sweet berry of the pomegranate to eat. He did not want her to stay for all time at the side of her honourable dark-robed mother.

Surely Wel must have wandered somewhere otherworldly, when he left the camp. The poet of the Greeks is clear: you eat, you stay. And yet, Greek ways are not the only ways. When the mortal Adapa of the Sumerians visited heaven, his god Ea told him not to eat, but it was a trick; had he eaten, he would have received eternal life. And when mortal Chavah of the Israelites lived in a garden, her god Yaweh told her not to eat, but it wasn’t a trick; she did, and was cursed. Entirely too many people, with too many gods, pass through Siwah for Wel to believe that all gods want the same thing.

Even Persephone: would the god have let her go if she had refused to eat? Perhaps her fate was sealed from the beginning. She was given away by Zeus. How could anyone have changed what followed? The daimon hands Wel a cup of well-watered wine as you would give a child or an invalid, along with a bowl with a cut of meat in it and the same sharp knife that he had held to his throat a moment ago. Wel notices that he has procured another bowl and knife for himself. “You were expecting my company?” he asks.

The daimon actually looks surprised. He opens his mouth, then tilts his head to the side in thought– an affectation that most of the men of the army seem to have picked up in imitation of Alexander, but in this case seems to be no imitation at all.

“Should I have been?” the daimon asks, as if Wel is the authority here.

Wel cuts off a piece of meat, picks it up, and places it in his mouth deliberately. Immediately, the fuzziness around the edges of his vision begins to recede, as if his body has immediately grown stronger just from the reassurance that it will get food.

“You had an extra bowl,” Wel clarifies once he has swallowed.

“I keep an extra setting in honour of my sister when I eat the flesh of sacrifice,” says the daimon. “I was not expecting you, no.”

Wel looks around. There is no evidence of the butchered animal, only–

–ah.

The body of a man lies a short ways away from the fire. It’s not all that different from any of the rest of the bodies on the field, except that as well as the clearly fatal belly wound from which guts spill onto the sand, it is missing a leg, and the remnants of the leg itself are cleanly butchered off to the side.

He takes another bite, considering. It’s only a little tough; it has been roasted for a long time over low embers. He’s out of his depth here; he has no idea what kind of god or creature demands this sort of sacrifice. “Who are you?” he asks.

“Hannibal of Carthage, a mercenary in Kleandros’ unit,” answers the other: not a daimon, but a man. He seems to shimmer slightly in front of Wel’s eyes, as the facts rearrange themselves in his understanding, and yet the conviction that there is something otherworldly hanging around him remains. A man, a foreigner, the only man of his own city in his unit– like Wel. How had he even come to be here? The Carthaginians, a Phoenician outpost isolated in the lands that are otherwise ruled by the Libyans and Numidians, are reputed to have maintained the practice of human sacrifice long after their parent city of Tyre had dispensed with it. Whether the practice of eating an enemy after battle is a Carthaginian one or merely a personal one, Wel is part of it now. To refuse at this point, with the first few bites already warming his belly, would be unthinkable.

They eat in silence for a while, which is novel; Wel has gotten used to being the centre of attention whenever his meals are shared with someone new. The Macedonian soldiers are friendly, and indulgent of Wel’s presence in the same way that a mother is indulgent of her favourite child’s new toy. Many of them are indeed old enough to have raised their king, and talk about him as if they did; they have less interest in the details of his divinity than of the obvious fact, on the battlefield, that their leadership is divine. So if Alexander wants an Egyptian seer, then his men agree he must have one, and consequently Wel is bombarded with questions and well-meaning but objectively insane assumptions about his life and work between every mouthful.

This is different. The Macedonians are interested in him without, it seems, having any particularly elevated respect for him; Hannibal has more of the thoughtful aspect of a supplicant in the temple, who is considering carefully what he wants to ask, and is at least able to conceal his interest in the vessel with interest in the answer.

Wel hadn’t come here to prophesy, but his vision is blurring with more than hunger and fatigue. The knowledge of what he’s eating combines with the otherwordliness that had first convinced him that Hannibal was a daimon, and he finds himself back in the vision that he hasn’t had since leaving Siwah. The sea of blood– no more or less realistic now that he’s seen the rushing rivers of Asia to compare it to– rises up and engulfs him. Usually, it’s terrifying; the feel of liquid entering his nose and mouth, red haze clouding his eyes. Oddly, even after so long out of practice with it, he seems to have acclimated. He breathes in the blood, and it’s warm. It flows through him like air. When the knife comes, he prepares for it to drive into his own belly; but instead, it’s facing away from him, an ornate handle within grasp. He stares at it, not grabbing. What would he do with it, once grasped?

Hannibal of Carthage just watches him; at least Wel assumes that is what he has been doing this whole time, when he becomes once again aware of his surroundings. He looks down at his hands. There is no blood on them. Instead the red, sticky remnants of the vision drip from Hannibal’s fingers as he leans forwards to stoke the fire.

If he has asked a question, Wel didn’t hear it. And he has no idea how he’d answer. Instead he just says, “Thank you for dinner.” He’s surprised to find his bowl empty, and that he is no longer hungry.

“You’re welcome.” The Carthaginian reaches into the folds of his cloak, and pulls out an apple. He cuts it cleanly in half, and reaches across the fire to hand a half to Wel.

Wel takes it, because his mouth waters the moment he recognizes it, but he is shocked enough that it ends up being him, and not Hannibal, who asks the first question of the other. “Where did you get this?”

Hannibal’s smile is somewhat smug. “I did the Great King’s mother a small favour in the course of the battle today. In addition to the usual awards by popular acclaim, Alexander is in the habit of personally thanking soldiers whose commanders praise them privately, which Kleandros was kind enough to do. He asked what I would appreciate as reward, and I noticed the bowl of apples set out after the generals’ supper.”

Wel narrows his eyes at the man across the fire. The explanation has the feel of a lie, though it’s clearly not entirely untrue; the apples are here, and he had never seen merchants trying to sell such a precious cargo to anyone other than the King and his officers. Hannibal had asked for something else as well, Wel is certain. But then, that’s not really any of his business. The apple is. Wel bites into it, closing his eyes. It’s slightly colder than the air, so sweet his tongue almost hurts with it, and makes a cracking sound like the cleaving of bone. It takes him a few moments before he recovers the presence of mind to respond, “I imagine most men ask for money. Or nothing at all, in the hopes of being themselves remembered as generous.”

“The latter would be fools. He’s a man who enjoys being asked for things. It gave him pleasure to be asked for something specific enough that it could only be a true desire.”

Wel is all the more certain that Hannibal had asked for more than just a few apples. He thinks back to the gifts of money, horses, and purple-dyed fabric that had been sent to the Siwan oracle the day after Alexander’s consultation. He had assumed it was nothing more than the necessary lavishness of a man who has a role to maintain, and cannot afford to be stingy to the gods; now he wonders if Alexander had intended him, as supposedly the high priest, to actually wear the costly robes and gold crowns. They had all been sent to the temple treasury, to be sold in Memphis on the next expedition. But perhaps he ought to have kept something. Well, if Hannibal is right– and Wel suspects he is– nothing would give the king more pleasure than to be asked for something more.

“Perhaps he is like the gods in that way,” says Wel, realizing as he says it that he has never actually thought to wonder whether the gods enjoyed being asked favours, or if it was simply part of their condition. An odd kind of trade: to receive sacrifice and veneration, you must prove your power to your chosen people by showing favour. Alexander had certainly received enough sacrifice; the proof of it is in the stench of guts spilled on the sand, the kites already picking meat off bones.

Hannibal shrugs. “The gods choose champions who resemble them,” he says. “Tell me, Wel– which god do you resemble?” He reaches forwards to collect the bowl and knife on the ground.

One instant, Wel is staring into the fire; the next, he is on his feet, the handle of the knife with which he had consumed his meat in his hand, the point at Hannibal’s throat, shaking violently.

Hannibal stands still, his eyes flickering between Wel’s face and the knife. He is very clearly in no danger at all; Wel’s hand is shaking badly enough that even if he did decide to thrust it in, Hannibal would be able to knock it aside before the impulse translated itself into reality. “Perhaps the god you resemble is the same as the one I serve,” he says mildly.

“What does that mean?” Wel asks, his voice practically a whisper. The knife isn’t shaking because he’s frightened; every jerk is a blow in the battle between his rational mind, which insists that repaying the gift of a meal with death is bad luck as well as bad etiquette, and the part of him, temporarily sated by the meat and apple and company, that has returned to chant I need blood. It is a scream now, louder the closer he gets to Hannibal, that reminds him of the war-cries that had carried over from the field earlier in the day.

Hannibal wraps his hand gently around the hilt of the knife, overtop of Wel’s. It is easy for him to pry it away from his own throat, and as soon as he does the spell is broken. Hannibal lets go, and Wel immediately takes the blade in his other hand and hands it back to him, hilt-first, the point towards his own belly. “Sorry,” he says shakily. “I… I don’t know. I’ve been wondering that myself.”

Hannibal takes the knife. In the reflected firelight glinting off the blade, the deep cut in the palm of Wel’s left hand is visible, the blood still seeping out of it looking like a black stain on his skin. “You grew used to serving the will of Ammon-Re quietly at your temple,” Hannibal says. “Any impulse which does not seem to come from you, you attribute to the god, and yet the boundaries blur; your values and decency are present, yet you find yourself shocked at your associations, appalled at the dreams that appear too present to be omens for anyone other than yourself.” He wipes the blade with a cloth, then tucks it away. Before Wel can do anything else with his hands, Hannibal catches the left one. “I will bind this for you.”

Wel lets himself be sat back down, and Hannibal pours salt and water from a flask into a bowl. “In the seafaring world,” he says, “It is known that a wound dipped in the salt water of the sea will not fester. This salt is leftover from the rations bought at Siwah, from the deposits there.”

His hand hurts like hell when Hannibal submerges it in the salty water, and he forces himself not to wince away; a fighting man would look down on him for being unable to bear such a small wound. “As if Siwah had its own ocean, and I am bathing in it from afar,” he muses. The idea makes the sting feel almost sweet.

“Yes.” Hannibal wipes his hand dry, then wraps it tightly in a scrap of fabric. Wel notices for the first time that the Carthaginian’s own shoulder is wrapped awkwardly, and a small amount of blood has leaked through; he had been wounded in the battle himself, then. Actually fighting.

He’s never given any particular thought to war. It was a far-off thing, something to be valued and lived by by men in the cities and on farms. The gods make war, but rarely do they demand it of their priests. Those who take refuge in a temple during a battle are– or should be– protected. So when the dagger had first come to his visions, it had seemed like it could only mean something everyday. The dagger of sacrifice, or of self-defense. The idea that he, Wel, might use it to kill is entirely new, and not only that, forbidden. He sacrifices, of course. That’s his job, to pour wine over the animal and slit its throat. But that’s not killing. The priesthood are forbidden even from killing an animal not intended for sacrifice, to keep them pure for the god.

But sitting here with a soldier, someone who had woken this morning not knowing if he would live to see the firelight at the day’s end and for whom the reward of the fire, the sacrifice and the meal is all the sweeter for its not being guaranteed, he feels a sudden and unaccustomed shame, or something close to it. He had sat idly by while others fought. It would be insane to think that he should have done other than what he did today, during the battle, and yet–

Wel is not used to being confused by people. Overwhelmed, yes; their desires, secrets, and questions press in on him until he is buried under the weight of his own knowledge. It’s why he had only gone to Memphis once, and spends his days in the camp constantly feeling like he is drowning and gasping for air. But now, his newly wrapped hand still stinging, he finds himself with no idea what any of it means.

Next to the fire, a light of another colour flickers, then again. Wel blinks, trying to figure out what level it’s happening on. He’s used to seeing things other people don’t, but mere twinkling lights aren’t usually a part of his repertoire.

Hannibal sees them too. “Lampyrids,” he says with surprise and evident delight. “Usually, seeing their light means the barley is ready for reaping; their mating season should be over by now. These two must have waited; they knew a harvest of another kind was coming for them to herald.”

Wel blinks. The two beetles blink away into the night. “Do you want to– have me?” he says. He’s not sure of the word in Greek, and uses the one he’s heard the Macedonian soldiers saying. “You can, if you want.” He can think of nothing else to offer, and besides, Joh had suggested– well, Joh had suggested that he take a boy, not offer himself as one. But surely it’s in the same spirit. It would be more prudent to go back to the camp, consult the gods with an offering on how he ought to deal with this man who is like a parchment written entirely in a language Wel cannot read, when most men are books being constantly read out loud to him when he’d rather they not be. But the only thing he can read is that Hannibal enjoys him, enjoys watching him and touching him and feeding him, so perhaps Wel can offer more for him to enjoy, to remain a little longer in this temporary underworld of flesh and fire.

Apparently, the word he’d learned from the Macedonians is too vulgar for the situation. Hannibal lets out a snort of laughter that ripples across his previously impassive face like a stone in still water. Wel feels himself blushing.

Hannibal kisses the corner of his mouth, a gesture of leave-taking rather than passion. “You are too beautiful to value yourself so meanly,” he says. “Go back to your camp, Siwan. Insist on being courted, and offer again if my gifts persuade you.”

Wel returns the kiss– on Hannibal’s cheek, following the Persian custom, by which it would traditionally place him in the role of supplicant. He doesn’t feel like a supplicant, though. Maybe for the first time since Alexander had walked out of his temple, he feels powerful.

He feels powerful as he leaves the fire and makes his way towards the distant glow of the camp, and as he realizes that there is a knife in his hand again. Somehow, the knife that Hannibal had held at his throat, and then given him to eat with, then suffered to point at his own throat, then taken from him, has ended up back in his possession. It feels warm in his hand, then hot, as he hears a weak groan from the darkness to his right.

The Macedonian dead have mostly been collected, but the field is littered with the corpses of Persians– both actual Persians, and the Greek mercenaries who had disobeyed the edict of the Hellenic League and taken Persian coin for their work. Wel follows the sound into the dark, and finds himself standing over one of the latter. A Greek, practically a youth, beardless not because he is following Alexander’s fashion, but because he cannot yet grow one.

Now he never will. His wound is in the belly, and the stench of his guts pollutes the air above him. Perhaps he was the son of some destitute family, who followed his father to Darius’ army for the money, or who went on his own in the hopes of sending his wages home to his mother. The families of Alexander’s casualties are permitted to draw their deceased father’s pay; this man has no such assurance to comfort him in his death-pangs.

He has the knife for a reason. Perhaps Wel hadn’t killed anyone in the battle today, but his inaction was due to inexperience, not cowardice. The Egyptian custom of priests avoiding non-sacrificial killing is intended to ensure that the rites due to the gods may not become routine to the ones performing them. But Wel is no longer sure what he is, or what this is. Perhaps he’s not a priest. Perhaps this is a sacrifice.

“Please,” says the man, Wel does know that if he doesn’t do this, it will be cowardice.

He kneels down behind the man, and props his limp, stinking torso up on his own knee. When he draws the knife deep across his throat, only a dribble of blood escapes; there was barely any left in him to begin with. But the Greek spasms once and then goes lifeless; and when Wel gets back to his tent, and tucks the bloody knife underneath his pillow, he sleeps soundly despite the din of celebration outside.

Persepolis, early 330

Chapter Notes

Of all the reasons that Hannibal would have guessed Bacaxa might give up her accustomed seat on an mule during marches, giving it to a hetaira wouldn’t have been one of them.

The mule had been a gift from Aristobulos, the head of the corps of engineers, in recognition of her invention of some kind of new harness for beasts of burden that presses less on their throats as they pull; apparently it improved the speed of the carts hauling siege equipment over rough terrain by quite a bit. It was a clever gift; she would never have procured an animal for herself had he just given her money. But since the mule is in recognition of her strength as an engineer, not her weakness as a woman, she rides it proudly. Or has been. But now here she is, plodding along on foot beside him, as Thaïs sits astride the animal and tells stories.

They are, to be fair, entertaining stories, and in the favourite genre of every one of Alexander’s soldiers: stories of their king being outwitted, and responding with the same kind of pure, childlike glee with which he urges them on into battle. She has just finished relating one in which a homeless philosopher of Corinth responded to Alexander’s offer of money or assistance with a demand to stop blocking his sun, and is launching into an account of some sort of witty repartee from one of the men who plays ball with him. Bacaxa, who has never before shown any particular interest in their common leader besides gratitude at his patronage, is eating it up.

It’s Thaïs, not the Alexander stories, that she’s eating up; and Hannibal can hardly blame her. A hetaira’s business is to be captivating, and the Athenian does good business. She wins over the loyalty of men by combining a woman’s beauty with a man’s educated conversation; Ptolemy, apparently, is particularly fond of her, to the point of paying for her upkeep richly enough that she need not take other clients. Relieved of the responsibility of ingratiating herself with men during marches, she could have chosen to travel with the gaggle of women who trail behind on wagons. Instead she has chosen Bacaxa, whose affiliation flits between the sexes like Alcibiades defecting between armies.

So when she is not called to sit by Ptolemy for supper, Thaïs has been absorbed into the nightly ritual of the shared meals that Hannibal prepares for himself, Bacaxa, Jason, and Briarios. The choicest cuts and the best of any fruit that he comes by or manages to buy, he sends with a servant to the seers’ tent for the fascinating Egyptian. Thaïs had teased him at first for sending gifts daily to a boy who never sends any token back or shows himself to be courted in person; but Hannibal knows better. Weldjebauend is not a shy boy, but beneath the storm of impulses, desires and images bequeathed by his gift, he is clever. Hannibal had wanted a chase, and the Egyptian is giving him one. Every so often they pass by each other, on the way to some river to draw water or bathe, and Weldjebauend passes by him silently, all while staring at him with the intensity of one trying to make out something small at a great distance.

Weldjebauend also still has his knife; the one that had been a gift from his father. Hannibal hopes he’s taking good care of it. Its absence feels like a physical presence on his hip, reminding him that some spirit had overtaken his reason to the point of pressing it into the other man’s hand as he left Hannibal’s fire. The image of the handle of the knife, standing out against the glyphs on the seer’s wrist that mark him as dedicated to a god, burn in Hannibal’s memory like a stark black vase-image.

Now, Thaïs is more circumspect when it comes to Hannibal’s wooing. Perhaps it is merely that she is experienced enough in the ways of men to respect when one is willing to take pains to win his beloved. But there is something else to her manner: she is careful around him, where Bacaxa is easy. Taking the measure of men is her livelihood, and there is something in her that recognizes that he is dangerous in a way the other soldiers are not.

It’s fine with him. A pleasure, almost, to be understood, though he is still on guard against it. Understanding is the foundation of persuasion, and he thinks that Thaïs could be very persuasive to a man who underestimated her.

A long battle-train slows and stops in barely perceptible stages. At first, it seems merely that the men in front of you are deliberately choosing to walk slowly, probably as a personal affront to you. Then it becomes apparent that they feel the same about the men in front of them, and so on, up to the front, who must have some good reason for slowing or stopping– but when it happens at a place or time that is clearly not going to be the night’s bivouac, the fact that there is likely a good explanation for it up ahead hardly makes it less irritating to those who can’t see it.

The battle-train, while long, is shorter than it used to be. The army had been split in three at Susa, and only around seventeen thousand soldiers chosen for the march to Persepolis. It had taken some wrangling for the small contingent of Greeks who had plans to stay on once released to be posted to it, but here they are.

It would be irrational to get upset about a delay, when they could have been left at Susa in the first place. Hannibal stops walking and leans on his halved sarissa, while Thaïs makes room on the stationary donkey for Bacaxa. Now Bacaxa is the one speaking, and Thaïs listening; the engineer is describing some sort of experiment for showing that the movement of thousands of men walking and stopping in concert is similar to the movement of water when faced with certain kinds of obstacles. Briareos objects on the grounds that his teacher Eúdoxos never conceived of such a thing, and anyway there is no way to mathematically describe the currents and eddies of water, which have no clear angles and are constantly changing. Thaïs pointedly ignores him, and says “please, go on” in a low voice to Bacaxa as he is still talking.

When it becomes clear that the delay will be an extended one, Hannibal puts down his backpack and most of his armour, picks up his sarissa, and wanders to the edge of the column to put it together. The weapon is so long that the only practical way to travel with it is in pieces, so they are manufactured that way: two pieces of cornel wood, which can be carried in a pack while marching and joined by a sturdy bronze tube before battle. The Greek soldiers had been informed quietly, as they left the field of Gaugamela behind, that once Darius was dead, they would be released from their obligation to the Hellenic League and sent home. Any who wished to stay would be hired on at good rates, but they had better start learning to hold the sarissa, the weapon of the Macedonian phalanx. Hannibal had asked for one to improve his strength with the next day. With Darius roundly defeated in three major battles, most of his army fled, and his major cities taken, his death seems inevitable. Hannibal still has an errand to carry out, and it had best be done before the army gets too far from Greece. But he wants to be hired on and then given leave, not dismissed, so he had better be ready.

He puts together the weapon and finds an open space to walk about with it, practising lifting and lowering it. He can see easily how an entire phalanx of men holding a weapon this long would require training so as to not cause chaos among their fellows with an ill-timed movement. The phalanxes of the Greeks, with their shorter spears, require courage but no particular level of group skill. This is different. Despite the Macedonians’ seemingly endless well of discomfort with their cultural inferiority to the refinement of the Greeks, it is undoubtedly more refined.

A couple other Greeks, who have had the same idea as Hannibal, are also wandering away to put together their own practice weapon; a grizzled veteran named Simon ends up herding them together, and they practice moving in unison like a tiny phalanx, with a small audience of Macedonians shouting mixed encouragement, teasing, and advice.

Hannibal doesn’t tend to think of war, or any of its accoutrements, as fun. Necessary to him in the same way food and drink are necessary, yes. But fun, in the way boys making “war” on each other at playtime have fun– it has not been so, in his experience. But they are, undeniably, having fun, by the time there is a commotion up ahead, and a group of people making their way very slowly towards them comes into view.

Travelling in the opposite direction from the army is the most pathetic-looking travelling-train Hannibal has ever seen. At a distance, there is merely a general aura of bedraggledness, misery, and difficulty controlling the beasts they sit on. Gradually, as they come closer and the army makes way to yield the road to them, the impression becomes clearer.

Every member of the party is missing a body part. Some are hands, some feet; most just the appendage, but some have had flesh removed nearly up to the joint, possibly to deal with putrefaction of the original wound. There are no children among the company, but by the same token no real elders; they give them impression of being only the hardiest members of some other, larger group.

They seem to be having some trouble controlling the beasts they ride on; as they pass, it becomes clear that the animals are new to them. Hannibal recognizes the herd; they’re the animals that the army had only recently levied from the Uxians, whose stronghold on the mountain they had seized before forcing their way past the remaining defenders of the Persian Gates. And as they pass by, the miserable riders are weeping and crying out in Greek to the assembled soldiers watching them pass. Their words are not immediately intelligible, because many have also had their tongues cut out. Then Simon murmurs, “They’re saying ‘thank you’,” and events become clear. These miserable scraps of humanity are going away from Persepolis, so they must be coming from Persepolis; in the condition they are in, there is no reasonable assumption other than that they are slaves, whose mutilations were intended to prevent this very eventuality. The city must truly be in a panic at the approaching army, if they had allowed this group to escape on foot. They don’t even have feet.

The delay in their passage must have been to mount them on the Uxian asses; for these are Greeks, liberated from slavery in a Persian city, and liberating the Greeks from Persian tyranny is, officially, what this is all about. The men around him seem caught up in the pretext, at least for now; there are murmurs of sympathy, along with exclamations of anger. “We will take revenge on your behalf!” A Macedonian shouts back at the garbled thanks of the tongueless unfortunates, which would be a kind offer if the army hadn’t already been promised to sack Persepolis for their own pleasure anyway. Hannibal makes sure to keep the amusement at that off of his face, and has the sudden thought that if the little Egyptian were here, he would surely be able to share an ironic glance with him. He will have to find a gift for him in the city, then; something richer than the meals he has been able to send so far.

*

Sacking a city has much in common with the kind of drinking-party that everyone knows in advance will end in the floor covered in vomit. The anticipation of the thing is more fun than the reality, and those who enjoy themselves most are the wise guests who practice moderation from the beginning, and withdraw before the end.

It would hardly be possible, at this point, to hold the army back from ruining Persepolis. An occasional sack is part of the payment that most armies consider due to them for their service. The professionalized Macedonian army, unlike levied armies that are paid entirely in booty, can generally be relied upon to enter a surrendered city peacefully when ordered to do so. Babylon and Susa had surrendered; a good thing for the army as a whole, but irritating to them individually, since it meant that Alexander had merely given the cities permission to rebuild the temples that Xerxes destroyed, and appointed viceroys– Persians, even, not Greeks!– to rule them.

But the patience of the army is not infinite; and Persepolis had not surrendered. A sack is due.

Hannibal has never had much interest in forcing grimy, screaming women, nor in destruction for the sake of destruction. Persepolis is more of an administrative city than a true one; almost all of the commoners who live here do so because they have official business. Still, there are a good number of them required just to keep the place running, and houses to choose between. Hannibal had quickly dispatched the residents of a small but sturdy home on the outskirts of the city, where the mountain rises up like an ancient god. Having indicated his claim to the property with a sign of Tanit painted on the exterior wall in the blood of its former occupants, nobody has challenged his possession of the place. The army will have a long time to rest in the city; the only route through the mountains to Ekbatana, where Darius is reportedly hiding, is snowed in and won’t be passable for months yet. Until then, they will live at Persepolis just as its own residents used to, an entire city of support staff to the palace; it’s worthwhile to settle in a little bit.

Thaïs, Bacaxa, Jason and Briareos come around for banquets, which are finally of a quality than Hannibal is proud to present. He serves pig’s belly and sow’s womb, roasted birds placed in the cavities, silphium and cumin and strong vinegar to season, vegetables with fish sauce, figs and chestnuts raisins for dessert, wine good for more than just making clean the water used to dilute it– and of course, the flesh of the highest sacrifice, plentiful and fresh for the slaughter as the residents of the city who at first tried to hide are forced out by the desire for a quicker death than starvation will give them.

The seers are lodged in the palace complex, and it takes him a few days to convince the pages standing guard there to bring a dish in. They’re Macedonian boys, trained up for their role in the nobility by standing guard for the King, and nobody wants to be the one responsible for allowing something poisoned to be snuck in. Eventually Hannibal convinces them by taking a piece of the food for himself and eating it in front of him– they insist on being able to choose the piece, as if Hannibal could have poisoned only one end of a piece of meat, and the result is less than aesthetic, but at least they finally agree to bring it to Weldjebauend. After a few days, they stop making him eat it himself, and even start teasing him themselves. He forces himself not to ask them how the seer receives the gifts.

The question is answered on the first truly warm day of the spring. The snow on the mountains doesn’t descend into the city, but the thaw gives the general impression of every surface being wet anyway. It isn’t quite warm enough that Hannibal actively wants to undress for exercise, but the Macedonians in the exercise-court are all stripped nude, and would clearly regard it as some sort of weakness of the constitution of Southern men if Hannibal were the only one dressed. As a result, he’s covered in other mens’ sweat as well as his own after several bouts of wrestling, and is looking forward to a bath and oil as he heads back to the house that he has quickly started to think of as his own.

Instead, Weldjebauend of Siwah is standing outside the door, inspecting the somewhat faded sign of Tanit on the wall, holding two large fish by the tail.

“There’s good fishing in the lake half a day’s ride to the East,” he says.

There are a million things Hannibal could say in answer to that, and somehow the one that comes out is, “You have a horse?”

“Of my own? No. I asked to go with Phrasaortes, the Persian viceroy, who knows these parts and was talking of the fish. He has a boat and nets, and was going to bring back enough for a banquet at the palace. Of course, as soon as Alexander heard of it, he insisted on coming.”

It’s easy for Hannibal to forget, his memories of the Egyptian tinged by their first meeting, that he is objectively much more powerful and highly-placed than Hannibal. He has the King’s ear, and apparently walks comfortably among the Persians who have come over to the Macedonian side. Alexander’s name rolls off his tongue, and he makes a casual implication about the King’s personality– that he has never heard of any adventure or expedition that he doesn’t want to join– with ease. The roiling pool of half-hidden impulses, the terror and tremulous bloodlust, is all still there; but by daylight, his power and position shines brightly enough to nearly blind Hannibal like the reflection of the sun off of the surface of water.

The fishing expedition had included Alexander himself, and the prizes were supposed to furnish a banquet at the royal table. And yet here is Weldjebauend, holding his prizes at Hannibal’s doorstep.

“If I had known that you dined with the King,” Hannibal says, finally ushering them both into the house, “I would have found more suitable gifts to send.” Had the seer even been eating his dishes? The thought makes him feel slightly clammy, almost nauseous. He doesn’t usually miscalculate like that.

The seer laughs. “I don’t,” he says. “I don’t do well with crowds. Especially not loud drunken ones shouting about their war exploits in Macedonian. I… appreciate your gifts, actually. Thank you. I thought I ought to wait to thank you until I could bring something in kind.” He holds up the fish, and Hannibal takes them.

“They’re beautiful,” he says honestly. They’re so fresh they smell of nothing at all; they must have hurried back from the lake with the catch. He had been planning on piglet tonight, but it will still be a piglet tomorrow. The fish will roast with a little oil and spices. He will have the pleasure of rarified company. The entire world appears brighter and sharper than it had been.

Ah. Before anything else, he needs to make sure they are undisturbed. His guest has already indicated that he dislikes sharing his supper with large crowds, and Hannibal has no desire to share him. He finds a wax tablet, scrawls a sketch of a heavy-phallused satyr with a fishing net on it, and leans it on the exterior wall. Then, for good measure, he adds “GONE FISHING” in both Greek and Phoenician beneath it.

“Tell me, Weldjebauend,” he says, returning indoors, “You’re not expected to share the credit for your bounty at the palace?”

The Egyptian smiles lopsidedly. “You can call me Wel,” he says. “All the Greeks do, because they can’t pronounce my name; and Egyptians are fond of nicknames. As for the fish, I would have been, if it weren’t for you sending me more food than I could reasonably eat on my own. I’ve shared my meals with Phrasaortes a few times, when it was that or throw it to the dogs. He grew up in the palace of Tachos in Egypt; he was a hostage, like Alexander’s father was a hostage in Thebes, but well-treated as Phillip was, and he holds a fondness for his boyhood home. He likes having someone to speak in Egyptian to, and… well, since he knew I had a gift-giver, he spoke loudly of it in front of Alexander, as men like to do. The King insisted that I should bring you a gift tonight, if I intended to return your favour.”

Hannibal is fairly sure that he is schooling his face into an expression other than doe-eyed adoration, but he can’t be sure. Wel. It suits the little seer better than the full version, which reminds Hannibal only of complicated remnants of cults dedicated to ancient Pharaohs. Far from the King’s involvement making this visit feel forced, he gets the impression that Wel had been waiting for some kind of permission. He knows little of the social customs of anywhere besides his oasis, after all.

“Come,” he says, and leads Wel into the central atrium of the house, with its cooking-fire and opening in the ceiling above. The family that had lived here had been of comfortable means but not excessively wealthy, with no evidence of a large domestic staff by the time Hannibal had taken possession– if they had had a slave, surely they had escaped and been part of the procession of woe the army had met coming into the city. The cooking and the eating are therefore set up to be done in the same room, which is fine with Hannibal. Part of making sacrifice is that you ought to watch it burn.

He hands Wel a cup of water as he lays the fish out on a table to season them, and Wel drinks and goes to build the fire without being asked. The Greeks like to believe that they only start drinking wine after supper, while the Macedonians start drinking as soon as the food is served, but in reality, on the road they have all grown used to drinking wine at all hours; the water they came across on the way was often murky and deemed likely to cause fever. Even after several months at Persepolis, abundant fresh water still feels like a luxury. Wel drinks it like it is.

“How did you find the Persian method of fishing?” he asks.

Wel shrugs. “I can’t say I’ve experienced any other to compare it against. I think… I asked Phrasaortes because it seemed like something I should see.”

Hannibal recalls one of the Greeks saying that rumour had it the Egyptian priestly class was not allowed to kill anything with their own hands other than the flesh of sacrifice. One does not kill fish with one’s own hands—technically. It’s probably too early to press Wel on that point. “A deadly game that relies on patience, not force?”

“Something like that. We would get shipments of salted fish and garum from the coast, but it was hard to imagine any connection between that and, well, water.” He laughs. “I think a part of me didn’t actually believe that there could be fish under the surface of a body of water. A whole world, predators and prey, unseen.”

“Unknowable, and yet still edible.”

Wel smiles, his face sheened slightly with sweat from leaning in close to the fire. Unlike Hannibal, he has no need to impress upon others with his hardy constitution, and everyone already knows he’s a stranger from a warm climate; he finally removes the woolen cloak he had been wearing as the fire heats up. The sun is just setting, and a purple glow suffuses the room. “I guess most of the world was that, to me, before.”

His voice sounds wistful. Hannibal presses salt and cloves into the fish, and doesn’t look over. It’s difficult to imagine what life in an army camp must be like for someone who had previously never left his village. Plenty of the poorer Macedonians are similar, but they at least lived in villages with decent roads built by Alexander’s father, and the occasional cattle raid from neighbouring tribes to keep things interesting. Wel had come from the desert, and seen nothing but the desert until the army showed up at his doorstep. Instead of making him ignorant and provincial, it gives him a strange aura of power, as if all the knowledge of the world could be contained in one place if one only knew how to look. If anyone would be able to look, it would be him. Looking, it seems, is both daily bread and a knife in the gut to him. Hannibal wants to be the object being looked at, and twist the knife, all at once.

“And now?” he asks. “What have you seen, of the world underneath?”

Wel retreats to a couch as Hannibal places the fish on the brazier. He sits up on it, instead of reclining, which surely he knows by now is in Macedon the position reserved for boys who had not yet passed the traditional test of manhood: the killing of both a boar, and a man.

“A lot of death,” says Wel, and he clearly isn’t talking just about the fish.

He is, for all the otherworldly wisdom of the god, still a boy in the ways that matter to most of the men around him. “Are you disturbed by it?” Hannibal asks. Some are, even after years campaigning. He knows that, even as he can’t quite understand it. Hannibal had only been disturbed by one death in his life, and it wasn’t in battle.

Wel is silent for a long time. The fish begins to heat and then sizzle, filling the room with its scent. Finally the seer says, “Have you ever seen a river flood?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I haven’t. Not a river. But sometimes there would be heavy rainfall, and the oasis would flood, just like the Nile is said to. When the water gets too much for its basin, it tries to find other basins, and it comes to rest at the same level it was at in its original vessel.” He stops, as if that explains everything.

“Certainly,” Hannibal prompts.

“It’s… like that. At Siwah, in the the desert, with only peaceful travellers visiting to receive advice, I contained all of the violence of the gods alone. I was a levee that was constantly on the verge of breaking, and I didn’t know what the flood would mean if it did. Here, there’s no levee necessary. Nothing to flood that isn’t already…” Wel picks at the fabric of his chiton, then laughs a little. “I hope this isn’t insulting.”

“Not at all,” says Hannibal. “The violence inside you is already of a level with the violence around you.”

“Yeah.” Wel licks his lips. His tongue is thin and vivid pink against the sun-toasted brown of his skin. It would taste like old wine and iron if Hannibal sucked on it. “Yeah. That.”

They eat the fish sitting cross-legged around the fire, their backs against the legs of the couches, the most un-Greek dinner imaginable. Usually, Hannibal prefers to preserve a sense of pomp, or at least decorum, as he eats. But this isn’t Hannibal’s dinner; the fish is Wel’s gift. It’s delicious, soft and fragrant and slightly flaky. He can imagine the Egyptian eating like this in his village, priests of Ammon-Re mixing with village-boys and pilgrims, consuming the flesh of sacrifice with their fingers. Or perhaps Wel eating alone, apart, a strange secret pent-up man, waiting for something that he didn’t even know was coming.

“Have you killed a man?” he asks.

Wel hesitates. “Not really,” he says.

Hannibal raises his eyebrows. He’s too well-versed in the ways of war not to know that there is often ambiguity about the thing; but he’s curious what might make Wel, who has never been part of a melee, feel that way.

That tongue again, darting out. It catches a drop of oily moisture from the fish on his lip, and draws it inside. “The night we, that I, when I was on my way back to camp, there was… he was almost dead anyway. I just didn’t– it wasn’t that I didn’t want him to suffer. I just felt like I ought to.”

Hannibal leans forward. He makes no attempt to disguise his curiosity; Wel would see through it in an instant. “How did it feel?”

The glow of setting sun; the crackle of fire. He would think that Wel wasn’t going to answer, if it weren’t for the gaze that goes right through Hannibal. He’s looking at something else. “Righteous,” he whispers finally.

Hannibal places his plate carefully down beside him. There is no reason to be afraid of what he’s about to say. He’s never said it out loud to anyone– at least, not anyone who lived– but the worst that can happen is Wel refuses. He’s needed here, after all. It wouldn’t even be anything to do with Hannibal. “I have a blood-feud that I have yet to repay,” he says. “When Alexander releases the Greeks, I plan to request merely a leave, from which I will return and catch up to the main army to join the phalanx of the Macedonians. It’s common for men to be released temporarily for such things,” he adds, realizing that Wel probably doesn’t know. “Prevent your men from protecting their honour, and you’ll have bigger problems than a few requesting time off. If you like, you may come with me. Blood-feuds, border-raids– they’re the traditional way for the Macedonians to learn war.”

There is nothing in Wel’s affect that suggests surprise, though on some level it must be a surprising suggestion. “I’ve never even held a sword,” he says thoughtfully.

It is tempting, but probably pushing too far, for Hannibal to suggest that he serve as teacher as well as initiator. “I’m sure you can find one somewhere in this town,” he says instead, and Wel cracks a smile.

He can see the questions forming in the seer’s mind– Where? With whom? What was the cause of the feud? and decides that, of the questions he could answer, he would rather not. Not tonight. Just the telling of the shape of the thing, saying blood-feud like an incantation into the fragrant night air, has disturbed the usually calm waters of his emotions. “Consider it. There is time before the decision needs to be made,” Hannibal says, with an air of finality, and then goes to retrieve fruit and wine. They finish the meal, and perhaps more wine than either of them were planning on drinking, in relative silence. Wel seems caught up in his own thoughts, and Hannibal is happy to watch them play across his face like a theatre of expressive flesh and animating soul.

He says goodbye to Wel at the door of the house, wondering for a moment if he would object as strongly as Bacaxa to being walked home. But no; Hannibal has been demonstrative enough tonight. Restraint is needed here. Regardless of how willing Wel had been to give his body on their first meeting, Hannibal has his sights set higher than mere physical love.

Restraint. It’s not restraint that takes him over when Wel just stands there, like he’s expecting something more, some goodbye word, or a kiss. Hannibal doesn’t kiss his lips or cheeks; instead he takes on of Wel’s hands and lifts it to his lips. He had meant to merely brush his lips against a fingertip. Instead, the treatment he gives Wel’s three longest fingers is open-mouthed and wet, a kiss that is just an excuse for a bite. Once his teeth have closed gently around the flesh and he hears Wel gasp, he forces himself to let go of his hand.

Wel’s eyes look glassy, and his obvious erection disturbs the line of his chiton. He draws his cloak around himself and then, strangely, gives Hannibal the tiniest, knowing smile. “Good night, then,” he says, and takes off into the night.

Hannibal picks up the tablet. Someone– probably Bacaxa– has added a second satyr behind the original one, inserting his enormous phallus into the rear of Hannibal’s fisherman. He shakes his head, smiling. He will need to come up with a richer gift for Wel, after this. Something rare, irreplaceable. He brings the tablet inside, and settles down to think.

Chapter End Notes

I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR MOST OF A YEAR FOR OTHER PEOPLE TO GET TO SEE THE ART THAT THEBEESPATELLA DID LITERALLY AS I WAS WRITING THIS CHAPTER AND–

Persepolis, 330

Chapter Notes

The scratch on the door is Ptolemy. He always does it like that, soft, as if he thinks Wel might be occupied with something private. Perhaps that’s just the habit of a man with a mistress.

“I’m ready,” Wel calls, and opens the door with the same sense of gratitude he always gets that, for as long as they remain in Persepolis with its huge palace and excess of servants’ rooms, he has a door to open. Gone is the constant press of minds and bodies of the camp, and instead the army is living in the city as if they had always been there. It won’t last forever, but it has left him lucid enough to tell reality from omen, just barely. Like this, he has managed to interpret the omens not just on behalf of others, but also for himself. His interpretation of the omens are what has led Ptolemy to his door.

Ptolemy is bouncing on the balls of his feet, holding the ball under his arm. “How’s your shoulder?” he asks.

“It’s fine. Just bruised.” Leonnatos had barrelled into him at top speed yesterday, knocking him down to land on his arm at an unnatural angle. It feels a little bit stiff today, but not nearly as bad as he’d feared.

“Be careful with it. To bear pain improves the strength, but there are some pains that cause only weakness. Knowing which is which is the art of the old soldier.”

Wel just nods, but internally feels a tiny glow of belonging. He’s glad that, out of all the Macedonians he could have asked, he had chosen Ptolemy. He’s not even sure exactly what he’d asked– most of it was stammering and forgetting his Greek– but Ptolemy is a good politician. Unlike Alexander, he has no need to be asked plainly for something before he can decide if it is in his interest to provide it. So he had understood, somehow, that Wel was asking to learn war, without even really knowing what that meant. Wel had been worried that he would be asked why, but he now realizes that there was never any chance of that. It would never occur to any of the Macedonians that a man could not want to learn war. The soldiers, and Alexander especially, acknowledge the necessity and expertise of priests; yet somehow simultaneously, they seem to view Wel’s tentative first steps into the realm of the physically violent with the impatient amusement of adults watching a child who has finally, after long delay, decided to learn to walk.

So far, most of what Ptolemy has had him doing in the way of training is the exact same thing that the others do for amusement. Foot races, javelin-throwing and ball games are perfectly sufficient to demonstrate to Wel, without anyone having to untactfully inform him, how very unprepared he is for the actual physical requirements of killing other men. But now that he has been joining the King and his friends for their games for almost a month, he is beginning to notice things besides his own stunning incompetence.

It had taken him a while to notice that everyone, besides himself and Hephaestion, holds back slightly in contest with the Pharaoh-King. That it ended up that way had been mostly an accident. At first, Wel’s maximum effort had been so pitiful that he went on maximum ferociousness just to avoid being crushed. But now he is starting to feel the rhythm of a game; who will throw to whom, how long the ball will take to arrive at its destination, what kind of throw will result from what angle of shoulder and arm. And he had forgotten, or perhaps simply isn’t skilled enough, to tone down his attacks when they happen to be directed towards the son of Ammon-Re. He can feel from the men a faint edge of surprise and maybe respect that Wel attacks all of them, Alexander included, with equal ferocity and futility.

He never would have expected it of himself; after all, the Egyptians bow down to their Pharaoh like the Persians do to their Great King. Meanwhile, the Macedonians choose their king in an assembly, and speak to him like an equal when they’re in a mood to. Some of the old soldiers even call him basiliskos, little king, and he just smiles and calls them Father, and the first time Wel had heard it he’d nearly fainted. But here he is, perfectly capable of charging at Setpenre Meryamun and trying to wrest the ball away from him. There really is something, as the soldiers say, to the heat of battle.

His room is in the servant’s wing of the older palace, built by the first Darius several generations ago, in the centre of the complex of buildings on the central terrace of Persepolis. To its north is the huge columned audience hall where the King banquets most nights, and to its south the newer palace built by Darius’ son Xerxes; in between them is a central terrace, which has turned into a gathering-place for games and exercise. They are nearly to the courtyard when Ptolemy suddenly buckles at the knees, and nearly falls before hauling himself up to bear the hysterically-giggling weight on his back.

“Got you!” says Thaïs, her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist. “If I’d a mind to kill you, you’d be bleeding out already.”

Ptolemy bounces a little to shift the weight of her higher on his back, then twists his head sideways for a kiss. “Ah yes,” he says, “But Wel would avenge me.”

“Hmph. He might as well; he’s basically already killing me. His suitor refuses to entertain anyone else while Wel deigns to visit him for supper. I’m wasting away– see how thin I am. You can carry me with no effort at all.”

Wel blushes, then feels embarrassed of his embarrassment, and tries to ignore the hot flush in his face. It’s not like he’d asked Hannibal to turn away his other supper-guests when Wel comes around. But he can’t say he doesn’t appreciate it; only partly for the solitude, and partly for the feeling of power. They never plan their dinners in advance. Wel shows up at Hannibal’s house, with a fish or some delicacy gifted by Alexander, and Hannibal accommodates him with obvious joy. Maybe it’s greedy of him, but it’s addictive. Nobody’s ever been so happy to see him at their door before. And the food is good, and the conversation, though lately it seems as though both of them are waiting for something. They talk around each other, in generalities, like the verse of masked actors at the theatre. Even that, though, has its charm; priests and prophets tend to speak that way as a matter of course, but Wel has to edit himself for normal conversation with the plain-speaking Macedonians. He can say anything to Hannibal, no matter how odd or nebulous, and Hannibal will duly consider it.

And then, hovering around the edges of his mind, assigned no importance because he cannot figure out what importance to assign them, there are the dreams: the one with the blood and the knife, which now occurs only after he has spent an evening with Hannibal. Now that he’s done it so many times, the edge of terror has worn off: instead it’s like opening a door into a room, some parts of which are known, some obscure. He gets a little farther every time. There is someone else there, now, and the knife is pointed sometimes towards his own belly, sometimes away. He can’t see them through the rush of red before his eyes.

“That’s because I’m strong, not because you’re thin,” insists Ptolemy. “Where are you headed, anyway?”

“To watch the game, of course.”

Ptolemy is silent for a moment. “Hmm,” he manages finally, and Wel has a hard time not laughing at how completely unable he is to deny her anything. A woman watching the men exercise is odd, but since Ptolemy boasts frequently that having Thaïs is like possessing a man’s mind in a woman’s body, it would be hard to find real grounds to object. Back in Siwah, where women are a fact of life as much as men are, the idea that a woman with a man’s mind would be superior in value to a woman with a woman’s mind would be odd. But Wel knows firsthand that the coarse Macedonian soldiers, having spent so long in each others’ company, might entirely forget how to behave with anyone who isn’t also a soldier. So Thaïs is welcome most everywhere the soldiers are. She knows Hannibal too, which had been a shock to Wel at first and then less of a shock. Hannibal knows everyone. It keeps him up at night, and it’s absurd; of course the man is allowed to have friends. But he can’t stomach the idea that he, Wel, is just another one of them.

They reach the courtyard, and Thaïs settles down on a stone at the perimeter. “Really,” she says as Wel and Ptolemy are stripping down, “I just wanted to see what the exotic priest’s pecker looks like.”

“Uh.” Wel looks down, as if he doesn’t know what’s there. Having never undressed before a woman for any other purpose, it hadn’t occurred to him to be bashful about doing it now, but maybe he should have been. “Sorry to disappoint. It’s a standard-issue Greek one.”

“I can see that.” Thaïs frowns at it with what could only be termed professional curiosity. “Why? I thought the Egyptian priestly class cut them.”

Ptolemy is clearly torn between laughter at this line of questioning and jealousy at the reminder of the level of expertise his mistress has on the subject, and wisely removes himself to the centre of the court, swinging his arms to warm them. “Most do,” says Wel. “Siwah is as Libyan as it is Egyptian, so ceremonies aren’t dogmatic. There was a ceremony day I could have participated in when I was a youth, but…” he shrugs. “I don’t know. It didn’t seem important. My only purpose was to be a conduit for the god, and I was doing that just fine already. I didn’t really get the sense he cared about my, uh, pecker. So I didn’t.”

“Perhaps your god knew that you would one day play ball with Greeks,” says Thaïs.

It’s true, though Wel wouldn’t have said it out loud. The Greeks would consider a ceremonially cut penis at worst obscene and at best somewhat comic, like walking around with the enormous wooden phallus of a satyr dance attached to the front of one’s body. Wel would be more of an oddity than he already is, here, if he had one.

He’d already known that being here, right now, was his purpose, the will of his god; that’s not a surprise. But it’s a vertiginous feeling to re-evaluate his entire life through that lens, the idea that a decision he made as a twelve-year-old based on nothing but a vague feeling could already have been the hand of Ammon-Re guiding him. More than that, it’s oddly caring. The god had never seemed to mind much if Wel suffered for his sake, but in this, he had received divine guidance just to be spared ridicule on the exercise-court? It makes him slightly dizzy just to consider.

The game they’re playing today is a simple one: a man is chosen to be the common enemy, and all the others try to keep the ball away from him. If the odd man out succeeds in capturing it, he chooses the next common enemy. Wel is usually chosen towards the end of the session, when everyone is tired, because he’ll have more of a chance then, and he’ll likely never get close to the ball anyway. After a certain point, they’ll end the game by mutual consent instead of victory.

Hephaestion goes first, and the game starts with the kind of languorous feeling of bodies just getting warm. They don’t seem to notice they’re doing it, starting slow and easy and pleased with each motion like every throw and catch is a display of thanks to the gods who gave them bodies. Wel wonders if its like that in battle, too. Does it start easily, carefully, men testing themselves and their adversaries? Or is the pleasant ease of the start of a ball-game in contrast to that– the chance to relax all the more precious because you don’t have it when the game is real? He would ask Ptolemy, but he’s not sure he could formulate the question properly in Greek without looping back on his speech and running into words he doesn’t know. Perhaps Hannibal. Hannibal knows what it is to be surrounded by a tongue other than the one your thoughts come in. He receives a throw from Leonnatos, and just barely manages to get it on to Ptolemy through Hephaestion’s grasping fingers. The court echoes with voices; everyone shouts here, me, pass it, I’m open! all the time, until the sounds are less actual instructions or requests and more a soundscape that describes the field as well as vision does. Wel thinks that most of these men could play the game with their eyes closed, navigating only by the sound of each others’ voices. He almost wants to ask to try it, and he’s sure they’d agree if he did.

He’s distracted the next time the ball comes to him, thinking of soldiers navigating a battle-field by sound alone, building a mental picture of the action based solely on the clang of metal on metal and the screams of the dying. He fumbles with the ball and manages to more bounce it off his hands than actually throw it, wildly off-target, only kind of aiming at Alexander, mostly just trying to get it away from him before he gets tackled. The King launches himself at the bad throw, and so does Hephaestion. Hephaestion comes down on top of his smaller friend, who catches the ball but lands on his side, skidding along the dirt with Hephaestion’s weight pinning him down. Even before they come to a stop Wel can see the blood, a red skid mark on the light brown of the court.

Instinctively, the men close ranks around the two on the ground, as if they might have to fend off an attack. It leaves Wel on the outside of the circle, panting and red-faced with exertion. He comes to a stop and is momentarily struck by the feeling of being an enemy, on the outside of their circle, the one who struck down the King. He is lanced through with irrational terror that his bad throw had somehow succeeded where entire armies had failed, and Alexander is dead, or incapacitated, and it’s Wel’s fault, and perhaps this was what the god had brought him to do and it had simply never occurred to him that his role was that of the oblivious doomed man in the tragedy, convinced that he’s following the will of the gods when really he’s only following the inevitable path to his own destruction–

–the circle dissolves as quickly as it had formed, the men laughing a little at their own well-trained instincts, suppressing the dirty jokes they would be making if any other pair of lovers had ended up sprawled on top of each other in the dirt. Laomedon, a deceptively soft-looking Mytilenaean who spends his free time in the study of languages and insists on speaking to Wel in barely-comprehensible Egyptian sprinkled liberally with Greek and Aramaic words, slaps him on the shoulder and says “a good example of dumb risks not to take, eh?” Sure enough, Alexander is hauling himself up and shaking his head at his own poor judgement. The entire right side of his body is scraped, not deeply but oozing blood and full of dirt and tiny stones.

“Well, I think Hephaestion won that one,” he says, despite the fact that the ball is lying to the side forgotten. “Who’s the next man out, then?”

“Don’t be stupid,” says Hephaestion bluntly. “This will fester if we don’t clean it.” Seeing his friend about to protest, he adds, “All right, I’ll call for water and do it here, and we’ll rejoin after. Erigyios is it.”

Erigyios, Laomedon’s brother but older by a decade and already white-haired, leads them on a more sedate chase than Hephaestion had; he moves slowly but chooses his opportunities well, only making an attempt for the ball when he has a real chance of getting near it. It allows moments for distraction, and Wel can’t help but watch the pair on the side of the courtyard out of the corner of his eye. A Thracian slave brings water, and Hephaestion cleans the long bloody scrape with practised hands that would seem indifferent if it weren’t for the care in his eyes. Wel thinks of the night on the killing plain, Hannibal adding salt to the water he washed Wel’s hand in. Of course the healing wisdom of Carthage, a seafaring nation, is that only the water of the sea can heal. But the little sea in the bowl had been of salt from Siwah. As if each body must be healed by its own self. What kind of salt would heal the king, Wel wonders, as Erigyios manages to wrest the ball from him, and names him the next man out.

*

He’s still wondering as he wanders around the city that evening, watching the fading light over the mountains. He’s empty-handed, and has almost convinced himself that he’s not going to Hannibal’s house. After all, he always brings a gift; since he doesn’t have one, he can’t be going there. That ironclad logic dissolves when he finds himself in front of the Carthaginian’s door anyway.

He raises his hand to knock, then pauses. It is dark enough that people are starting to light lamps inside; and he can see a soft glow from a room on the second floor. Hannibal likes to sit reading or writing letters in the garden, which is enclosed in the middle of the house; although the building has a second floor, Wel’s never been there. He assumes it has sleeping rooms, and maybe an exit to the roof for sleeping in the hot summers. He takes a step back, and listens. There are voices coming from the room with the light.

It’s not like he can complain. When Wel comes for dinner, he usually arrives early enough that Hannibal hasn’t yet started preparing food, and can incorporate whatever gift Wel has brought into his plans. He knows that Hannibal has other friends, who will be happy to share his table if they’re not forbidden from it by the presence of a prickly Siwan prophet. Of course there’s someone else in the house, around the hour that the wine is starting to be served at the Macedonians’ banquets.

He almost heads back to his small room in the palace. What would he say to Hannibal, anyway? I was thinking about the time that I was bleeding and hallucinating, and you washed my hand. Then I killed a man. Could we do that again somehow? Don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities for you to catch me at my worst. No. Better not. Then, as he turns around, he hears one of the voices from the upstairs of the house carried down on the breeze, and realizes it is female, and he knows it.

“You’re so bizarre. Can you even read this scrawl?” says Thaïs.

Hannibal’s voice is quieter, and Wel can’t make out his answer. He stands frozen in front of the door.

Hannibal has a perfect right to entertain women, Wel tells himself sternly. In fact, he has a perfect right to take them by force, when the army takes a city whose citizens have resisted. He probably has. Wel tries not to think about that, a starving screaming woman twisting desperately under the Carthaginian’s strong body, his hands pinning her down, using her flesh indifferently. It’s fine. It’s just what happens; why should the idea of him helping to rape the women be any different from the idea of him helping to slaughter the men? Soldiers need to be let loose to sack a city every once in a while. And in between sacks, there are prostitutes; some of them hang around the followers’ camp, and some come from neighbouring cities while the army is camped or resting to sell their wares, just as other merchants do.

Thaïs, though. Thaïs is a higher class of prostitute than the women who flock to the camp to make a quick profit and bring it home to their miserable farms. A Greek hetaira is of value not just for her body but for her company; charming, educated, witty, able to keep up in conversation with the men but, unlike the men, also smart enough to know when to keep out of the cups. The Greek tradition of having hetairas at banquets, imported with little friction to Macedon, is in part a self-protective one. At the point in the night when the men are drunk, and likely to say and do things to each other they might regret, the hetairas are there to smooth things over, to distract from swaggering insults with pretty jokes and soothing music. Having now attended– only when he cannot decline without causing offense– enough Greek-style banquets to understand the shape of the thing, Wel is pretty sure the governments of the city-states would collapse without women like Thaïs.

And she is Ptolemy’s– or at least, he’d thought she was. He pays for her upkeep, certainly, and she sits on the end of his couch at banquets, and seems to always know when he needs her around to confide in. His friends even joke of him marrying her, but it’s becoming less of a joke. He could do it, if he liked; he has no particular need of a strategic marriage, well-placed as he is. Wel had assumed he only holds off because he has no need to; he pays her enough that she is already understood to belong to him as completely as if she were his wife. She doesn’t entertain other men, surely. Except here she is, seemingly alone. Wel had known, and clearly Ptolemy had too since she had talked about it in front of him, that she was friendly with Hannibal, and attended dinners at his house when not invited to dine with the Macedonian men. But this is no raucous dinner. She and Hannibal are alone, and discussing something intently. Post-coitally? Having never had a post-coital discussion with anyone, Wel wouldn’t know what that sounded like. But he’s curious enough to turn back to the door.

With the feeling of omens and reality sliding together that he’s rarely felt since they stopped in Persepolis, Wel pushes it open silently. The idea of going into Hannibal’s house without his knowledge would have seemed impossible to him only a little earlier in the day, but now he does it as if compelled to by the logic of a dream. There’s light still entering the ground floor from the central garden, and as he moves towards it, the voices from up the stairs become louder. Although they carry well, there is a hushed feeling to them.

“…have given you a spirit inclined to action. There can be no blasphemy in following your nature.”

“It’s not the action I’m worried about,” says Thaïs, “it’s the reaction. If he blames me afterwards, I’m fucked. Ptolemy likes me, but not enough to protect me at the cost of his own career. Or brotherly love, for that matter.”

“You know the natures of men,” responds Hannibal. “Use your knowledge of his. Whom will he blame, if there is blame to be doled out?”

There is a long pause. “Himself,” says Thaïs finally. “If at all possible. If he…” she trails off.

“Participation,” Hannibal says softly. “If he is merely observing, he can blame you. If he is participating, he must blame himself.”

There is a long silence. Wel swallows, his heart sounding very loud to his own ears. He presses himself against a wall, not hiding so much as feeling its solidity in the hopes that it improves his own. He hears footsteps, but they’re not coming any closer. They’re going back and forth. Pacing. The swish of a long chiton accompanies them; well, at least he knows Thaïs is fully dressed. Finally her pacing stops, and she says, louder than anything before and with a terrible tension in her voice like a gathering storm, “The world ought to know that that the women who travelled with Alexander took a more terrible revenge for the wrongs of Persia against Greece than any of the great commanders of history.”

Wel’s heart slows. This is, at least, no tryst. It may well be something more dangerous– but he can’t help the feeling of relief that washes over him at the fact that Hannibal clearly isn’t sleeping with Thaïs. Which is stupid. Why should he care? He can do what he wants.

“I will. I will. I’ll do it,” she is saying. “One has to do something in one’s life worth writing poetry about. Perhaps this is it. Even if he’s angry– so what? He loves being begged for forgiveness, more than any other gift. And if I have to flee, I will. I’ll certainly be received handsomely enough in Athens, if I pull it off.”

“You seem decided, then,” says Hannibal. His tone almost makes it sound like he had been attempting to dissuade her from whatever this is, though he doesn’t seem to have been. Perhaps he only wishes her to be remember that he did. Whatever this is, it will be finished soon. Wel could be found cowering against a wall in Hannibal’s house, or he could run away– both equally cowardly options, but he’s got to choose one of them. He tiptoes towards the door. As he bursts out into the cool air of the night he hears Hannibal asking when Thaïs is going to do whatever it is she’s decided to do, but he decides he doesn’t want to know.

He runs back to the palace his thoughts jangling through his body too quickly to walk. When he arrives, he is hardly out of breath at all. He must be getting more accustomed to exercise. He latches onto the thought, one small thing in the world that he can control, something about his body that belongs to him and not to Ammon-Re. He thinks of nothing else until he falls into a dreamless sleep.

*

It’s his last dreamless sleep for many days.

The buildup begins the next morning: the particular combination of headaches, fear, and dreams that announce a vision. If he were home in Siwah, he would go to the temple, and hope the god saw fit to give it to him as quickly as possible. Here, there is nothing to be done but what he always does. He oversees the sacrifices in the mornings. He tries to keep up with the mens’ exercises in the afternoon, or at least keep up with his own usual standards, but after a few days it becomes clear that he’s barely capable of any movement at all, and finally Alexander sends him away and sends his own doctor to Wel’s room. The doctor, a man named Phillip with a brusque kindness and great black bushy beard, listens to Wel’s explanation of his own condition, shrugs his shoulders, and wishes him luck.

He leaves him a draught made from poppy juice, but Wel doesn’t take it; he knows from experience that when the pain is that of an approaching vision, the escape the plant offers will only delay the eventual resolution. Still, he sets it aside and places a piece of cloth over it in the hopes that it won’t dry up; he might like it afterwards.

He sleeps. His dreams are the terrifying amorphous ones that offer no clarity; he misses the sense of narrative that the dreams seem to be building after he has spent an evening in conversation with Hannibal, but he can’t go to the man’s house like this. He can barely string together a coherent thought, let alone a sentence. He’d be no good for conversation. And worse than that– what really stops him from going– is the fact that he wants to. He trusts Hannibal, the daimon whom he had found eating human flesh on the killing-plain, and he wants Hannibal to think of him as trustworthy too. As admirable. As godly. As something other than a terrified sweating lump of flesh, not in control of his own body or mind.

Hannibal keeps sending gifts of food. The pages outside the palace are used to bringing it to him by now; they smirk and call him ameiliktiskos, little cruel one, for never sending a token back, and Wel doesn’t correct them. There is a small secret pleasure in others knowing he’s being courted, and thinking him cold; more practically, the nickname probably keeps other suitors away from him.

Until one day one of the page arrives empty-handed, and says instead that Hannibal is requesting his presence for dinner. Wel, leaning against the doorframe of his room with the world spinning around him at the effort it takes to stay upright, manages to croak out “no, thank you.”

The page shuffles from foot to foot. “Only he seemed pretty, um,” he says. “Well, he said I should be insistent, actually. But, uh. You don’t look to good. Should I tell him that?”

Wel shakes his head, then regrets it when his vision keeps shaking even after his movement stops. “No, don’t. Just say– say I’ll come for dinner when it suits me.” Well, that certainly won’t do anything to alleviate his reputation for cruelty. But he’s being cruel to Hannibal, which almost cuts through how shitty he feels; he can make Hannibal feel shitty, too. He probably deserves it, even if Wel isn’t yet quite sure why.

The page raises his eyebrows. “All right,” he shrugs, and leaves Wel to his darkened room stinking of sweat.

Wel sleeps, maybe, as much as he’s ever asleep or awake these days. He is covered in blood, and holding a knife, and now he is also walking through the desert. It’s the desert he knows, the route east from Siwah to Memphis; passable only in small groups with fast camels, devoid of water compared to the northern route to Paraetonium. He is going towards the oasis, knows it in the way dream-logic gives knowledge without reasoning, and something terrible is going to happen before he gets there. He trudges along, and is not himself; he is taller and broader, older. There is a weight on his shoulders. He can smell smoke. There is a banging sound.

The banging becomes louder. Wel’s eyes open, gummy from half-sleep. The banging wasn’t in the dream; it’s on his door. The smell of smoke is here too, and shouting. The door bursts open, and a Thracian slave-girl sticks her head in and screams something in a language Wel doesn’t understand before disappearing and moving on to the next door. The smell of smoke is fairly faint– it had been exaggerated in the dream– but he doesn’t need to understand the girl’s language to realize that the place is on fire, get out sounds the same in pretty much any language.

He staggers out into the hallway. From inside the palace of Darius there is panicked shouting, slaves and scribes and soldiers all rousing each other out of the building. From outside, though, there are shouts of a different sort. Triumphant. Drunken. Wel can hear the sound of flutes, played rather badly as the girls who work them occasionally take their mouths away from the instruments to whoop or shriek.

He runs towards the south exit of the terrace, his movements simultaneously as fast as he can make them and honey-slow, like the paralysis of a dream. He realizes, distantly, that his headache is lifting. His entire mind is lifting itself away, being replaced by not-him, hollowing itself out to let another in. He knows what it means; finally, the god is ready to speak.

“Hell of a time for it,” Wel says, stupidly, as he bursts out into the night air and sees the fire.

It isn’t exactly all around them, but it feels like it; both the audience hall on one side and the palace of Xerxes on the other are unrecognizable for the flames that leap from them. The air is smoky but sweet-smelling; the wood of both buildings is cedar, and perfumes the night like incense as it burns. Only the small palace has yet to be consumed; he turns back to look at it, the narrow entranceway he has just burst out of. Carved into the stone on the side of the entrance is the first Darius himself, large enough to tower over both anyone using the doorway, and the servant depicted behind him.

“Why are you spared?” Wel asks him.

The painted stone eyes blink, glow, and swivel towards him. “I have done no wrongs to Greece,” Darius says. “The sort of king that your Pharaoh desires to be, by the grace of Ahura Mazda I am of such a sort: I am a friend of the right, of wrong I am not a friend. It is not my wish that the weak should have harm done him by the strong, nor is it my wish that the strong should have harm done him by the weak. The right, that is my desire.”

“The right,” says Wel slowly, walking out into the courtyard. Darius steps out of the wall and comes with him, but the figure is no longer Darius; when Wel glances at him out of the corner of his eye, the bearded figure has grown the curly ram horns of Ammon-Re.

The fire is no accident. Some part of him had known that, just from the sounds; the revelry, the flutes, the sounds of drunk men doing something that seems like a good idea only from the bottom of a cup. But it is quite another thing to see it: the flames leap from the the enormous, gaudy palace of Xerxes, and in front of the conflagration, silhouetted by the light, is Alexander. He’s standing stock-still, staring up at the burning palace, a torch in his hand, apparently forgotten until he tosses it onto the edges of the first, clearly the last of many torches. Everyone around him is dancing. Thaïs, wearing a long chiton so sheer that she might as well be nude, is twirling in place, laughing giddily. “See!” She shouts at the sky. “Parthenos Athena, see yourself avenged! See!”

“See?” Repeats back the god.

See what, Wel wants to ask, but instead he looks. Before his eyes, the scene changes: Alexander seems to come to life, like he had been sleeping when he threw the torches into the palace and is now waking up from a bad dream. Wel knows what that feels like. The Pharaoh grabs at his hair suddenly and gasps. “Put it out!” he shouts, his voice carrying like a trumpet, and in an instant, everyone else seems to come out of a dream, too, and realize what they are doing. Wel watches them scurry around like ants, like a god himself. There’s plenty of water right now: the runoff from the thawing mountains fills the reservoir well that diverts it around the terrace to brimming. But there’s no way to get water onto a fire besides to throw it, and no way to throw water besides dipping a bucket in the well. Soldiers are now streaming up from the city and the encampment outside it to help, but even with the sides of the huge well large enough to fit ten men abreast on each side, it’s still not happening fast enough. The palaces are already destroyed; as good as gone.

Wel cannot help. He is rooted in place by the rising tide of blood around his ankles, and the paradoxical feeling of desert sun on his back of his neck. No, it’s only fire– no, sun. He has a weight on his shoulders. The child isn’t crying, and that isn’t a good thing. The blood washes up to his knees, his hips. He’s good at this part now. He’s barely even afraid of it.

“The revenge of blood-feud,” he narrates to the god. “An ancient harm paid back in kind.” He knows what happens next: the blood covers him up, fills his senses, fills his lungs. He has the knife in his hand. “But I don’t have a blood-feud to avenge,” he protests, weakly.

“Don’t you?” says Ammon-Re, and that is the last thing Wel remembers before the world goes dark.

Chapter End Notes

Hallucination-Darius’ speech here is cribbed substantially from his funerary inscription at Naqš-e Rustam.

Persepolis, 330

It is, Hannibal thinks, a pity that he can’t bring the harp with him when he leaves. His fingers stumble, and he stops, resets them, and restarts. He isn’t yet comfortable enough with the instrument to keep track of his fingers and sing at the same time, but the challenge was part of the reason he’d bought it, in the first flush of merchants after the city was sacked. All of the soldiers suddenly had money enough, and where most chose to spend it on prostitutes, Hannibal had bought the instrument from a musician who had come to perform but wanted to be rid of it in favour of a newer model.

The fact that he would only have use of it for a few months had been part of the attraction. As soon as the Dehbid mountain pass is thawed enough to be barely passable, he knows, they will be on the move again: probably only part of the army on to Ekbatana, a small number staying to garrison Persepolis, and most back to Susa. The sparseness of the terrain in all directions means that a large army is a liability, not a strength. There isn’t enough farmland to feed them, so they must be split up. It will be the perfect time to request a leave, and make good on the piece of intelligence that he had requested from Alexander in recompense for his service to Sisygambis. He hasn’t been thinking about that head-on; it will happen when it happens. He knows where his enemy is now, and he will go when it is time to go, and the one he wishes to accompany him will do so– like everything else– if it suits him. Until then, Hannibal can learn the harp. His time with the instrument is limited, like the inevitability of death following life; that makes it all the more meaningful.

Something else that makes the music more meaningful: the light is growing, streaming through the windows and the cracks in the old mud-brick structure of the house, which would probably need to be repaired soon if it were going to be a long-term residence. He had left Wel lying on a soft fur and covered in blankets, in an upstairs room that would be well-lit by the morning sun. Unless he is truly ill, he will no doubt be woken by it soon, and the first thing he will hear will be Hannibal’s playing. That pleases him, and encourages him to be meticulous. It wouldn’t do for the seer’s first conscious perception to be of a mistake.

Sure enough, he fancies he can tell the very moment that Wel’s soul fights its way up from the obscurity of sleep and into the house; he can sense it, then hear rustlings, and finally the unsteady footsteps of one who wakes to find himself in an unfamiliar place. He keeps playing, as if he hadn’t noticed at all, even when he senses Wel’s presence in the doorway to the central room behind him.

Hannibal wraps up a phrase of the song he was working on, which will be the accompaniment to a hymn to Astarte when finished. “Good morning, Wel,” he says.

“Hi,” says Wel. He stinks of sweat and smoke, which had gotten into his chiton and his hair; Hannibal wants to bury his nose in the seer’s neck. His hair has grown out from the priest’s close shave that he no doubt wore his entire life in the desert, into a rather charming mop of curls. Hannibal remembers the feel of them from carrying him home; he had restrained himself to merely supporting Wel’s head with a hand, and not allowed himself to run his fingers through the smoky tangle.

“You want a bath, I imagine. I’ll heat some water for you.”

“Yeah, I…” Wel’s eyes widen, their gaze turning inwards with the alarm of a man searching his memory and finding nothing relevant to his situation. “Did we–?”

“You passed out on the terrace of the palace complex. Since I happened to be there helping pour water on the fire, and it seemed unlikely that your room would be habitable even if not completely destroyed, I brought you here to rest.”

“Oh.” It irks Hannibal that he cannot tell what the relief in his voice means.

He hands Wel a bucket of cold water. “Put this in the tub upstairs, and I’ll heat another to add to it.” He builds the fire up in Wel’s brief absence, and when he returns, Hannibal hands him a cup of well-watered wine and ushers him to sit by it. “How are you feeling?” he asks.

“Good,” says Wel decisively. He doesn’t look like he feels good– he looks thin and pale– but he seems to be reviving before Hannibal’s eyes, like a flower blooming in spring. He opens his mouth like he has something more to say, then closes it and shakes his head, taking a large gulp of the wine.

“Did they put it out?” Wel asks instead. “Is there anything left?”

The set of scrolls set aside in the corner of an upstairs room call to Hannibal, as if he could ever forget. But no. Not yet. He must first make clear how rare a gift he wants to give.

“Very little, I’m afraid. The small palace is still standing, though the engineers will insist on inspecting it by daylight before they let anyone back in, and I doubt anyone will be able to scrub the smell of smoke from it. Xerxes’ palace, and the Great Hall opposing it, are reduced to ash.”

Wel nods slowly. He looks thoughtful, not sad, though perhaps those emotions are one and the same for him.

“The Persians worship sacred fire,” says Hannibal. “One could look at it as a sacrifice.”

Unexpectedly, Wel snorts. “Could you?” he asks. “They worship the god named Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord; the fire is just his messenger, not the god himself. And a sacrifice has to be of something valued. You don’t sacrifice things you hate. This was blood-feud, not sacrifice.”

“What do you know of blood-feud?” Hannibal asks, and it comes our sharper than he intended it.

“I know what my god showed me in the fire,” says Wel.

Hannibal finds himself circling, as if he were looking for an opening to jab a spear, then catches himself doing it and sits down on the opposite side of the fire. “Do you have wrongs to avenge, Wel?” he asks.

Wel shakes his head slowly, not necessarily in denial. “Who would I have to avenge?” he says. “I have no family.”

“Everyone has family. If you have not known yours, why is that?”

Wel flinches like Hannibal had punched him, and it makes Hannibal want to say something that will make him do it again, just to see something involuntary; something the seer’s body did without his permission. “They died, I think. I don’t know. I was young. It’s how I came to Siwah. Joh, one of the priests who was coming back from a journey to Memphis, found me; of the party I was with, I was the only one his camel could carry. I guess the rest were worse off. I don’t know. I never asked him. I was young; I don’t remember anything before that.”

The desert route between Memphis and Siwah is harsh, even for small groups of travellers. Hannibal knows that, had known it even before the army’s visit to the oasis; they had taken the route from Paraetonium, not Memphis, which has water enough to support a small army. He doesn’t say what he knows. Many people have died in the desert; the fact that Hannibal’s own father was almost one of them, on an exploratory trip into Egypt with a mixed group of Carthaginian and Numidian merchants, isn’t relevant. He came home.

“What do you remember?” he asks.

“Heat. Thirst. Falling? Falling off something. Maybe a mule or a camel. I remember more from when Joh brought me to the oasis. He wouldn’t let me drink quickly, and I wanted to kill him for it. He had a kinsman staying with him, who had come to ask advice, and I saw the man with empty arms. I told him he ought not to make preparations for his new baby; I think he would have struck me if I weren’t almost dead already. But I was right; when the man returned home to his village, he found that his wife had already lost the child she was carrying. Joh told me about it when he heard like it was something I ought to be proud of.”

“You have a special gift, and did even then. Why should you not be proud?”

Wel winces again, beautifully. “I don’t do anything. I didn’t do anything then, either. I just saw what I saw, and said it. But even so, it felt like… like I had done something.”

“Like you had killed the child.” Hannibal is enthralled. He can picture it, a version of Wel all skinny long limbs and wide eyes, barely even understanding why babies die in the womb but knowing it’s going to happen, and that makes him responsible. How bloody must his hands be, from the knowledge of horrors and misfortunes?

“Yes.”

“And what did you see in the fire last night, Wel?”

Silence. The crackle of fire, faint slurping and a quiet clang when Wel finishes his wine and places the cup down beside him.

“A prophecy has to be interpreted first to the person for whom it is intended,” he says finally, with a hint of the kind of authority Hannibal imagines he must have had in the ancient temple. “That that person is me makes no difference to the procedure. If this priest is incompetent, and dallying in his interpretation, I will have to wait until he has made up his mind.”

“You are waiting impatiently at your own feet,” says Hannibal admiringly, and pulls the cauldron off the fire. It is just bubbling a little, the perfect temperature to be added to the cold water already waiting. “Very well. Take this for your bath, and I will get you something to eat.”

Wel gives him an unreadable look, then carefully carries the hot cauldron away. Hannibal is left standing my the fire, his mind racing. For a moment he is incapable even of thinking of what to eat; his mind is full of pictures of all of the things Wel must feel himself to have done. No wonder he seems to be full to the brim with violence; everything he sees becomes a part of him. In a way, he is the most experienced in war out of all of them, even the old generals. Only his body lags behind. His mind is ancient.

He had made no fresh loaf of bread the previous evening, since he was otherwise occupied, so griddle-cakes it is. Honey is plentiful in this land and brought to market even in the winter, though the only grain being brought in in any quantity is coarse barley. He mixes a good quantity of honey with the grain and water, more than he would for himself, as if he were making the food extra-sweet for a child. Wel is not a child, but he had been one once, for all that his knowledge had been that of an adult even then. Perhaps as a result, he had not been fed too-sweet griddle-cakes as often as he ought.

When the seer returns, he actually looks as well as he had claimed to be; as if washing off the smoke had also sloughed away the remnants of whatever vision had disturbed him during the fire. Surely he is provided with sweeter-smelling oil for anointing after baths in the palace, but winter in Parsa has left the common soldiers with barely enough oil for cooking, let alone bathing, and Wel has used the slightly old-smelling olive oil near the bath without complaint. His chiton still smells of smoke, but there is nothing to be done about that. If there were any linen in the markets Hannibal would gladly dress Wel in his own cloth and keep the dirty one for himself as a memento; but there are no new fabrics to be bought any time soon, and Wel’s clothing would be too small for him, so he shall have to conserve his resources.

He hands Wel a plate with the griddle-cakes on it, and he seer smiles when he bites into one. “Thanks,” he says. “This is good.”

“You’re welcome.” Hannibal chews slowly, more an excuse to watch Wel eat than out of any hunger of his own.

“The generals all insist on nothing but barley bread dipped in wine for breakfast. Or at least they do if Setpenre Meryamun is watching; I think they might have sweets secreted away in their rooms,” Wel laughs.

“Setpenre Meryamun?”

“The Pharaoh. King. Alexander. He says the best cook a man can have is a night-march to prepare breakfast, and a light breakfast to prepare dinner.”

“How many names one man can have,” Hannibal muses. He still thinks of the King as Hannimelqart, privately. “I gather you’re open to convincing that I’m a better cook than either a night-march or a light breakfast?”

“By quite a bit. How many names do you have, Hannibal?”

Hannibal has had another name; a secret one, applied to him only as an idea, not a person. Nakaslelyt, the monster, the killing-demon, the ripper. He cannot speak of it to Wel. He needs the seer to know, to see. That’s what he does, isn’t it? It terrifies Hannibal to think that he might, and that he might not. He piles more griddle-cakes on Wel’s plate instead of answering.

Wel sees the evasion, and allows it. He laughs again, softly. He seems in a good mood, almost light, the way Hannibal has never seen him before. Perhaps the vision leaving him leaves him light, and he has not yet been burdened with the insides of the minds of other men and gods. By the time they see each other next, he will no doubt be burdened again. “Just the one for me,” Wel offers.

“You could earn many names, I think,” says Hannibal, and decides it is time. He had desired courting, craved to know Wel and be known, perhaps only a little, in return. There must come a moment when they stop dancing around each other. The seer had offered his body at their very first meeting, but Hannibal wanted his mind. He thinks now he has it. “Wait here,” he says. “I have something for you.”

He ascends the stairs and grabs the gift, his footsteps sure. He is already decided; the thing is done; there would be no point in going back on his plan now.

When he gets back, the griddle-cakes are devoured and Wel is sitting by the cookfire with the air of temporary relaxation that announces an intent to depart soon. He has duties, no doubt; Alexander will want to sacrifice, today of all days. But for the first time, Hannibal is certain that they will see each other again soon. Hannibal hands the scroll to him.

Wel unrolls one end. It’s good parchment, thin and smooth. He looks at it, frowns. “I can’t read Elamite writing,” he says, though Hannibal notices that he does recognize the letters.

“Nor I,” says Hannibal. “Nevertheless, the labelings of the library–” he barely stops himself from saying are— “were in Aramaic. So I can tell you that this contains the instructions for the sacrifices on the ever-burning altars of the fire-temples where the Persian magi toil. It may well be the last copy in existence. I thought you ought to have it.”

Wel blinks. He stares down at the gold letters inscribed on the oxhide. His fingers tighten around it, and he unrolls it a little more. Hannibal watches him carefully. He hadn’t really thought about Wel’s reaction, hadn’t tried to anticipate it. He’d only thought of his own desire to give something unique. Now he has. Surely that will be enough.

“This,” says Wel. “You.” He sounds breathless, but not quite in the way that someone thrilled beyond reasoning sounds breathless. More in the way that someone with a storm of anger slowly rising inside them does.

“I wanted to give you something worthy of you,” Hannibal says. “A rare and precious gift.” It sounds, to his own ears, somewhat weak.

Wel looks up, and his eyes see. Hannibal had wondered what that would look like, but not about this. “You burned the palace,” he says.

“The King and Ptolemy’s mistress burned the palace,” says Hannibal, frostily.

“You did it. You– influenced him. You convinced Thaïs, made it seem like it was her idea– I heard you. You asked her to get this for you. You wanted her to do it. I didn’t understand– now I do.”

He is backing away, and that’s the wrong direction, he should be coming closer. This is all wrong. This was supposed to be the moment they came together, never to be parted.

“Please tell me you didn’t do it because of me,” says Wel. “Please tell me you didn’t– you just wanted to give something rare. And you couldn’t find anything, so you made something rare.”

Since Hannibal cannot tell Wel what he has asked, he keeps silent. He reaches forward, and he has no idea if the movement was going to end in embracing the seer, or killing him.

“Don’t,” says Wel, and Hannibal stops as if commanded by a god.

“Don’t talk to me,” he continues. “Don’t send gifts to me. I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to think about you. Just–”

Wel doesn’t finish the sentence. He just turns and flees the house, still clutching the precious scroll in both hands.

Hannibal stands beside the cookfire for a long time.

Finally, he quenches it and walks slowly up the stairs to where the bathwater is now cold. He stares down into it, tiny bits of grey soot and shiny oil from Wel’s skin swirling in the water. Hannibal undresses and submerges himself in it, as if he could surround himself by anything other than his own solitude.

Remains of Persepolis, 330

A few slaves are scrubbing the soot off of the floors of the small palace. There aren’t nearly enough labourers to get the job done before the men assigned to the rooms of the palace might want to sleep in them again, so they are working alongside the free scribes, seers, groomsmen, engineers, cooks, and minor generals who live in the rooms. Double-pay men refill buckets of water and swap out dirty cloths for slaves. All the doors are thrown open, and someone is playing a flute, and someone else is singing along. Wel walks through it in a daze. The easy camaraderie across languages and stations is an oddly exact copy of the celebratory atmosphere of the night the palaces were burned in the first place.

Well, that’s not so bad then, his mind natters at him sarcastically. As long as everyone’s cheerful, it’s all okay, and you don’t have to feel bad at all that it’s your fault that two palaces and the sacred texts of an entire empire are gone. No worries! The gold-lettered scroll burns into his sweaty hand. He hides it in the folds of his chiton, as if someone might demand that he account for it. No one does, of course. A priest with a scroll is a perfectly common sight.

Wel’s room smells terrible, but is unharmed. He really should throw open the door, air it out, and join in the cleaning efforts so that it’s fit to sleep in by nightfall. Instead he shuts the door against the noise in the hallway and places the scroll down on the small table beside the bed. Beside it, the poppy-juice draught left by the doctor Phillip is still sitting.

He lifts up the cloth; it’s still liquid enough to drink, if a little thicker than it was originally. He’d been saving it in anticipation of some future pain of the body, but his body feels fine. Terrific, actually. It’s the rest of him that isn’t doing so great. He drinks it down, sits down with his back to the wall, closes his eyes, and waits for the drug to take him away.

He floats. Reality and memories mix, swirling like the melee of a battle, and finally memory wins out. He opens his eyes, and he is both himself and his own previous self. He remembers–

 

He is back in Siwah, on the path that leads from Joh’s house to his own. He is carrying the pieces of wood that make up his bedframe, and he is joined by Joh, and a couple other priests, and even more villagers who are carrying all of his belongings in baskets: clothes, sandals, the Greek and Aramaic texts that Joh had had him study from, the reeds to stretch across the bedframe, a table and chair. It has the air of a wedding-procession, but Wel isn’t getting married. He remembers this day, when he moved out of Joh’s house and into a small space of his own.

Priests don’t get married; there was no precedent for one having a child, so the villagers had rallied around Joh sending Wel to his own house as if for a father sending his son to be married. It was a novelty, and really, they were free to celebrate as if Wel was getting married only because they were safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be. They wouldn’t be so easy around him if he had the option of asking for one of their daughters in marriage; he was too frightening, too furtive, too odd. Since he’s no threat, they can be friendly. He looks around at them, but finds that ever time he tries to focus on a face, he cannot see it clearly. There are limits to this memory.

The mud-brick of Wel’s new house has ben newly repaired, and smells of fresh straw. The party enters, and they start setting down his belongings in the places they think best; the women argue with each other over the optimum placement of the bed and the table relative to the window, as if he were their son or an invalid who couldn’t make his own choices. Wel has a headache. He wants them all to leave, so that he can arrange his new home the way he wants it and not they way the villagers think he ought to.

But, just as a wedding procession isn’t for the benefit of the bride, this isn’t for his benefit. The relationship between the priests and the villagers is important, more so in Siwah than it would be anywhere else. In the big city, it’s good for the common people to feel some separation between themselves and the priestly class. Here, they live in too close proximity, and rely on too scare resources to be acquired, stored, and shared, for such division to exist. Alienating his fellow priests is one thing– they have always disliked him, but accept him because he has proven himself enough times to be trusted. But alienating the villagers would be ill-advised indeed.

He sets out the beer and fruit that one woman has brought instead, on new platters that are a gift from the high priest Ahmos. Ahmos isn’t here; he has better things to be doing. But the moving-party happily moves onto the roof of the house to eat and drink as the sun sets. Wel wishes that he had had a chance to see his own space before everyone else did. It feels polluted by other people already. Perhaps the god will provide him with a ritual to cleanse their stink from his rooms. He drifts to the edge of the roof with a cup of beer, thinking on what might be appropriate.

Nobody joins him, so he sits trying to enjoy what solitude he can as the party continues in his own home without him. Perhaps only Joh even notices his absence, but Joh knows him well enough by now to know that the entire purpose of Wel moving into his own home was for him to be alone. Perhaps he loves Wel, in his own way, or at least is invested in his success. But he isn’t disappointed to have his precocious desert foundling out of his house. No more thrashing nightmares, no more descents into vacant staring where he can’t be reached even by shouts or slaps or strong-scented tinctures held under his nose. No more stray dogs being invited into the house and fed scraps so that they come around and beg every day. It must be a relief.

Joh cared for him well. He was kind to him. But Joh doesn’t love him, and before this moment, Wel has never minded the lack of that love. Would prefer not to have it, really. But now, sitting alone at his own fake wedding-party with no father to even pretend to mourn the loss of his son from his house, he feels it sharply.

There’s no reason to stay here; nobody wants him, they just want the party. Wel walks down the stairs, taking his beer, and goes out into the night for a walk. He feels better as soon as he’s away from the crowd, even about the crowd. It’s only natural that they don’t care for him, and he wouldn’t want them to. Care would be oppressive, and just hurt everyone involved. He may be uncared-for, but he is free. Beddwyk sidles up hoping for bits of bread or meat, but Wel has nothing to offer, and he slinks away is disappointment.

He can think now, remember. His feet wander the well-known paths of the village, while his mind floats. He remembers–

 

He is in Memphis, and so is everyone else in the world. Probably. It seems that way, anyway; the gods couldn’t possibly have created more people than there are right here, right now, pressing in on him from all sides, shouting in profanity-laced city accents, leading horses and camels who drop piles of dung in the streets too full of it to avoid stepping in, forcing carts through the crowd.

Wel has a camel, or at least he did. He tries to locate his hand, and finds it is indeed clutching the lead around the neck of the camel whose jostling through the desert had caused him to vomit unceremoniously in a bush just outside the shining white walls of the city. He still has the camel, then; that’s good. In the bag attached to the camel, there is a large store of salt. A third is for the satrap Sabaces, to be included as tribute to the Persian Great King; a third is a bribe to keep the satrap himself happy; and the final third will be sold at the market. Mercifully, they have a local dealer who will buy the lot from them, and make back the cost and more by marking it up at his stall; Wel can’t imagine having to stay here all day to make the sales themselves.

“All right, Wel?” says Joh, leading his own camel nimbly around the uneven roads and stepping in as little dung as he can. Joh is here; Wel remembers that bit. Flickering shadows flit around the periphery of his vision. He cannot remember if he and Joh had made this trip alone, or if they had been accompanied by other priests or villagers. He can only remember what he remembers, and what he remembers of Memphis is mostly his own reaction to it.

He tries to orient himself in the street, in the city, but it’s all so complicated. People interconnect with each other. They fight, fuck, sell wares, live on the same street, have common ancestors, like the same foods, visit the same whore. If you can see the connections, you can see the future; it’s what prophecy feels like, the god showing him how each supplicant at the temple fits into the web of the world and how he might move around in the tangle. But in the city, the tangle isn’t something indistinct: it’s here, right in front of him, so thick he can’t step through it or even breathe.

“Hey. Hey. Snap out of it.” Joh claps in front of his face, and Wel blinks. There is room enough for a pair of hands there. Perhaps there is air enough to breathe, too. He tries it and it works, barely. “Sabaces awaits at the temple at the highest sun, and Babak is waiting at the market. Can I trust you to take the merchant’s portion to him, Wel? Or do I need to come with you?”

Joh is supposed to go to the temple. Wel to the market. He’s been told where the market is; it’s somewhere in these streets, a certain number of left and right turns, past a certain building whitewashed like the walls, but when he peers ahead of him it all looks the same. Just people and more people.

“I need you to come with me,” he admits in a small voice. He doesn’t want to admit defeat before he’s even tried, but what else can he do? Taking a single step feels impossible.

Joh sighs deeply. For a few moments he is silent, as if mustering the patience to speak. When he does speak, his effort seems successful; his voice is forcedly gentle. “All right. We’ll go to the temple first; Sabaces can’t be kept waiting, and Babak can. Mount the camel, if you like; I’ll lead him.”

Wel clambers back onto the animal, too miserable even to feel gratitude. He presses his hands into its soft fur so that Joh can take the leads himself, and closes his eyes as he leans forward over its neck.

It’s a little better. It’s just enough better that a piece of awareness can creep though his shoddily constructed defenses that has nothing to do with the inhabitants of the city thronging around them: he is aware that Joh is disappointed, in a detached, bloodless kind of way.

He had been hoping that Wel, as well as being the temple’s most reliable bridge to the gods, could also be a bridge between the oasis and the city. Commerce with the city is important; the prized Siwan salt reminds people that the oracle is there, an arduous journey through the desert but possible, if they have a question they care for enough. To stay in the good graces of the satrap is even more important, considering what a dim view the Persians take of the Egyptian gods. To have Wel be known in the city, a representative of the Oracle who wears its power around him like a cloak, would be mightily convenient. It would also make him a shoo-in for the position of High Priest when Ahmos dies; Joh is probably next in line, at the moment, but he is nearing the age when men cease desiring new responsibilities. It would be just as great an honour for Joh if it were Wel, and without Joh actually having to do the job.

But it seems that if the High Priest must be willing to make trips to Memphis– as Ahmos often does– then Wel is out of contention. He feels nothing in particular about that. Wel would take the job if it were offered, but he doubts that Ammon-Re would be any more forthcoming with him if her were High Priest than the god is currently. It would mean nothing to him but pleasing Joh.

On that count, he feels no shame either. Wel was an investment that Joh chose to make. If he were an object– a sea-vessel being funded by a wealthy merchant, with a contract to repay the loan and a portion of the proceeds– he would have already paid back the principal with generous interest. If the ship turned unseaworthy after the agreed-upon voyage had been paid out, the merchant would have no cause to complain. The fact that he is a person and not a ship makes no difference; his debt has been settled by the realization of his gift for prophecy. He and Joh both know it, which is why Joh betrays no anger or disappointment as he hitches Wel’s camel outside the temple and says, “Stay here; I may have to wait some time for an audience.”

Wel settles back against the camel’s water-hump. He cracks an eye open, then immediately closes it. The temple of Ptah is flanked by the Persian garrison. Since the worship of the native Egyptian deities is frowned upon by the Persians, the temple grounds are mostly used for government business; it is inside the temple of Apries, a smaller building to the north of the temple complex, that the satrap Sabaces meets with priestly supplicants. Joh had described it all in great detail, perhaps hoping to excite Wel’s desire to see it for himself. If that had been his aim, he had failed rather dismally. Why bother going in, Wel thinks, when he could not go in, and know what’s in there anyway?

The difficulty in worshiping the Egyptian gods properly inside the temples has apparently created an opportunity for every disreputable hawker and power-hungry sophist in the city to set up shop as a street prophet. They line the sides of the road, ranting incoherently and demanding coins to perform sacrifices on behalf of passers-by. He should probably be insulted by the mockery of his profession, but it’s a little bit funny. He watches as long as he can bear to before even the connections between the peddlers of falsehoods and their desperate clients becomes to much for him, and he closes his eyes again. If he can just wait, soon he’ll be back home, or at least back on the journey towards home. The path through the desert isn’t fun, but it’s better than this.

The path home. The way between Memphis and Siwah. It feels as though this will be his first time seeing it from that direction, but it isn’t. It’s where Joh had found him; he must have travelled it before, at least partway. From the tangle of connections between every scrap of humanity in the city, a pattern emerges. An event.

Plenty of people get lost on their way to the oasis. The Libyans know that birds are usually the best guides; they can see farther than men, and need water just as much. But in the absence of birds, a desperate travelling-party may turn on other lost travelling-parties. There are no career highwaymen in the desert like there are on the roads, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be held up by a highwayman of convenience or necessity.

People part around the temple like water. Wel’s eyes shut tighter and tigher, and he barely even notices when Joh returns and starts leading his camel towards the market. His mind makes connections; that’s what he does. He has been on the desert journey before. He remembers–

 

“There’s someone there,” his father says. “Perhaps they know the way to the next marker.”

“Maybe we should…” his mother says, but doesn’t finish the thought. Wel, from his perch on his father’s shoulders, hears the edge of anxiety in her voice. He looks around. He cannot make out her face, nor his. He cannot make out how many people there are in the party approaching them, nor the landmarks of the desert around them. This memory is very old. There isn’t much left of it. Until this moment, he’d been sure there was none at all.

With the jerky logic of a dream, one moment the approaching party is far away, and the next they are right here. He is no longer on his father’s shoulders; he is behind him, his father’s big shadow blocking out the sun, blocking out whatever it is he’s not supposed to see. He can smell it: blood. There must have been blood. They still had water enough for a day in the pack on the camel his mother was riding. They wouldn’t have given it up peacefully, lost as they were, though they had seen a flock of birds heading towards what must be the oasis and were trying to follow them in a straight path through the sand.

The man and woman– his parents, he knows, though he cannot make out their faces or tell anything about them besides that they must be dying– are on the ground. The camel, the water, is gone, but not far away; there is a shadowy group of people regrouping in the corner of his eyes. Integrating the new supplies into their logistics. They pay no attention to Wel. He is irrelevant.

It made sense to kill the two adults, and leave the child. What could he do to stop the robbers from making off with the camel? And he would be dead soon enough, anyway.

“Wel,” his mother says. “Come here.” From the ground, her skin coated in nearly enough sand to cover up the blood, she holds out a hand.

Wel goes. What else can you do, when a parent calls to you?

Maybe he cries on her breast, or embraces her. It would be a logical thing for a child to do. He wishes he could remember, but he cannot. What he can remember is the glint of her knife, gold in the noonday sun, coming towards his neck. For some reason, the reflection of the knife is all he can remember. Not the knife itself, even as it stabbed in his direction. It nags at him. It can hardly be important, but he wants to see it.

She’s too slow, weakened by her impending death. He is suddenly standing clear of her, cold despite the sun and heat around him.

“Come here,” she says again, “Come here, come here, it’s better this way–”

She is surely right; with no food or water, and having thoroughly lost the way indicated by the last flock of passing birds, the death she is offering is kinder than the one that remains for him without her knife. He’s in a different spot, and his father is reaching for him too, his bloody grasping hands promising quick and loving death, but he doesn’t even need to run to stay clear of them. Surviving is easy. It won’t be for long, but it is now.

One of the figures from the raiding-party strides over. He grabs the knife that Wel can’t quite see from his mother. He inspects it, seems pleased, and pockets it. He says something unintelligible, then returns to his fellows, and they ride off.

His parents keep trying. He watches them, unremembered not-faces gurgling blood, weak limbs stumbling and falling in their attempts to catch and kill him. They love him so much. It fills him like a physical thing, their love. He could eat it, breathe it, live on it. He will. He must. He mustn’t forget what it feels like to be loved.

*

Wel opens his eyes to his dark, smoke-stained room in the ruins of Persepolis. His mouth feels dry, his eyes wet. He has rolled slightly onto his side, and the outline of the knife he still hasn’t given back to Hannibal is pressed into his hip. He reaches his hand out and touches the scroll that was the cause of all this destruction, wondering why the horrifying gift is the first time since his parents tried to kill him that he has remembered what it is to be loved.

Persepolis, Spring 330

The ram has no objection to being tied in the central garden. He follows Hannibal through the house docilely, and munches on the fodder he had placed in a sunlit corner contentedly. Hannibal steps back, considering the altar and the animal. There is no reason to consider it an ill omen that the sacrifice seems to not know his fate, but it makes Hannibal uneasy anyway. Perhaps a touch angry, though the emotion is a faraway, objective sort. It would be preferable for the sacrifice to feel fear, because his life is being dedicated to vengeance of one who did.

Mismalka– Mismalka the elder, Hannibal has always thought of her after the naming of his daughter in her honour, although his sister had never had the chance to become anyone’s elder in reality– had screamed, when Malchus took her away. She’d screamed even though Hannibal had been ordered into silence, on pain of being thrown out of the room and not allowed to say goodbye to her at all. She’d screamed even though their mother was silent too, her tears already shed in private. She’d screamed even though their father’s arms were steady as he handed her over, as he had hundreds of times already to visiting friends and relatives, showing off his new daughter. There was no reason for her to know that this time was different, that the strange pair of arms into which she was being received would be the last. But she’d known.

The ram ought to know too.

He shakes his head, and goes instead to bring the basket of wine and fruit that he’d purchased at the last market into the courtyard. It’s already arranged for both the sacrifice and the feast; the altar set with a fire ready to be stoked beside it, and couches arranged in the Greek style on the other side of the space. All of the guests will recline tonight, for in Hannibal’s mind, even the women have passed the test of manhood the Macedonians require to do so. Bacaxa had taken her man at Gaugamela. Thaïs had taken hers at Persepolis; perhaps not a traditional kill, but a far more significant vengeance than many men can claim in their lives.

He stands at the entrance to the courtyard, surveying the preparations. The guests will arrive at sundown; undoubtedly, they will be here until late. The banquet, although Hannibal is throwing it for his own leave-taking, marks a more significant transition than just his absence. A few weeks after Hannibal collects the horse whom he has already purchased and heads west to the sea, the majority of the army will pack up and travel back to Susa. The small group chosen to force the pass to Ekbatana will leave not long after, and the final hunt for Darius will be on. It has been, in many ways, a nice winter. The army has rested, exercised, had competitions. Many, like Hannibal, set up in Persian homes; even those that remained in tents outside the city fortified and extended them with driftwood and scrap pieces of mud-brick into more than just shelter for the night. It’s not home; for men such as these, the campaign trail is home. But it has been a respite. Tonight they will all feast to its end.

The guests arrive all at once: Thaïs, Bacaxa, Jason and Briareos had been at some sort of comic play put on by camp-followers, in which ruffians portraying Alexander and Darius chased each other around the stage until they finally fell into each others’ arms in passion. Nobody seemed concerned that offense might be taken; in fact, the last time the crew of followers had been found staging mock battles of this sort, Alexander had armed his counterpart, and Philotas had armed the representative of Darius, and they had settled the thing in single combat as entertainment for the entire army. Since the pair had wisely conspired to have the Alexander-actor win, and had been rewarded for the good omen with the tax income of twelve villages and a very nice suit of Persian clothes, they have apparently only become more bombastic with their spectacles.

Hannibal cannot regret having missed the sordid little play, but he is grateful for the high spirits it has raised in his guests. They are all animated and a little bit drunk already, talkative enough to almost make Hannibal overlook that, while he has invited two pairs of lovers to his house, he has no beloved of his own to sit with at the banquet. They all know it; none of them have mentioned Wel for months. Thaïs had asked how his most recent gift had been received, and a complete change of subject was the only answer that Hannibal had been able to come up with. They’re all intelligent enough to know what that means.

The ram, in the end, becomes afraid. It cries as he leads it to the altar before his spectators, a high pitiful sound, and gurgles with a sound almost like a man when Hannibal cuts its throat. The blood soaks the stone of the altar, and he pours out a libation overtop of it as he offers up a hymn to Melqart. Bacaxa joins him, singing under her breath so quietly that he could almost forget that she was there. Jason and Briareos look like they wish they were taking notes to bring back to their teacher in Athens, but they manage to restrain themselves.

Between the four of them– Thaïs sits daintily on a couch and watches, enduring Bacaxa’s teasing for it– the butchery and the burning of the portions owed to the god is quick work. Hannibal sets the meat on the fire, and brings out more wine, and they settle down to wait for supper. Although it is surely odd at least for Thaïs, who is used to being served food already prepared by the cooks serving Hannimelqart and his generals, Hannibal thinks that it is better this way: to watch the flesh of the sacrifice stop twitching in its death-throes and make the transition from living being to meat on the table.

There had been no such transition, with Mismalka the Elder. One moment she had been in his father’s arms, and the next gone; and although his parents had tried to restrain him, Hannibal had run out of the house to follow Malchus on his way to the tophet.

There had been music playing, loud pipes and drums, to drown out the screaming, and Hannibal remembers hating the music most of all. Baal Hammon stood carved in stone, enormous hands outstretched and sloped downwards towards the fire such that anything placed within them would roll towards immolation. If Baal Hammon wanted molk, he’d thought, surely the screams must be part of the sacrifice. He’d tried to get the pipers to stop playing but they wouldn’t, refusing to take their flutes away from their mouths for even a moment; and why should they, at the behest of a six-year-old boy? He’d watched as his sister, third in line in a procession of twelve children of families that opposed Malchus’ brother Hanno, tumbled into the tophet and was swallowed by fire. He couldn’t make out her screams over the music.

There had been speeches afterwards, Hanno thanking the families of the sacrificed children for their contribution, assuring the gathered citizens that this sacrifice would ensure his success in battle against the Greeks of Sicily. Hannibal had used the time to memorize their faces: Hanno, Malchus, and all the other simpering politicians who stood beside them. One day, they would all die by his hand.

And they had. Some out in the open; he had nailed Hanno’s feet to the cross himself, after the man had inevitably made the transition from mere political leader to attempted tyrant. Many more had disappeared in the night and been found by the light of day in fantastical positions; the name of nakaslelyt, the ripper, jumping from tongue to tongue but never finding Hannibal to alight on. All dead, but one: Malchus, who had seen the way his family’s political fortunes were heading and escaped to Greece.

Where in Greece, Hannibal had never had occasion to find out: that is, not until he had been granted an audience with the king who knows of every city-leader and minor tyrant in Greece, and has received gifts from every rich man wanting to leave an impression. Hannimelqart had asked what he could give to repay Hannibal’s service to Queen Sisygambis, and Hannibal had asked for the whereabouts of Malchus of Carthage.

Now he is serving the meat of the final sacrifice before he sets out to Elateia, where the final object of his blood-feud is said to have settled. A small city, of no importance at all: it would have been an ideal hiding-place for Malchus, had it not ended up instrumental to the sacred war against the impious Amphissians conducted by Alexander’s father– with the teenage prince in tow, memorizing the names and faces of every important man in every city they passed through, sacked, or made alliance with. Even the gods of the Greeks must be on Hannibal’s side; they wanted Malchus to be found.

Tonight he serves barely-watered wine and roasted meat, and hopes they’re still on his side. He tries to follow the conversation, to be polite, to be charming, but something of his melancholy must show through anyway.

“What’s with you?” Bacaxa asks him. “You’re not moping around just because you’re sad to be leaving us, are you?”

“I don’t get why you have an early leave,” Jason complains. “The rest of us need to sit around on our asses until Darius is dead, and then we’ll be sent home. What’s he gonna do, decide to come back and meet us on an open plain, after running away twice? Fat chance. One of his own generals is going to slide a knife into him while he sleeps, and dump his body at the side of the road, and that will be that.”

“Is that what would happen in Athens?” Bacaxa inquires, falsely innocent, which touches off a furious storm of debate between the three Athenians, though it’s unclear whether they’re trying to defend their home city from charges of endemic political treachery, or excoriate it.

Bacaxa lets them get on with it for a few moments, then turns to Hannibal again and says, more quietly, “Seriously. I’ll miss you. And I know you’ll miss me, at least sometimes, even if you pretend not to have feelings.”

Hannibal cannot find anything to say to that.

“…for anyone but Wel of Siwah,” she adds, glancing at him sidelong, having finally drank enough to cast aside better judgment.

“I have never pretended to be emotionless,” Hannibal finally forces out. Most of his emotions are incomprehensible to others, but that’s not the same thing. And yes, perhaps he’d thought that he had found in Wel someone who would understand his intentions. He was wrong. It doesn’t matter.

She punches his arm, the kind of rude friendly gesture she’s surely learned from watching soldiers. “You’re still hung up on him, aren’t you?”

“I was wrong about Wel,” he says, his voice light. “He is not the man I thought. A miscalculation.”

“Do you actually believe that? What the hell did he do?” She shakes her head. “Don’t answer that. It’s just– he seemed to fit. I don’t think you could ever take a lover you didn’t think was a part of you, and… I didn’t know him that well, because you wouldn’t let any of us get close, but it was like it was because you were guarding a part of your own self.”

Hannibal swallows. It’s uncomfortably accurate. He had so quickly become convinced of what the Greeks believe, or claim to: that humans were created first with two heads, and four each of arms and legs, and been split apart by Zeus in fear of their power, condemned to spend their brief time in Earth searching for the other half of the body that belongs to them. Nonsense, of course. But when he thinks of the seer, it seems less nonsensical. He feels cleaved.

He takes his time chewing, savouring the flavours of the meat and fire. The sacrifice unites men with the gods; they eat from the same table, each taking their share of the animal. It unites men with each other, too; eating at the same table is the closest you can get to someone without going to war with them. And yet perhaps the one he is truly closest to, right now, is the sacrifice itself. The ram is inside him, and inside the god, and uniting them all. He’d known from the moment Mismalka tumbled into the tophet that he would need to find a way to make up for the sin of not eating her.

Bacaxa chuckles. “Okay, don’t say anything. You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re over him, by the way. You can’t even talk about him, because then someone else would have an image of him in their mind, and you can’t abide that. You’d rather eat him up than let anyone else have a piece of him.”

She’s right.

Revelation hits Hannibal like a bolt of lightning. He stares at the meat on his plate: it’s all wrong. This sacrifice will do nothing to make him whole again. He had come with the army because it seemed the best way to discharge his obligation, the blood-feud; but he’s picked up another obligation, and if he hadn’t already been planning on returning to the army after Malchus is dead, he would be now. He needs to forgive Weldjebauend of Siwah.

In front of his eyes, as if some of the seer’s ability had rubbed off on him, the meat on his plate transforms into the short silky curls that Wel had started growing as soon as he stopped shaving his head. Hannibal takes the knife that he had used to cut the ram’s throat, still sticky with blood, and makes a cut through Wel’s forehead. Wel must be sitting in front of him, docile, a sacrifice that refuses to give the slaughterers the satisfaction of fear. Hannibal has to press in hard, saw back and forth brutally, to saw through the bone of his skull; once he has done it, though, the mysterious grey mass of Wel’s brain.

There are two schools of thought on the origin of thought itself. One holds that thoughts come from the brain; the other, that they come from the heart. It matters little to Hannibal which is true. He knows from the battlefield that the heart can keep pumping long after the brain’s connection to the rest of the body is severed; but the brain cannot show evidence of functioning in the absence of the heart. Therefore he must eat the brain first, and the heart last. Whichever or both are the source of the mysterious thoughts and impulses that make up Wel, which Hannibal had briefly thought to be the mirror or other half to his own self, he will consume them whole and entire. Then, any potential to understand Hannibal will live inside of him– as it was surely meant to be in the first place. He will be entirely self-contained.

“I have to eat him,” he says.

Bacaxa sighs. “I know what you mean,” she says, staring longingly at Thaïs, who is now engaged in a lively debate with the other Athenians about some poor sod that Demosthenes had recently publicly destroyed and forced into exile from back home. “Sometimes I wish I could just swallow her whole, so that big dumb soldier could never put his sweaty hands all over her again. Gross.”

Hannibal blinks, and realizes that they are carrying on two very different conversations. Which is for the best; that is, after all, the whole point. Nobody but Wel ought to be able to understand him, and now not even him. “That big dumb soldier is a favoured general, and pays for that fine linen and perfume she’s wearing,” he says. “Surely you ought to be grateful that Ptolemy pays for her upkeep, all for you to reap the benefit.”

“True,” Becaxa laughs, and the talk turns to other things: the famed Persian Royal Road, the horse that he has bought to travel it on, the construction of the types of ships that Hannibal might buy passage on, the roads and the dispositions of the highwaymen once he lands in Greece, the materials from each land he will pass through that can be useful in the construction of carts or catapults. Hannibal promises to extract and preserve, with the oiling process Bacaxa had showed him, the sinew of any sufficiently large animals he comes across dead or dying; there is never enough of the stuff for the catapults, so they resort to hair when no sinew can be found, but hair lacks– according to Bacaxa– “that satisfying snap” when the missile is released. Hannibal promises to preserve and bring her back the sinew of his blood-foe’s horse, as well as any other beasts Malchus might possess.

What he’s really promising, of course, is that he will come back. He had been previously somewhat undecided; although he’d stated to the generals that he planned on seeking out the army, wherever they were, and re-enlisting after his blood-feud was settled. But he had had no true reason to do so, before. He has family, after all, a wife and children in Carthage. He had sent a letter to Alanat when they had first settled at Persepolis, informing her of his survival and plans to stay enlisted for the foreseeable future. She had either sent nothing back or it had had no opportunity to arrive yet, but he can guess the contents of such a letter if she did send one. She would be polite and supportive, a long-suffering soldier’s wife in a city where, unlike in the cities of the Greeks, not all men are soldiers. She’d been lucky to get him back from the disaster at the river Crimissus, where most of his regiment had perished; everything after that was borrowed time. She’ll likely take a lover, if she hasn’t already; since Hannibal had tried rather hard over the past few months to do the same, he feels nothing in particular about that prospect.

He had registered her name and city with the scribes of the army who keep track of such things. If he dies in battle, she’ll be informed and is entitled to his pension. If he dies in the course of his blood-feud, of course, she’ll have no such guarantee. All the more reason to come back.

*

He wakes late the next morning. He vaguely remembers Bacaxa filling his cup several times; he must have had more wine than he planned.

No matter. Everything is in order: his travelling-supplies are piled in one corner, those belongings that he cannot take with him in another. He’ll leave the latter on the street outside the house, where they’ll soon disappear. Thaïs had already claimed the harp, which she’ll have the use of for perhaps a month more before she, too, is back on the road, and there is no space for such things.

Among his packs are letters from Jason, Briareos and Thaïs; he is to bring them to a certain Aristagoras son of Eúdoxos in Athens, who will see them to their destinations from there. It is easy, even now, to not think too hard about the final destination of this trip. It may well take the better part of a year to get to arrive at Elateia; in the meantime, the journey will be pleasant or at least interesting. The danger of highwaymen, not a consideration when travelling with the most powerful army in the world, will be his main concern when travelling alone– especially with a good horse and packs full of four days’ worth of grain and fodder.

He makes a small sacrifice of several handfuls of incense, douses the fire, and slips out of his Persian home without looking back. The horse he had bought is young and strong, but not so noble as to be offended at being burdened with packs. A few soldiers on the streets wave to him; they know vaguely that he is going on leave, but it means little to them.

He tells himself that he won’t miss anything here as he rides slowly towards the gates of Persepolis. A lie.

“Finally,” says a voice. “I thought you’d be raring to go at dawn. You don’t seem like the sleeping-in type.”

Standing just outside the stone facade, munching on a biscuit and leaning casually on the side of a small black horse laden with packs, is Weldjebauend of Siwah.

Persis, Spring 330

Hannibal doesn’t answer the question– or rather, the implicit accusation of a previous evening’s hard drinking– for a long time. They amble along; the days are beginning to be hot, despite the mountain passes still blocked with snow, and it is better to start out treating their horses kindly.

Hannibal doesn’t look at him. Wel can practically feel the pent-up violence under the placid surface of him, being slowly tucked away.

“You’re not going to kill me,” Wel reassures him. “We’re only a few steps outside the city; anyone could be looking, and at least a few would care enough about the sacrilege to ride out and capture you. Even if they didn’t, what would you do with the body? I’d rot before you had time to eat all of me, even assuming your horse consented to carry the load of the corpse for several days.”

That actually does seem to reassure Hannibal, which only confirms Wel’s guess at what he had been trying to restrain himself from. “I could bring the important parts with me to eat,” he says: “your head, and your heart. The rest, scatter a handful of dirt over to permit entrance to the underworld, and leave behind for the Greeks to find.”

“Mm. The handful of dirt is a nice touch. You wouldn’t prefer my shade to stick around? You have a long journey. You’ll need company.”

“I would prefer it from the real thing.”

Something loosens in Wel’s chest. His eyes sting with lack of sleep; he hadn’t had any last night, tormented with visions of what could happen if he went with Hannibal, and what could happen if he didn’t. The part that tormented him was that he couldn’t tell which was which. For now, it doesn’t matter. He lets silence take over for a while, staring down at the ground in front of his horse, but he can’t keep the small smile off his face. Hannibal could see it if he looked over. Perhaps he does.

“I stayed up rather later than I intended last night,” Hannibal admits finally.

“I’m sure you have many friends who wanted to say goodbye to you.” Wel tries to keep his voice light.

“I have been a guest in their regiment,” Hannibal says. “It would be rude not to commemorate leave-taking in the proper way.” They’re nothing, Wel hears, or perhaps just wants to. I missed you.

“I went to a party last night too,” he offers. “I needed to ask advice of the King. An unaccustomed position for me.”

“Not religious advice, I presume.”

“No. On something of a more personal nature.” I missed you too.

“And what did he say?”

“He quoted the Iliad at me, then gave me a horse.”

“Just a horse?”

“And a sword.” Wel feels his cheeks pinkening. It feels almost obscene to carry a sword, as if passers-by might see it and scream your kind don’t kill anything but sacrifices! Blasphemy! but Hannibal just nods.

“May I see it?” he asks.

Wel pulls out the sword from his bag; unlike Hannibal’s knife, which has taken up permanent residence against his skin, he sees no need to carry it on him when he’s never used it and doesn’t even know if he could. Hannibal pulls it from its sheath, inspects the curved blade of the cutting edge.

“Apparently, the single-edged blade is what Xenophon recommends,” Wel says. If he made that comment to anyone more highly-placed in the court, they would understand it to be a joke: if you don’t know your Homer and Xenophon before spending time in the King’s company, you certainly will afterwards.

Hannibal doesn’t get the joke. “Xenophon recommends a single-edged blade for fighting from horseback,” he says. “You’ll want a thrusting blade if you plan to encounter any enemies on foot. For now, it will do; we’ll drill with it each morning. If kill an unmounted highwayman, you will have his blade to add to it.”

Wel accepts it back silently, a knot of fear or anticipation beginning to weave itself together in his belly. Hannibal’s blunt expectation that Wel will kill a highwayman at some point on the journey is reasonable, even for someone less maniacally fascinated by death than the Carthaginian. Travelling alone, they are bound to be attacked more than once. He will either kill, or die.

He had explained to Alexander the broad strokes of his courtship with Hannibal, and been near-ordered to take leave. What he hadn’t told the King was the other reason he both wanted and and feared this journey: when the highwaymen come, it will be an exact repeat of the situation that had left his parents dead and Wel a child of nobody in particular at Siwah. He has the chance to do it again, but this time as an adult. Kill or be killed. If he ought to have died then, he will die soon. If he is meant to be alive, he will rend flesh and watch the spirit leave another man’s eyes. It had been too dark, the night he killed the Greek mercenary out of kindness, to see what was happening. He had just felt it against his body like an embrace.

He remembers this part of the road well, mainly because he’d been so miserable coming the other direction. On the way into the city, he’d felt the escaped slaves coming long before anyone had seen them. He’d borrowed a mule to ride ahead and tell the King, then wondered if perhaps “I sense we are drawing closer to a teeming mass of miserable humanity” was such an obvious prophetic statement as to be laughable when they were literally on their way to sack a city. He dithered for a while, then tried to drop back and pretend he had been hanging around the royal retinue for no reason at all. He’d been noticed by Hephaestion, however, who coaxed a stammering summary of the feeling out of him and guessed correctly– of course, he has experience with such things– that the slaves of the city would be taking advantage of the panic to make their escape. He’d gathered the oxen and mules levied from the recently conquered Uxians and had them ready to equip the escapees with by the time they came into view. Another stunning victory for the mysterious Egyptian seer, in the eyes of the Macedonian leadership. Wel had been too busy futiley trying to shut his eyes, ears, and mind against both the suffering of the mutilated slaves and the impending suffering of their erstwhile masters in the city to enjoy the admiring looks.

There are no mutilated Greek slaves on the road today, and the residents of the royal city were all killed or sold months ago; no one around, that is, save him and Hannibal. After the constant presence of throngs of people in the palace, and before that in the army camp, it’s transcendent just to sit quietly and hear no voices in the distance. As a bonus, he hears no voices even inside his own head today. Peace. Hannibal seems to be appreciating the same thing, or at least is content to allow Wel to appreciate it uninterrupted. They ride until the sun is high above them, and stop to eat a meal and rest the horses.

Some of their supplies are redundant; not wanting to make assumptions, Wel had brought his own hand-mill for grain, as well as cooking supplies that he is clearly not going to get the chance to use. He can sell them when they reach some more populated part of the route, but for now there is still bread made in the communal oven in Hannibal’s neighbourhood in the city. Hannibal had brought enough to keep for several days being eaten by him alone; they will run out faster, and have to resort to cruder bread or porridge, with Wel eating it as well, but he knows better than to try to refuse when Hannibal hands him his portion.

“Food is important to you,” Wel muses out loud as they sit under a tree, watching the horses drink from a nearby stream swollen with water melted down from the mountains.

It’s too obvious a statement to even need a response, just a setup for his further thoughts, but Hannibal gives it to him anyway, like a gentle pass back in a game of ball. “Certainly.”

“It must be hard for you, being on the road. Army camps aren’t exactly known for their high-quality cuisine.”

“On the contrary, it is where I feel most at home. In the city, with efficient markets bringing goods from farms both near and far, it can be easy to forget how fragile the nourishment of the body is. Food becomes merely a thing to be bought with money. On the road with an army, the illusion is shattered. Wars are lost or won based not by strength of arms, but by grain– who has it, who’s running out, who can get more and from which direction. The supreme importance of the body’s hunger assumes its rightful place, front and centre in every mind.”

The bread is good, chewy and a little bit tangy, too fresh to want to cover in oil or honey. Wel will miss it when it runs out, which maybe just proves Hannibal’s point. “Scarcity is a good thing.”

“Not a good thing. A true thing. The feast is life; you put it in your belly and you live.” The way Hannibal pronounces the phrase reminds Wel of his own voice intoning well-known prayers; a river carved deep into the land.

They’re following a stream running west, rushing and swollen with spring; as they drink their fill from it, it’s easy to extrapolate Hannibal’s words not just to food, but to water. It had been scarcer as they moved in, the streams weaker and only barely enough to support even the reduced size of army brought from Susa to Persepolis. But now it is spring, and they are only two men and two horses. If he had anything to sacrifice, he would sacrifice to the river in thanks; a practice that had seemed odd to him at first, but after a few river-crossings, started to make sense.

Though the morning had passed in silence, something about the conversation about scarcity set Wel’s mind turning, and he can’t help asking about Hannibal’s plans. Wel hadn’t put much thought into the journey, besides that he should pack as much grain and fodder as his horse would carry. He didn’t even know where they were going. He remembers the night at Hannibal’s house in Persepolis that the Carthaginian had made this offer with a haze over the memory, as if he could have made it up. He remembers Hannibal raising Wel’s hand to his mouth as a gesture of farewell, and gently biting his finger– surely he made that up.

Now he asks questions, and Hannibal is happy to answer– though he gives no more than what each question demands. The first leg of their journey will end at Susa, which is currently garrisoned and occupied by Macedonian forces. There, they’ll be able to replenish supplies and rest for a few days. Hannibal has a letter of introduction from Parmenion, who had arranged the particulars of his leave; even without it, the ram-horned Heracles and Alexandrou Basileos inscription on the silver drachmae with which he has been paid out his salary would likely be enough to identify him as an ally and permit him entry to the garrison. Now that Wel is here, however, even that likely won’t be necessary. The garrison soldiers will recognize him as one of the King’s possessions, in the same way they recognize the King’s old horse and his scruffy but beloved dog.

From Susa, the journey will be better-trodden; the Royal Road becomes large and established all the way to Sardis. Caravanserais have been welcoming travellers since at least the time of the first Darius, who built the road and the fleet of swift messengers who, supposedly, could travel it in less than twenty days. Their travel will be more sedate; Hannibal had been planning on aiming for sixty days spent on it, but that was, he says, before he had had such pleasant company to spend it with.

Wel isn’t sure what to say to that, so he just listens to the next stage of the plan; from Sardis a short ride to Smyrna, where they will find a merchant ship to take them as passengers to Peiraieus, the port of Athens, where Hannibal has business to discharge for his fellows in the army. Wel feels a stab of jealousy that anyone else is even close enough to him to trust him with letters, and pushes it down. He is here. They’re not. They are alone, and he has Hannibal to himself. That probably shouldn’t feel like as much of a victory as it does.

The rest of the journey will be by Greek roads north from Athens. Wel asks questions about them with half his mind absent, and Hannibal answers with intelligence on their geography and safety that he has clearly been gathering from his Greek fellows ever since Tyre fell. It is the Greek roads, not the Persian ones, that are the more dangerous; while they may be attacked by desperate vagabonds on the way to Sardis, it will be between Athens and Elateia that they’re likely to encounter better fed and organized bandits.

Hannibal sounds pleased about it. So you have some time to prepare for your first true kill in battle, Wel hears unspoken.

As the sun sets, Hannibal brings his horse to a stop in a spot where the river curves slightly, making a circular jut of land surrounded by trees lining the banks. It intensifies the sound of rushing water, the flow forced around banks of land, and Wel closes his eyes to listen to it. He’s not sure he’ll ever get used to the sound of moving water, for all that the steady dripping of melting mountain-snow has been their constant companion for the past few months in Persepolis. But the idea of water moving from one place to another over land, refreshing itself not through rainfall but simply by coming from somewhere else, is still overwhelming.

He’d seen both the reverence and the fear with which the Greeks treat rivers: the reverence, because the river-god can be entreated to allow passage. The fear, because the god might not. He remembers the crossing of the Tigris, the first large river that the army had not found already bridged: he’d watched as a mule had panicked, jumped off of the float it was on, and been carried away on the current to its death. The raft had nearly capsized from the disturbance and sent the men on it to the same fate; they’d managed to cling to the makeshift boat of tent-skin stuffed with hay for long enough to right it, and to see another sunrise.

This river is not nearly so powerful, but the sound of it echoes through his mind with a similar tone. “We ought to make sacrifice,” he says.

“We have no animals or incense,” says Hannibal gently. “Unless you brought some.”

Wel opens his eyes and looks down at the thin white line on his left hand, the scar left by the slice he’d made during the battle at Gaugamela. Hannibal, of all people, should know that a god can be as pleased with the blood of a man as that of a ram. He dismounts and leads his horse over to the edge of the river, where it drinks happily. The water is clear and fast, which he has been told by men who know rivers means it is good to drink, so he rummages for his cup in his bags and bends down to take a drink himself.

His reflection ripples on the surface as he drinks, and Wel stares in momentary, absurd shock at how long his hair has gotten. It startles him out of his thoughts of the gods and appropriate sacrifices; it’s curly, framing his face in little waves. He runs a hand through it and then laughs, embarrassed by his own vanity.

Hannibal leads his own horse to the river and sets down the packs it had been carrying. Then he runs two fingers through the curls that Wel has just touched. His scalp tingles, like Hannibal’s fingers are either very hot or very cold. Do that again, he wills, but Hannibal doesn’t.

Wel presses down the sudden desperation of it. He pulls out his knife– well, Hannibal’s knife, the one Wel walked off with that night on the killing-plain. He had bought a leather holster for it from a Thracian soldier with a side business making such things. It sits flat against the outside of his thigh, easily accessible. “I have blood,” he says. “The river-god will be content with that, I think.”

He holds his hand out over the rushing water, the blade overtop of it. He wishes he’d sharpened the knife recently; this would be easier if it were to take less pressure.

Come on, he tells himself, just a little cut. You did it at Gaugamela. But it had been easy, with the fear of imminent capture or death coursing through him, to cut his own flesh. Now, with everything still and peaceful around him, it’s harder to convince himself to press the knife down hard. Instinct won’t let him.

He’s about to do it– truly– when Hannibal grasps both his wrist, and the knife. “Let me.”

Wel’s mind briefly battles between embarrassment at his own weakness, and relief. The relief wins out; after all, he had never claimed to be courageous. Only to be permeable enough to let the god in, and to be filled with overflowing violence as a result. He allows himself to be turned slightly towards Hannibal, who cradles Wel’s hand with his own.

Only the slightest pressure of his fingers on Wel’s wrist prevents him from pulling it away; he could get away easily if he wanted, but he doesn’t want. Hannibal’s hand is warm and calloused and Wel imagines that he can feel the other man’s blood moving through his body through the press of the inside of his wrist.

When the knife slices his palm Hannibal tightens his grip, only slightly, against the instinctive jerk of Wel’s arm. It only hurts for the slightest moment, a sharp sting that fades right away into a dull ache that is itself erased by the feeling of Hannibal holding his arm out over the water, turning it downwards, letting the blood drip into the water. The drops of red mingle with the flow of the current and wash away. Hannibal’s eyes are closed, and he is murmuring some prayer in his own language.

Wel has never had much use for prayer in the way other men use it. Others pray to the gods and hope for their prayers to be answered; Wel has always simply talked to his god, when and where the god decides is best. What use would it be to call upon Ammon, to pretend that his life somehow belongs to him and that he can ask for things to be given or averted?

Still– he wants to pray. Not with the words he taught Alexander to speak when sacrificing to Ammon; something else, but before he can think of what he wants to say, Hannibal opens his eyes and pulls Wel’s hand back between them.

Hannibal eyes it. There are still beads of blood welling up from the cut. The hand grasping Wel’s wrist is so warm. He wants to lean his head against Hannibal’s shoulder. In that moment, Hannibal is both impossibly solid, and as transparent as the finest glass bead. Wel can see every thought passing through him. He’s certain that the image in his mind is the same one as in Hannibal’s. “Do it,” he says.

Hannibal doesn’t check to make sure they were thinking the same thing. He takes the permission to do exactly what Wel could see he wanted to; he raises the bloody palm to his mouth and licks a broad stripe up it, over the bloody slice.

Wel gasps as his knees go suddenly weak and the organs feel like they’re dropping out of his abdomen. Hannibal’s tongue is hot and rough and it feels like it’s touching inside of him even though the cut is so shallow that he’s only licking over a few layers of skin. Hannibal doesn’t stop; he holds Wel’s wrist with both hands and spreads his fingers out to give him better access to the cut, licking around the edges with gentle touches and then making his way into the centre again. Wel feels dizzy with it. He is on the verge of falling over when Hannibal lets his hand go, and places his hands gently on both sides of Wel’s face instead, cupping his jaw and curling his fingers around the back of Wel’s neck. Wel tries to keep breathing.

Hannibal has a small smear of blood on his lower lip. It is clearly there deliberately. They stare at each other.

“Sit,” Hannibal says. “I’ll set up the tent, then wash it for you properly.”

“I can help,” Wel protests. “It doesn’t hurt.”

“You have satisfied the river with your own blood; we will sleep safely tonight. Allow me to make some small contribution to our shelter,” says Hannibal, smiling, and lets Wel go; he feels the imprint of Hannibal’s hands on his face and neck like he’d been branded. He does as he was told, and sits; then lies down, arching his back slightly to try to stretch out the muscles in his hips that feel like they’ve been permanently frozen into the position of sitting on a horse. He’d gotten used to walking long distances; now he must get used to riding, and it doesn’t show signs of being any less painful.

Hannibal props up their tent-skins with a bundle of sticks that he had brought, augmented with wood found by the riverbank. He repeats the ritual from the killing-plain, dissolving salt in river water and submerging Wel’s hand in it, watching his face intently for signs of pain. Another man might be trying to see how well he could stand it, but Wel knows better know. Hannibal is hoping to see him wince; it pleases him to both inflict and soothe pain. Wel obliges easily; it really does sting quite badly.

The sun sets slowly and then all at once, plunging behind the horizon and casting everything into darkness. They eat bread and drink a small measure of wine well-watered from the river, then leave the small fire smouldering. The army-camp always had so many fires going at once that the light from them seemed to create a general glow above the area, lighting everything at once. With only one fire, the night seems terrifyingly dark. Wel crawls into the tent and curls up under his cloak and an extra blanket, pressing the thumb of his right hand into the bandage on the palm of his left to remind himself that they are safe.

On the other side of the tent, Hannibal waits for sleep like a Pharaoh awaiting eternal rest; flat on his back, his hands crossed over his chest. He is probably used to sleeping with his feet up after marches, for which lying flat on one’s back is most convenient; after several months in Persepolis, Wel has gotten out of the habit, and now that they are traveling by horse, he won’t need to get back into it. He hugs his own knees, wondering how he will be able to tell if Hannibal is asleep or not.

Hannibal answers the question by speaking; not quite in a whisper, but with a softness in his voice that could only be there in the dark, where sleep is not far off. “Wel?”

“Yes?” Wel thinks, for a moment, that perhaps Hannibal is going to say come here, and grab him tight around the waist the way Wel is doing to himself, hold fast all the parts of him that don’t fit inside and are constantly trying to get out.

“What of the Iliad did the King say to you, when he told you to come with me?”

Wel had had a poorly-copied version of the poem as a child, to learn Greek from. He remembers the part of the story: Patroklos comes to Achilleus weeping, and his friend admonishes him for his tears and asks what is the matter. The events set in motion will lead to both of their deaths; Wel remembers reading it for the first time with a sense of dread, the knowledge that if the heroes had listened to reason, there wouldn’t be a story worth singing about. Only bad decisions and their tragic consequences, it seems, are worth preserving. He’d told Joh at the time that his aim for his life was never to be sung about by Greek poets, and Joh had laughed.

So he had taken the advice implied in the admonishment of Patroklos, which Achilleus had refused. He’s still not sure if he made the right choice.

“I hope I am never gripped by the anger you hold dear,” he whispers to Hannibal in the dark, “you, for whom valour is an affliction.”

Susa, Spring 330

Chapter Notes

“Oh, these,” says Mazarus. “Take as many as you want. I minted them to pay the Greek mercenaries; they go wild for owls on their coins. Not worth much now, we’ll get around to melting them down at some point.”

Hannibal picks up a coin from the enormous bucket of tetradrachms in the corner. Sure enough, one side features the owl of Athena, the other the face of the goddess herself. But instead of the AΘE usually stamped on such coins whenever they’ve chanced to pass through his hands in the past, the Aramaic superscription names Mazarus as the issuer. He pockets it, more as a curiosity than because he thinks he’s going to be able to buy much with it. “I imagine you must be quite busy with higher-value items,” he says.

Mazarus shakes his head. “You have no idea. Six thousand talents from Pasargadae, forty thousand from Persepolis, and that’s just what he sent here for safekeeping. Seriously, steal anything you want, nobody will notice.”

Hannibal raises an eyebrow. “Is that what you’re doing?”

“Not that you have any reason to believe me, but no. I have a wife, three daughters, and four sons; the two youngest boys are not yet big enough to hold a weapon. Truth be told, the war was a drain on us; we didn’t stand to gain much even if Darius pushed back the invaders. I spent months minting the coin and recruiting mercenaries to send to the army, all for the Great King to run away on the battlefield. I had no problem with Abulites surrendering Susa to your king.”

“Abulites kept his position as satrap, but you were replaced in yours.”

“To be expected. Xenophilus has decent enough manners, for a Macedonian, and pays me a good salary. Callicrates is in over his head with the treasury, and knows it; he needs the help. They keep me at arms’ length, as I would in their position, but I have enough to do. And time to spend with my children, which I certainly didn’t when I was in Xenophilius’ job.”

Hannibal leans in to inspect a small herma with both the nose and penis chipped off. The room is full of them, along with other sculptures that had once been looted from Greece by Xerxes. They have turned the oldest portion of the treasury of Susa into an odd sort of art collection; the treasures of Greece collecting dust in a Persian store-room. Well, a Macedonian store-room now.

Mazarus, who had been the commander of the garrsion when Susa was a Persian city and is now some sort of minor administrator under the Macedonians, had been the one to greet them at the gates of the citadel. He’d informed them that Xenophilius, his replacement and new superior, was otherwise engaged, but would receive them later; in the meantime, he would make them comfortable and show them around. Having camped close to the city on the final night of the journey, it was still mid-morning when they arrived. They were shown to a small room in the garrison that might have once been a servants’ room, but was now storage for looted Greek knick-knacks not worth keeping under guard. When Hannibal had asked about them, Mazarus had offered to show him around the main store-rooms; Wel, meanwhile, had somehow already managed to get himself invited to the river with a gaggle of Elamite fishermen.

It’s the first time that they’ve been parted in twenty days, and Hannibal can’t decide if he’s relieved or not. On one hand, there is something unnerving about spending every moment, awake and asleep, in Wel’s company. He sees too clearly, yet is too unpredictable; just when Hannibal is certain that he’s established how the seer will react to any given situation, he is surprised. On the other; he is learning to like being surprised. Perhaps he had always liked it, but just never found exactly the right kind of surprise before Wel. Even now, viewing the looted treasures of Greece, he finds himself wondering how Wel is doing with the fishermen. He certainly can’t be carrying on any conversations with them; he has no Persian or Elamite, and the fishermen no Greek or Aramaic.

Mazarus, meanwhile, speaks excellent Greek. Too good to have started learning only recently; it suggests that, even as a citadel commander under Darius, he was forward-thinking enough to guess that the language of the ancient enemy would benefit him one day. Hannibal likes him, and feels a sort of kinship with him. Mazarus’ new loyalty to Macedon is practical, not religious– or at least, it seems on the surface to be so. But he has a sort of canny depth to him that makes Hannibal suspect there is more to his calculations than can be expressed in the language of politics. It means that he can speak more freely with him than he would a Macedonian or Greek. “I admit I expected something more impressive,” he says.

“You arrived too late,” says Mazarus. he gestures towards a spot towards the front of the jumble of statues, where there are two spots of disturbance in the thick layer of dust on the floor. “The good stuff, the ones the Athenians would actually remember having lost, we sent back when your lot took over. Bronze statues of Harmodios and Aristogeiton used to stand here; very impressive workmanship. But you can see them when you arrive in Athens, of course.”

“Who are they?” Admitting such ignorance to Briareos, Jason and Thaïs would be unthinkable; but Mazarus, who is aware that Athens is not in fact the centre of the universe, betrays no surprise at his ignorance.

“The Greeks call them the Tyrannicides; apparently, they were lovers who killed one of their co-kings. The other king killed the lovers, then took refuge with Darius the Great. When Cleisthenes set up democracy in Athens, he commissioned statues of them, and they are venerated as heroes.” Mazarus shrugs, the disdain clear on his face. If there’s one things Persians love, it’s kings; statues of king-killers must seem an odd idea indeed. “Nice statues, though,” he finishes.

“The Athenians must be pleased to have them back, then.”

“Undoubtedly. But between us: if your king thinks that sending back the statues Xerxes took will convince the Athenians to accept him as a Greek, he’s deluded. He will never be one of them, any more than I will be one of you.

Which means that Mazarus assumes Hannibal is Macedonian, which is good news indeed about his accent and appearance. It will be harder to deceive actual Greeks than a Persian, of course, but at least he can hope to not stand out too much in Greece. He can have no such hope for Wel, so it is doubly important that Hannibal not draw attention. In thanks for the crucial intelligence that Mazarus hadn’t known he was providing, Hannibal gives him the truth. “No doubt you are right; though I am a Phoenecian, from the city of Carthage.”

“Oh!” Mazarus brightens immediately; not because of any particular friendship between their races, but simply at the novelty. Being surrounded by Macedonians and Greeks as he and his few fellow Persians are, surely it is a pleasure to speak with someone more out of place than he is. “Well, if you do go see the statues in Athens, and have the leisure to send a letter, please do describe to me where they are. To hear the Macedonians tell it, they now keep watch over the place where the Greeks go to become initiated into the Mysteries of two goddesses, by drinking the barley-wine that creates temporary insanity.” He chuckles conspiratorially. “Or perhaps, in Greeks, permanent insanity.”

Hannibal sweeps his foot over the piles of dust left by the statues of the Tyrannicides. “Insanity greater than regular wine leaves them with, you mean?” he jests back, carefully casual. His interest in this tidbit is, he thinks, only natural. But he is by now used to ensuring that his particular interest in the things that interest him not be noted, and it has served him well in the past. He knows of mushrooms, cultivated closer to his home, that produce insanity some say is holy. But they are difficult to distinguish from the sort that do nothing, or are fatal, and thus he has never tried putting them to use. Barley-wine is a new one.

“Oh, certainly,” says Mazarus, and this he does seem surprised Hannibal doesn’t know. “They imbue the kykeon with a rot that grows on barley, and mint to keep the sickness the rot causes at bay. The rumour is that the court of the second Darius produced it for a little while, when the Athenian scoundrel Alcibiades took refuge in our land from the anger of his own people. He had stolen some from the temple for a party, and spent some time trying to recreate the recipe. He had some success, but was never quite able to get the proportions correct such that the drink worked, but did not make revelers sick. Eventually he stopped finding willing experimenters among the Persians, so the recipe was lost here when he was recalled as a hero by the inconstant Athenians. So it is said that, in all the world, only the priestesses of Demeter and Persephone are able to make the drink.”

“I will send you word of the statues,” Hannibal promises. He will; since he will certainly be visiting the area anyway, now.

They finish their tour of the collection of artworks and useless coins, and Mazarus leads him back to the room he had assigned them to. “I’ll have water brought for you to bathe,” he says. “Xenophilius can see you before supper, but perhaps it would be better to dispense with that formality entirely. I’m sure all of the commanders would be pleased to hear your stories over a meal.”

“Thank you,” Hannibal says, “I accept.” Wel won’t be happy about being committed to a banquet of Macedonian commanders of the exact sort he’d thought to have left behind in Persepolis, but he will surely see the logic in going; they need the information these men have about the road to come, as much as the men want their news. It’s possible that they don’t even know yet that Persepolis was burned. Certainly Mazarus has been remarkably restrained in not asking Hannibal about it if indeed he had already heard.

A vision of Wel in brightly-coloured trousers and cloak, such as Mazarus wears, forms suddenly in his mind. “I’m afraid we haven’t any clean clothes,” he says. When Mazarus hesitates, he adds, “My companion is Egyptian; we have no attachment to Greek forms of dress.”

At that, Mazarus looks pleased. “Well then, I’m sure we can find something for you,” he says. Hannibal nods and, in leave-taking, kisses him on the cheek; having learned, in the time since his encounter with Sisygambis, the proper code of Persian greetings.

*

“Seriously?”

“I see no reason why not.”

Wel rubs at his forehead, staring at the clothes set out on the bed. He smells of sweat and river water; Hannibal almost regrets the loss of the scent, but it will be good to bathe in hot clean water carried into a tub, and not in whatever river they happen to have camped by. But first, they need to decide what clothes they’re going to put on afterwards.

A Median servant, looking delighted with the task, had brought a selection of clothes of the sort that Mazarus had promised. With the city having been taken over so rapidly by Greeks, the market for such things must have contracted quickly; the suits are not new, but they are beautiful and obviously expensive. Hannibal had chosen for Wel a pair of sky-light trousers, a tunic embroidered with intricate knotted forms the colour of unwatered wine, and a dark overcoat that may once have been dyed with some diluted Phoenician purple. For himself, he’d chosen three garments with different patterns of embroidery. Since the only women he’d spent much time with of late were Thaïs and Bacaxa, neither of whom were much inclined to needlework, he ought to enjoy the opportunity for decoration to the fullest.

“They’re already going to think we’re Alexander’s barbarian pets,” Wel says, but he sounds resigned even as he says it. “And you want us to go to supper wearing Persian clothing.”

“If they are already convinced that all barbarians are the same, then surely our wearing drab Greek rags will do nothing to convince them otherwise,” Hannibal points out reasonably. “We might as well adopt more civilized forms of dress while we can.” Wel sighs and starts undressing for the bath, and Hannibal tries not to allow the glee of victory to show on his face.

The tub, filled with hot water by the same Median who had brought the clothes, is large enough for two; it makes the most sense for them to both take wash while the water is still warm. They’ve bathed together plenty by now, but all of it was quick dips in the river when it was warm enough, rinsing off the dust of the road as quickly as possible before the chill of the air set in.

This is different. Steam rises from the water, drifting up in swirling patterns on the usually-invisible movements in the air. Hannibal is struck by the parallel of it: the air is all around him all the time, overtop of the earth and underneath the aether, but its nature is invisible until there is steam, or dust, or even (it is said) in the northern climes snow to show its movements. Thus the presence of Wel’s body on his horse, and in rivers, and beside Hannibal in the tent, to its presence now.

His skin is unmarked to an extent that Hannibal, among fighting men, has become unused to. The main delineations on it are the boundaries between the sun-blackened parts of him that Hannibal has spent many hours memorizing, and the smooth secret parts the colour of fresh barley-bread underneath his cloak and chiton. His only scars are the two parallel ones on his left hand, and Hannibal had been present for the care of the first and the creation of the second. It makes him feel as if he is close to knowing all of him; perhaps, after this bath, there will be nothing left of the seer that is invisible to Hannibal. But he knows better. Every time he thinks he’s close Wel turns out to be still on the horizon, like the water-mirages of his desert home.

They sit at opposite ends of the tub, their backs against the curved edges, their legs tangled together, scooping up hot water over their faces and heads. Wel’s curls flatten with the weight of it and drip rivulets of water over his shoulders and down his stomach. Hannibal hair is also getting long, despite his having cut it not long before leaving Persepolis. Perhaps he can give both of them a haircut soon.

For the first time, he has a clear view of Wel’s cock, and looks at it without bothering to disguise his interest. He had expected it to have the prepuce cut off; the Egyptians are said to have originated the practice, with the priesthood especially observant of it. But it doesn’t, and Hannibal is glad of it; without the covering, one could not view the sublime image of the head poking through its veil of skin in hesitant arousal, like the lined eyes of the Persian women staring at him through the gaps in the curtains in Sisygambis’ tent.

Wel looks at him back, but his gaze is unreadable. There could be desire there, or anger, or sadness.

When the water is cold, Hannibal climbs out first. Mazarus had sent a flask of oil for anointing as well, fresh stuff scented with a spice he doesn’t recognize. It calls to mind the morning after the fire, when Wel had bathed in Hannibal’s house, and anointed himself without complaint with the old, semi-rancid oil that had been all that was available for the common men at that point. He can make up for it now by covering Wel’s skin in something more suitable. His mind skips around the memory of that morning, separating off the bit that had come after; his gift, and Wel’s rejection. Better not to dwell on that right now, with Wel standing in front of him naked and vulnerable. He is thin, having never developed a taste for the extravagant, but his belly looks as if it would be soft to the touch. It would be soft to a knife as well; a blade would slip into his abdomen like into slow-roasted meat.

No. There are better ways to encourage him towards extremes of feeling. Hannibal’s mind returns to the kykeon of the Athenians, lingers just long enough to come to a decision, then returns to the present.

Hannibal pours a measure of oil into his hand, and beckons. Wel comes, standing still and quiet and allowing himself to be rubbed down like a child, or a horse after a long run. His skin is dry from riding and river water, and his lips are chapped to the point of cracking. Hannibal rubs oil into them, too, his thumb running over the seam of Wel’s mouth.

He’s not expecting it when Wel says, “Do you want me to do you?”

Hannibal pauses. He knows, in moments of surprise, that he tends to go entirely blank; having not decided what sort of human expression ought to be showing on his face, his body shows none at all. It has a tendency to scare people, which makes them trust him less, which is why he tries not to be surprised very often. Wel surprises him all the time, but if he’s scared as a result, he doesn’t show it.

He hadn’t thought that far. He had thought about touching Wel, knowing him, owning him. The idea of being touched– and thus known, perhaps even owned– in return, had hardly entered his mind.

“Perhaps another time,” he says stiffly, like the instinctive bracing of the arm behind one’s shield when the enemy’s spear is bearing down.

Unlike Hannibal, Wel shows disappointment and hurt on his face like he can’t help it. Pain flits across his expression for an instant, then he shrugs and turns to the clothes. He wraps his loincloth back around his pelvis and then pulls on the trousers, frowning and rubbing his knees together experimentally. “Weird,” he decrees, breaking through the suddenly thick air of the room.

“I’m sure it takes some getting used to.” They won’t have much time to get used to the feeling of cloth separating the legs into columns; these aren’t exactly riding clothes, and once they arrive in Greece it would be insanity to wear Persian trousers. Still, he can enjoy the sight of Wel in them for the night. He anoints himself quickly, then turns to his own clothing, strange adornments for a night among strangers.

Chapter End Notes

your cheat sheet to Persian rulers referenced in this story:

Darius I, “the Great”: the Darius whose image Wel talks to as Persepolis burns, died ~150 years before the start of this story.
Xerxes: son of Darius I, destroyed the Athenian acropolis, in revenge for which (having here accepted Plutarch) Thaïs destroyed Persepolis.
Darius II: generally unimportant, but referenced here as the king who took in Alcibiades.
Darius III: Current (barely) Great King of Persia.

(5+1).1.1 Royal Road, Spring 330

Chapter Summary

Five things Weldjebauend of Siwah killed, and one thing he didn’t:

1. Camel spiders, lots of them, with great violence.

Chapter Notes

“They’re not dangerous,” says Hannibal, looking amused as Wel crushes every one of the disgusting insects he can find on their campsite, their flesh the colour he imagines pale Greek ladies kept inside to never see the sun to be, their guts bursting out under the soles of his sandals.

“They’re– ungodly,” says Wel, choosing the first word he can think of that doesn’t make him sound like a petulant child, and sounding instead like he has some sort of special knowledge of the god’s opinion on camel spiders, which he doesn’t. He just can’t imagine how they could possible be so ugly if some god didn’t hate them.

He steps back and surveys his work, the central patch of ground they’ve chosen to camp on littered with gooey corpses. He remembers, as a child, as Joh had explained to him the reasons that a priest, which is what he would be, ought never to kill anything not intended for sacrifice. Wel had cried the first time he’d accidentally trod on a spider after that, thinking he’d be kicked back out into the desert. Joh had just laughed, and said to try not to kill things on purpose, that’s all. And, as it turned out when he grew old enough to wield the knife, killing for sacrifice was a different thing entirely. Possessed by the god, he hardly felt responsible for the death of the animal at all.

But the oasis spiders had been little harmless black things, not the great pale flesh-coloured monstrosities of this region. These ones are said to lay eggs in the stomachs of dead camels. But how do they know a camel from a man, or a dead creature from a live one?

The previous night they’d stayed at a caravanserai, the first checkpoint on the road from Susa, where travellers heading to Bagastana or Ekbatana would turn off. The place had been full of postmen. Hannibal had spoken to them in Aramaic, and learned that their jobs had changed not one bit in the change of administration, and most of them couldn’t care less who the King was; their job was to carry messages up and down the road faster than humanly possible, and they took great pride in doing it for whoever happened to be sending the messages and paying the salaries. Wel had found the only advantage of the place to be the opportunity of sleeping on a bed raised off the ground, where fewer of the spiders ventured. There were also tradesmen there; Wel had found one with a set of good flat oilstones, and had Hannibal’s knife sharpened.

If pressed, perhaps he would have to admit another unexpected advantage of the caravanserai: built mainly for the Persian royal postal service, which consists of swift messengers travelling alone, each room has only one bed. The manager had uncertainly offered them two rooms, but they were expensive– no doubt artificially so for non-Persian travellers.

Wel had thought that it would be crowded and awkward, sleeping so close. In the tent– a four-man tent, if it were to be classified by army logistics men– they have room to stretch out. Wel thrashes in his sleep, he knows. He’d warned Hannibal of it, and received only a fond smile.

He’d woken in middle of the night, perhaps around the third watch, with his arms pinned to his side. His back was to Hannibal’s chest, and the larger man was holding him tight. It was an unspeakable invasion; an embrace that started while his soul was absent from the body, in the throes of sleeping and dreaming. It was also warm, and heavy, and sure to prevent him from falling right off the mattress, which he is used to doing at least once a night whenever he happens to be sleeping on a raised surface. He’d fallen back asleep immediately.

Tonight, they have room enough in the tent for Wel to curl up on one side of it and try to confine his nightmares to a radius that won’t wake Hannibal. Instead, he crawls inside the– temporarily, at least– spider-free tent and lies down on his side in the centre of the space. Hannibal comes up behind him without comment and slides an arm around him, locking him in place. Like an ox in a yoke, something in him knows that struggling is useless; and that part of him stays in place when his soul drifts off in sleep. For tonight, at least, he will not have nightmares; there would be no point when they can’t take up residence in his body.

Hannibal, somehow, contains Wel’s violence. Holds it in. Undreaming, in sleep he forgets what he knows while he’s awake: that that means that Hannibal can let it out, too.

Chapter End Notes

Map of the last few and next few chapters:

Base image: Oxford Atlas of World History, 2002. (Chosen for its clear view of the road; exact time setting of the map is earlier than this story.)

(5+1).1.2 Royal Road, Spring 330

Chapter Summary

Five things Weldjebauend of Siwah killed, and one thing he didn’t:

2. Fish

He doesn’t want to know what Hannibal would do if he told him so, but Wel privately thinks that the fishing net given to him by the Elamites in Susa is the most thoughtful gift he’s ever received. Wel doesn’t know much about fishing– yet– but he knows how to identify a well-loved possession, and the net is certainly that. It’s close-weaved with strong thread, mended wherever it was broken over many years. It had fed the family of the man who gave it to him for many years; but Susa is ever richer now than it was before, and having been hired as a supplier at the palace newly swollen with Macedonian administrators, the fisherman could surely afford a new one. But the echoes of every fish that had found death in its mesh linger in this one. Far from warning the fish away, they seem to attract them. Men are, apparently, not the only creatures paradoxically drawn to their own destruction.

Wel hadn’t had any languages in common with the Susa fishermen, which makes the gift even more precious; it is surely more intimidating to give a gift when you cannot explain it away, can’t tell its history or why you think the receiver might like to have it. The man, who had seen him come in through the city gates but knew nothing about him other than that he was on a journey and had not the look of a Greek, had simply pressed it into Wel’s hand.

As he stands knee-deep in the river, water rushing around his frozen legs, Wel thinks that if he makes it back, and passes through Susa, and if he can find the fisherman again, he should find some Hellenized Persian who can give him a phrase to say to the Elamite in thanks. Halfway in between the Ekbatana turnoff and the Tigris crossing, water is plentiful but any food other than coarse-milled grain is becoming rare. Hannibal performs what seems like magic with the grain, transforming it into flavourful, chewy bread by the method of keeping back a portion of the old levain to feed the next dough. But even good bread can only go so far. The landscape here is littered with tributaries to the Tigris, and they stop every night that there is no caravanserai to stay in with enough time for Wel to try his luck in the water. He catches something at least half the time; mostly small fish not even the length of a man’s hand, that exist only as food for larger fish. It’s good to have something more substantial to eat, now that Hannibal has started insisting on sword drills every morning. It’s not like Wel was complaining. But it makes him hungry and his arms ache with fatigue.

It barely feels like killing, to take the life of such creatures. He pulls the net up from the water and they wriggle inside of it, desperately trying to find their way back to the water that sustains their life. All he has to do to kill them is walk out of the river with the net in his hand. He’d never thought to ask whether priests are allowed to fish. It had never come up. But the tradition that Egyptian priests not take lives other than those intended for sacrifice has nothing to do with the lives themselves; they are perfectly free to eat flesh that others have killed. If it is the removal from the river that kills the fish, and not the hand of the fisherman, has he really killed them?

Now that he has killed with his own hand a creature not intended for sacrifice, he knows it feels different. Perhaps Hannibal would say that the dying soldier was a sacrifice; perhaps, on a larger scale, he was. If there are gods who love war– and many do– then surely the act of war itself must be for the purpose of pleasing them. But Wel knows of no sacrifice that takes place for the benefit of the sacrificial animal. Mercy is antithetical to sacrifice, and he had felt mercy as he slit the man’s throat. Or at least, he tells himself that he did.

He guts the fish by the river: one knife-stroke removes the gills, another opens the belly, and he sweeps the guts out with his finger into the river, where he also washes the fish and the blood from his hands. On his way back to the camp, he indulges in a flight of fancy like a little comic play of the Greek sort that Joh had sometimes found for him. It would open with a great fish demagogue addressing the chorus, wearing scaly masks and huge fishy phalluses, praising the greatness of their fish city, its high walls, its learned philosophers, and its superiority to the stupid, ugly and barbaric fish cities just a short swim down the stream. Just when all the fish citizens were ready to vote on the dedication of a statue of that very same demagogue, a pile of guts fresh from Wel’s knife would float by. One of the city’s learned philosophers would opine that the guts must be a gift from the gods, or perhaps even a god in themselves, and ought to be worshipped as such. This would touch off a great rivalry among the prominent fish citizens as to who could show more civic-minded reverence to the new god. Eventually, the altar of the new god would grow in stature the only way it could: the civic-minded sacrifice of fellow fish, the messes of their entrails littering the civilized streets, the horrifying slaughter of–

— “Wel?”

Wel blinks. The fish smells good; it is roasting on the fire and Wel is staring into it, apparently a little too intently. “Sorry,” he says.

“What were you thinking of?”

“Greece,” Wel says honestly.

“A place that occupies the minds of many more men than it used to, these days. About anything in particular?”

Wel rouses himself, his mind like a dog shaking off water. Underneath, the kernel of worry is obvious, if not necessarily one he wants to share unadorned with Hannibal. Here, still in Persian lands, they are both foreigners to those around them; but so long as they stick to the road, mostly welcome ones. There are garrisons stocked with Macedonians and sympathetic or well-adjusted Persians, and their coins are as good as proof of where they’ve come from. The story of the Pharaoh’s sojourn in the desert had spread far and wide– been spread, that is, by Callisthenes of Olynthus, whose job it is to make such tales widely known. So Wel is known, if not by name, at least by legend. When they eat in the dining room of a caravanserai, Persians and Macedonians alike are perfectly happy attempt to carry on conversations with him in whatever mutually intelligible combination of Greek and Aramaic they can collectively cobble together.

The moment they step off of the ship that will carry them from Asia to Greece, things will be different. That Wel is perfectly capable of communication means little; Hannibal’s unaccented speech, paler skin, and the cultural immersion of having spent the last several months in a unit of Athenians will make him the natural spokesman for the two of them. The Greeks are paranoid of barbarian hordes at the best of times, and these are not the best; at least, not to anyone who’s been listening to Demosthenes. It will be better to not be noticed, and certainly not to flaunt their association with the forces of the Hellenic League that plenty of Greeks are convinced is either a tyranny in disguise, or a band of idiots led by a foolish child. Wel will be reliant on Hannibal for almost everything. That the prospect terrifies him is a small secret; that he feels relief at the thought of it is the larger one.

He doesn’t say so. “Death,” he says instead, and that is true too.

(5+1).1.3 Gaugamela, Spring 330

Chapter Summary

Five things Weldjebauend of Siwah killed, and one thing he didn’t:

3. A dog

Chapter Notes

When they reach the plain that the still-probably-barely-Great-King Darius had bet his empire on, it is being sowed with barley.

They stand at the edges, watching a farmer with an ox make his slow, laborious way over the patch where Wel is pretty sure he had first stumbled into Hannibal’s private sacrifice. The unnatural flatness of the plain razed by Darius’ army is gone, divots and patches of weeds having moved in as soon as the bodies were cleared. If they were cleared. Does the farmer come across the occasional remnant, as he sows? He’s too far away to tell. Perhaps he simply ignores it when he comes across bones, a patch of rich soil where viscera decomposed into worm food, a forgotten limb or tangle of hair. It will all feed the crop. It’s the least the bodies can do, their commanders having razed the fields and soaked them in blood in the first place.

There is no need to camp tonight; the city of Arbela boasts both a large caravanserai, and a garrison where they would surely be able to find a welcome. Wel is bracing for it. As much as Hannibal has an entire philosophy of need and desire at the ready to justify the life of privation of a soldier, Wel can see clearly how their stays among people replenish him. People think him strange, but he uses his strangeness like a spear– whereas Wel has only learned to use his like a shield, and a poor one at that. Hannibal doesn’t make friends during their rest stops so much as briefly gather disciples, a flock of followers to be herded, admired, and quickly released. Watching him, Wel is hard-pressed to say whether he is the shepherd or the wolf. Maybe the sheepdog, halfway in between. A good sheepdog doesn’t savage the sheep, but it wants to. It could. Perhaps one day, it will.

So he is surprised when Hannibal dismounts at a spot just out of sight of the farmer and says, “Will this do?”

Wel looks around. The small river, he remembers from the first pass through this place, is called the Bumodus; since they had both survived the events of the battle here, it seems reasonable to assume that its spirits hold them no ill will. If there are any rotting corpses left, he can’t see any in the immediate vicinity. No spiders, either, though he’s mostly given up hoping on that one. “Sure,” he says cautiously. “You don’t want to…”

“I do, but you don’t. We will have company whether we desire it or not, when we embark at Smyrna. If you wish to savour solitude, now is the time.”

Wel looks up at him, Hannibal’s face smooth and expressionless but entirely familiar. It’s been forty-three days since they left Persepolis; Wel hadn’t intended to count them, but something in him is keeping track like the mind keeps track of the passage of the sun through the sky. In that time, he thinks he has come to know Hannibal’s face better than any other. Perhaps for someone with parents, that would be odd. But Wel had never come to know one face better than another, cannot remember ever sleeping in the bed of a caretaker when frightened by a nightmare. Certainly he would never have willingly interrupted Joh’s sleep. But he falls asleep with Hannibal’s breath on his neck, Hannibal’s arm around his waist, and wakes to see Hannibal’s face the first living thing illuminated by the sun. He is familiar like nothing else but the presence of the god ever has been.

Hannibal is always polite, but he is only ever kind when it suits his purposes. The sun is setting later and later in the day, and it is still bright out as they water the horses and set up the shelter of the tent. As they do it, Wel contemplates what those purposes might be, and he comes to the conclusion that it is this place that Hannibal wants to be close to; the plain where he had mistaken Wel for an apparition, and Wel had mistaken him for a daimon. Perhaps neither were mistaken. He finds a rotting finger on the ground as he drives in the stakes of the tent. He throws it away from him and carries on, and Hannibal chuckles a little.

Then, as Hannibal is warming bread on the fire and Wel is considering whether he ought to try his luck in the river for fish, the finger comes back to him.

It is held lightly in the teeth of a little mutt, who looks very proud of himself. The general sense of personal accomplishment is, however, truly the only thing the dog seems to have going right in his life; in all other respects, he appears to be one of the most singularly miserable creatures under the sky. Two of his legs are broken, one merely very crooked but the other weeping secretions at the point of the break. He is missing part of an ear, and his fur is so patchy that most of his body consists of pale wrinkled skin like a newborn rat.

Wel loves him immediately. “Thank you!” he says in Egyptian, exactly as he would have to anything that Beddwyk, Mesdr, Hamhamt, or any of the other Siwah strays thought to bring him. He accepts the finger without thinking, and then finds himself holding a mostly-rotted finger and wondering if he can throw it away again without the dog interpreting it as the opening salvo in a rousing game of fetch. Despite his nearly nonfunctional legs, the dog is gazing up with the kind of adoration that indicates that he would indeed try to bound after it, if he thought it would please his new master.

Hannibal is staring at the dog out of the side of his eyes. He doesn’t state the obvious, which is that it’s the ugliest damn dog in the entire fresh new Macedonian empire, and it’s not long for this world anyway.

He doesn’t say anything all the way through dinner– which, since Wel had been distracted from going on a fishing trip, is just bread with some olive oil and very small, old dates they had bought from a merchant outside Arbela. He doesn’t say anything until the sun has sunk beneath the horizon, and continues not saying anything as Wel curls up under a blanket, the corner sheltering the dog, stroking between his eyes as the mutt breathes contentedly with a sort of laboured whine on each respiration. The sun has long since sunk away, and the fire burned itself down to embers barely visible through the skin of the tent. The dog had followed him in like it was obvious he belonged inside. The entire tent smells of pus and matted fur. Hannibal just lies down behind him, like every night, and places an arm over Wel’s waist, pulling him close.

Wel closes his eyes. He’d like to just drift off like this, Hannibal behind him and the dog in front, but he can’t. Hannibal’s very silence pulls it from him, the way he pointedly doesn’t say what needs to be said.

“I know it would be kindest to kill him,” Wel says finally, when he can’t avoid it any longer. “I know.

Hannibal’s arm tightens around him. He can’t understand Wel’s distress but he can feel it, and he can feel it without being distressed by it. There is something inhuman in that ability, but it is precisely what soothes Wel into accepting his caresses, makes him feel less guilty about being held close and soothed. People are usually bothered by Wel. They’re bothered by his pain, and once his pain transmutes itself into prophesy, they’re invariably bothered by what he has to say. (Well, perhaps not invariably; of Wel’s supplicants, only the Pharaoh had walked away pleased, in recent memory.) Hannibal isn’t bothered by any of it. Wel wakes sometimes with fear clutching at his throat and the base of his skull and sees Hannibal’s eyes boring into him, interested, like a boy observing a bug. It should be disturbing. Truly, he’s only relieved that someone takes pleasure from his pain, even if it can’t be him. He wonders if this will be the same.

“Yes. I can do it, if you like. In the morning.”

Wel closes his eyes. The dog, unsuspecting, settles himself more firmly into the ground, as perfectly contented as such a creature could be. It might be a long time before anyone else takes an interest in it. Probably, nobody will bother before the thing dies of starvation or its injuries.

“All right,” Wel says, and then, because he can’t stop himself, “How will you do it?”

“Quickly. I’ll snap his neck. I’ve done it to men; a dog can’t be too much more complicated.”

Completely inappropriately to the conversation at hand, Wel can’t help how that statement makes warmth pool in his groin, his thighs press together at the thought of Hannibal’s hand around his neck instead of his waist. He believes, unreservedly, that he could do it quickly.

“Show me,” he says.

He half-expects Hannibal to refuse, to tell him to go to sleep and that they’d think on it more in the morning. Instead, Hannibal pushes himself up on one arm and reaches towards the dog. “One hand here,” he says, gingerly grasping the underside of the dog’s jaw. “And one here, at the crown of his head. A quick twist, with as much force as possible. Dead in a single instant.”

Wel sits up, blinking. “Really?” It seems so… unlikely. At the oasis, where violent death was uncommon and most died of age or disease, death was a drawn-out process; an ancient priest lying in his hut waiting for Osiris the Green to choose him to begin the passage to the underworld. Even his parents, the memory of whose death now sits in the back of his mind uneasily, had taken a long time to die. On the battlefield, as he now knows, the fallen lie dying for hours after the action is finished. This is something different.

“Truly. I didn’t believe it myself until I tried it. It requires too close proximity to one’s foe to be particularly practical in battle, but it’s a useful skill nevertheless.”

It is very dark; he can barely see Hannibal in profile, sitting close to him with downcast eyes. “Any other connection between two parts of the body can sustain damage, even be severed,” Wel whispers. “But this one…” he raises a finger to touch his own neck, and then finds that instead of his own throat, he is caressing the base of Hannibal’s.

Hannibal doesn’t flinch away. Instead, he brings his own hand up to trap Wel’s against his skin. “Here,” he says, dragging it slowly to his jaw, exactly as he had showed on the dog. He turns himself a little, so his back is to Wel’s front, and Wel’s arm wraps around to give him a better grip on Hannibal’s jaw. “Now all you need to do is put your hand on my head and twist.”

Wel brings his other hand up and places it on Hannibal’s head. His hair is very fine and soft. For a moment, he forgets that he isn’t going to do it, and he realizes how easily he could. And Hannibal is just sitting there, and Wel can feel the smile on his face with the hand at his jaw.

In his mind, Wel twists, putting all the force he can muster into it, and Hannibal is gone, and Wel is here alone. In the tent, his hand twitches with the thought, and the aborted movement glides his fingers through Hannibal’s hair, and Hannibal rumbles a contented sigh from deep in his chest, and Wel does it again, stroking him, the dog finally raising his head indignantly at being ignored.

They end up lying back down in the reverse of their usual configuration, Wel wrapped around Hannibal’s back, holding him. Hannibal drops off to sleep, his fingers curled around Wel’s. Hannibal always sleeps first, and his sleep is undisturbed by the bloodshed that seems to occupy his thoughts most of his waking hours. Or perhaps, to him, a night full of death and destruction qualifies as a pleasant dream.

Wel can’t sleep. He is full of– something, something unresolved in the moment where he hadn’t twisted, something left undone, something he wants to do.

After what could have been only a few moments or could have been the space of an entire watch, he gets up. The dog shifts, gets up and shakes off to the best of its pitiful ability. Hannibal doesn’t move.

“Come,” he whispers to the dog, and he follows him out of the tent into the night. The air is just beginning to be muggy in the night-time as well as warm in the day; as they get farther from the mountains, the mere idea of snow seems more and more distant. He pisses onto a small patch of scrub at the edge of their little clearing, because it feels odd to be out here with nothing to do.

He doesn’t have nothing to do. The dog comes and joins him, interpreting this as an activity requiring moral or perhaps even practical support, lifting his leg in the same direction that Wel is aiming. Wel laughs.

Then he steps one foot over to the other side of the dog’s body to hold him still, puts one hand on the dog’s jaw, one on the crown of its head, and snaps his neck.

Chapter End Notes

Narrowly avoided re-using my own line, but re. Hannibal and ugly dogs… https://mlobsters.tumblr.com/post/638154647541006336/inspired-by-a-conversation-with-teiandcookies

(5+1).1.4 Royal Road, Spring 330

Chapter Summary

Five things Weldjebauend of Siwah killed, and one thing he didn’t:

4. River weeds

As if he had bought peaceful nights with sacrifice, Wel sleeps well for several weeks after the dog.

Hannibal had only raised an eyebrow, the next morning, when he’d exited the tent to find the thing’s corpse on the ground. He had come back in to wake Wel with a soft kiss on his temple and a murmur in his ear: “I can only hope that the next kill you make, I’ll be awake to witness.”

He is. Wel makes kills all the time: river-fish, ants, little scuttling scorpions. Technically, Wel is killing right now: barefoot in the silty bottom of a small river flowing out of the Euphrates, his toes ripping up weeds and crushing darting little fish against rocks as he tests the current. He notices it happening, but it would happen even if he wasn’t paying attention. Just by existing, he causes other living things to die. That, all humanity has in common. But perhaps some more than others. Joh and Ahmos are on one end of the spectrum, killing only what is necessary, only by accident; Hannibal and the Pharaoh and his army on the other. Perhaps Wel will find out where on the line he falls, if he keeps killing enough things.

Compared to the Euphrates, whose bridge had been repaired and fortified following the army’s crossing last year, this is only a little stream; he could walk across it, probably, if he really wanted. He turns to Hannibal, who is crouched on the banks. “Can you swim?” he asks.

Hannibal, uncharacteristically, avoids his eyes. “Yes,” he admits. It sounds like an admission, which is odd. Why would he be ashamed of being able to swim?

“Who taught you?” Wel prods gingerly.

“My father. He was an unconventional man in many ways.”

“Why is that unconventional? Aren’t Carthaginians seafarers?”

“Yes,” says Hannibal, “Which is precisely why it is better not to learn. A man lost overboard who cannot swim may be able to keep afloat for a few moments, just long enough for his fellows to rescue him, if they notice and are able. If not, he drowns quickly. But a swimmer will be alive for days, exhausting himself, drinking ever more seawater as the seawater increases his thirst, aware of each drawn-out moment of his death.”

That actually makes quite a bit of sense, and considering they’re going to embark on a sea-voyage once they reach the end of the Royal Road at the coast, should probably give him pause. Wel barely gives it a second thought before asking, “Will you teach me?”

Though the river’s current is cool from its own movement, the sun is hot and the air and water itself is warm. Hannibal stands and strips off his clothes, wading into the stream. Wel, who had only ventured out up to his knees to wash the road’s mud off of his feet, pulls off his own chiton and throws it onto the bank. “Come deeper,” Hannibal says, and his eyes crinkle with amusement when Wel hesitates. “I won’t throw you in,” he promises. Wel doesn’t entirely believe him, but he follows Hannibal deeper. The cool water slides in between his thighs, his buttocks, over his cock and belly. It feels different from splashing himself during a quick dip in the river to get clean. When bathing, one forces the water to service the body. But to swim is to ask permission to enter the water, to be part of it.

When they are in up to Wel’s chest, Hannibal stops. “The first thing,” he says, “is to be comfortable with your head under water, blowing air slowly out of your nose and not letting any water enter your nose or mouth. Put your head under the water breathe out slowly through your nose, and watch my hand; I’ll count down from five on my fingers, and you may raise your head when I’m done.”

This implies that he’s to have his eyes open under the surface, which for some reason seems more intimidating than merely putting his head under. Wel imagines the water sliding in through his eyeballs, behind his forehead and into his brain, sloshing around in his head, pouring down his nose and out his mouth. He takes a deep breath and puts his head under; there is a single moment of pure terror as he instructs himself to open his eyes but then the lids slide open and after a momentary sting, all that happens is that he can see, fuzzily. Hannibal’s hand is in front of his face, and behind it his muscled stomach, his cock in its nest of hairs floating freely in the water, his scarred thighs. Wel tries blowing a little air out of his nose, expecting the water to immediately take the opportunity to rush in. But it doesn’t, and Hannibal’s fingers start counting down, and all Wel needs to do is keep breathing out until Hannibal has recalled all of his fingers into his closed fist and Wel brings his head back up above the surface, gasping.

Hannibal looks amused. “Not so bad?”

Wel manages to say “No– not bad. Just–” his breathing is a little panicked, even though he hadn’t been under long enough to leave him breathless if he’d simply been holding his breath in the air– “different.”

“No swimming in the famous hottest-at-night spring of yours?”

Wel nearly recoils at the suggestion, and splutters “It’s sacred,” before he realizes that Hannibal is joking. It would, besides, be a poor idea to soil the precious water, just enough to give the temple and village enough to draw for drinking and washing, always running a little bit low in the hottest months to remind them of what the gods could choose to take away.

He’s grown used to the rivers and streams here, the idea that water is plentiful. But it’s still luxurious to immerse himself in it. “All right,” says Hannibal. “Let’s combine blowing air from your nose with floating. Your body will float on its own, so long as you don’t fight it. Put your face back in, blow bubbles with your nose, and let yourself tip forward until your feet leave the bottom. Don’t push off. Just let them come up when they want to.”

Wel does, and the silty bottom of the river comes into focus beneath him as his body does exactly as Hannibal claimed it would. His feet leave the ground where they had been crushing weeds beneath him, and he is floating above it all like a god looking down on the carnage of Earth. Then his mind, unbidden, tries to raise his feet up even higher; his head sinks instead, his torso quickly destabilizing in the water. He puts his feet back down quickly and pulls his head out of the water. “I see what you mean,” he pants when he’s caught his breath.

“There is a particular method of nonresistance to it. You must allow the water to keep you afloat, while exercising control over your direction of movement. This time, kick your feet a little. Not a big movement. Just like this.” Hannibal demonstrates, his feet kicking in small spasms away from Wel. “Come to me,” he says when he stands back up.

He’s only perhaps three of Wel’s body-lengths away, but it seems very far. Wel eyes the span doubtfully, as if halfway across it might turn out that the paradoxes of the Greeks proving that all movement is impossible might, after all, turn out to be true, and Achilleus can never catch up to the tortoise, and Wel will never make it across to Hannibal.

He blows bubbles, and tips forward, and kicks what feels like only the tips of his toes experimentally, and before he knows it he is not only across the gap, he is crashing into Hannibal’s sternum with the crown of his head. Not, luckily, very hard, because Hannibal is laughing when he resurfaces.

“Sorry,” says Wel, finding his feet again on the river-bottom. It is in fact a little deeper here than the spot he had swum from, and there is a cold current. Instead of moving to get out of the water, he steps in closer. At some point, in the time since they had left Persepolis, he had come to expect Hannibal’s body to offer comfort reflexively.

It does. Hannibal puts his arms around him, and Wel leans into the smooth slide of Hannibal’s skin in the water. His cock presses limp and rubbery against Wel’s thighs, soft at first and then less soft.

He presses his forehead against Hannibal’s shoulder, almost laughing with sudden giddiness. It’s not that he had consciously decided never to take a lover, back home. Though tradition held that priests be unmarried, plenty took lovers, and plenty took plenty of lovers. As Joh had even pointed out to him, he wasn’t unattractive; he could have had his pick of men when he was a boy, and boys when he was a man, and women at any time. It just hadn’t seemed, somehow, like a serious suggestion. The idea of spending enough time in one person’s company for sex to even be an option had been ludicrous. Perhaps he could have been some older priest’s plaything, just a warm little body to enjoy and throw away without even a cursory attempt at the kind of initiation into the wisdom of manhood that such relationships are supposed to provide. But Joh had been just protective enough to spare him that. He remembers vaguely that he may have made some offer of the sort to Hannibal, that first night. The only thing he could imagine anyone wanting from him; that he be of use. And Hannibal had refused.

This is different. Wel is no longer cold. He is burning with possibility at every spot where he is pressed against Hannibal, and Hannibal is breathing into his hair with an intensity that is very far from the practical. Wel is aware of his own erection, and then Hannibal reaches down and wraps his hand gently around it; and Wel thinks in a moment of stunned realization that he was wrong, he has never been aware of his own body at all, in any way, in comparison to this. He has lived a life entirely in his head, in the company of the god, available to the divine at any time.

This has nothing to do with the god. Ammon-Re cannot feel it; this is for the mortal part of him. His knees go weak with it, with how good it feels to have a body that is his and his alone, and if he weren’t standing up to his chest on water he’d doubtless fall right over. Instead he just sinks into Hannibal, because Hannibal is a river of his own now, his chest heaving up and down with his breath like a current and his hand moving back and forth on Wel’s cock so warm and slick that it can’t possibly be just a hand.

Wel nearly curses with a god’s name, but he doesn’t want to attract attention, now, when he is alone with Hannibal, and he knows no words in Egyptian or Greek that could describe this. “Hannibal,” he says instead, and it comes out like a moan, and although he’d meant to add something to the end of that sentence, to make it a sentence and not just a single word, he can’t. Hannibal is a curse word all on its own. Or a prayer.

Hannibal’s free hand comes to cup the back of his head, holding him in place, as if he had anywhere else to go. The roughness of the fingers through his hair reminds him that roughness is possible, and he thrusts his hips forward, hoping for more, tighter, faster. “Still,” rasps Hannibal, and doesn’t change his rhythm or his grip, maddeningly not quite enough. Wel tries to stay still but finds that he can’t; his hips rut forward desperately, and he is not quite mad for it enough not to realize that it’s not, technically, that he can’t stay still. He wants to feel Hannibal hold him tighter, hold him still. Wants Hannibal to make him. Wel has just discovered being alone in his body, and all he wants to do is give it over to Hannibal.

Hannibal holds him tight, but he doesn’t manhandle Wel any more than he’s already doing; he just stills his hand instead, letting Wel thrust forward into it instead. The noise Wel makes when he realizes what he’s allowed to do is high and broken-off and then he does, he grabs Hannibal’s chest with both hands and fucks into the hot tight hollow of his hand as Hannibal makes encouraging noises in his ear. It can’t last long, and Wel doesn’t want it to last long until the exact moment that he comes, and then Hannibal loosens his fist only to wrap his hand around Wel’s cock and feel it softening, and Wel is glad for a few more scant moments of that hand, there.

He takes a deep, shuddering breath. His seed is floating away downriver, fish food, and in the clear water he can see Hannibal’s cock, stiff and red with his wanting. “Can I?” Wel asks. Hannibal hadn’t asked before touching him, but then, Wel is used to being invaded without his permission. That is, in a sense, his whole purpose in life, and he is rather good at it. Hannibal has never prophesied, never been taken by a god in a clash of pain and sudden knowing; therefore, Wel feels that he ought to ask.

“You may,” Hannibal says, far too composed, and Wel reaches down through the water to try to fix that.

Hannibal’s hands keep tangling in Wel’s hair has Wel strokes him, breathing hard against his shoulder, his hands finally slipping down to grasp the back of his neck. He mouths at Wel’s collarbone like he might eat him; and when he too spills into Wel’s hand, slick for just a moment before it’s carried away by the water, he bites down. It’s not hard, but it’s surprising, and Wel jerks back before he can stop himself; unused to the way bodies move more slowly in water he cannot arrange his feet to stop himself from falling, and momentarily forgets that he can swim now. He thrashes, panicked with the sole thought of trying to keep his head above the water, and Hannibal reaches forward to haul him back.

Wel spits out a mouthful of river water and laughs shakily. “Sorry.”

Hannibal just runs a finger over the bite mark on his collarbone. He seems somewhat stunned, Wel notes with a certain amount of pride.

“There is nothing to be sorry for,” Hannibal answers, later, so much later that Wel is no longer certain to what he is referring.

(5+1).1.5 Inner Sea, Spring 330

Chapter Summary

Five things Weldjebauend of Siwah killed, and one thing he didn’t:

5. A ram

Chapter Notes

“Going to tell me that it’ll get better quickly, this time?” Wel groans.

“No,” comes Hannibal’s voice, floating somewhere above him. The definition of “above” is changing rapidly, is the problem. Logically, Wel knows that the ship can’t possibly be pitching about all that much, if he’s able to lie flat on his back on the upper deck and not be thrown around. It doesn’t feel that way, though.

“Only point out that you will have a good deal longer to get used to it on this leg of the journey,” Hannibal continues. Wel can practically feel him deliberating on whether or not to continue, and then he does: “In all honesty, I must tell you that it will probably be worse as we leave the shelter of the coast.”

“Great,” says Wel dully. “Thanks.” He just barely manages to finish the word before he needs to haul himself up and vomit over the side again.

Hannibal is still watching him when he slumps back down onto the deck. One of these days Wel should probably put his foot down about Hannibal’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Wel’s misery, but apparently this is just like the nightmares; if it has to happen anyway, someone might as well be enjoying it.

The first embarkation, from Smyrna, had been a shock. Someone, Wel feels strongly, really should have warned him that he would be sick the moment he set foot on a ship for the first time. But maybe in the port city, where everyone has been running about on ships since childhood, everyone had simply forgotten that the first time brings sickness, if they ever knew. Perhaps when the first time is in the womb, there is no first time.

Wel can believe this of Atys, the merchant on whose ship they had bought passage, and his sailors. Atys is an Athenian metic, spending his winters in the city and the trading season shipping goods in between the heart of Greece and the Greek cities on the coast of of Asia. He is younger than Wel had imagined the captain of a merchant-ship to be, bushy-bearded according to the older Greek fashion, fond of strong wine after a hard days’ work, and cheerfully apolitical in a way that, he says with the strange pride of the hereditarily disenfranchised, is both the metic’s lot and privilege. He has heard Demosthenes rage against Alexander, and not thought it very interesting; yet the liberation of the Greek cities he trades with from Persian rule is of equally little interest to him. All he cares about, he explains in a voice that is perpetually a little louder than it needs to be, is the weather, the wine and the welfare of his crew and passengers. Those are provided by the gods, not by the politicians in Athens or kings in Persia. Wel likes him. Atys seems bemused by Wel’s nausea, a little sorry for him, embarrassed on his behalf and trying not to show it and embarrass him more. Yes, he probably would have warned Wel if he had known.

Hannibal, on the other hand: Hannibal knew. Hannibal is having fun. Wel cracks his eyes open and is unsurprised to see him still there, as if he is watching a play that merely has a boring middle bit but will pick back up again soon. For all that he’d actually rather not be left alone, it’s still kind of annoying. “What?” he snaps.

“When you are feeling well enough to remain upright for a few moments,” Hannibal says gingerly, “Some of the sailors seem to want to talk to you.”

Wel feels briefly guilty despite himself for assuming the worst of Hannibal’s intentions; how cruel of him, to assume Hannibal was only here to amuse himself by Wel’s discomfort, when in reality he was protecting him from conversation with sailors! Of course, this kind of guilt is another one of Hannibal’s favourite emotions to elicit in other people, so Wel shoves it aside as best he can and pushes himself up to sitting. Sure enough, two sailors are standing on the other side of the deck nervously, eyeing him and Hannibal nervously. Well, most of the fear is, as always, directed towards Hannibal, which has taken some getting used to.

On the first leg of the journey, down the coast from Smyrna to Ephesus, the crew had quickly come to a conclusion about the two of them that was precisely the opposite of what Wel had expected. On the land road, most of the strangers they had come across had been prestigious Persian messengers, highly-placed Macedonians, Greeks left to guard the garrisons and administer the satrapies, and merchants wealthy enough to travel in relative security to do business. Hannibal is charming to the wealthy and powerful in a way Wel would have expected if he’d thought to expect anything. He speaks Greek at least as well as any Macedonian and Aramaic passably, which is the most prestigious way to speak Aramaic. He knows theatre and politics and philosophy– which Wel does too, to an extent, but he would never have thought to use them as weapons in conversation. It would be impressive if it weren’t exhausting. Mostly, Wel had sat by silently when they dined or drank at caravanserais or garrisons, a sullen and intimidating companion to the charming Carthaginian.

But the sailors are different. None of them seem to be slaves, or so Wel assumes from the easy way that Atys grants them all shore leave at Ephesus; but nevertheless, they are undoubtedly lowlifes of various sorts. They are exiles, wanderers who take the coin of a merchant for a sea passage because risking their lives be sea is better than begging; some speak rude peasant Greek as a first language, and some other regional languages that Wel doesn’t know, but all of them share a vocabulary of curse words and sexual innuendos that must be pulled from every language they’ve ever encountered. Though Wel had made no particular effort to befriend them– in fact, all he’d done was constantly be vomiting over the side of the ship– they seem to have decided that Wel is safe to talk to, and Hannibal to be avoided. Since Hannibal often has to translate words for him, it’s somewhat futile, but they resolutely avoid Hannibal anyway, creeping around him like mice aware of the presence of a cat. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps Wel should be creeping, too, but it’s rather too late for that.

He doesn’t know the names of the two who appear to be waiting for an audience with him. They’re young, maybe young enough to still be considered youths in the city if their families had money or standing, but as it is they are men making their way in the world. “Okay,” says Wel, and Hannibal beckons the pair over, as if he’s Wel’s personal secretary.

They make little bows to him, the kind of bizarre half-capitulation to Persian traditions that seems to be common in the recently liberated Greek cities, and one begins, “Venerated priest–”

“He ain’t a Greek!” the other hisses, elbowing the first in the ribs.

“So? Still a priest, that’s why we’re asking him!”

“Yeah, but what if they call ‘em something different out there?”

“Yes?” Wel interrupts their panic.

The one who had objected clears his throat and takes over. “We’ve been nominated, er, deputized, like, to ask if you would, well, if you could bring yourself to, for ones so lowly as us types, to–”

“A chap bought a ram in town, for dinner, well, sacrifice, obviously, but dinner after that, but he don’t know how to butcher it, never having had a one on the farm,” the first one cuts in. “So we thought maybe you did, cutting the throats of such things for your barbarian gods and all that, and doing it for the King’s sacrifices after.”

It takes Wel a moment to sort through the tangle of their sentences, and when he arrives at the conclusion, he nearly laughs. “You want me to kill your dinner for you?”

“Well, if you kill it, it’s a proper sacrifice,” says the first sailor piously. “Being a priest and all.”

Wel sobers slightly. For all that they’re nervous and not exactly well-informed on the finer points of religious observance, they are sincere. Somewhat. Mostly they’re hungry, and aware that this is likely to be the last good meat they’ll have for a while, and don’t want to ruin it with sloppy butchery. Hannibal would be a better choice, to prepare a meal. But they want Wel to do it, because somehow, his presence is supposed to turn the hunger of a bunch of sailors into a religious observance.

Does it? He has no idea.

It’s true; he’s slaughtered plenty of rams to the gods whom Greeks know only as barbarians. Or at least, his body has. He’d thought, as a youth, that that must be how it was for everyone; the god takes control of your body, takes what he wants through you. He’d assumed that must be why priests oughtn’t kill anything outside of sacrifice; it would be exhausting, to be possessed by divinity like that just for the sake of a meal. Then, around the same time that he’d realized not everyone experienced prophecy like he did, he’d realized not everyone experienced sacrifice like he did either. Most simply did the job; with their own body, their own mind, their own intentions. No different from slaughtering a farm animal for food, except that it was allowed.

The first thing Wel had ever killed with his own hand, not Ammon-Re’s, had been the wounded man on the killing-plain. The second had been the dog. And perhaps the god will come into him now, will accept the sacrifice of this ram purchased by hungry sailors for their sendoff meal as somehow belonging to him just because it is slaughtered by his own priest. But Wel thinks not. He is far from Egypt, and his body is more and more his own. That should make life easier. It does the opposite.

Hannibal is looking at him. He could nominate Hannibal to do it instead. The sailors would accept it, though they wouldn’t be happy about it.

Hannibal wouldn’t be happy about it. He wants to see Wel do this, and that is what decides him. “All right,” he says. “Bring it here, I’m not much for moving around right now.”

With his mind occupied by something besides the rolling of the ship, his stomach has settled into a sort of dull ache, just enough to remind him that he could vomit again if he actually eats anything. At least it will be a sacrifice in that sense, then: he isn’t hungry.

He waits, wondering whether if he tries hard enough, if he relaxes his grip on his own mind and invites him in, Ammon-Re will come. But he is still just Wel, a mass of meat and nausea and misgivings, by the time the victim is brought up to the deck. It’s not the healthiest ram Wel’s ever seen, but it still would have cost something extravagant, for a sailor. The man who’d bought it is faintly glowing with pride at feeding the crew on the first night of the voyage. Wel had seen him come on: he’s an Ephesian, one of the ones who’d been hired on at the pit stop in the city for the main leg of the trip. And even though this isn’t a sacrifice, Wel still knows things: he knows that the man is hoping against hope that the liberation of his city really will mean a better life. He is hoping that his city’s decision not to accept Alexander’s coin to rebuild the temple of Artemis, on the grounds that one god ought not to build temples to another, was the right one. He’s hoping that having Wel do this now will bring the favour of the gods, and he knows he’s going to need it.

Wel wants to do it for him. Even though he knows it’s just murder, not sacrifice, he’ll do it as well as he can. Or as theatrically, at least. “Bring me a cup of wine,” he calls imperiously. It feels odd to speak that way. He knows that he does it all the time; he’d chastised Alexander, after all. But that was different. That wasn’t him. This, obstinately, is.

Someone brings one, a surprisingly nice silver goblet that must have been snuck out of the cargo hold to be sold in Athens, with a measure of unwatered wine. Wel thinks, for a moment, that perhaps he actually won’t know how to do this; he has never done it alone before. But when he accepts the goblet, his body knows. He pulls out his knife. It’s Hannibal’s knife; he had left behind his ceremonial things, with instructions for Aristandros on how and when to make sacrifices to Ammon-Re. The god will have to get used to being one of many to be appeased, in that particular company.

Usually, there would be an altar, and a fire lit upon it. Cook-fires are carefully regulated on the ship– the last thing a merchant-ship needs is to be on fire, surrounded by water, the two elements warring and only the wooden vessel being the inevitable loser. In the absence of that, he’ll have to improvise. He strokes gently down the ram’s head, from his nose to in between his horns, and the animal stills. They’re not all that different from dogs, really– or for that matter, people. Everyone likes to be patted on the head. Wel smothers his laugh only with difficulty; he’s not used to having to avoid distractions at times like these. He doesn’t usually have the option. The sun is setting behind him, drenching everything in blood-red light, and he can feel Hannibal’s eyes on him. Just when the ram has started to seem pleased with its lot in the world, Wel pours the wine over the animal, and then cuts its throat.

He tries to catch the blood with the wine-goblet, but not all of it makes it in; he will have to scrub the deck afterwards, or rather, someone will probably insist on doing it for him. The correct thing to do would be to remove the head entirely, call down all of the evil that there is to be for the sacrificers on the head instead, and then get rid of it. But there’s good meat in the head, at least in the eyes of a non-Egyptian, so he had better do something else. He raises the goblet of blood high in the air. The sailors seem extraordinarily impressed with this gesture, and are clearly waiting for him to say some powerful foreign prayer. The less they understand it, the more they’ll love it.

“I can’t believe you burned down an entire palace so you could give me a rare book, you insane fucking asshole,” he says in Egyptian.

The sailors seem appropriately awed. Wel thinks for a moment on what to do with the blood, but he doesn’t really want any more of it on him than he already has, so finally he just tips it slowly and dramatically over the side of the ship. “That the sea accepts this sacrifice and grants safe passage,” he says in Greek, and finds that he means it. And, just as the sailors nod appreciatively at the performance and the sacrifice– the murder— is over, the god comes.

The dream, the one he has always, but inverted: a sea not of blood but of water, sparkling with sunset light as the blood splashes into it, stretching out towards the horizon, no telling where the sacrifice will reach. The water of this sea moves differently from the calm lapping of the Ammon’s oasis home, and by now Wel knows its rocking all too well. He is changed, and his vision has changed as well. He is not terrified of the sea any longer: he is terrifying. The difference is only a subtle one. When the knife comes, it still cuts his skin into strips of agony, but he is the one holding the blade. He need not continue tormenting himself with it. He need only turn it on another. He need only– he need only–

Wel finishes what is later generally agreed to have been an extremely impressive performance by collapsing on the deck in the dead faint. By the time he wakes up it is dark, and the crew is asleep, but Hannibal has saved him a portion of the meat and is stroking his hair.

Chapter End Notes

“Inner sea,” i.e. as you’ve probably guessed the Mediterranean, as opposed to the outer sea which many Mediterranean-dwellers supposed to encircle the earth and lie East of India (oops)

(5+1).1.+1 Athens, Spring 330

Chapter Summary

Five things Weldjebauend of Siwah killed, and one thing he didn’t:

+1. Hannibal

Aristagoras son of Eudoxos shows the restraint commended by the Greek philosophers, and does not tear open his letters the moment they are handed to him. He tucks them into the folds of his clothes instead, and says “Friends of my father’s students are friends of mine; you are my guests.”

Wel hides his disappointment easily; he had prepared himself for it. Though he had been hoping against hope that they would be refused, and have to make camp outside the city, realistically that would have been both impractical and unlikey. The farms are crowded thick around the city, and they might have been chased off. And among a people who pride themselves so loudly on their hospitality, it was unthinkable that Aristagoras would fail to invite them in. The letters Hannibal had carried from Athenians in the army were as good as invitations.

The slave who had answered the door and brought them in to Aristagoras, Pharnes, is called again, and told to bring them to the guest room. Wel is relieved to learn that there is only one room available to put them in, and that the domestic help consists only of Pharnes, his wife Mada, and their young daughter, who is yet too small to work. She appears at her mother’s heels to watch the visitors being led to their quarters, grey eyes wide under a mane of red-tinged gold hair. The little slave-girl looks, Wel thinks, like she could easily be kin to the most powerful king in the world; and when Pharnes speaks in Greek to show them around the house, his accent sounds like Alexander’s, too.

They must be northeners, then; from somewhere past the boundary that the Macedonians consider to separate the Greek and Macedonian world from the barbarians. Certain Athenians, of course, consider the North to be one land with Macedon, and all of it occupied solely by lawless barbarians fit only to serve in Greek homes– unless a lawless Macedonian barbarian is threatening to make slaves of them, in which case he ought to be handed a Greek pedigree and sent off to brandish it elsewhere. They are Thracians, perhaps, or Scythians. Likely not Macedonians, only because none have been captured in war by any Greeks particularly recently.

The woman, Mada, steps forward as her husband is hauling a bathtub into the room. She gestures at Wel’s wrist. “Stigma,” she says, and she is smiling. She turns slightly, tilting her head down to reveal the upper edges of what looks to be a blue-black deer surrounded by swirling patters trailing down her shoulder. “Like our people. What is it?”

Instinctively, Wel covers his wrist. He’d seen some of the Macedonian soldiers tattooed, the ones who lived far enough from the capital that cattle raids with the Thracians and Scythians were basically family quarrels; but none of the generals or nobles, with their precarious Greekness on the line, would have considered such a thing. Of all the things that had set Wel apart in the company of the Macedonian elite, a little ink on his wrist had hardly been top of his mind, and nobody had ever commented on it. He is now very aware of the marks, and the foreignness and frank hostility of the city pressing in all around him.

Mada pulls back. “I have given offence. I’m sorry.”

“No,” says Wel quickly, “It’s not you. I was a priest of Ammon-Re, in Egypt. It’s merely a dedication.” He extends his hand, showing the inside of his wrist, marked by five glyphs inside a cartouche: the god-symbol, the three sounds that speak Amun, and the sun-symbol. He is reminded suddenly of the sense of dizziness he’d experienced in the exercise-court in Persepolis, realizing that he had had no reason not to have himself cut as a youth, besides that he felt it unnecessary; that perhaps the god had been preparing him to go among Greeks even from then. The dedication could have been done on the outside of the wrist, which would have been less painful. He doesn’t remember why he had chosen to have it put on the inside, but he’s glad of it now. Mada, whose tattoos extend nearly up to her face, would be assumed to be a slave even if she were ever freed; she could not pass for Greek.

Clearly thinking that exact thing, she shakes her head. “Beautiful,” she says, “But keep them hidden here, little barbarian boy, or you will find danger.” Hannibal is watching the exchange; he’s never asked about the tattoo, but of course he must be familiar with the practice, if not the exact glyphs, from the mercenaries of all sorts in the Carthaginian army. Mada glances up at him. “But perhaps,” she adds, “You have brought danger enough with you.”

Wel feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. He stands rooted in place, his hearing buzzing slightly, Mada’s knowing smile fixed in his vision. If he were less terrified, he would have time to properly appreciate the irony. He’d seen this exact expression, this exact feeling, on so many supplicants. Receiving prophecy is rarely an uncomplicatedly pleasant experience. Even Alexander had been chastised by the god before being given what he had come for. And most aren’t so lucky. There is a particular feeling to being given news of the future and knowing that it is true. It disturbs people.

Wel has spent most of his life disturbed in some way, the god wreaking havoc inside him until the havoc is him. He ought by rights to be immune from the frozen shock of the person who realizes they are receiving true prophecy. Why should it shock him coming from another, when he gets it from himself all the time?

(It feels different to have someone else touch you than to touch yourself, he can acknowledge. Of course this would feel different, too.)

“You’re a seer,” he whispers, stupidly.

Mada tilts her head. “What?” she says. “I just meant, your lover looks like a handful.”

Wel can’t say anything. Just because she doesn’t know doesn’t mean it isn’t true. He’d felt it, and he doesn’t feel things wrong.

“Truly,” she says worriedly when he doesn’t answer, “I meant nothing by it. I was initiated, you know, into the mysteries at the sanctuary of Eleusis. They say that those the gods favour with sight are discernible from the action of the kykeon. I am not a seer, my lord priest.”

Wel tries to shake off his stupor. He almost tells her not to call him that, but then supposes that it’s better than little barbarian boy and stops himself. Hannibal, meanwhile, is looking at her curiously. “You are an initiate?”

“Certainly,” she says: “Anyone is permitted initiation, free or not, so long as they can provide the required piglet as sacrifice.”

Hannibal seems curious about this, and questions her further; Wel, having spent enough time around mysterious religious rituals that the novelty has worn off, doesn’t much care. He goes into the guest room and lies down on the pallet, staring at the ceiling.

Don’t let me die in Greece, he asks of Ammon-Re. I don’t ask to die on my native soil; I know I gave up that right when I left. But don’t let it be here.

And he feels the god promise, unshakable and solid, in a moment of pure knowledge like he hasn’t had for ages.

Which should be reassuring. But if it is so easy to promise that he is not here to meet his death, he must be here to meet something else. And he still can’t see what it is.

*

They go to the festival.

Aristagoras, his wife Melissa, Pharnes, Mada and their little girl Arite go because they can. Metics and even slaves have a right to watch the entertainments of the Panathenaia, play a part in the procession, and to a share of the meat of the hundred sacrificed oxen that give the summer month its name.

Hannibal goes because he wants to. It would have been impossible, Wel knows, for him to have intentionally arranged for them to arrive in Athens in the middle of not only the Great Panathenaia, held only once every four years, but a Great Panathenaia where a new stadium was being unveiled. But Wel feels sure that if he could have, he would; and there is something nearly supernatural in Hannibal’s ability to be pleased by almost anything that seems to cause the gods to send even more things to please him. After months of lonely roads, strange travellers at caravanserais, and rough sailors, they have arrived in Athens to a party.

Wel goes because the god has already promised he isn’t going to die in Greece, so he reasons that at the very least it won’t actually kill him.

He’d assumed, the first day that they set out to the stadium to watch a foot-race, that it would at least be a near thing. He remembers how Memphis had felt like it must contain all of the people on the entire Earth, squeezed in between its walls: and Athens has four times as many slaves than Memphis had of free people and labourers combined, without even counting the industrious metics and pompous citizens.

So it is almost as discomfiting as being overwhelmed would be, to realize that actually, he isn’t. Yes, it’s too loud and there are too many people; but none of the people are carrying weapons, and they’re almost all speaking the same dialect of Greek, which already gives the place a more sedate feeling than the tent-city of the travelling army. The sewers stink, but only as a natural result of what they’re carrying; there have been no attacks of fever or flux in the city recently, as are ubiquitous among soldiers. And it is Hannibal beside him, not Joh. Hannibal’s hand on his lower back, guiding him through the throngs, or petting absently at the nape of his neck as they wait to find places on the upper reaches of the stadium. Hannibal, who at once makes him feel like his body is his own for the first time in his life, and seems to yearn to possess him in ways that Wel’s not even sure he understands.

They watch a foot-race, a chariot-race, and a recitation of Homer; Wel pays the most attention to the latter, realizing belatedly that he had been pronouncing much of it wrong in his Greek lessons as a boy, and nobody had known to correct him. One night, after a later supper than usual, Pharnes instructs them to sleep as long as possible the next day.

“Why?” Wel asks. There are days in Egypt that are so hot that sleeping though as much of the sunny hours as possible is the only option, and old men can sometimes feel one coming on. But even waning Hekatombaion, the hottest part of the summer, feels quite tolerable to him here; there’s no reason to think tomorrow will be one of those. Perhaps the Greeks, with their pale delicate skin that turns bright red and peeling at the merest touch of sun, are equally fragile to heat. If that’s true, it would prove the point of the anti-Macedonian faction in the city, though not quite in the way they intended: no real Greek would be able to lead a campaign in Persia in the summer.

Pharnes grins. “Tomorrow is the pannychis,” he says. “I went when I was a childless man. Not any more. I take what sleep I can get now.”

“Oh, says Wel, trying to sound some way other than desperately unenthusiastic. “An all-night party.”

Hannibal, returning from some conversation he had been having with Mada in the hallway, slides his hand around Wel’s shoulders and addresses Pharnes. “How delightful. Are you sure you can’t be convinced to attend, for old times’ sake?”

Pharnes shakes his head. “I will need to be ready to muster for the parade in the morning; slaves and freedmen carry the oak boughs. Foreigners have their part too; you will walk with Aristagoras, carrying the bread for the oxen-slaughter feast.”

An all-night party followed by a parade. “Great,” says Wel dully. He does, indeed, sleep late the next morning, mostly out of trying to delay preparations.

When they get there in the evening, however, it’s like most of the other festivities so far: not as bad as he’d feared. The air is cool and sweet, and the acropolis of the city is lit up with hundreds of little fires; it creates a glow that reminds Wel of the burning palaces at Persepolis. Perhaps this is what Thaïs had in mind, when she accepted Hannibal’s suggestion. He is breathing hard and his legs are burning with the strain of the climb by the time they reach the top; Hannibal disappears for a moment and returns to hand him a cup of watered wine that tastes faintly, for some reason, of mint.

They go through the stone gates, and even in the darkness Wel can see that this must indeed have been the place on Thaïs’ mind. The great treasury rises off to their right, painted with what seems like restraint to one who has seen Persian buildings recently, but still catches the eye in contrast to what’s in front of it. At the centre of the temple complex is a blackened, burnt-out building; restored in some places just enough to prevent it from collapsing into rubble, but with the repairs only causing its decrepitude to stand out more clearly. This must be the old temple, then, burned by the Persians, and retained as a dour reminder of the barbarian danger.

The people must be quite used to being towered over by the depressing structure; nobody seems to mind it right now, anyway. Kitharists pluck gently at their instruments, warming up their fingers for a long night, and a gaggle of double-pipe players are gathered around a fire, trying each others’ reeds and throwing unsatisfactory ones into the flames derisively. There are a few girls dancing, not in any organized way but simply by holding each others’ hands and twirling around. Young men watch, holding wine-cups and staring at the girls a little uncertainly; under normal circumstances, the only women they would get to see dancing would be whores. Once a year, they discover that girls of marrying status have bodies, too, and some day soon they will come to possess one.

He is standing by a fire. That’s odd; he doesn’t remember choosing one to approach, or Hannibal leading him to one. He is simply here. Wel stares at the embers cooling on the outskirts of it and tries to take stock of himself. He is very often not in full possession of his senses, and he is good at it by now. He can tell when a vision is coming on, can feel it for days, knows when things come out of his mouth that belong to the god and not to himself. When he sees a craftsman working on wood or leather, he feels a kinship; it is how he works with his own mind. And there had been nothing, today; no oncoming vision, no relinquishing of his body to another, no blurring of boundaries between his own mind and that of the people around him that wasn’t completely expected.

Someone has said something to him. He didn’t hear it. “What?” he says.

“I said, what tribe are you from?”

A tall, thin young man is addressing him. He has the kind of ugly first sprouts of facial hair that youths aspiring to become men take pride in, instead of shaving off as they really should until they can grow a beard that doesn’t make their face look like it has tiny worms growing out of it.

Worms?

Wel leans closer. The patches of dirt-coloured follicles on the man’s face are worms. In front of his eyes they come to life, start to wriggle around his chin and lips. They have tiny faces that are somehow grinning maniacally despite being much too small to actually see.

“Woah. Woah. Bit… um, fast, sorry friend,” says the man, taking a step back. “I mean, I’m not, it’s not that you’re not, I just…”

Hannibal has a hand on his arm. Wel is leaning very, very close to the stranger’s face. “Sorry,” he says. Hannibal pulls him back a little, and Wel turns around confusedly to peer into his face. Is Hannibal jealous? He can’t tell. Why can’t he tell? He can always tell what Hannibal is feeling.

“What the fuck is happening,” Wel says, a little too loudly. People look over, just in time to watch him decide that perhaps it is just a lack of proximity that’s causing his sudden ignorance of Hannibal’s mental state, and plant an uncoordinated kiss on his lower jaw.

“All right, all right,” Hannibal soothes quietly, pulling him away from his neck but keeping an arm around him. “Perhaps some water.”

“Don’t need water.” As soon as he says it, he decides he actually does need water; he feels somewhat nauseous. This isn’t right. This isn’t how being him feels. This isn’t how being the god feels. “I know what kind of crazy I am,” he says, either in a whisper or a shout, “and this isn’t that kind of crazy.” Hannibal deposits him sitting on a stone bench and disappears, presumably to find some water.

“Ha-ha! That’s what everyone thinks,” says a woman in a long chiton so sheer that he can see right through it just from the glow of the fire, twirling by with a wine-cup in one hand while staring at the stars. “Everyone’s this kind of crazy. You’ll get used to it.” Then she explodes in a shower of ashes. Nobody else seems to be disturbed by it. He drinks the water Hannibal has brought, bit it doesn’t help much.

He can’t make it stop, but perhaps there is one thing he can do.

He can’t exactly induce visions on command; they happen or they don’t, and if the god’s swinging barque at Siawah happens to be a surefire way to bring them on, so be it. Still, he has learned over the years greater and lesser degrees of receptivity to the cacophony of the world around him wanting to be understood and interpreted. He averts his eyes from things he doesn’t want to see too closely, removes himself when he must, his mind far away even if his body can’t be. Now, he opens. Show me, he demands of his own mind, kindling something behind his eyes like the light of a thousand torches.

All is death and destruction; the long-ago destruction of the temple on this hill blends with the flames of Persepolis, and the flames of whatever’s going to be burned to avenge Persepolis, and the next thing after that, and so on. He’s burning up; he needs water, parched, not water for his throat but for his whole body, every corner of his mind, and he wishes he were back in the river with Hannibal, pushing himself along with his hands and gently kicking feet as the water is all around him.

And then it works, the vision comes, and Wel is Hannibal, and the water is so cold it burns him, and he is somewhere else entirely.

His head breaks the surface of the water. His face is immediately pelted by hail. All around him, people are drowning. His fellow-soldiers, the men to whom he’s sworn. Many have wounds, some are being picked off by arrows, and some just can’t swim. He could haul up a few of the latter, but to what? The banks are crowded with Timoleon’s men. There is nothing stopping the enemy from killing every last one of them. The entire Sacred Band of Carthage destroyed in a single day. In the time one might take for a quick noon meal, if the battle proceeds apace. If you could even call this a battle; perhaps a rout would be more accurate, except that nobody had run away. An ambush, yes, and a successful one. They had been half-finished crossing the river when the Greeks had appeared out of the fog.

He is not afraid of dying, but neither does he wish to do it particularly soon. If he stays, he will certainly die. Perhaps he could take a few of them with him. But then, he has killed plenty of Greeks with designs on Sicily in service to his city. If he lives, he may even be able to kill more. More importantly, if he lives, he will be able to kill again at all. He will be able to feel the push of the blade, the rush of blood, the soul leaving the body and going wherever it goes.

A man, one of his own fellows whom he had sat around a fire with but now forgets the name of, is struggling in front of him. Seeing Hannibal treading water with ease, he grabs at him.

Hannibal feels the man’s hand on his arm for a moment. In the cold water, it feels warm. He had occasionally felt that way about his fellow man, in the heat of battle. Warmth.

He doesn’t right now, though.

He breaks the man’s wrist to get him off. The fog is so thick that it nearly covers them, in the water; it had been a blessing for Timoleon to be able to wait for the Carthaginian forces unnoticed until the most opportune time for an ambush, but now it will turn to his favour. Nobody will notice a lone swimmer in all this, let alone be able to aim properly at him.

He takes a deep breath, dives under, and begins to swim upstream.

Wel is wet and cold when he surfaces.

“Not really what you were supposed to do with it,” says the youth standing beside Hannibal.

“Quite. Perhaps you could fetch him another, in the hopes that more might make it into his mouth this time?”

The youth looks somewhat put out. “Sure,” he says. Obviously, he had been hoping for something else from Hannibal. Wel, who has just felt what it is like to be Hannibal and watch his fellow-soldiers dying, lets out a bark of laughter at the guy, who thought he’d found a handsome stranger to keep him warm for the night. He is brought another cup of water. This time he drinks it instead of whatever he did with the last one.

He stares up at Hannibal. He can still feel the insides of him, the smooth indifference like well-crafted glass. He could have guessed it must be like that, but that’s different from feeling it. When he is done being envious, perhaps he will find some time to be terrified.

“Would it upset you to kill me?” he asks.

“It would,” says Hannibal. “Truly.” He squats down in front of Wel’s bench, and the youth edges away to try his luck elsewhere.

“But you’d get over it.”

“Likely; I have gotten over nearly every misfortune in my life.”

“Nearly?”

Hannibal doesn’t answer. He’d spoken once; Wel ought not to expect him to say the same thing twice. Well, they are on a blood-feud mission. He had nearly forgotten.

He drifts for a while, watching the lives of the young Athenians around him float past. At some point he gets up and wanders among them and Hannibal wanders with him, trailing behind him like a milk-nurse with her charge. Farms in the country, fathers both fearsome and pitiful, gossip from the exercise-hall and the sophist’s gathering and the citizen’s assembly. The young men talk of politics in confident tones, trying to convince both others and themselves that they know what they’re saying. The politics has at once everything and nothing to do with Alexander; every man defined by where he had stood in the wars against Phillip, how he had argued when Alexander demanded Demosthenes as hostage, whether he now argues that the unity of the Greeks is valuable no matter who it is led by, or if he laments the fate of civilization to be led by barbarians. It all sounds quite exhausting and time-consuming; no wonder most races simply choose a king, hope he isn’t a total numbnuts, and get on with their lives.

He has stopped in front of two statues. “You were supposed to send word of these,” he says, and it makes his head feel little bit clearer. His mouth saying true things without his knowledge of them is a form of madness he is well aquatinted with; it pushes out some of the strange nauseous madness that had descended on him earlier. He tilts his head, considering the two figures. “Who are they?”

Perhaps Hannibal answers. Wel doesn’t hear him. Instead, as he retreats from wherever he had been, he feels the waiting arms of his own god closing back around him, and Ammon-Re welcomes him back with a vision.

This time, instead of being Hannibal, he merely sees him. Wel recognizes the trimmings and style of the room, if not the room itself: this is in Susa. Moreover, the Persian who had greeted them, Mazarus, is there too. This is what Hannibal had been doing while Wel was fishing.

“To hear the Macedonians tell it, they now keep watch over the place where the Greeks go to become initiated into the Mysteries of two goddesses, by drinking the barley-wine that creates temporary insanity,” Mazarus says, and then completely fails to see the effect it has on Hannibal. Perhaps to Mazarus, Hannibal had betrayed no reaction. To Wel, it is plain as day.

Hannibal, and Wel watching him, look at the dusty spot on the floor where the statues used to rest. Wel knows now, without needing to be told, who they are; tyrant-killers revered by the Greeks. That Alexander had sent them back to Athens, where many would give anything to find a pair of young lovers suicidal enough to pull a knife on him, is confident to the point of arrogance. But in the room at Susa, Hannibal isn’t thinking about tyrannicide, or even the more pertinent topic of regicide. He’s thinking about drugs, and the great variety of them scattered all over the earth.

Wel is vaguely aware of his body being led away from the statues and into some quiet corner, laid down like a child to sleep. In his mind, the vision continues: the crowded store-room in Susa warps and transforms into Aristagoras’ house. Wel from several days ago is lying on the pallet in the guest-room, and the Wel of today is watching the conversation in the hallway outside. Hannibal is leaning in close to Mada, speaking quietly. “I was initiated, you know, into the mysteries at the sanctuary of Eleusis,” she has just said. “They say that those the gods favour with sight are discernible from the action of the kykeon.”

Hannibal had been interested by that. Not just at the fact of slaves being permitted initiation.

In the vision Wel tries to flee the house, but he isn’t in his house, he’s in his own mind, and there is nowhere to run. If he could, he’d disappear like he had in the moment of panic after Hannibal had handed him the priceless scrolls taken from the temple. He should have run farther, then. He’d known. He’d known– what?

Finally, on the Athenian mountain, the chaos behind his eyes retreats into dreams, and Wel sleeps.

He knows that he must have slept, because he wakes from it to the first glow of sunrise, and his head is clear. It feels nothing like waking up after one of the god’s visions; his body feels purged, having burned through the substance causing the madness. The acropolis hill is littered with bodies like a battlefield; Wel is far from the only one to have fallen asleep on the ground. There are still a few fires going, tended by the most sleepless revellers. Their light is subsumed in the soft pink light filtering over the low hills like a wave of blood rolling slowly in. It glints off of the roofs of houses down below, and off of Hannibal’s fine sun-bleached hair, strands falling over his face as he sleeps beside Wel.

The blood. The dream. Wel knows what comes next.

He pulls Hannibal’s knife from its holster. They are lying chest to chest, the space in between them invisible to anyone but them. The point honed into it by the caravanserai knife-grinder is still sharp. It wakes Hannibal quickly when Wel carefully rests it against his belly. Not enough pressure to draw blood, barely enough to cause pain. Just enough to make sure he is here.

He could push it in at any time. Hannibal doesn’t move away. He doesn’t even tense, no readiness at all to pull Wel’s arm away if need be. “Good morning,” he says, as if all is well in the world. Probably, for him, it is.

You drugged me, Wel wants to scream. How could you? But it’s a stupid question. The only times that Wel feels his body belong to belong to himself is when it belongs to Hannibal. Does he not own it, to do as he pleases with it? He gives the knife a little push, still not enough to break through; and only too late feels the lewdness of the action, the point just lodging itself more firmly in the folds of Hannibal’s cloak, nestled in the warmth of his clothes and the thin layer of softness on his belly.

He isn’t going to kill him now; he can see it like a prophecy, an impossibility, a chain of actions that cannot unspool under the current conditions. But he can still hurt him.

They are in a shaded corner, underneath a bench and around the corner from where most of the Athenians are now gathering to watch the sunrise and sing hymns in scratchy wine-tired voices. Wel rolls on top of Hannibal, his legs spreading on either side of Hannibal’s pelvis, and brings the knife to dent his throat instead of his belly. “Mada was right,” he hisses. “The kykeon does reveal sight. Except mine has already been revealed, and I appreciate it being messed with about as much as a soldier appreciates someone else playing with his weapons like toys. After all, someone could get hurt. Do you want to know what I saw, Hannibal?”

Hannibal’s cock is stiff underneath him, his cheeks bright as if with fever. This is why he did it: not to discover Will’s sight but to influence it, to wind him up and watch him go like the wind and release of an oxybeles. Perhaps as destructive, too, if Hannibal can just find the right place to point him. “Yes,” he breathes.

You,” Wel snarls. “I saw you, Hannibal, surviving the battle where your entire unit perished.” Just as he’s guessed it would, this produces a small spark of unease in Hannibal’s face. He had thought only of being the master of Wel’s mind; he hadn’t considered that the sight could be turned on him without his permission.

Wel presses his advantage. “Swimming calmly away as the men to whom you were sworn died around you like cattle at the slaughter,” he says. “How must the gods look on that courage?” The implications aren’t exactly true– Wel doesn’t really think Hannibal had done anything dishonourable by saving himself when he couldn’t save anyone else. But he can see that, somewhere deep down, Hannibal does. It suddenly hits him why. “The Theban Sacred Band were cut down, to a man,” he says, almost at a whisper now. “They stayed and died together. And you? You swam for your life. That’s why you’re ashamed of being able to swim. It saved you when you shouldn’t have been saved. it’s your fault that your beloved regiment couldn’t share the fate of its namesake.”

Hannibal is very still under him. His erection has wilted, but instead, all of his muscles are taut and ready.

“Going to kill me, Hannibal?” Wel taunts. “I won’t fight back. It would be a real honour for you, to kill the seer who welcomed Alexander into the company of the gods. Another heroic fight.”

Hannibal’s hand moves, but not to snap Wel’s neck. He grabs on to his thigh instead, just under his chiton, squeezing the flesh almost painfully, like Wel is the guardrail that he must hold fast to in order to avoid being flung into the sea.

“Maybe I was right. I thought you were a daimon at first, on the field at Gaugamela. I was close: you’re a ghost, unpeaceful and unburied, demanding the flesh of human sacrifice to take on a human form. I should kill you now. You should have died there.

Hannibal’s hands inch up, seemingly in control of Wel’s entire body just from grabbing hold of his legs. He grabs his buttocks, squeezing and pulling Wel into him. His erection is back, and suddenly all of Wel’s anger seems to drain right into his groin. He doesn’t want to kill Hannibal. He wants to fight him.

In a quick movement, he throws the knife away– carefully, seeing that it lands safely neither too close nor too far away– and goes for Hannibal’s throat with his hands. In that instant Hannibal half-throws him, trying to flip him over and sling a leg over to pin him down. Wel pushes up with his knee, trying to scrabble backwards to get out from under him, and ends up halfway out, but too far away to make any attack. He crashes forwards with just his torso, his grip on Hannibal’s neck partly a hug and partly an attack. They roll around on the dusty ground, sharp stones ripping their clothes and drawing blood. It should be easy for Hannibal to win, taller and stronger and used to fighting as he is. But the shove of a hoplite engagement must be an entirely different thing from a wrestling match; he seems constantly surprised and a little bit delighted at Wel’s ferocity. He ought not to be surprised. Wel is used to having everything he has and is pulled from him, used by the god; and if the god needs more than he has he gives that too.

His anger isn’t forgotten, but it’s not anger any more; it’s elation, a kind of dazed ecstasy that he has seen some men come back from battle wearing. Alexander is said to fight with a smile on his face; surely this is why they do it, then, all the men who leave their homes and risk their lives. It’s not for glory– or if it is, glory is a baser feeling than he had assumed. It’s for this.

They’ve rolled out away from their little shaded corner, and are now attracting a crowd. There are a few cheers, and in a lull where he and Hannibal are panting, considering their next attack, he hears little bets taking shape. Apparently, it is obvious enough either that Wel isn’t Greek, or simply that he hasn’t trained in the pankration that would have helped him right now: he hears the phrase little barbarian boy, just as Mada had said, but this time it’s said admiringly. Hannibal, the betting spectators call sharp-faced. It’s not inaccurate, really.

Hannibal grabs at him, and in his scramble to escape Wel ends up turned around, his back to Hannibal’s chest, a prime position to be choked out in. Sure enough, Hannibal gets an elbow around his neck and starts squeezing; gently, to say that Wel can admit defeat at any time, but getting firmer. Instead, Wel brings a knee in front of himself, winds up, and drives it back to kick Hannibal in the nuts as hard as he can. There is some scattered laughter from the spectators, and a few cheers. Hannibal’s grip falters just enough for Wel to twist around to face him, and get his own hands around Hannibal’s neck.

He winds a leg around Hannibal’s back, pulling them as close as their bodies can get to prevent Hannibal from getting his hands in between them to break Wel’s grip. Still, he’s probably strong enough to simply pry them off, if he wanted to.

He doesn’t. At first Wel thinks he’s still incapacitated from the low blow, and almost feels bad about it. But then Hannibal brings his hands up to stroke and then clutch at his hair instead, and Wel can feel his cock stiff against his own.

“Oh, fuck you,” he complains, and squeezes harder.

Hannibal doesn’t go entirely quietly; his body reacts on his behalf, spasming and trying to kick Wel away, but Wel is fuelled by the anger of how much Hannibal wants this just as much as by any other anger, and holds on. The anger passes from his body into Hannibal’s and dissipates into the ground, being absorbed by the ancient burnt-out building, by the statues of the Tyrannicides, by the grand temple with its famous statue and its drug-mixing priestesses inside, by the soil of the land where Wel has been promised not to die.

When he lets go, Hannibal moves sluggishly, his fingers twitching and his throat contracting in weak coughs. The Athenians, who have decided that the wrestling match was some sort of sideshow entertainment, cheer and dance. There is more wine passed around, to revive everyone from the effects of the wine drank the night before. Wel feels empty of everything: energy, anger, knowledge of the present and future. He is simply a body. He rolls onto his back and stares up at the sky, glowing with morning light.

Someone has fashioned a crown of olive branches, and is trying to get him to sit up to be crowned with it. He does, reluctantly.

“Wait,” says a scratchy voice, and Wel sees that Hannibal has revived and is reaching for it. “In my land, the custom is for the loser to crown the victor.” It’s an obvious lie, but the Athenians eat it up.

Hannibal places the crown on Wel’s head. It’s not an apology, and Wel doesn’t care. He leans back against him, the sun warming his face.

Greece, Summer 330

As a rule, Hannibal doesn’t dream. His soul stays close to his body in sleep. It has no reason to wander elsewhere; he has done his best, his entire life, to follow its dictates assiduously, to craft of the malleable matter of experience a narrative worthy of myth. What complaint, what wandering desire, could the soul have?

Tonight, it finds something. He is in a desert. Having spent more time on the sea than in the sand, he cannot read the signs that the landscape is giving him, though he knows they are there; there are some guides who can read the language of the sand as well as sailors can read the waves and far-off shapes of land. Instead, he interprets the view around him merely as nothingness, sameness.

Wel is beside him. He hadn’t been there the whole time, Hannibal is sure, but there isn’t a specific moment that he appears, either. He has no eyes. The sockets where they used to be are bloody, sharp red blood running down his face along with something black and viscous like dirty oil. Hannibal reaches out to try to touch his face, to comfort him, and finds that he is holding Wel’s eyes in his own hands. They stare at him accusingly. “Put them back,” Wel begs. “Please, put them back, it hurts.” Hannibal tries to fit them back in, but they’re too big by far, and they seem to only be getting bigger. He can’t push them through the hole of the socket, and finally the eyeballs are reduced to shapeless mush, smeared on Hannibal’s hands.

“Why are you crying?” Wel asks. “This is what you wanted.”

Hannibal wakes in the very earliest touches of sunrise, where the light is just faint enough to allow you to see how dark it is. His entire body feels frozen in place, like he’d sunk into the ground in his sleep. He tries moving an arm, half-expecting it not to budge. It does. He is on his back staring up at the tent-skin; he can just barely see a little line of stitches where it had once been converted into a raft for a river-crossing. There is a warm weight beside him, and on his head. He turns it slightly. Wel is sleeping peacefully, his arm thrown over onto Hannibal and his palm resting on Hannibal’s forehead.

Hannibal can’t stop himself; he just has to check. He turns slightly, reaches over, and gently pries open one of Wel’s eyelids.

There is an eyeball underneath; all is well. Wel starts violently, waking up all at once, and scrambling backwards away from him. Then he takes stock of his surroundings, seems relieved to be reminded that they are in their tent and no longer under a roof in Athens, and lies back down with a sigh. Perhaps he’d interpreted his awakening as part of his own dream. “Morning,” he says with a yawn.

“Not quite. Did you send me a dream?” He had had his hand on Hannibal’s head; it seems like the kind of thing he might be able to do.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Wel answers, as if the question were completely reasonable, which somehow is the least reassuring of all possible answers. “Tell me the dream, and allow me to be the judge of its meaning.” He says it like an incantation, something that has been said to him many times and it is now his turn to say to another. Hannibal hesitates.

“Or don’t,” Wel shrugs, nuzzling back into the blankets, half-asleep already. “But you know the thing about how the doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient, and the student who teaches himself a fool for a master? Yeah, the same applies to prophecy. Just so you know.” Soon, however, Hannibal couldn’t consult him even if he wanted to, because he is back asleep.

Alexander, too, is said to sleep most soundly and easily the night before an engagement. Wel is so peaceful that for a moment Hannibal wonders if he’s forgotten what’s planned for the day as soon as the sun rises. But no, that’s impossible. They’d discussed it endlessly, starting as soon as they’d left Athens. They’d had plenty of opportunities, because the road from Athens to Elateia is on the same route as the road to Delphi, and it is full of robbers hoping to get something choice from wealthy travellers headed to the oracle. The first time they were attacked had been the first full day out of the city; three of them, and Wel had killed one with the sword he started wearing on his hip after Athens, like it was nothing. Or at least, he’d pretended like it was nothing, but Hannibal can recognize by now the swagger of the young soldier after his first battle. Wel’s swagger is better constructed than most, made as it is of the mannerisms of the Macedonian generals he spent so much time around; probably the most deservedly confident men on Earth. But Hannibal sees the stitching in the suit of his indifference when Wel shakes violently at night, calling out in his sleep. It wasn’t sacrifice, he says, teeth knocking together, and it’s perfectly true. They had buried the bodies, not even burned or eaten them. Hannibal had been tempted– all that fresh meat, free for the taking– but had refrained. They are on their way to a better meal. When the flesh of the last man living responsible for Mismalka the Elder’s death is in front of him, he wants to be hungry for it.

With the sun just beginning to rise high enough to make things visible, but Wel still asleep, it feels like the prime letter-writing hour; it’s what Hannibal would occupy himself with if he were in the army camp. But he had written and sent all of his letters in Athens. He’d easily found an actor on his way to Alexander– the camp is beginning to pick up followers at a quicker rate, and it is well-known that musicians and actors have plenty of opportunity to make their fame at victory-games. With that man he’d sent his letter to Bacaxa, and Aristagoras’ collected mail for Jason and Briareos. To a merchant bound for Susa he’d given his letter to Mazarus; with news of the Tyrannicide statues and, to amuse him, a description– abridged– of Hannibal and Wel’s evening at the pannychis.

Finally, he’d spent a day at Peiraieus, asking after the ships bound for Carthage, and evaluating their seaworthiness and the look of the sailors and captains on them. There is never any guarantee that a letter will reach its destination, of course, but trustworthy and honourable travellers like to build up a reputation for delivering messages where they need to go. He eventually chose a vessel whose captain had the same old-leather skin texture as the army’s sea-general Nearchos, and the same constant and determined air. He had quoted a fair price and then taken Hannibal’s letter and allowed him to watch it being stored with a large number of others, which was reassuring.

Though Alanat had not written back to the first letter he had sent, likely not being entirely sure of how to get it to him, a year has elapsed since he first told his family that he would be seeking another commission; they will surely be glad to hear from him. He says that he is travelling on blood-feud business with a friend; tacit permission, that is, for Alanat to take a lover as well, if she hasn’t already. He also provides explicit instruction, for the sake of her overzealous brothers, that Mismalka the Younger is not to be married unless they receive word of Hannibal’s death, or unless she wishes it. The latter seems unlikely; of her own volition, the majority of Mismalka’s tender thoughts turn towards those of her own sex. In some situations, there would be an urgency to her marriage even so; the Macedonian Queen Olympias, though widely disliked, is also widely considered to have had the right idea in trying to get her son to marry before he left on campaign, despite his disinclination. If he had done so, there would be a little heir growing up in Macedon right now; as it is, if Alexander dies in battle, the entire new empire will come crashing down around their ears.

There is no such urgency with Mismalka; there is plenty of time for Hannibal to find for her, or for her to find among the similarly disinclined young men of the city, a marriage prospect of pleasant friendship. To produce an heir is an obligation; but beyond that, Hannibal has learned, everything in life is negotiable.

At this early hour, being awake is negotiable. He lies back down, taking Wel in his arms, pressing their fronts together. The beginnings of arousal stir in him despite the dream, or perhaps because of it. Wel is only partly asleep; he wakes quickly enough, rubbing himself against Hannibal’s body like a cat, his cock hard before he’s even aware of what he’s doing.

It’s only an image in Hannibal’s mind, something a man committed to more usual forms of worship would ignore entirely. To force a vanquished foe to take one’s member in his mouth is all fine and normal. And yet Hannibal had never been tempted to try it, in victory, because he knows all too well what he would do if he were ever in the position of the vanquished. He would bite. It makes his teeth itch. Would he be able to do it, to take the most intimate part of Wel into his mouth, and leave it intact?

“What are you doing?”

The skin of the insides of Wel’s thighs is so, so smooth. He hasn’t been down here; they touch each other like both of their bodies are common property, wary of focusing too much attention on the other in case it shatters the fragile agreement of their unity. Wel presses them closed, a little involuntarily against the cold air, a little on purpose. “I won’t hurt you,” Hannibal promises, to test out whether the words seem like a lie in the air.

Wel sighs and lets his legs fall open. “I don’t believe you.”

Hannibal closes his lips over Wel’s cock. It is so much better than just lying beside him. He smells like river-water again, a scent that seems as natural to Wel’s body as his own skin and musk, despite having never seen a river for most of his life. Underneath that he smells scorched, like too-hot earth or a fire threatening to spill over into chaos. And when Hannibal slides his lips up and down the shaft Wel moans and arches and nearly kicks him in the face, and although Hannibal has to fight not to close his teeth down on the sensitive flesh, the struggle is worth it. This act, which all the world would say made him belong to Wel like a whore or a slave or a defeated enemy, turns out to put Wel entirely in his power, perhaps better than anything else he’s tried.

He amuses himself, licking and sucking, while Wel thrashes around like a dying fish, completely unselfconscious. When Hannibal pulls back and sits up, his hips arch up off the ground trying to follow. “No,” Wel gasps. “Why are you stopping?” He reaches a hand down.

Hannibal grabs his wrist. Wel’s erection is purple and straining and Hannibal isn’t in a much better state, but this is important. And also entertaining. “Surely you know that the conquerors of the world do not waste the body’s vitality on the day of a battle.”

“Oh, are you fucking–” Wel tries to struggle, desperate to bring himself off if Hannibal won’t do it for him, and it makes it all the more tempting to bear down hard when Hannibal grabs his other wrist and pins him to the ground. He indulges himself by rubbing down a little against Wel’s body, even though it can come to nothing.

Hannibal stares down at him, allowing himself to be caught and held fast, allowing the frustration. Wel’s eyes are wild, his hair getting long again and spreading its curls out beneath him. He is full of his god. Surely things cannot go awry, with such a one by his side. He’d seen Wel coming out of the darkness on the plain after the battle, and decided that he must possess him. That part is still a work in progress. Instead, Hannibal himself often feels possessed. But at least he is here.

“Hey,” Wel says in the silence. Hannibal has loosened his grip on his wrists without intending to, and Wel brings one up to cup his face. “You’re not worried about me, are you?”

It’s like cold water being poured on him. Except instead of being from outside of him, the coldness had been a stream running through his heart all along, and begins to run over as soon as it is observed. “Don’t,” he says. “You of all people should know that words intended to avoid bad luck can invoke it instead.”

“Don’t worry about me,” says Wel, with the force of a command behind it. Perhaps his ancestors were great generals. Perhaps his descendants will be.

Hannibal tries to obey. He allows Wel up and they strike the campsite, erections gradually fading, all the force and desire of the body drawing back inwards to find expression in the long-awaited death of a hated foe.

*

Hannibal doesn’t dream, and he doesn’t have visions. Today he does both. He thinks that he should have had the fortitude to eat Wel’s hand, the one that had come to rest on him in the night and surely sent him this. Or perhaps he should simply have allowed the both of them to come to completion, purging their bodies somehow of this madness. Instead, Mismalka rides beside him; his sister, not his daughter. She is mounted on a jet-black Persian horse, larger than any of the horses Greeks ride. She towers above him. She flickers at the corners of his eye, is always there when he is not looking right at her, but disappears when he tries to meet her head on.

She is with him, silent, while Hannibal shows several farmers the picture of Malchus’ face that he draws so often. The drawing is a new one, similar to the old ones but improved in ways only he can likely see, done on a good piece of vellum purchased in Athens. The farmers know the features caricatured in the drawing. They tell Hannibal that this old man and his three sons have a farmhouse a mile from the road, and over a small hill, and that he ought to turn off from the path on the right side where an olive tree has fallen over and been cleared away. Hannibal keeps an eye on the road ahead, for the men he asks surely can guess that his visit isn’t a friendly one. But no swift horses are sent out ahead of them to warn the master of the house. Not only that, but surely the information that Malchus has three sons was intended as a gift to anyone who would do him evil; now they are forewarned.

Hannibal is glad Malchus has sons. He will stamp out not just his enemy, but his enemy’s entire lineage. Malchus will watch as his family die in front of him, just as Hannibal had. Yes, he will have to be saved for last.

The air is warm but the wind is cold. Hannibal knows, without asking whether Wel can feel it, that his own chill comes from the ghost beside him. Mismalka doesn’t speak until they are on the crest of the hill, looking down at the farmhouse and the lands this Carthaginian had found to call his own and sustain him. They pull up their horses and gaze down at it.

“Will it end?” she asks. “After this, will you be finished? Will you never make another sacrifice to me?”

“Of course not,” says Hannibal. And, because she is dead and cannot be hurt by his words, he says the truth. “You did not make me what I am, sister of mine. You helped me to become what I always was and always would be.”

Mismalka nods. The sacrifices were never for her in the first place, not really. They were always for Hannibal himself. He had not yet found a god worthy of them. He had always thought he never would.

He wonders for a moment if Wel can hear his conversation with his sister’s spirit, and what he thinks of it. But when he looks over the seer’s eye-sockets are empty again and running with thick black blood, and he looks quickly away.

In the little valley below, at the bottom of where the gentle hill has been cut away to form little shelfs where olive-trees may grow, a youth comes out of the house accompanied by a man and a woman. They adults must be slaves, for the woman is carrying a basket and the man opens the door of a small lean-to shed and begins to rifle through the tools inside of it. The youth gives some orders to them about the day’s work, then wanders off, and raises his eyes to survey his father’s lands.

Hannibal has his sword out. He had brought no throwing-weapon, the quarters will be too close for it. He hopes Wel has his ready too, but he cannot look over to check. All he will see are the voids in his head. There must be no hesitation. It is easy not to hesitate, in a phalanx-battle; you must either advance, or be crushed by the movement of your own unit. Hannibal has, over time, taught himself the correct timing of a kill when it belongs solely to him. He has entered homes at night to slit throats, squeeze necks, slip daggers into abdomens, and do it with enough time to leave the remnants posed like statues, exactly the sorts of statues that most suited the life of the offender. So: he can kill in crowds, and he can kill alone. He has never killed as a pair. He had only thought about it, every night of his membership in the Carthaginian Sacred Band: what if each one of them were truly tied to the man beside him by bonds of sacred love?

Now he knows. It is as easy to not hesitate as it would be with an entire band of hoplites behind him; he yells, and perhaps Wel had yelled first, and they charge their horses down the gentle slope of the hill, crushing olives beneath hooves. Hannibal glances at Mismalka, and she is not alone. They are all there, every single human being whose life Hannibal had taken. His parents, the musicians who’d played at the molk, Malchus’ brother Hanno and his four sons and three daughters– oh yes, Nakaslelyt cannot accept that the women are innocent of the blood shed by their fathers and husbands and brothers. If Mismalka could die for the sake of victory, they can die for the sake of revenge. Hanno and Malchus’ political faction are all there too, all dead: Gisco, Bostardt, another Hannibal– Carthage is lousy with them, yet another reason for Nakaslelyt to find a name only for himself– and all their families, half-remembered faces stretching out behind him in his charge. He owns them now, to command as he pleases. They are inside of him. Except for Mismalka, who should be, and that has seeded her deepest of all.

A woman comes out of the house, following the youth who must be her son, who is now carrying a sword of his own and is trying to usher her back in. She hadn’t believed him, that armed intruders might be attacking their peaceful home. She is Greek, Malchus must have married her only after coming to this land; she probably knows nothing of the spirits he had brought with him from his far-off home. Hannibal kills her anyway. It is somehow right that she die first. Then, he turns to the others.

Some men are noble enough masters that even their slaves are loyal to them in a fight. Malchus is not one of those; the slaves drop their tools and flee. Hannibal lets them go. He jumps down from his horse after a few moments of circling the first son, and as shouts can be heard inside the house. Horses are always both a blessing and a curse in combat; with the obvious advantages of size and speed, but the vulnerability of a creature that cannot protect its own legs and torso. The youth is clearly angling to kill their mounts under them, so Hannibal hops off and the animal shies away on its own. It won’t go far, surrounded by unfamiliar hills, or at least he hopes not; he has money, but not so much that it would be easy to replace two horses.

The son has clearly never been to war, but he just as clearly loves his home and has spent most of his life with heavy tools in his hand. There are not so many slaves here that the sons can spend their youths in leisure. He uses his sword like Hannibal is a stubborn piece of barley, resistant to the sickle.

“The workers have already run off,” the youth huffs as they circle each other. “You’ll have a hard time gaining anything from the land, unless you’ve brought your own household– and I have to say, you don’t look like it.”

From inside the house, Hannibal hears the noises coming closer. He hears voices: a gravelly aged one giving instructions in thick-accented Greek. Wel is focusing his attention on the door where they’ll emerge, since Hannibal has this one in hand. If this youth only has younger brothers, perhaps Wel will be able to hold them off for a little bit; but since one or both could be a man, Hannibal needs to finish this quickly. He wants this son to be in agony just as his father walks out the door, a delicate piece of timing. “I don’t want your land,” he says, which unbalances the youth enough that when Hannibal lunges forward, he manages to nick him in the side. The youth is clearly unused to pain, but he is full of the desperate energy of possible death, and he recovers his guard quickly, only listing to the side a little. “What the hell do you want, then?”

They’re coming. There isn’t much time. “You poor thing,” Hannibal says, injecting as much derision into his tone as possible. “Your father never told you, of his crimes against the gods. I wonder what he told your ignorant mother of his past life, his reputation in his homeland. Why do you think you were born in Greece?” with that, he runs the youth through, his blade slipping through his entire torso and out the other side. To his credit, the youth still makes a weak, reflexive attempt at counter-attack, even as blood bubbles from his lips and he pitches backwards. Hannibal has to place a foot on his stomach to pull the weapon out of him, which is what he is doing at the moment that Malchus and his two remaining sons emerge.

The sons go for Wel with no hesitation, and while Wel ducks away from a blow that could have killed him, Hannibal is forced to jump into the fray without a moment to catch his breath. The bad news is that they’re both older than their dead brother, and strong. The good news is that Malchus is not an old man in the mold of such men as Parmenion son of Philotas, who has his strength still. Though he holds a sword, he does nothing with it hold it tremblingly in front of him as he cowers against the wall of the house.

With a yell that Hannibal wouldn’t have believed he was even capable of, Wel attacks one of the sons. The ferocity is so unexpected, so frankly and proudly barbaric, that the other son is distracted, and steps back a moment; it allows Hannibal to engage him and pull him away from Wel, so at least he’s only dealing with one. Malchus is shouting instructions, or trying to. Hannibal regrets, now, that they’re occupied with the sons: he wants time to face Malchus, to see him, to be seen and recognized before he kills him.

Instead, he only has time to spare a derisive thought for the old man’s senile yelling. Having never been a general or even a soldier, Malchus is unaware of what every man of Alexander’s army, by now made up of many tribes and languages, knows: in the heat of the moment, every man tends to speak in the tongue he learned first. Even the Macedonian generals must train themselves through long experience and effort to shout orders in Greek during battles. Malchus is ranting in Phoenecian, now, a language he appears not to have taught his sons. The one Wel is fighting betrays that he’s never heard his father speak thus before, by involuntarily turning his head towards him in confusion. Wel’s blade clumsily pierces his thigh, but deep enough for him to fall. Wel betrays a moment of hesitation; not from cowardice, but simply from not quite knowing how to strike an efficient killing blow. He’s never done it before; the robbers had been nearly accidents, reflexive, self-defence. This is murder. He brings his blade down on the man’s throat, but it takes three or four tries before the head is severed from the body.

The problem with fighting as a pair, Hannibal realizes, is the distraction. In a hoplite battle you can be certain that your neighbour is either dead or engaged in the exact same, rather individually uninteresting, activity that you are. Perhaps the Thebans were accustomed enough to going into battle together that they could feel, and had no need to watch, what their lover was doing. But Hannibal has never seen Wel fight before, and he is distracted enough by the force behind the cuts chopping the other son’s head off that his own foe darts in and makes an attempt to disarm him. Or perhaps it’s merely a very badly-aimed attempt at his chest; either way, it cuts deep into the inside of his wrist. An odd location to be wounded in battle; it bleeds dramatically like he’s a tragic figure who had opened his own veins to die. And it makes it difficult to hold his weapon very effectively. He doesn’t quite drop it in the dirt, but he fumbles, and the last remaining son darts in. He is forced to drop his sword and roll away, his back hitting the ground and leaving what will surely be a bruise covering half his torso.

The son, flushed with terror but now smelling the scent of victory, follows. Hannibal curses his own weak hand; he needs a sword. His is far away. Something slices his thigh as he scrambles to get himself back to his feet, spilling yet more of his blood. It’s the sword Wel had had from Alexander, the curved single-edged blade that Hannibal had always meant to have supplemented with a straight double-edged thrusting sword– all of the bandits along the way had been armed with worthless garbage. He’d never gotten around to it. Now it is the only weapon available to him, a fit punishment for his laziness.

It is, at least, a very nice blade. If he’s going to die, he ought to die with something beautiful in his hands. If it can’t be Wel, it could at least be this sword. From the corner of his eye, he can see Mismalka, leaning calmly against the side of the house. Would there be pity in her eyes, as she watched him die? Would he put it there?

He grabs the sword, and it is warm from Wel’s hands. The warmth spreads through him, bracing, and he grips it tightly through the pain and slashes blindly in front of him, the only motion available to him with such a weapon.

The son lands on top of him in a heap, winding Hannibal. He had been rushing forward, certain that Hannibal was disarmed; the blade had cut right through his chest. It could not have worked better if he had been trying to kill himself.

Hannibal pushes him off. Malchus. It is the only thought in his mind now; he couldn’t care less about the sons, about having killed his enemy’s family in front of him. He just wants to have the old man’s throat in between his hands. He needs to feel his death-spasms against his own body like the long-awaited caress of a lover. Intimate.

Wel is standing behind Malchus. He’s not alone.

Wel, too, has his army of ghosts behind him. But whereas Hannibal’s are humans– every sacrifice he’s ever made, plus Mismalka– Wel is surrounded by a menagerie of livestock. Rams, bulls, cattle, camel, a few horses; all of them fat and glossy, the very best that Egypt has to offer its gods. In the middle of the herd, the men stand; the young Greek mercenary that he had killed at Gaugamela and the confused, furious-looking shade of the headless corpse on the ground beside Hannibal, with a few sheepish road-bandits behind. They are all looking at Wel, expectant.

“No,” says Hannibal.

But Wel either doesn’t hear him, or he doesn’t care. He is surrounded by the power of his own ability to kill; he can’t stop now. His hands are already on the old man’s throat. Wel is stronger than he looks. Hannibal had heard stories of the way the priests at Siwah take prophecy, with a heavy barque encrusted with jewels and precious symbols held on the backs of priests. Malchus tries to dislodge the fingers cutting off his life, weathered hands with thin fingers scrabbling at his own throat. He can’t do it.

Hannibal can’t move. He ought to push Wel aside, do it himself. But now Wel is behind Malchus, and Hannibal is in front of him, and he is looking into the man’s eyes, and he sees nothing.

He steps forward, Mismalka beside him. “You don’t remember me,” he says. “You don’t remember her.” He sees Wel’s hands loosen a little, giving the victim a few more moments of consciousness while still holding him in place.

Malchus doesn’t try to respond. His eyes dart around, caring more for his own impending death than for figuring out who “her” is.

He doesn’t remember. Short of sitting him down and explaining all to him– and it is rather too late for that– this moment will have no meaning for him other than the inherent meaning of being his last. There’s nothing special about this sacrifice, nothing that makes it more or different from the others, except that Wel is here with him.

“Let him go,” he says to Wel– in Aramaic, so that the old man won’t understand, and his body flooded with relief at the moment of his release with no guess as to what’s coming. “Cut his throat instead. The meat will be bitter if you choke him.”

Wel does. He pulls Hannibal’s knife from the sheath he now keeps it in. He had never offered to give it back. Hannibal sees, in the glint of the blade, the first time he’d held that knife. His father had brought it back from a trip to Egypt, and given it to him as a gift. As the handle touched his hand, Hannibal had known it was time. He had waited long enough for his revenge against the people who had handed over his sister, the betrayal all the deeper because they felt her loss too. His first act with the blade had been to butcher his father, so shocked he had barely fought back. His mother had put up even less resistance. She’d known it was fair. She’d known from the moment her daughter left her arms that she would die for it. She wanted to. The last emotion he’d seen in her eyes was relief.

There is something about that knife– it contains violence, incites it. He’d not had time to ask his father where he had acquired it, and now he’ll never know. But he now feels sure he hadn’t bought it at a pleasant bazaar.

Malchus stumbles away, gasping. His gasps have the aspect of “thank you, thank you,” which he is too weak to say properly. He thinks he’s going to live. That’s good. He will taste sweet.

Wel walks over, serene, and draws the blade across his throat. Malchus’ shade, so long destined for Hannibal’s revenge, joins the count on Wel’s side instead.

Boetia, Greece, Summer 330

Chapter Notes

Wel supposes that Hannibal probably thinks he doesn’t want to sleep in the home of the man he’d killed; a very unsoldierly scruple. Or perhaps that Wel has simply acquired a taste for sleeping out of doors, which is very far from the truth. He would rather be indoors, and the fact of having killed the previous owner has nothing to do with his rejecting that house specifically. He cannot explain why he insists on leaving, with Malchus’ body slung over the back of the one mule on the farm that Hannibal hadn’t slaughtered. Oddly, all Hannibal had harvested from the farm animals was their sinew; everything else went to the gods. The smoke still rises behind them.

They have their food with them. There is a blanket overtop of the body, but no other protection. Anyone who thought to wonder what was under the blanket could probably easily guess, but it’s dark now, and the farmers who had directed them to the right house are indoors. Their little homes can sometimes be seen, dotting the countryside with cook-fires or the faint glow of lamps. They head south. Wel knows that the meat is getting tougher with every passing minute. Hannibal doesn’t ask how far they’re going to go before making camp; he just follows.

Wel had expected to feel different.

The first time he’d slaughtered a ram for the god, he’d had the same expectation, and was almost disappointed to find himself the same awkward, tormented youth afterwards as before. But that was a sacrifice, something the god was more present for than Wel was himself. And the man at Gaugamela had been out of pity, and the dog in Persis perhaps half pity and half curiosity, and the ram on board the ship hunger and a little bit of enjoyable flourish, and the bandits self-defense, but this– this was a battle. Killing, plain and simple, motivated by no god’s hunger but the hunger gods have given men for glory and honour. Blood-feud; what could be more mortal? The gods nurse their grudges forever. Men end them with blood.

There’s still blood under his fingernails. He knows that Hannibal must be otherworldly in some way, chosen for some purpose, good or ill– how else could he do what he does, and thrive? Tantalus served his son to the gods, and was condemned to live forever starving, with ripe fruit always just out of reach. Lycaon did the same, and Zeus brought his roof down on top of him and turned him into a wolf. In all cases, the consumed flesh comes back into life. But the flesh Hannibal consumed resolutely stays dead, and the man himself resolutely stays untormented by the divine. That first time, Wel had eaten without thinking of it. He’d been out of time and outside of himself. Now, he is present. He is making a choice. For once he has no voice, no vision, not even an inexplicable feeling to guide him. Ammon-Re, it seems, has no opinion on this.

They travel until sundown and then a little afterwards, Hannibal gamely never pointing out that darkness is falling. Finally, Wel stops. “This is the place,” he says. He’s certain of it. Now he just needs to figure out what place it is.

Hannibal, too, is trusting but curious. He dismounts and leads his horse, the mule carrying Malchus training behind, through a copse of trees through which an open plain is faintly visible on the other side.

Wel follows, but not so quickly that he sees the moment Hannibal falls to the ground. Instead, as he arrives in the clearing, he has a moment of pure terror seeing Hannibal on the ground, his forehead pressed to the dirt like a Persian in front of his king. He looks around wildly for an archer, a slingshot-thrower, something that would explain why Hannibal is on the ground, and instead what he sees is the lion.

At the opposite end of the clearing, an enormous stone lion presides. Though recognizably an animal, it has a curiously human aspect; muscled shoulders and thighs, a mane tumbling down from its head that looks like it has been brushed by loving fingers, and a face turned to the side that appears both proud and lamenting. And although after a year with the army Wel had thought himself immune to being impressed by the sheer scale of the works of man, the size of it alone is enough to make him nearly fall to his knees. The animal itself is nearly as tall as three men, and the pedestal beneath it another two.

Hannibal hasn’t been attacked. He is prostrating himself, exactly like a Persian before his Great King or an Egyptian before the Pharaoh. To what, exactly, Wel isn’t certain; but he is the one who had led them here, and apparently he had not done so in vain. He jumps down from his horse, and steps over lightly to lie down beside Hannibal. The cool ground feels good against his forehead. There are whispers coming from it. Wel can’t understand them, there are too many voices, but they whisper with a pleasant and peaceful tone of voice. Almost loving. They appreciate being appreciated, bowed down to.

Wel looks to the side, carefully. Hannibal’s cheeks are wet with tears.

“What is this place?” Wel whispers. He doesn’t want to drown out the voices or make them stop murmuring, and they don’t. He’s not certain if Hannibal can hear them. Hannibal doesn’t hear voices, usually. But these are so close.

Instead of rising, Hannibal merely turns on his side, so he is pressing one ear to the ground instead of his forehead. He reaches for Wel, and Wel goes, his chest tight with sudden tenderness. He has felt the insides of Hannibal, known what he was thinking and feeling as he’d watched his entire unit die at the river Crimissus. He hadn’t felt sorrow or fear, hadn’t wept then. Now, Wel wipes the tears away from underneath Hannibal’s eyes, and the skin there feels so soft and delicate. Hannibal rolls him over, putting all his weight on top of him until Wel can barely breathe. He takes little sips of air instead, not wanting to push him off. Hannibal buries his face in Wel’s neck. He still hasn’t answered the question.

Wel closes his eyes, and Hannibal mouths over his neck hungrily, and he listens to the voices. They whisper of love lasting beyond death. “This is where the Sacred Band of Thebes died,” Wel says with what breath he can muster. He knows it must be true. What else could affect Hannibal so? He cares little for death in and of itself, but he’s protective of love and beauty like they belong to him alone, and can be shared only carefully.

More licking, some careful and then less-careful bites that will leave marks on Wel’s neck for many days. He tries to keep still, but his body has other ideas. Crassly, for this sacred ground, he can’t stop himself from grinding his hips up against Hannibal’s. He’d thought that the arousal of that morning– Hannibal sucking on his cock like it was perfectly normal and not an act better suited to a whore or a vanquished soldier being humiliated– had been spent in the battle. But now it slams back into him like it had never left. Hannibal doesn’t seem to think it too crude for this hallowed ground; in fact, he bears down against it, shoving Wel into the ground until he slides backwards a little. The voices don’t mind it either. This was what bound them, after all; not just friendship but the love of the body. The joining of spirits through the joining of flesh.

Wel knows, in an instant, what he wants; what has to be, here. He reaches down and pulls up his chiton a little, pushes down the cloth underneath it. “Go on,” he rasps. “Have me. God, I’ve been waiting for it since that first night. Hannibal, please.

Hannibal doesn’t have to be told twice. He pushes himself up, allowing Wel to gasp in air as the pressure on his chest is removed. There is oil in his pack for cooking, and Hannibal reaches for it with a hand that– Wel observes dazedly– shakes. He can barely keep control of himself well enough to pour a measure of it into his hand; half of it spills on his first try. For all that he can physically breathe now, Wel now feels almost incapable of it emotionally. Hannibal, who has never been bothered or affected by anything in the world, is lost to himself at the idea of this. And he hasn’t even touched Wel yet.

When he does, it feels like the first time, in the river. He had simply had no idea. Nobody had ever touched him there, not himself or another person, nobody had ever tried to enter him the way two of Hannibal’s gentle fingers do now. He feels the breach of him, knuckles sliding against the clenching muscle of his entrance, and then feels it inside. When Hannibal strokes him from the inside, the pleasure is shocking. He arches up off the ground, writhes. He is achingly hard. He tries to reach for his own cock, an involuntary movement that he doesn’t really mean. He wants Hannibal to slap his hand away, which he does.

Hannibal steadies himself by Wel’s loss of control, as if they only have so much of it to share between them and Wel has transferred it to him for the moment. He nudges Wel’s legs open a little wider, kneeling in between them. He pumps his fingers in an out, achingly slowly. “Good?” he asks.

Wel doesn’t answer. He has forgotten any words he once knew in Greek. None of them suffice.

The voices become more prominent as his pleasure grows. They emerge from the earth tendril-like, wrap themselves around his limbs, hold him down and root him to this place. The baseness of his desire falls away, and leaves a kind of nobility in its place that he hadn’t been aware of. He is lost to himself, and completely present with Hannibal. There is nothing he wouldn’t allow to be done to him in this moment, and it feels like trust, complete and entire.

He knows what he wants to be done to him, though. He pulls Hannibal down by the shoulders, uncoordinated, and presses their chests together; Hannibal’s erection presses against his groin and there is intent there. The head slides over the sensitive skin between his cheeks, catching on his entrance. “Yes?” Hannibal asks, and Wel can only nod desperately and hope Hannibal feels it against his neck.

Hannibal pulls back, removes his fingers, and pours more oil on his cock. The oil and the fluid already dripping from it combine and glisten in the light of the moon, something more beautiful and ethereal than a human body ought to be.

At first there’s just pressure as Hannibal pushes his way in, and that feels good. It feels so good that it’s a shock when the head breaches him and it hurts; it’s huge and stretches like the fingers hadn’t. Wel gasps, not able to prevent a high pained sound from escaping him, and clutches at Hannibal’s lower back. He’s not sure if he’s trying to pull him off or push him in more quickly.

Hannibal holds himself there, just the rounded head of his cock inside. The stab of pain subsides. Wel can feel how close Hannibal’s member is to touching that spot inside of him that he needs touched again. He takes a deep breath. “Okay,” he says. “More.”

Hannibal slides in incredibly slowly, and it burns and soothes all at once. When the steady pressure of invading flesh presses against that sweet spot, Wel keens, and the voices of the dead hum their approval. They have no bodies, can feel no pleasure. They have already given themselves to their lover, not just in temporary pleasure but in life and death. They belong to each other eternally. Hannibal belongs to him right now, and as he starts to rock slowly inside Wel’s body, Wel thinks that he wants him forever.

He rolls his hips inwards and tries to help, pushing and subsiding along with him so that Hannibal knows that he can move. The pain isn’t quite gone; instead it’s a deep ache that is transforming, slowly, into something else. “Do it harder,” Wel says.

Hannibal doesn’t need to be told twice. He braces his hands on the ground on either side of Wel’s chest and fucks into him hard enough that Wel slides a little, and instead of stopping Hannibal just slides with him and keeps going. Wel grabs on to Hannibal’s shoulders to stop himself from moving, bucking up in time with his thrusts. The sound of skin slapping against skin is loud and obscene and as gorgeous as music.

The voices rise up, not observing them but participating. Wel feels filled, not just with Hannibal but with the spirits of every beloved who had died on this plain. We thought we would conquer the world, they think with him, and in a way we did. The first thing, the most glorious, is that we were prepared to die a thousand deaths for each other before being viewed by our lovers in dishonour. And what better test of willingness than to actually do it? The lion, erected before the victor of the battle was even passed from the earth and with his full willingness to glorify a brave enemy, watches over them protectively.

It’s a nice story, the brave lovers perishing in each others’ arms in honour and glory. Hannibal is a soldier. Wel knows he must know that the reality was surely significantly less romantic. Screams, curses, the stench of guts and piss and bile. And yet there is something in Hannibal that is drawn to the romance of the notion, and has always been; after all, he’d joined his own city’s pale imitation of this slaughtered band of lovers. He has spent a lifetime revering the spirits now filling their bodies. All that was missing was the beloved. And now Wel is here, and the enormity of Hannibal’s feeling is overwhelming. He’d felt before like there sometimes wasn’t room inside him just for Ammon- Re. Now there is even more: the god is still there, but Wel is there too, in a hollowed-out space carved by Hannibal. And now the spirits of the dead are inside him too, and finally Hannibal is there, trying to enter, body and spirit. He wants to be inside Wel so badly. Wel’s body can survive the onslaught. He’s not sure about the rest of him.

Hannibal tips Wel’s hips up, bearing upwards in his body so that he hits that spot harder with each thrust. The pleasure had built as if it would keep going forever, and now it comes crashing down over him like water, choking him with it. His cry when he comes sounds identical to fear or pain, like the death-throes of all of the spirits here are coming out through him. Hannibal wraps his arms around his torso and ruts into him harder, artlessly now, pressing his face against Wel’s shoulder. He’s suddenly so sensitive inside that he can’t stop his body from squirming to get away, and of course that only adds to Hannibal’s pleasure. He thrusts in a final time and then holds himself there, gasping, his seed inside Wel’s body.

Darkness has fallen in the time since they arrived. In the gloom, the glow of lampyrids begins to flicker.

“Time to reap the barley,” Wel whispers.

Hannibal raises his head. As if they’d been waiting for him, the glowing beetles seem to multiply. The air is alight with them. “But the reaping of barley means the sowing of many other seeds.” He raises his eyebrows, then glances down significantly at their own still-joined bodies.

Wel tries not to, but a snigger escapes him. “Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Millet, for example,” says Hannibal, with dignity.

Wel bursts out laughing. It feels so good, after all the pressure on his chest, after all the spirits inside him. They flow out through his mirth, seep out of him and back into the ground. Hannibal takes the opportunity to pull out, which is odd and unpleasant but also somehow freeing. He feels light.

“I’ve been having– used to have– these dreams,” he says. “They seemed important, and they were terrifying, but I could never interpret them, and neither could anyone else. I was always being overwhelmed by a sea of blood, and then a knife appeared. I know– I guess it doesn’t sound like much, when I say it out loud. But it feels like more when I’m in it, you know?”

“I rarely dream any more,” says Hannibal, almost hesitantly. “But I have been told that they often have the quality of unexplainability once awake.”

The clearing is quiet now, all the animals frightened away, the only sound their heavy breath. Wel sighs deep just to hear the air going through him, then shrugs. “Maybe this was it,” he says. “This was what it was for. I’ve killed now, and it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it’s all over.”

“I hope for your sake that you are right.”

Wel swallows. “I do too.” Could it really be that easy?

Hannibal drops a kiss on his forehead, entirely chaste and more intimate than he could have imagined. “I ought to start supper. Before the meat spoils.”

Wel nods. “Yeah. Do that.”

*

They eat Malchus surrounded by the glow of the lampyrids. Hannibal folds up his cloak for Wel to sit on, and Wel laughs but doesn’t give it back. His ass is, in fact, sore.

The meat is no tougher than anything else they’ve had occasion to eat on the road. It would be easy to forget what it is. Most of the time, Wel does forget that this is who Hannibal is, what he does. Or perhaps not forgets: it is simply a part of him. It would be impossible to imagine the man without the knowledge that he is full of the bodies of others.

Maybe that’s what draws them together. They are both full of others; Wel with the god, and Hannibal with men.

“Traditionally, the consumption of human flesh by Greeks calls down a curse from the gods,” he says carefully. “Tantalus. Lycaon. We’re in their land now.”

Hannibal smiles. “And in your land?”

Wel chews carefully, swallows. Hannibal watches him doing it, avidly. “Well, the old Pharaohs utter of it in their funeral spells. Most people don’t take it literally, though.”

“Why not?”

Hannibal doesn’t know the language, but the words rise up in him anyway, and Wel recites the hymn: Pharaoh is Lord of Offerings, who knots the cord, and who himself prepares his meal. Pharaoh is he who eats men and lives on gods, Lord of Porters, who dispatches written messages. Their big ones are for his morning meal, their middle-sized ones are for his evening meal, their little ones are for his night meal, their old men and their old women are for his incense-burning. It is the Great Ones in the North of the sky who light the fire for him to the cauldrons containing them, with the thighs of their eldest as fuel.

When he looks over again, Hannibal has a soft smile on his face. “I guess most people don’t consider themselves the equal of a Pharaoh. Or a god,” Wel says.

“I shall never make the mistake of underestimating you,” says Hannibal simply, and it is sacrilege, but for the moment, they are the only two gods around to care.

Chapter End Notes

Map of this and the previous two chapters overlayed on modern Greece, since I wasn’t sure of my ability to mark additional locations accurately on any of the layperson-friendly ancient ones I found:

(5+1).2.1 Zadrakarta-Bactria-Sogdiana, 330-329

Chapter Summary

Five things Hannibal of Lectis didn’t kill, and one thing he did:

1. Wel’s dreams.

Chapter Notes

Hannibal tries not to be disappointed when, the first night back, camped outside Zadrakarta, Wel wakes him in the middle of the night, gasping the imaginary blood out of his lungs and clutching at the imaginary knife in his belly.

He mostly succeeds. After all, Wel is beautiful like this: shaking like a leaf in a storm, his eyes blazing like torches, his hands gripping Hannibal’s flesh with more strength than they could ever possess on their own.

Also, the fact is that Wel is here, with him. They had taken the rest of the summer to leave Greece and find their way back to the army, and had arrived back to a much more crowded camp than they had left. Wel had never brought up the option of his returning to the seer’s tent, which is after all larger and better-appointed than Hannibal’s, with a slave to attend it and meals provided by good professional cooks. They had simply pitched their tent in the Greek section as Hannibal always had, only now Wel sleeps there with him.

The Greek section of camp is significantly larger than it used to be. At some point while Hannibal was avenging the remnants of his blood-feud, Alexander had become Great King of Persia; apparently, Darius’ own officers had knifed him and left him to bleed out. The more romantic Macedonians are already concocting unlikely stories of the Persian dying in their king’s arms, bequeathing his kingdom to a worthy successor. All of the remaining Greeks serving in the Persian army had surrendered even after having been refused terms, and they are a singularly nervous group of men. Alexander is away, campaigning against some hill-people with the nimblest regiments. He had promised to deal with the Greeks– most of whom had broken the treaty under which no Greeks could serve the Persian crown– when he got back. The general consensus among the men who have been serving longer seems to be that a mass crucifixion is unlikely, but presumably even the speculation on the odds of such a thing makes the new arrivals jumpy.

There are also more Persians. Though not as numerous as the Persian-serving Greeks, they are undeniably men of higher quality. Plenty of Darius’ officers surrendered; those who had served the Achaemenid with honour had been kept on, often in the exact positions they had held before. There is also, apparently, a little Persian eunuch who had been a favourite bedmate of Darius’; nobody can figure out whether he’s been offered the position he held before.

All in all, the latest gossip should interest Hannibal more. But even as he circulated in the camp, greeting old comrades in arms and hearing the news, he had found himself distracted. Wel, too, was re-acquainting himself with his station: visiting the seers’ tent, learning of events and the omens that had presaged them, acquainting himself with the new gods that they had picked up to worship along the way. Hannibal wished he could follow him like a fly and watch. He wanted to know exactly what he was doing, what he was saying, what he was feeling. He wanted to know what Wel was like when Hannibal wasn’t watching– a contradiction that he still can’t shake. Perhaps that is why he doesn’t mind being woken by Wel’s nightmares; it is the closest he can come to being present for a truly private moment.

And yet– he had thought, for a little bit, that the nightmares had stopped, and he’d been pleased at that not for their lack, but for what it meant. A prophetic dream, which started long before they had even met; of course he wants it to have been about him. Of course he wants Wel’s destiny to have been fulfilled in the act of bloodshed that they had perpetrated together.

But there is something else, clearly, that the dream signifies. Hannibal, who is used to living with the promise of revenge hanging over him, finds that living with prophecy hanging over him is very different.

As for himself, he feels a curious loss. He had been determined, since he was a boy, to kill and eat every single person involved in Mismalka’s death. Now he has done so. It is the sort of situation in which, traditionally, men choose to consult oracles.

He doesn’t ask for a prophecy, no special sacrifice or reading to be done for him. He simply keeps Wel close. It’s not hard to do; Wel seems to assume that they’ll stay together. As winter falls upon them, the travelling city of the army seemingly goes to meet it: climbing up into the Indian Caucasus, trudging through ever-deeper snow. They are too tired and hungry to indulge in the acts of love that they had gotten quite good at on the road back from Greece; nothing grows here but silphium, an aromatic that is useless without good food to season with it, and pistachio trees that are mostly picked over. Hannibal makes a better quality of soldiers’ bread than most of the rest of the men, saving a portion of each day’s grain ration mixed with water in a little pot to make the next day’s bread rise. Still, it is soldier’s bread. When a horse dies, even of disease, it is quickly consumed. When a man dies– well, Hannibal has considered it. But most often, there is at least someone to give perfunctory rites. A handful of dirt, a muttered prayer. He is not certain, now that Malchus is dead, what the killing and eating of men means to him. Must it be a sacrifice? He whispers the question to Wel while the other man is asleep, hoping it will infiltrate his dreams and provide an answer.

They finally rest at Drapsaka, a Bactrian city that serves as a place to leave noncombatants as the fighting men take the two largest cities of the region, Aornos and Bactra. All of the seers except Aristobulos are given permission to stay behind. Wel comes without even discussing it. He is a fixture in the Greek camp now; the Greek mercenaries formerly of the Persian army, who had indeed not been crucified but only been hired on at their old rate, which is lower than the pay received by the others, seem to regard him as something of a good luck charm. Greeks find it easy to accept new religions and gods, since they are selfishly convinced that all gods are really guises of their own Greek gods. Persians are more cautious, Hannibal knows; many of them worship only the god they call the Wise Lord, and reject all other gods as false, even devils.

In the spring, Alexander finally finds what he had been looking for: the treacherous Persian called Bessos, who had first been part of the conspiracy to kill Darius and then proclaimed himself Great King. In sharp contrast to the lenient treatment of the Greek mercenaries, Bessos, as one stop on the tour that will eventually end in his mutilation and execution by his countrymen in Ekbatana, is clapped in a dog collar and made to stand naked by the side of the road while the entire army marches past. Hannibal finds this marvellously funny, and restrains his mirth only for the sake of Wel beside him; who seems vaguely nauseous, but also can’t look away from the spectacle. The Macedonians mostly appear puzzled by it: grand displays of public shaming aren’t their king’s usual style. Hannibal understands, however, when he sees the satisfied faces of the old Persian officers absorbed into the Macedonian leadership. This is their style, and it is for them; proof that their new Great King is the Achaemenid and will deal with his fellow Persians in the Persian manner– both in honour and in disgrace.

They winter in Bactra, advance into Sogdiana in the summer, take another winter in Naukata, and take the Sogdian rock in the spring. When the Sogdians taunt that only men with wings could ever take their strongholds, Bacaxa fashions climbing-pegs instead, and the invincible fortress is captured.

Many hands make light work; and by this time there are many, many hands in the army which can no longer accurately be called Macedonian. Macedonians, Greeks, Persians, Scythians, Thracians, and an increasing number of Indians who can see what must be coming next, fight side by side. The work isn’t light, but it is manageable. It’s a lifestyle, not a mere spring campaign. It’s the kind of campaign a king would plan if he had no intention of ever returning home to rest.

Increasingly, that is fine with Hannibal. He has done everything in his home city that a young man ought to do: married, seen his sons born and grown. He’s also done plenty that a young man isn’t supposed to do, like the grisly murder of dozens of public officials and high-ranking citizens. Wel’s dreams attest to the fact that the gods are not done with them– or rather, not done with Wel. Hannibal hopes, perhaps insanely, that whatever omen it is, it is for him too. For the moment, however, they are tired, and hungry, but content. As they advance ever eastward, his hunger for the journey grows.

Chapter End Notes

The strange chapter headings for the previous 5+1 fic-within-a-fic, explained at last! There was another one all along.

Feel free to ignore the geography– anything important about the terrain will be explained in the text– or, if you like, consult the following map for the next few chapters, bearing in mind that dammit Jim, I’m a fanfiction writer, not a geographer:


Drawn in above is, somewhat dubiously, Wel and Hannibal’s route back to rejoin the army; the intention is that they went by sea to Ephesus and then followed the Royal Road back to the interior, basically the reverse of how they got to Greece in the first place. Don’t use my location of the road as an authority for any purpose besides reading this story, please. Once they rejoin the army at Zadrakarta (the location of which is itself a guess on the part of the editors of The Landmark Arrian), they follow the marked route on the base image.

The assumptions about the sea-journey in both directions came from Stanford’s ORBIS tool; ORBIS assumes Roman infrastructure, so I wouldn’t trust it for land journeys taking place on the Classical/Hellenistic cusp, but I figure the likely ports of call by sea are probably accurate:

(5+1).2.2 Bactra, Spring 327

Chapter Summary

Five things Hannibal of Lectis didn’t kill, and one thing he did:

2. Hermolaos of Macedon

Chapter Notes

Not all of the soldiers feel their hunger for the journey increase with the eating of it.

The Macedonians are hardy soldiers, but they are delicate in psychology. Not secure in their identity either as Greeks or as what the Greeks call barbarians, they take the civilization and richness of the Eastern lands as a personal affront. They take their king’s recognition of his new domain’s civilization as an abandonment. They mutter about his first wife, a Sogdian. They jeer at the Persians who bow down to him, according to their own custom. Underneath it all is the jealousy of a lover. They love him, and cannot help but keen love me, love me back.

Wel is lying on his stomach, chin resting on his hands, in their tent pitched on the outskirts of the Greek neighborhood of the moving city that makes up the army. Hannibal has learned over the years that Wel will never ask to make camp in a specific location, but he is always happier the farther away from the others they can get. The tent city is now so large that being truly outside of it would be impractical, but he does his best. It is also to his own benefit; he likes the prying questions about what his prophetic lover is saying in his sleep exactly as much as Wel does, which is to say not at all.

It’s the last few hours of sunlight before dusk. Wel has two pieces of vellum in front of him, and is trying to make some sort of comparison between an old Sogdian document on the correct praises for the deity called the Wise Lord, and a newer Persian one. His eyes keep slipping closed, so presumably the task is not all that interesting. “There was a soldier being whipped out in the central square today,” he says.

“Oh?” Hannibal tries to sound interested. Having been a soldier since his youth, and the Carthaginian army being one of the unruliest in the world, the novelty of military discipline has long since worn off. Still, he can acknowledge that here, with the disciplined professional Macedonians and their ardent love for their king, it is unusual for any behavioural problems to escalate to the level of a public flogging.

“One of the King’s personal guards,” Wel adds, and that is more interesting.

“What did he do?”

Wel pushes himself up and abandons his scrolls. “He killed a boar that Alexander had marked out for himself during a hunt. But I think it was more what he said. Eumenes told me that afterwards that Hermolaos– the soldier– said that he’d needed to kill the boar to reclaim his manhood because his King was an effete medizer who preferred to adopt the customs of the people they’d supposedly conquered rather than bring civilization to the barbarians. At least, I think. Eumenes insists on talking to me in Egyptian, which he’s still not very good at, so it’s never totally clear.”

“Well, that would do it,” Hannibal laughs. Then a thought hits him. “How boorish. He surely wouldn’t be missed.”

Wel snorts. “He’s a page, Hannibal. A personal guard to the King. Pretty sure he would.”

“A pity. Well, did he take his punishment well?”

“I don’t know. I don’t exactly have a basis for comparison of reactions to beatings.”

Hannibal stops what he had been doing, which was sharpening his new short-sword. Bacaxa has taken up a single womanly hobby, which is joining the women who pick over bodies after battles for useful objects; she’d given him a fine new blade as a gift when she’d returned with the contingent dealing with the Pareitakene rebels.

It’s not often it feels like the right moment to ask Wel about his youth; it has to be drawn out of him carefully, in circuitous conversations about the will of gods and metaphors of mythology. “You did not attend school, in Siwah? Or are Egyptian pedagogues less sandal-happy than elsewhere?”

Wel frowns, opens his mouth, then closes it again. Hannibal watches interestedly. Wel’s blushes are less apparent than they would be on a Greek, which is a pity, but there is definitely a tint in his cheeks that hadn’t been there before.

“I was taught rites and languages by Joh, the priest who saved me from the desert,” he says finally. “There weren’t any other children– besides village children, and they didn’t go to school. I– sandal-happy?”

“And this Joh never beat you when you neglected your studies?” Hannibal is enjoying himself now. Wel is definitely blushing, and although it’s not an uncommon reaction– there wouldn’t be hundreds of cheap vases for sale in any marketplace with reproduced scenes of schoolroom discipline on them if people didn’t take pleasure in dwelling on the subject– for some reason, he hadn’t expected it of Wel. When they make love, Hannibal always has the feeling of possessing something otherworldly, something only borrowed from the gods. He does his best to treat it as such. Perhaps he had erred. There is a part of Wel that is godly, but there is also a part of him– a growing part, Hannibal hopes– that is earthly. That that part should be sordid and eager is delightful news.

“I never neglected them. Until the moment I was initiated into the priesthood, I thought I was one wrong move away from being thrown back out into the sand.”

All thoughts of killing an impertinent Macedonian page have fled Hannibal’s mind. He reaches over and pushes the hair back from Wel’s forehead, cupping a hand around the back of his neck possessively. “You poor thing,” he murmurs. “Never felt the touch of discipline in your life. No wonder you’re so unruly and difficult to handle.”

Shamelessly, Wel climbs on top of him, straddling Hannibal’s hips with his knees. Hannibal can feel his arousal pressing against his own stomach, and from this close he can even smell it, sweat-sweet and desperate. “What the hell are you talking about,” Wel mutters, but he does it right into Hannibal’s shoulder, rubbing his cheek there like a cat.

Hannibal lets him for a moment, enjoying the frank neediness of it. He owns this. He can do this to a creature who was supposed to belong only to the gods; Hannibal has stolen him and made him his own. Prometheus was punished for stealing from the gods, but Hannibal is never punished for anything. Wel is never punished for anything, either, but it certainly seems like he’s interested in the concept. “Take off my sandals for me,” he murmurs in Wel’s ear. “Place one to the side, and hand me the other; then lie down across my lap.”

For a long moment, he thinks Wel isn’t going to do it. He stays there, his forehead grinding into Hannibal’s shoulder, until arousal gets the better of him. He curses suddenly, the words in Egyptian but their meaning clear, and Hannibal feels a bright burst of pain as Wel bites his shoulder quickly before slithering down his body. Like a quick taste of Hannibal is supposed to tide him over through whatever’s coming. It’s so charming that Hannibal almost forgets what he’s doing in the haze of his bliss.

Hannibal needs new sandals, these ones are quite worn; but they’ll do very well for this purpose. Wel settles himself across his lap with the same animal need and contentment that he’d shown just a moment ago. He rubs himself against Hannibal’s thighs, until Hannibal finally opens his legs a little to allow Wel’s cock to settle in between them. Then he squeezes, and Wel moans.

“How hard would you like it?”

“Don’t know.” Wel settles his cheek resting on the backs of his hands, eyes closed. “You decide.”

He looks entirely relaxed, and Hannibal thinks it is probably a good thing that he can’t see own involuntarily fond smile at Wel’s complete surrender. He is perfect like this. No wonder Ammon-Re likes him so much.

He runs a hand up the back of his thigh, to make Wel think that he might push up his chiton and pull down his loincloth to strike bare skin, but he just keeps a hand on him, wanting to feel the reverberations through his body. He hits over cloth first, square across both asscheeks, and Wel jerks. His hands scrabble at the ground. Hannibal does it again and then again, harder. “Good?” he says, more curious if Wel will ask him to stop or keep going than concerned for his well-being.

Wel just gives a tiny nod and something in between a grunt and a squeak that seems to be in the affirmative, then reaches back with the hand that is closest to Hannibal. Hannibal takes his other hand off of Wel’s thighs, and grasps his hand instead. He hits him again, and the seer’s hand tightens. It closes a loop between them, and Hannibal does indeed feel godly; giving punishment with one hand, comfort with the other.

Hannibal keeps striking over cloth, not too hard but steadily, until Wel’s little moans come on each blow, and he’s thrusting down into Hannibal’s legs with each one. Hannibal is aroused enough that he has to prevent himself from doing the same; it would be all too easy to bring himself off just from pushing up into the warm weight of Wel’s hips on his.

He stops, and bares Wel’s ass to the warm air instead. There’s no visible sign on the skin of the strikes it’s taken so far, and Hannibal has a sudden desire to change that. He wants to see Wel sitting gingerly for the next few days, and be the only one to know why.

The first strike on bare skin is, perhaps, a little more enthusiastic than he’d intended. Wel yelps, his free hand instinctively pushing his body away, and Hannibal has to keep him there by pulling at the other one. He puts the sandal down momentarily to run his hand over where he’s just hit. It’s warm, but then, Wel’s whole body is warm right now with arousal as if with fever. “Stay still,” he murmurs, “and be quiet. You’ll get ten of these. For every sound, you’ll get two more. For that, you have eleven left.”

It’s both a challenge and an experiment: Wel is perfectly capable of staying silent, as he proves with the next few blows. The only sound is the smack of leather on skin, and both of their harsh breaths. Then, when he has only one more left anyway, he makes another sound, halfway in between a sob and a moan. It almost sounds involuntary, but it’s not. Hannibal grins. He wants more.

He quickly loses track of how many more Wel’s earned. They’re just responding to each other now; Wel panting and moaning and thrusting down into Hannibal’s thighs, Hannibal hitting him and feeling each blow travel through Wel’s flesh to pleasure his own. He’s moving too, now, no point in pretending not to be just as affected; and to Hannibal’s shock it is him who comes first, his hips jerking up a final time without his permission. He drops the sandal, needing to brace both elbows against the ground to control his movements, and in the sudden sweet loss of pain Wel thrusts harder against his legs and follows him over the edge. Hannibal simply lies there and watches it, Wel laid out in front of him and across him, his ass glowing red and his back arching as his seed coats the inside of Hannibal’s thighs.

It’s a good thing, Hannibal thinks, that they’ve pitched their tent away from any others. The noises that reach them in the muted clarity of satisfaction are far-off; men working and cleaning weapons and talking, women preparing meals, merchants and translators and prostitutes looking for business. Children playing. There are many children now.

Almost hesitantly, he places a hand on Wel’s thigh and strokes back up over his ass. It’s hot to the touch. Well rubs his eyes with his hands. “Mmm,” he says, then, “No more.”

“I wasn’t going to hit you again,” Hannibal says. He probably should be offended that Wel would think he would, now, purely for his own pleasure, but it’s a little bit thrilling. Wel knows– even overestimates– Hannibal’s appetite for his suffering. And he’s still here, lying contentedly across his body, rubbing unshed tears out of his eyes.

Wel turns himself around instead, joining Hannibal who is now lying nearly flat. He simply lies right on top of him, too light to be a real burden but warm and solid. Hannibal holds him there. It seems unbelievable. And because there is something in him that always wants to push, that needs to smash a vase on the ground just to see if it will break and stay broken, he can’t stop himself from asking, “Are you all right?”

“Mhm. Good.” Wel doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t offer any analysis or explanation of what’s happened between them, today or ever. Hannibal is left alone with his need to push boundaries, because Wel has no interest in pushing back.

“Good. I hope I will only ever bring you pleasure,” Hannibal murmurs, and it feels wrenched from him like Wel has described the god sometimes using his mouth without his consent. How could he promise such a thing? Why would he?

He feels Wel’s smile against his chest. A little mocking, but fond. “Okay. Good luck with that.”

Hannibal doesn’t ask him what he means by that. He doesn’t want to; he has the awful feeling that if he did, Wel wouldn’t know.

Chapter End Notes

This entire chapter is dedicated to the memory of an article I read at one point and now tragically cannot find again, discussing the pervasiveness of sandal-spanking scenes on Greek pottery in very “what could possibly be the motivation for this highly ambiguous artistic motif?” tones. I THINK IT’S BECAUSE THEY WERE HORNY, PROFESSOR.

“Medizer,” from Μηδίζω, “side with the Medes,” the Medes being a group technically conquered and absorbed into the Persian empire but because of their purported cultural influence more or less synonymous with Persianness in the Greek imagination; thus, a derogatory term for a Greek with Persian sympathies or affectations.

(5+1).2.3 Mount Meros, Spring 326

Chapter Summary

Five things Hannibal of Lectis didn’t kill, and one thing he did:

3. Akouphis the Nysian

They cross into India. They capture uncapturable rock-forts. Hannibal gets a promotion.

Bacaxa is thrilled. Having worked her way into the ranks of the chief engineers, and transferred much of her expertise with ships and war-engines into the building of bridges over rivers more swift than have ever been bridged by an army, it is inconvenient for her that her acquaintances of the army hold low rank. Jason and Briareos, along with a few other world-weary Greeks, had ended their commission at the banks of the Indus, choosing not to cross over on the last set of pre-built bridges the army would see for quite a while. There were enough of them to march home in relative safety, and Greek hoplites are of increasing uselessness in this terrain, so they received permission easily and hardly anybody notices their absence.

What’s needed are more nimble, light-armed units. They’re levied from conquered people– new allies, would be the official term– but also created from existing regiments. The infantry agema to whom Hannibal is assigned are one such new unit; an attempt to create an infantry unit equal in rank to the noble cavalry companions, a promotion for the common man to aspire to and work hard to prove himself worthy of.

Although being relieved of his sarissa and issued a silver shield is rather pleasant, practically, it means that Hannibal now has an assigned camp-spot among the agema. Since they are the first choice for any adventure requiring small numbers of skilled men, they need to be ready to go at any time. Bacaxa is thrilled that she won’t have to wander around the outskirts of the camp to find him. Wel is less thrilled that he has to make camp in the beating heart of the moving city, but the reality is that it is convenient for him as well. Far from having been forgotten during their sojurn in Greece, he had been missed.

Principally, he had been missed by Aristandros, who is now chief among an ever-expanding group of religious figures, tasked not only with communicating directly with the King but also with incorporating the new gods of each conquered tribe into the religious observances of the tent-city and of the new Empire. This necessarily means incorporating the new priests of those gods into the corps of priests, and drawing up plans for when and where each god ought to receive sacrifice and reverence. Most of the new priests are self-important, constantly trying to have their own deities privileged above the others, and can barely write Aramaic if they can write at all. Wel, having been brought up at an oracle that receives travellers of many nations, is the only non-Greek priest that Aristandros trusts, and who can write and understand several tongues.

So Wel is often tied up in meetings: first large boisterous ones where all of the priests have their say regarding divine precedence, and then smaller ones where he, Aristandros and Cleomenes along with the scouts and mapmakers who are leading them on into India draw up worship schedules according to upcoming special holidays and the river-crossings they will shortly be making. Their work isn’t wasted. Ever since the incident with Kleitos the Black, the King follows their schedule immaculately.

Kleitos had been a dear, if tempestuous, friend of Alexander’s, until one day the King ignored his priests’ instructions to sacrifice to Dionysos, and instead sacrificed that day to Dioskouroi. That evening the spurned Dionysos drove the whole lot of Macedonian commanders wine-mad; Alexander and Kleitos had a drunken row over silly songs, trousers, and Euripides, which ended with the King killing his friend in a moment of rage. He was then only averted from his intention to kill himself through hunger and thirst by the insistence of the priests that it had been Dionysos, not Alexander, who did the deed, and the latter’s only fault had been not sticking to the worship schedule. It seems like a rather flimsy argument to Hannibal. But it has made Aristandros, and by extension Aristandros’ favourite barbarian seer, a very busy man.

Since Wel usually returns to their tent exhausted by the bickering and haggling of the priest corps, and since Hannibal is recovering from a foot wounded by an arrow during the building of the land bridge to stop up the ravine protecting Aornos Rock, he had been planning on remaining behind while his fellows accompanied the king to Mount Meros. His foot isn’t all that bad, really; now that it is clear the wound isn’t going to fester, merely give him a month of regimentally-mandated rest, he can appreciate the irony that he had once watched from the walls of Tyre as a very similar project took shape outside them, praying for the success of the arrows raining down on his current comrades. It had been a different world, then. Both larger– because there were distances that seemed unbridgeable, places that one would surely never go or even hear of– and smaller, for the exact same reason.

So when Wel comes back to the tent, muttering about self-important idiots, Hannibal says, “I assume you don’t want to take a trip to the holy mountain of Dionysos.”

Wel lies down on his back, as if even the energy required to remain standing had been sapped from him. It makes Hannibal want to slaughter the other priests; they take something from Wel that should be his. The urge isn’t practical. “Um,” he says, “Don’t know. How far is it? Who’s going?”

“Just a day’s march. The Nysians have said there’s a mountain there sacred to the god, who supposedly founded the city, and the proof is that ivy grows there, and nowhere else around here. Alexander wants to see it, so he’s taking the companion cavalry, and us. But as I’m off-duty until my foot is healed, we could stay here. It would be entirely quiet, with the rest of the agema gone.”

Silence and solitude; it’s the sort of offer he assumes Wel will jump at. Instead Wel says, “If ivy really does grow on this mountain, someone must have put it there.” Then he adds, “can you march?”

Hannibal winces. He can’t, really, which is partly why he’d be fine with staying back. It’s perfectly usual for injured men to ride on a mule or wagon, but those who aren’t mortally wounded are assumed to be able to take a bit of razzing about it. He’ll no doubt be handed a crown of flowers and addressed as princess the entire trip. “I’ll take a mule. You may, too, if you wish.” His fellows are less likely to tease him if Wel rides beside him; Wel has the ability to frighten them when he wants to, which is amusing.

So they pack up the next day and leave with the rest of the agema, riding side-by-side on two mules with only a few mock-prostrations in the Persian style making fun of them. Wel glares, and the Macedonians leave them alone. Hannibal is still somewhat surprised that they’re going at all, even as the column makes its way away from the tent city. It’s too easy to forget how deeply rooted the part of Wel that’s still an oasis priest is. He could no more decline to visit this holy place than he could turn away a traveller from his own former temple.

Around thirty Nysaians come with them. Their leader, a man named Akouphis, spends the first part of the journey up front, answering what seems to be a veritable barrage of questions from the King about the journey of Dionysos through India. When he finally drops back to converse with his fellows, his mind is plainly still running in the Aramaic that a translator had been giving to the King in Greek. Instead of their own language, which Hannibal cannot understand, he says to his companions in Aramaic, “Fuck me. Curiouser than a schoolboy. Had to make some shit up, there.”

Hannibal stares straight ahead, and the dusty grey shoulders of his mule. His heart beats very slowly and calmly, as it always does when the desire to kill rises up in him. Since the Nysians wouldn’t have sent a man who speaks only Aramaic to speak with the king if they’d had someone with Greek, he judges it safe to say to Wel in Greek, “That man has been lying to us.”

Wel is silent for a while, considering his answer carefully. “Perhaps,” he says. “Nobody who is not a priest is truly under oath when speaking to a ruler. There are even oracles who consider it proper to tell a king what he wants to hear, not what the god says to be true.” There is scorn in his voice, but also understanding. Most rulers don’t treat truth-tellers with the honour they are due.

“It’s very convenient,” says Hannibal, “That the god Dionysos, whose wanderings Alexander fancies himself to be emulating and surpassing, founded their city. Certainly, it would be bad luck to garrison a city founded by the god. How wonderful for its citizens.”

“Hannibal,” says Wel, and his voice has the same ring and authority of a commander giving an order that it does when he gives dedications at sacrifice, “Wait until we reach the grove. We will know if it is holy.”

Wel will know if it is holy, that is. Hannibal believes him, and stores Akouphis’ name and face away in the mental files he keeps of such men. He can’t get to all of them, of course. Even in Carthage, he had prioritized; those who were involved with Mismalka the Elder’s death were most important, and the merely discourteous came lower on the list. Some are still living. But he keeps them tucked away, in the case of his return. He is unlikely to ever return to Nysia. But Akouphis will remain in his memory for ever.

He hasn’t told Wel about the files. Not in words, anyway. Somehow, Wel knows. He joins him for the consumption of sacrifice after battles, just like Hannibal does his best to attend the sacrifices to the Egyptian gods whenever the schedule demands them. For the most part, Hannibal refrains from making sacrifice of those who have not fought against him in battle. For the most part. Like the King, he finds it distasteful for foreign women to be forced in the aftermath of a siege. Unlike the King, he has no need to stand by and allow it. The common rabble of an army will turn on its leadership if they aren’t allowed a good sacking every now and then. That doesn’t mean Hannibal can’t take note of how men behave during sackings, and respond accordingly. He doesn’t invite Wel to those times. They are, somehow, private, if not secret. He’s not sure if anything is secret any more.

Mount Meros is a gentle slope, longer than it is wide, with a rounded crest at the peak instead of a sharp angle. The Macedonians murmur and then whoop, saying that the place is well-named, because it does look like the thigh from which Zeus birthed holy Dionysos. Hannibal squints at it and doesn’t say anything. Perhaps it does look like a thigh, if a thigh had any particular shape except in the context of the rest of a human body. Sever it at the knee and the pelvis and it just looks like a lump, which is what the mountain looks like.

It is, he has to admit as they make their way up, beautiful. Little streams run plentiful, fast and cold. They stop to drink and the water tastes sweet, the kind that you simply know has no need to be mixed with wine for safety. Sure enough, there is ivy; it coats the ground under shady trees, runs along the banks of the river, climbs rocky peaks. There are laurels and fruit trees and bushes of berries. When the march starts to disintegrate into a loose amble, no generals object. In fact, Hannibal can see them up ahead, walking beside their horses and stopping to make wreaths of the ivy to crown each other with. They look like little boys playing. It’s halfway in between charming and revolting. Then men follow their lead, and before long there is no identifiable goal to the march, merely an entire mountain full of grown men amusing themselves like children.

Wel climbs down from his mule, and leads it to a stream flowing by a tree. Then he sits down with his back against the tree, surveying the men spread out on the mountain below them like ants. He seems content. Whether or not the mountain is sacred, Hannibal is glad they came.

A few soldiers have brought double-pipes. Hannibal can tell it’s soldiers, and not actual pipe-players, because they sound absolutely awful. It would be nice if what they lacked in skill they made up in enthusiasm, but unfortunately there is not enough enthusiasm in the world to make up for a poor pipe-player. Hannibal sets to work filling his helmet with phalsa berries from a nearby tree, at first contemplating which one of the pipe-players he would most like to kill. Akouphis still nags at him, though; it’s who he’d prefer. He begins to consider how he would do it, and where. A pleasant fantasy of leaving him at the peak of the mountain, clad in nothing but ivy-garlands, is impractical. When he turns around to offer the fruit to Wel, someone is already offering him something.

Hannibal grimaces and is about to stride over to shoo the man away. The Macedonian soldiers are used to having Wel around; perhaps too used, as they are no longer frightened of him by default, and indeed several are besotted. Nobody will bother him if Hannibal is watching, but Hannibal knows Wel has received propositions from some of his fellows. Wel, wisely, won’t tell him who; only that they were polite about being turned down.

He draws up short just in time, just barely able to arrest the motion of his good leg which had been about to kick the kneeling man aside. It’s Ptolemy son of Lagos– the general. Kicking him probably would have been a bad move.

“Thanks,” Wel is saying, accepting what Ptolemy is offering– a crown of ivy, a few pretty white flowers woven in at regular intervals. He puts it on, and it tangles with his hair in a way that makes it seem like a part of his body, like the rest of him might also be made of vines and blooms.

Ptolemy stands, and acknowledges Hannibal’s nod. “Hannibal, favourite of Melqart,” he says. They have never discussed the night outside of the Siwah temple, but Hannibal knows he remembers. “Convince your beloved to come dance with us.” Sure enough, the Macedonians are dancing– generals mingling with soldiers, twirling to the bad pipe-playing and singing snatches of songs with poorly remembered words.

The generals respect Wel almost as much as Aristandros and fear him more than the men do, since he represents one of the first and certainly most important foreign god added to their pantheon. To them Hannibal seems to be regarded, whenever he’s acknowledged at all, as some sort of necessary accoutrement for Wel, halfway in between a lover and a personal servant. He is of use because he protects a valuable asset. In that regard his position– though he would not say so out loud– is not unlike that of Hephaestion, whom the generals suffer to be held above the rest of them in favour because they fear what would happen to the King if he weren’t there, and by extension to them. Hephaestion, too, is friendly to him when their paths cross but gives no indication of their ever having spoken personally. The court of Macedon has been very bloody for a very long time; hoarding secrets in case the moment ever becomes right to collect on their value is inborn in these men.

Hannibal gives a little bow. “I will do my best,” he lies, since he has no desire to dance himself and therefore doesn’t really feel like having Wel do so either. Ptolemy doesn’t seem to care all that much; he wanders off, presumably in search of another cup of wine. He must have given one to Wel, as well as the wreath; Wel is curled up with it against the tree, looking very content indeed and certainly disinclined to dance.

Hannibal sits beside him and Wel leans his head on his shoulder. “Thanks for bringing me,” he says, and Hannibal notes that his voice is faraway; not the declamatory tone he takes when he’s making sacrifice or giving public prophecy, more like the first words he speaks after waking in the morning, his mind not yet convinced of what is now and what is later. “Is your foot okay?”

“Of course,” says Hannibal. It is a very odd feeling to have someone who wishes to coddle and indulge him when he’s injured. Wel isn’t used to soldiering, of course, and regards a battlefield injury as a very serious thing indeed. It makes him anxious, even though he tries not to show it. But he oughtn’t be; if Hannibal were going to die in battle, Wel surely would know. The morning before the foot, at Aornos Rock, Wel had woken up early and immediately thrown up in a bush for seemingly no reason at all.

He has the sudden urge to grab onto Wel, to crush him, hold him tightly enough that their bodies merge together. This is what it was supposed to be– almost. The Sacred Band that he had grown up hearing of, the unit of Thebans who accept only pairs of lovers on the grounds that such men would never abandon each other in battle, and would rather die than show cowardice. The Carthaginian Sacred Band had, somehow, expected to reproduce the results without the setup. The only result they’d reproduced was annihilation. But he’d always wondered what it would be like– to fight alongside someone who knew him. He hadn’t imagined that it would be like this; not a fellow soldier but a prophet, one who belongs to his god as much as he belongs to Hannibal. But he thinks he can tell, now, how the Thebans must have felt going into the battle that would be their end. There is no route but forward; no option to turn away from the face of the beloved.

“Do you think the god Dionysos really came to India?” he asks.

Wel sips his wine, and watches the Macedonians, who certainly seem like the god of divine madness has inspired them. But then, they had brought rather a lot of wine. “Maybe,” he says, in a light tone, as if the matter is of little importance. “The gods have many names. Many aspects of each other. The Greeks know how many names and faces their gods have, in part because their gods were ours first. Whether one god is the same as another– who can say? When the people of Carthage whisper of Nakaslelyt, pray to him to spare them from his wrath, are they speaking to you, of you– your body and flesh? Or to the same god you worship?”

Hannibal isn’t sure what to do. His first reaction to feeling like this– like the entire world is rearranging itself in front of his eyes, and he no longer understands his place in it– is usually to kill someone. Since it often happens at times when it would have been appropriate to kill someone anyway, that’s usually fine. But right now there is nobody available to kill but Wel; and he has already resigned himself to the fact that, since every man on earth can only die once, and is generally unavailable for conversation and lovemaking afterwards, he and Wel had better die at the same time.

He places a hand at Wel’s throat anyway, feeling the blood pumping underneath his fingers. Wel tips his head back against the tree, letting him. It would be so easy. It makes Hannibal’s throat clench hard enough that his voice is choked when he says, “You see my name. What else do you see?”

The vibration of Wel’s voice joins the thrum of his blood under Hannibal’s hands. “I see what you give me. What you let slip. It’s not my fault that nobody but me knows how to interpret the evidence. I see a great pit of fire, and years of silence. I see them, your revenge– works of art. That’s what sacrifice is, isn’t it? An art, an arrangement of earthly material that pleases a god. But you had no god to please but yourself, so you became one. When you heard your name on peoples’ lips, were you pleased? Did you feel that you were being praised?”

Hannibal can’t answer the question. Wel knows. “But you know that the people of Carthage still talk of me. Even if they know it not.”

“How could they not? Even if I never saw you again, I could never forget.”

Hannibal tightens his grip. He can feel the air now, Wel’s breath entering and exiting him, a little constricted. He shifts slightly, his pulse speeding up with instinctive fear even as he consciously shifts to grab on to Hannibal’s thigh and pull himself closer.

“You know everything of me,” Hannibal whispers.

“No,” says Wel, and Hannibal knows he’s not lying because his voice sounds in pain. “No. I don’t.”

If Hannibal could simply tell him what remains, he thinks he would. He would walk with Wel through the palace of his memory, the grand entryway modelled on the temple Athena and Zeus in Rhodes. But there are parts of the palace less light-filled than that temple. His childhood home lurks underneath, the river Crimissus running underneath it all like groundwater. There are holes in the floor of the mind where one can fall through and land in that cold misty water.

He decides that this mountain is a holy place– whether or not in the way that Akouphis had intended. The man can live.

(5+1).2.4 Gedrosia, Autumn 325

Chapter Summary

Five things Hannibal of Lectis didn’t kill, and one thing he did:

4. Bacaxa

There is never a shortage of meat these days, for those willing and able to harvest it.

Willingness isn’t the issue for Hannibal. Though he has never before eaten the flesh of man out of necessity, there is something appropriate about it. Almost holy, if anything these days could be said to be holy, here where they seem to have been abandoned by every god who once blessed them.

The issue is visibility: because of the heat, they have no option but to march by night and sleep by day. Plenty of animals along with men, women and children collapse and are simply left behind during each march. The animals are collected and eaten; the people are resolutely ignored. What could anyone do for them? Nobody has food, water, or strength to spare. If they happen to die where they fall, perhaps someone might scatter a handful of sand on the corpse. If they’re still alive and crying out, no such luck. So there is meat there for the taking. But usually, by the time they make camp, it is already light outside; not exactly optimal conditions for a spot of human butchery.

But today is a lucky day. At first it had not seemed so; the march had stretched on endlessly, past the dawn and into the day, with no water in sight. By now, Hannibal has accepted that they will die in the desert; he keeps walking only because Wel does, and he does not want to leave him alone. He suspects the same motivation on Wel’s part. The Thebans of the Sacred Band were indeed wise on this count, though they hadn’t anticipated these exact circumstances.

But then, almost as night was falling again– a river. Not a huge one, but water enough for most who are destined to stay alive for another day. It had seemed at first to be a mirage, but it’s real, and they are camped by it. They’ll have the night and the day to stay there; they cannot stay longer, no matter how much water there is, with the grain stores almost entirely run out.

So Hannibal had gone as soon as the sun had set into blackness, retracing their steps a little. There’d been plenty of bodies littering the way, and he’d detached some thigh meat from the fattest one he could find. (Not very; nobody is fat, by this point.) He has it wrapped in a bloody scrap of cloth, which in itself isn’t particularly suspicious. Everyone is conspiring to kill the pack-animals. Usually, there would be punishments meted out for anyone caught killing the animals, which are common property of the army. But now, there is nobody to accuse anyone else, since even the double-pay men and generals participate; and the King seems to be intentionally turning a blind eye. What else are the pack-animals good for, at this point? There will soon be no grain for them to carry.

Despite the fact that they’ve been walking since sundown the previous day, his steps feel lighter as he makes his way back to the tent. Wel had insisted on setting up some way away from the river, which had made no sense to Hannibal as it just meant they needed to walk farther to get water; however, there are certain moods of a powerful priest of a powerful god that one is not apt to argue with. So they’re on the outskirts of what is a much smaller tent city than the one that had left Oria.

He steps inside, and the tent is dark; which itself is unusual, since they have become accustomed to sleeping during the day. Nobody can agree whether it is better to wrap cloth around one’s eyes, to keep out the sun and perhaps get a little sleep, or if even that much extra fabric isn’t worth it in the heat. Tonight they will rest well. Hannibal freezes. There’s someone else in the tent, beside Wel on the cloth set over the sand that might optimistically be called a bed. They are embracing. In the moonlight, he catches a glimpse of the profile: it’s a woman.

His knife is in his hand. He will kill her first. He will eat her heart raw, and feed her liver to Wel, and then kill him too. He will eat Wel’s brain with his hands through the eye-sockets that had once held his eyes, so perceptive and yet so blind, how could he–

Hannibal pauses, just a fraction of a moment in his own mind, a dissonant thought occurring to him: sheer surprise. Sex? Nobody is having sex. Nobody has had sex since they left Oria, with the intention of the army reaching the capital town of Gedrosia through the desert, being supplied with food by the navy sailing down the coast. Nobody has had sex, or indeed done anything else with their bodies besides either barely kept them alive or allowed them to die, since it became clear that the fleet wasn’t coming. An assignation with a woman would not just be out of character for Wel, it would be laughable for everyone, if it weren’t for the fact that laughter, too, is an unnecessary bodily activity that has been stricken from the available list of actions. If Wel has managed to acquire an erection, and bothered to find a woman to move it in and out of, Hannibal will be furious, but also somewhat impressed.

There are soft sounds coming from the woman; they’re not sounds of pleasure. Hannibal drops the meat, and peers at her face. Wel is embracing her, somewhat awkwardly, but they’re not fucking. It’s Bacaxa, and she’s weeping.

Weeping– yet another activity that nobody really has the energy for, but tonight for once there is enough water, and she is releasing a torrent of it down their face nearly equal to the force of the river granting them one more day of life. She leans forward as soon as she notices him, topping out of Wel’s arms and into Hannibal’s. He holds her tightly, one hand coming up to brace the back of her head against his shoulder. Unexpectedly, he feels his throat tighten a little along with her sobs. There is plenty to weep for, but it hadn’t occurred to him that it would be possible to actually do so until she had pointed it out in this particular way. Behind her, he can see Wel wiping his eyes. It’s as if the tears have been perched behind all of their eyes the entire time; now that they have been let out, probably nobody will ever stop weeping again. They will all drown at the same time as they die of thirst.

Hannibal pulls himself away from that melancholy and melodramatic line of thought. If they die, it will be of hunger and thirst alone, certainly not of weeping. And if he lies down in the sand and stops walking, it will only be if Wel has done the same. There is, therefore, nothing to fear.

It is, under the circumstances, redundant to ask what’s wrong; but on the other hand, Bacaxa is not prone to displays such as this. The desert has changed everyone. However, she answers the question before he has a chance to ask it. “I can’t remember how to fix a wagon-axel,” she says.

Hannibal pulls back. It’s such a bizarre statement, and his mind has admittedly been made slower by the march and heat and hunger and thirst. “I beg your pardon?”

“I forgot,” she says, her voice breaking. “A wagon-wheel broke, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I just stared at it.”

It is, as it should be, his own slowness to understand that explains the meaning of her words. She is, of course, experiencing the exact same slowness as him– except worse, having been surviving on much less meat. And unlike the rest of them, who have nothing to do with their minds but convince their bodies to trudge onwards, she holds valuable knowledge in hers. She and her colleagues are still called upon to fix and adjust things, to try to figure out how to drill wells when sometimes the very sand beneath their feet becomes so unstable that a man or a mule could simply be sucked down into it and never be seen again. And now, just as the powers of the body are lost to the those who had once had powerful bodies, the power of her mind is lost to her.

He says as much, patting the back of her head, soothing. It is a pleasant feeling of power, to hold someone as they weep. Wel has wept in his arms many times, some of which he was conscious for and some not; but not since the beginning of the desert march. He has had no dreams, no visions, no fevers. As if Ammon-Re himself had known better than to come on this route with them.

Bacaxa nods and nods, understanding, her understanding doing nothing to soothe the bereftness of sudden loss of knowledge that one had thought was there forever. She pulls back and wipes her eyes. “Sorry,” she says. “I know I’m being– it hit me harder than I’d have thought. It’s just that I had been thinking of wagon wheels, even before today. I know I had. I’d been thinking of suspension– how we could use the same constructions as create the spring and release of a war-engine, to make wheels of vehicles travel more smoothly on uneven sand. I had it. And I forgot it.”

“You’ll remember,” says Wel. “You’ll remember, and you’ll use the design when the world ends.”

They both turn to stare at him. He stares back, somewhat vacant, then blinks and shakes his head like the prophecy is a shroud he can knock off his shoulders onto the ground. “When the world ends?” Hannibal asks.

Wel shrugs. “Don’t know,” he says, and there is a small smile on his face. Although Hannibal has never been able to see his visions as anything other than torment for him– interesting torment, but torment all the same– Wel misses them when they’re gone. He had worried, perhaps, like Bacaxa, that the thing that made him himself was gone forever. He suddenly seems in a much better mood.

So Hannibal pushes. “Stay for supper,” he says to Bacaxa. “I found some meat off a camel. It will revive you.”

Bacaxa bites her lip, her starving body at war with her pride. “We’ve enough salt fish at our camp,” she says. “We’re fine, I don’t want to impose…”

Hannibal looks at Wel. He knows, he must, that it isn’t a piece of camel in the bloody bundle. The body of a camel is hacked up immediately, the moment one falls; it wouldn’t just be lying around to be scavenged.

Wel shares his table with solemnity, a kind of intensity to his feeling that echoes Hannibal’s. On some level, Hannibal knows he thinks it cursed– and yet, even a curse is a type of blessing, a direct interference by a god in man’s life. Wel has decided on this, on Hannibal, for himself. Hannibal had thought that, once he had Wel, he would never want anything again. But he is ravenous. He’s fed them to others before, of course. But not with Wel. And he doesn’t just want Wel to acquiesce; he wants him to participate.

Wel places a hand on Bacaxa’s knee, but his eyes bore up at Hannibal. “Stay,” he says to her, but he is really saying it to him. “You’ll feel better after a proper meal.”

She does. Hannibal builds a cook-fire outside. The meat is tough enough that there would be no way for anyone, probably including him, to tell what it had once been. It doesn’t matter any more; everything is just meat out here. It only matters when he meets Wel’s eyes, as the three of them sit together, eating flesh and drinking water, trying not to gulp it down in such great quantities that they’ll be sick.

As Bacaxa leaves, Wel asks her where the engineers are camped. “By the river,” she says, smiling. “We’ll be able to hear the water all night.”

“Move farther away from it.”

She frowns. “Why?”

“Because I told you to.” Wel shrugs his particular it’s a prophecy, take it or leave it shrug.

“Okay,” says Bacaxa. She may have lost some powers of cognition, but it would take more than hunger for anyone of intelligence to ignore Wel’s advice.

That night rain falls in the far-off mountains, and the river swells in the space of an instant. It rises up as they sleep like the dead, the first proper night-sleep in ages. Those who camped too close are drowned, in the middle of the desert where they have so long prayed for water.

(5+1).2.5 Susa, Spring 324

Chapter Summary

Five things Hannibal of Lectis didn’t kill, and one thing he did:

5. Weldjebauend of Siwah

They live.

Or rather, those who live, live, which is about half of those who set out into the desert. The losses appear fewer, when they’re finally mustered in proper order to enter Carmania; more of the followers had died than soldiers, being unused to hardship. And just as it had recently seemed that every god who had once loved them had abandoned them, suddenly they are loved once more, not just by the gods of the land but of the sea: the long-lost navy shows up. They tell of high winds such as none had ever experienced before that prevented their leaving India as they were intended to sail alongside the land contingent. Even the commanders of the fleet have aged so much in such a short time that they are scarcely recognizable; and since they have returned, and not run off, the tale seems credible.

The priestly corps are once again busy, all the more so for the loss of the only Indian holy man who had joined the expedition: the sage called Kalanos falls ill, and requests to be burned alive. The horrified Macedonians eventually consent, with the stipulation that his living funeral must be the most elaborate and beautiful the world has ever seen. Hannibal enjoys the spectacle of the old man distributing the things that were supposed to be his funeral gifts among his friends (Wel gets a gold cup, which he keeps wrapped in cloth and buried in a corner of the tent), grasping the hand of the King in farewell, and climbing happily onto his own funeral pyre. Nobody besides Hannibal and Kalanos seem to have enjoyed it.

Now they are at Susa, and everyone is getting married.

At least, it feels like everybody. Certainly everyone of any rank or standing: all of the Macedonian generals are marrying Persian wives. Some are more happy about it than others. Alexander is marrying Darius’ daughter, which all those who are not so blinded by hatred of Persia as to have turned stupid with it agree he probably should have done several years ago. If he had there could be a true heir to the Empire, both Macedonian and Achaemenid, almost old enough to leave his mother’s side by now. Still, better late than never. Hephaestion, too, is marrying a daughter of Darius, such that his descendants will be kin of Alexander’s.

Hannibal considers that carefully, half-formed desires bubbling under the surface of his mind. It seems impossible that there will be an “after” this. The army, the adventure, following in the path of Heracles and Dionysos, seems the only thing in the world. And yet, the army had asked to turn back, and the King had relented. They are heading home, though slowly, and though home is many different places or perhaps nowhere. Clearly, the King hopes that by having the entire upper class of Macedonian and Greek generals marry Persian ladies, the definition of “home” will change– that the ancient enmity between Greeks and Persians will be resolved. Within a few decades, if all goes well and the King has a long life, the entire ruling class of the Empire will be equally Greek and Persian in blood, appearance, custom and loyalty.

The project would seem optimistic to the point of hubris, if it weren’t for the sheer amount of money being poured into it. In addition to the enormous pavilion where the hundred most noble weddings will occur– all at once, and according to the Perisan customs– any pre-existing union of Macedonian soldier and Persian wife is entitled to a dowry to help them set up homes in Macedon. As the pavilion is being furnished, tables of clerks are set up nearby to hand out money to the long lines of men with their wives. Nearby, the travelling market of camp-follower merchants is setting up to tempt the couples flush with new riches.

It would of course be easy to fake such a union for the sake of money, but there is no need; while they’re at the business of handing out money, the clerks have also been instructed to pay the debts of any man who asks– without even taking down his name. There is to be no record of any man who has been living beyond his pay. Everyone is to have a fresh start. Everything is to be harmony and love. The King understands that opulent weddings and declarations of interracial reconcilement are all well and good, but there is nothing that says harmony and love more than cold, hard cash.

Hannibal and Wel wander among the hubbub. It has the feeling of the grounds being prepared for a festival, but there has never been a festival quite like this. Wel nods towards the clerks’ tables. “You’re not going to get any money?”

“Do you think I ought to? Most of the men in that line have debts because they have got in the habit of frequenting prostitutes rather too often. One of the few vices in which I have never much seen the point.”

Wel hesitates. “Surely you could use some extra money for something,” he says softly. “After all, once these lot are home with their Persian wives, you’ll need to go home to… and I…”

They don’t often speak of what Hannibal has at home. In part, because he actually has no idea. He had written to Alanat from Athens, but there was no way for her to write back. She, or any of his sons, or Mismalka the Younger, could be dead of disease. Hamilcar, his oldest son, could be dead from war, or injured. Alanat could have thought him dead, and remarried; Hamilcar or even Hannibal the Younger, now entering manhood if he lives, could have taken wives. Only Mismalka seems likely to have held off on marriage. Hannibal had promised to find her a husband who would suit her, and not cause her too much trouble. He intends to keep that promise, and surely in the meantime she has suitors enough to entertain among the young ladies of the city.

They’ve stopped by a small grove of trees, and Wel is leaning back up against one. He looks nervous, delicate, and even more so when Hannibal turns to look at him. He backs himself up against it, as if it might provide him some sort of shelter, and Hannibal can’t help it; he leans in, trying to breathe him in. Hannibal is the cause of his fear.

Good.

Wel still has his knife, the one that had been gifted by Hannibal’s father after his expedition to Egypt. Every nerve of his is alight. If this is truly it– if Wel thinks that he will fly on home when the army returns to Macedon, go back to his desert temple and his visions and his god, his god who isn’t Hannibal— then he is sorely mistaken. It should be with the Egyptian knife that Hannibal cuts him, if so. He leans in, his hand ready to slip under Wel’s chiton and grab the blade from where he knows it rests in a leather holder on his thigh. Wel leans back farther, his back flat against the tree. They are almost touching. It would be so easy.

But it would hurt. It would, Hannibal realizes suddenly, hurt him more than slipping the blade into his own flesh.

“I let you know me,” he says, and although he’d intended his voice to come out as a growl, there is a tremor in it that he can’t control. “See me. I gave you a rare gift. And you don’t want it.”

He grabs for the knife. It is there, as it always is, pressed against his warm flesh, Wel’s only nod of recognition to the ambient he violence around him. Hannibal holds it, but can’t press forward. Just one cut, and everything is different. He’ll have to flee, or be executed. But if Wel were gone, why bother running away? What would life be worth?

Wel does nothing. He made no move to prevent the knife from being claimed– reclaimed, really, since it was Hannibal’s in the first place– and makes no move to prevent himself from being gutted. He just looks at Hannibal.

“Don’t I?” he whispers.

Doesn’t he? Hannibal has no idea. Slowly, still not resisting, Wel leans forward and kisses him. It’s not a kiss of reconcilement, or promise. Just comfort. If he dies, he’ll die with Hannibal on his lips.

“You’ll never be free of me,” Hannibal says. It feels like it’s ripped from him. “You know that, right? It’s me, or death.” He feels panicked, shaky. He needs Wel not to know that. He needs Wel to know it even more.

Wel bites. “I own you,” someone says, and it takes Hannibal a moment to realize that it might not have been him.

Wel shoves him back; a small violence, but not a rejection. They are being watched by the men setting up the wedding pavilions, sidelong glances and titters kept at bay only by the aura of power and mystery that Wel still has for the common soldiers. “Get back to the tent,” Wel says, “And wait there for me.” When Hannibal considers, for a moment, insisting that waiting is unnecessary and he’ll drag Wel back with him if he has to, Wel adds, “And you might as well undress while you’re at it.”

Hannibal goes. Wel strides towards the market out of the corner of his eye, purposeful. He considers following him, but decides to obey instead. Wel will never be free of him. He isn’t free of him right now, whatever he’s doing. That is enough.

For the period of rest, and games, and the weddings at Susa, the infantry agema need not camp in strict order. Wel had chosen this spot, a gap in a small copse of juniper trees. Susa is still chilly in the spring; the choice spots are all out in direct sunlight to take advantage of the warmth, so there is nobody to see Hannibal stripping before he even gets inside.

He lies down on the mat of reeds and linens. He had acquired an Egyptian-style folding-bed for them at one point, mostly to alleviate the aches that Wel would never complain of but obviously felt, but it had been burned along with the rest of the excess baggage when the King had started the trend by burning his own furniture in the Indian mountains. Soldiers will agree to any hardship so long as their general shares it with them; and the baggage-burning had been quite beautiful, actually. No fire would ever again rival Persepolis, but Hannibal had enjoyed it none the less. It’s not worth it to acquire a new one, when they have been promised to return home soon anyway. And besides, sleeping on a reed-mat has its advantages. He sprawls on his back, spreading his limbs wider than a bed would allow. He is aroused, incidentally but not insistently, from what he had come so close to doing, and then stopped– and, he has to admit, from Wel’s words. It used to be that Wel only spoke with authority when Ammon-Re was speaking through him. Now he has a new authority that is all his own– that is, all Hannibal’s.

Wel enters the tent, and Hannibal can smell what he bought at the market even before he uncaps it; a vial of frankincense-scented oil. Expensive. Some would say, too expensive to use for the purpose to which he obviously plans to put it.

Without his mind’s conscious involvement, Hannibal reaches for the oil. His body has plans for what’s going to happen, perhaps; well-worn grooves like a river, the flow of arousal to invasion to burying himself in Wel’s warm body and being received not as a visitor but as one returned home.

Wel doesn’t give it to him. He pour it over his own fingers instead, and kneels between Hannibal’s loose-spread legs, and touches a fingertip to his entrance.

Yes, Hannibal thinks, perhaps says, a conviction so sudden that it suddenly seems stupid not to have occurred to him before. What boundaries between them remain to be breached? The boundary of flesh unpierced by the knife, yes, and that one Hannibal has decided for once to leave intact– forever, if possible. But this, the boundary between lover and beloved–

Wel’s finger pushes in. There is the pleasure of one more boundary broken, but even that seems pale and unimportant in the moment compared to the simple fact of how good it feels. He squirms, pants, the same shameless little noises he can wring from Wel. He wants to open. He is already open, whether he wants it or not.

“Have you been taken before?” Wel asks, adding another finger and rubbing insistently. How is Hannibal supposed to answer, when everything in the universe is concentrated inside him? Wel stops the movement, waiting for his reply.

It’s prosaic, not worthy of Wel’s ears, or it would be if it weren’t a piece of Hannibal that Wel is asking for. Hannibal gives it like throwing something precious across a great distance. “Once,” he says, “For the sake of entry into a particular man’s house, as a youth. He was fond of me, which I encouraged, at least until the very last moments of his life.”

Wel closes his eyes, a small smile playing over his lips. Hannibal tries not to see what’s so amusing to him, and fails. It is a little bit funny. “Did you like the feeling?” Wel asks. Not whether Hannibal had enjoyed the act– only the feeling, the sensation, divorced from emotion. Most people would probably protest that it is impossible to separate sensation from emotion, but Wel knows him too well for that kind of underestimation.

Hannibal considers. “It was pleasurable enough. I was young, so he thought that if he treated me gently he would be able to enjoy me for many years to come.”

“His mistake,” says Wel, and starts fucking with his fingers in earnest.

Hannibal writhes, his control unravelling like a spool of thread, both intentional and not. He could regain himself if he wanted to, but he doesn’t want to– and yet, what is ability but desire coupled with action? He is incapable of begging for Wel’s cock, only because it would mean a change to his present condition, which in every moment seems too impossible to contemplate.

Luckily, Wel still has desires of his own, or at least so Hannibal projects. He slides his cock in gently but insistently, chasing his own pleasure and trusting that Hannibal’s will be incidental. Very unlike the first– whom Hannibal would prefer not to remember at this moment but can’t avoid, now that Wel has brought it up– who had worked him open like a piece of new leather needing to be broken in. Exactly like that, in fact. Although it hadn’t been too painful, Hannibal hadn’t come to completion from the act; so he’d done it after, into the dead man’s mouth. Perhaps he will clarify that part to Wel later. Right now he’s rather busy.

The possession in Wel’s touch is of a different kind. He doesn’t worry about hurting Hannibal because he owns him, and he deserves it, and Hannibal would hurt him on purpose and frequently does, and Wel spends the entire rest of his life worrying– about the gods, about the future, about the past– and to see him without worry, like this, is reciprocal possession. He holds on to Hannibal’s shoulders to brace against as he rocks in and out. He so frequently hides his face in Hannibal’s shoulder when in pleasure or pain, and Hannibal allows it because it means Wel using Hannibal’s own flesh as a shield against his emotions. Now, though, it doesn’t seem to occur to him. His face simply hovers above Hannibal’s own, eyes closed and his mouth open, panting with exertion and taut with pleasure.

Hannibal doesn’t, as a rule, hide his face: not from Wel, at least, and not from the sight of the gods. He almost wants to now, though, because he is at least making some expression that he can’t control, or perhaps even identify. Everything about him is concentrated in the place where Wel has invaded. It feels like a fire of pleasure every time Wel pushes into him, and an even sweeter pang of loss when he pulls back.

It builds, and feels as though it ought to be able to build forever, and he is so convinced that Wel is the one in control of everything here that he is shocked, cries out in an unrecognizable voice, when he comes first. For a few moments he is lost to everything, unaware even of Wel still inside him. When he comes back to himself, the very movements that had been causing him unbearable pleasure a moment before now cause pain– but not unbearable. He lies still, breathing deep, and lets Wel continue. There is some deep satisfaction in the ache and sting and overstimulation of sensitive flesh that tugs on his mind. He can understand why Wel allows him this, too.

He can’t feel it directly when Wel spills inside him, which is a surprise. He’d have liked to, the warmth of it, feeling like the soil when seed is scattered and sun nourishes. But he can feel the spasms in Wel’s hips, and the heavy impact of him falling down on Hannibal’s chest.

They breathe hard. Hannibal is glad he hadn’t killed him, in the moment of anger. He’s still not sure he won’t. But for now, Wel is here. He has the odd sensation of borrowing something from himself.

“Thank you,” says Wel breathily. “For letting me do that.”

“I could no more deny what you wish to do to me than you could deny what I wish to do to you.”

“Yes,” says Wel. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

(5+1).2.+1 Ekbatana, Autumn 324

Chapter Summary

Five things Hannibal of Lectis didn’t kill, and one thing he did:

+1. Glaukias the doctor

“You don’t wish even to see the play? You liked–”

“Can’t,” Wel whispers. It’s the first word he’s managed all day. “Can’t. Can’tcan’tcan’t.”

Hannibal pulls his hand back from Wel’s shoulder. He feels hot, but then, it is becoming hot in the afternoons: of the seven walls of Ekbatana, the agema has the misfortune to be camped beside the black one. On the other side from the black of the passageway in between the walls there is the scarlet wall, followed inwards by blue, orange, silver and gold. It’s very impressive to look at. But the effect of the hulking black wall is like a furnace beside the tents camped there.

“Are you ill?” Hannibal asks, then immediately internally mocks himself for it. It makes him sound naive, or like he hasn’t been paying attention at all. Wel isn’t ill, he’s god-touched. Still, something in him relaxes when Wel tersely shakes his head. Fever is rampant; even the generals and satraps are getting sick. These lands being well under control, the common man is much more likely at this point to die of illness than in battle. And how would Hannibal know, if Wel were ill? Would he be able to distinguish a deathly fever from prophetic knowledge painfully gained? Perhaps– he would have a flux, most likely. But some who die of fever don’t.

He sits back against the far edge of the tent, crossing his legs and staring at the curled-up lump that is Wel, and tries to control his fury. If he could kill Ammon-Re right now– cast him out from Wel’s body and mind, scoop out everything inside of him that isn’t Hannibal and burn it– he would. He cannot. There is nothing to be done, especially not by Hannibal. He has become used to many unpleasant sensations over the past few years, but not this one. He will never grow used to helplessness.

“Is there anything I can do?” he asks, hating himself even more. There isn’t. All he’s doing is forcing Wel to speak when he would rather not.

“Don’t tell him. Can’t tell him. It won’t help, nothing to be done, he’s gone.” Wel’s voice sounds full of tears.

Which is odd. He is often sick and withdrawn in the leadup to a vision; but once he understands what the god is telling him, he makes a recovery. But it seems that he already understands the message. He just can’t, or doesn’t want to, relate it.

Hannibal has a moment of wondering if this is it, if this is what it looks like when Wel sees Hannibal’s own death. Would he try to protect him from the knowledge of what’s coming?

Then Wel sits up, calmly. He raises his chin, his gaze hovering somewhere above Hannibal’s head. “My chosen son is in great pain,” he says. “You will do what only you will do to relieve it. Go.”

Hannibal blinks. He wants to stare at this forever, but is not at liberty. He falls quickly to the ground, touching his forehead to the floor in prostration to the god. “Yes, lord,” he says.

Go,” says Wel again, and Hannibal goes.

The gates of Ekbatana are all open, people of all kinds streaming in and out. Though this festival is less lavish than the wedding celebrations at Susa, there is something wilder about it. Already, the oldest men and the injured have been sent home. Messengers from all over the world are streaming in to ask council of the King. It’s as if they truly have united all men under one government, despite turning back in India.

When Hannibal finds him, Alexander doesn’t look like he is in great pain. He’s in the stadium, watching the boys’ athletic competitions. There are foot-races, and riding, and even little Greek-style wrestling matches which Hannibal watches with amusement, and the Greeks with a rather odd mixture of nostalgia and lasciviousness. The King hands out the crowns, smiling at each winner with deliberate patience and good cheer. He is in pain, of course– ever since an arrow pierced his lung, he has been in constant pain just to breathe, and even more pain not to show it. But Hannibal doubts that’s what the god meant.

Then, from across the stadium, he sees a handsome boy tug on the King’s chiton– not a competitor, a messenger. He is out of breath. Hannibal thinks at first that he is being stunningly rude in the way he has chosen to get his lord’s attention, then recognizes the little Persian that Alexander likes in his bed, who is presumably permitted to take liberties– which is even odder, since Persians do not prefer to take liberties even when they are permitted, and the eunuch Bagoas generally does not. But the King merely listens to what the boy has to say, then turns away from the spectacles and begins to run.

Hannibal follows. What else can he do? He has his orders.

The guards let him into the palace, as if they have simply forgotten that they are supposed to keep the rabble out. They just stare in shock as various officials stream in and out, with quick movements and frightened eyes. Hannibal walks right in, and from there it is obvious where he is supposed to go. All activity in the palace is concentrated around a single room. There is a crowd around the doorway, but nobody in the crowd seems keen to actually go in. There is a horrible moaning coming from the room, loud as a professional mourning-woman but higher, wilder.

Hannibal pushes through. Everyone lets him go; if anyone recognizes him and knows he’s not supposed to be here, they are unable to muster the will to do something about it. They are merely glad to have someone who seems to be volunteering to actually go inside.

He enters, and finds himself making an awkward trio of the two guards who had been outside the room, and have now been called inside. In addition to them, the room contains the eunuch Bagoas, who is sitting quietly in the corner like a very attractive and sad-looking piece of furniture, waiting until he is needed; Ptolemy, who is hovering like a girl not quite sure what to do in her mother’s kitchen; a thin, terrified-looking man who must be a doctor; and two more. Well, one more.

The noise is coming from Alexander. He is draped across the body on the bed, which used to contain the soul of Hephaestion. There is a particular feeling in a room when a body is dead, as opposed to merely sleeping, or unconscious, even close to death. This body is dead.

At first the words are barely recognizable as words; both because King is wailing at the same time as speaking, and because he seems to have forgotten his Greek. Ptolemy eventually has to translate for the doctor, a Greek who is certainly too frightened for the mental effort of attempting to decrypt a sentence in Macedonian. “Why did you let him drink the wine?” he hisses.

There is, indeed, a pitcher of wine on the bedside table; Hannibal can see a few pale drops on the wood where the dead man had sloshed it around pouring it into a cup.

The loss of language seems to be entirely mutual. The doctor stammers so hard that only distinct, disconnected words are recognizable: “asked… thought he was getting better… water… wine…”

Ptolemy doesn’t bother trying to decipher this into Macedonian. Its very incoherence is answer enough.

There are some types of fever that present with extreme thirst, towards the end. The witch-doctors among the camp followers, who are called to more cases of deadly fever in a day than a doctor to generals will see in a month, say that such cases are too far gone to be helped by either diet or medicine. It is best to let the afflicted drink as they please, whether they ask for water or wine, so at least they may have that small comfort at the moment of death.

This doctor probably doesn’t know that; if he does, he is incapable of communicating it to Alexander; and even if he managed, it probably wouldn’t help. Alexander points a shaking finger across the room at the doctor, with a kind of vague twitch of the head towards the guards. “Take this man and have him crucified.”

Nobody moves.

“Take this man and–” he doesn’t even finish the sentence this time, wracked by some fresh wave of horror and moaning, his head bowing to rest on Hephaestion’s distended stomach. For a while it seems that he has forgotten the order, but then he manages to raise his head again and gasp, “Why is he still here?”

“Alexander,” says Ptolemy quietly, in the tone of voice an embarrassed parent uses with a child misbehaving in public. If he had hoped that merely the intimation of a reproach would bring the King back to sanity, he is disappointed. Alexander simply glares at him, furious and now stunned. There is only one man allowed to talk to him like that, and he is lying lifeless on the bed in a stench of flux and wine.

Ptolemy glances beseechingly at Bagoas in the corner, but clearly the eunuch had not kept his honoured place first in the court of Darius and now of Alexander by interfering in his lord’s affairs. He sits stony-faced, entirely focused on Alexander, with no concern at all for the monstrous injustice being perpetrated on the doctor. Ptolemy soldiers on. “Surely, no doctor can save a man whose time has–”

Crucify him!

“Crucifying Glaukias will not return Hephaestion to–”

Hannibal steps forward. This was it, then, the odd diction of Ammon-Re’s command: he has been ordered not to do what only he can do, but what only he will do. Every other man in this room would sleep worse tonight knowing that he had put to death a doctor whose worst fault was not being able to cheat death. Hannibal will sleep just fine.

He grabs Glaukias’ arm and wrestles him back. He doesn’t resist so much as flop a little, limbs loosened by terror and disbelief. “It will be done,” Hannibal says, making the attempt to say it in Macedonian and not entirely sure if he succeeded; in any case, the intent is clear. Everyone turns to look at him except Alexander, who now that the deed is being carried out, has already turned his entire attention back to weeping. Ptolemy glares, but with an edge of resignation; it was going to happen eventually, and at least he had tried. Bagoas’ glance is grateful; he cares only for one person in the world, and probably would have crucified Glaukias himself if he were physically capable of it, if it helped Alexander. The guards seem to snap out of some sort of stupor, and half-help, half-hinder Hannibal in getting the doctor out of the room and into the hallway.

As soon as they are out, they begin to chatter nervously. “We should wait,” one says. “He’s mad with grief. He’ll come to his senses, and be glad that he was disobeyed.”

“It’s Hephaestion,” says the other tremblingly. “It could be months, or years, or never. He’ll ask to see the body. We could send this man away, and find a corpse already dead to hang from a cross.”

“This isn’t how it’s done!” says the first, tears appearing in his eyes. “What’s the point, we conquered all of Persia, only to become just like the barbarians, men put to the death with no–”

“This man dies,” says Hannibal.

The guards go silent.

“Hold him in the courtyard until I return,” Hannibal continues. “If I come back to find him gone, or already dead, you will both take his place.” It would be a laughable threat at any other time. The weepy guard is right: this isn’t how things are done. Or rather, it wasn’t how things were done before. When Patroklos fell on the plains of Troy, all the previous boundaries on gods and heroes were destroyed. Nobody knows how things are done in this new world, and the guards look appropriately cowed by the statement.

There is an area of the camp populated by carpenters; they have set up on the very outskirts of the city, in between the outer white wall and the black first inner one, where there is plenty of room to spread out. Many of them are Persians, not disturbed at all by the idea of the Great King putting people to death on a cross; in fact, a lack of visible capital punishments is more disturbing to them, a sign of weakness in an otherwise admirable ruler. He finds one who speaks good Aramaic, and consults with him about the optimally dramatic placement of the execution. The carpenter points out a place on the innermost battlement, the high golden wall, that is directly visible from the palace. The King will be able to see it without even leaving the room where his friend lies rotting. Hannibal pays the man half his price in advance for quick construction and transport, and promises the rest when they meet on the battlement with the condemned man.

The carpenter is as good as his word; the guards, reluctantly, as good as their silence. Glaukias the doctor is hanging from a sturdy cross on the highest wall of Ekbatana by nightfall. Hannibal wishes he had brought a rag; his hands are bloody from the nailing of the doctor’s hands and feet. But then, perhaps it is better to leave them that way; he doesn’t mind, it is only the horrified gazes of the soldiers and citizens that wish he were more presentable.

He makes his way back to the palace, unsure of to whom he ought to report it done. He has half a mind to search out Ptolemy, but before he has even entered, he finds Alexander’s little eunuch standing outside the main entrance, shaking like a leaf.

Hannibal does not engage in the practice of feeling sorry for others, but the practice of extrapolating what they must be feeling is occasionally interesting to him, if only as a way of drawing closer to Wel. The eunuch is devoted, certainly, but he knows his role. He knows that what his lover has lost cannot be replaced, least of all by himself. Achilleus cared nothing for the charms of Briseis with Patroklos gone.

Hannibal gives a small nod towards the inner wall, the cross visible high above the city. “You may direct your lord’s attention to his will having been done when you think it right,” he says. “If you think he might change his mind, send servants with water for the doctor, and a platform for his feet, and he may yet live several days. I will also leave it to you to decide when to order him taken down once dead.”

Bagoas’ shoulders relax slightly, and he almost manages a smile; not at the mere fact of the crucifixion, Hannibal surmises, but that the reminder that whether he retains his status as beloved or not, he is now the one who knows the King’s moods most intimately. He can be of use.

“Thank you,” says Bagoas, and solves the conundrum of which one of them has a higher social station in Persian customs by drawing close and kissing him on the cheek. Perhaps it is only today, having carried out the order of Alexander’s that nobody else would, that Hannibal has been so elevated in the mind of the Persian.

He walks back to the tent slowly. The setting sun glints off of the gold wall, beautiful from some angles and blinding from others. The carpenter had chosen well; the cross looks perfect on its perch, and from down here one cannot even hear the screams of the dying man. A sense of warmth and well-being fills him, and when he enters the tent to find Wel asleep, Hannibal pulls his beloved’s body to him with hands still stained with blood.

Ekbatana- Tyre, Autumn-Winter 324

Wel is not nervous, as he presents himself at the Pharaoh’s door. There are many things he feels unequal to; every time he feels a vision mounting within him, he wonders if it will be the last, if the god will finally take his body and not give it back. In recent years– ever since he and Hannibal had returned to the campaign, or really, ever since Wel had slit a man’s throat just for the pleasure of seeing the blood flow, and Hannibal’s face as Wel killed his old enemy– he has felt something new. Small visions build, arrive, and ebb. But underneath, something larger is growing, the tide of blood in his most persistent dream. He can ignore it, but it is always there, on its way, coming closer. He has never had a vision that took years to arrive. If there were going to be one that killed him, surely this must be it. But presenting himself to the Pharaoh, he is able to set it aside. His daily duties as priest are easy, almost soothing. In the small, daily ways that matter the most for kings, he knows the god’s will. He knows how to worship, how to sacrifice. Alexander, following Aristandros’ lead, has always trusted him, and it makes sense that he is calling for him now. Men call for priests in times of great grief more than other times; if Alexander wants him, it will be for a purpose, and he will be capable of fulfilling it.

Tired-looking guards announce him and usher him into the smaller receiving-room of the palace. This is neither a private space, nor the public hall where the Persian Great Kings have always heard petitions and fulfilled ceremony; it is something in between, a place for true business to be done once the ceremony is over. The fact that the Pharaoh is here, and no longer draped over the bed where his lover died, seems good news.

Wel notices first that the gossip about his hair is true: he cut it entirely off in imitation of the son of Peleus, and messily. Patches of it clump unevenly on his skull. It gives him a wild, vicious look. Wel performs the prostration in the Persian fashion, feeling as if the very room, the palace and its weight of history, expects it of him. As he does so, he contemplates the feeling of his own hair against his cheeks, the curls he had grown out from the priest’s traditional shave purely because Hannibal likes to touch them. If Hannibal wasted suddenly of fever, would he shear them in mourning, place them on Hannibal’s body to bring with him into the next world? Or would he keep them, perhaps never cut them again, in the hopes that Hannibal’s ghost would be tempted back to him?

“Rise, Weldjebauend of Siwah,” says Alexander briskly. His voice is hoarse but calm and businesslike. The fact that everyone, including Wel himself, uses the shortened form of his name does not concern Alexander. He knows the names of more soldiers, administrators and priests than seems humanly possible, and pays special attention to pronouncing the foreign ones correctly, which tends to leave a positive impression if not exactly the one he intends; he sounds like a schoolboy proud of learning his lessons well, which is charming. Wel rises.

“I am sending you home,” says the Pharaoh.

Wel feels dizzy. He tries to grab for something to steady himself but there is nothing besides the desk that the King sits at; he stumbles and nearly falls. He’d thought himself prepared for anything, but he had not been prepared for this.

“No, no,” Alexander is saying. He seems irritated with himself. “I appear to have a special aptitude for saying this sort of thing wrong. I am sending an envoy to Siwah. I wish to ask the oracle for divine honours to be paid to Hephaestion. You will lead the delegation. Choose the men or followers you wish to accompany you, and then see Eumenes the clerk, who will assign the remainder of a guard to you and provide you with what you need for the journey.” He pauses, then adds in a voice not quite as steady: “Return as quickly as you can.”

“You–” Wel stops. A scandalized you’re doing what? is not the kind of exclamation one makes in front of the ruler of (nearly) the world. Or if perhaps it had been once– the men of Macedon are famously forward with their King– it is not now. There is something brittle about him.

Hephaestion, Wel could tell him right now, is not a god. The oracle will not consent. Hidden and protected by the desert, Siwah has never had much to fear from rulers, and its truthfulness had been—once– why Alexander had chosen it. If he’d wanted an oracle that would tell him what he wanted to hear, he should have chosen better.

And all that is fine for Siwah, for Ahmos or whoever the high priesthood has passed to since Wel has been away. It’s less fine for Wel, who will have to carry the news back and deliver it to the grief-mad monarch.

No, Wel thinks, staring curiously into his face in the way you’re very much not supposed to do to the Persian Great King, but is perfectly permitted with a Greek monarch. When a man has too many titles, the etiquettes for them become rather confused. No, he is not grief-mad, not anymore. He’s afraid. Afraid of his own godhood, what Ammon-Re had handed him in the desert, terrified that it means he must spend eternity alone.

Even Zeus had been permitted a mortal cup-bearer, Wel could tell him, but he’s not all that sure the situation is the same. The Egyptian gods, unlike the Greek, do not have a habit of taking mortal lovers. Divine powers require divine consorts. This Pharaoh loves to be loved– to be worshipped would make him happy. But to be worshipped alone…

“I will do as Setpenre Meryamun commands,” says Wel, bowing low again. His use of Alexander’s throne name was supposed to sound submissive. But his voice comes out too gentle, and he sounds instead like he’s indulging a child. And in a way, he supposes he is. Alexander and Hephaestion had been friends from boyhood. It is the forlorn child who cannot imagine life without his companion, not the practical and ruthless King, who is making this request.

He begins to back out of the room. “Walk normally, for fuck’s sake,” Alexander mutters, mind already turning to the next item on his long to-do list, and Wel manages a small smile before obeying. He is functional, at least. The Empire will be governed by the King, while Wel goes to the desert to try to placate the child.

*
Wel had thought that the army travelled quickly; he realizes immediately that the speed which won the empire was nothing compared to what is possible with a small group of trained men, and enough money for a limitless supply of fresh horses. It takes less than half a month to get to Tyre on the coast.

“Have you given thought to what you will tell Hannimelqart, if his request is denied?” Hannibal says the night they arrive in Tyre, as they walk through the city. He has to raise his voice a little, to be hear above the noise of the streets; business is booming, and nothing but the city’s status as a peninsula, rather than an island, is visible as a reminder of the siege less than ten years ago.

“When,” says Wel. “When his request is denied. There’s no way the oracle is going to grant divine honours. But…” he sighs. “Assuming Joh is still alive, he’ll know what to do. He was always good with the political angle of the thing. If he’d been high priest in Memphis, instead of tucked away at Siwah, things with the Persians would have been different.”

“And how were things with the Persians?”

Wel glances at him, surprised. But then, he had been very new to the army, at the point they had marched into Egypt for the first time; he couldn’t have known exactly why they were received so warmly. Tyre, after all, had even been allowed to keep its own king under Persian rule.

“Bad,” he says. “The Achaemenids were generally smart rulers, who let people keep their gods. Except with us, for some reason. Monotheistic elements in the leadership. They were frightened of us, I think. Anyway, worship of the native gods was suppressed. It’s why Setpenre Meryamun had such an easy time taking over; all he had to do was promise to permit the old temples to flourish, as they had before the Persians, and he was bound to be loved.” Wel laughs a little. “Listen to me. I sound like a politician.”

“But mainly,” prompts Hannibal, “He was bound to be loved because he is the son of Ammon-Re.”

“Yes,” says Wel, and for all the hardness of heart that he needs to keep up in daily life among the army, he does believe that. It was the one thing he knew for sure, when he’d left home.

Wel stops walking. In front of them in the temple of Melqart. This is, he knows, where Hannibal had been when the city had fallen. It’s all too easy to imagine Hannibal in exactly this place, minus a few lines on his face and a few scars on his body, ready to die.

“Will you show me around?” he says.

Hannibal pushes open the door and lets him in. The building is cooler than the street outside, the commerce of the city having reached basically to its doorstep. It is also quiet, excepting a few voices from a corner of the room. In the centre, an altar with a small flame perpetually burning, with an opening in the roof above to let smoke out and a single beam of sunlight in; on either side are enormous pillars, one of gold and one of what looks to be emerald, slightly translucent in the daylight.

“Its better at night,” says Hannibal. “We ought to come back. The priests put a lamp there–” he points to a spot behind the emerald pillar– “and a crystal to direct the light, and the green pillar lights up as if it were glowing from within.”

They had brought some incense for the god; Wel throws it on the fire, and the two men sitting in the corner are drawn out by the scent. Wel can see the recognition on the face of the younger man before he even gasps, “Hannibal!”

Clearly, Hannibal cannot remember the man’s name, which is more embarrassing for the other than for Hannibal. “Himilc,” the man says. “Remember? I was there during the siege.” His voice has the pleading quality of a child who cannot believe they aren’t memorable to the adults around them.

“Of course,” says Hannibal placatingly, and Himilc gestures to the man beside him: older, with the reserved air of someone who is not automatically impressed by those he meets. “And this is Kuras. He’s a Magian,” he adds proudly, as if the other man’s status is his own doing.

Wel raises his eyebrows at Kuras. “And you spend your time in a temple of the ones you call false gods?”

It’s not exactly a polite question, but Wel isn’t known for politeness, so the others might as well know it straight away. Kuras, however, only smiles and gives a slight nod of the head. “You will find, prophet of the Lie, that many things have changed in these lands. We must all find compromises– as you have done, surely.”

It’s not exactly an impressive trick that the Magian knows he’s a priest– he does have the god-symbols on his wrist, after all. “Certainly,” Wel says mildly, feeling somewhat perversely energized by the prospect of a disagreement with someone who isn’t Hannibal. “But my god does not claim to be the only god; nor do any of the other powers whose worship protects the king of these lands. Yours, meanwhile, claims to have sole access to the Truth. Is that not so?”

“It is, it is indeed,” says the Magian, rubbing his hands together. “And you ought to give Ahura Mazda the chance to convince you, ought you not? Come to the yasna tomorrow morning. Surely, your god– if he exists– would not be jealous to find you worshipping another. You will see, in the light of the sacred fire and truth-telling haoma, that Ahura Mazda is the supreme creator of all.”

“My god will not be jealous,” says Wel, even more annoyed. “And surely yours will not be jealous to receive worship from one who knows that many gods hold power over many lands.”

Himilc has been standing by nervously, and Hannibal looks like he has never seen better entertainment in his life. “This is Weldjebauend of Siwah, a great desert prophet,” he says proudly, once the sparring has lapsed into vaguely hostile glares.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” mutters Himilc.

Wel lets out a breath, trying to relax. Devout monotheists are nearly always annoying, and this one is no exception. Still; it would be good to take in the worship of Ahura Mazda, who is a powerful god even if not the only powerful god. And though he has no need of drugs to commune with the divine, he has never had the drink the Zoroastrians consume during worship. There was a gleam in Hannibal’s eye that means that if Wel didn’t drink it during worship, he’d probably find it slipped into his beer-cup one night. So really, he might as well. Perhaps this building vision can be knocked free from his mind by the haoma; after that, he will be able to relax.

*

They arrive at the temple of Ahura Mazda before the sun comes up in the morning, as Kuras had instructed the day before; the sacred fire should be lit in darkness. There are perhaps twenty worshippers come to hear the yasnas this morning, most of them bleary-eyed Persian officials who probably need to show up every so often to maintain face. Kuras, dressed in a robe and girdle which he ties carefully around his waist under the watchful eye of his audience, begins to chant in what must be Avestan– Wel can recognize the language the Persians speak among themselves, and this is something else, older. He has no idea what might be being said, and wonders if Kuras actually knows fully himself; sometimes priests don’t. They simply say the words that were taught to them, and hope the god is pleased.

There are sacrifices– first a bundle of twigs, then a libation of milk, some wheat cakes, fruit. Then, a large bottle passed around the assembly. Some drink deeply. A man with his young son holds it carefully to the boy’s lips, ensuring that he takes only the tiniest sip. Wel is not entirely sure, actually, if Hannibal drinks at all, or if he pretends. A charitable interpretation would be that he is conscious of perhaps needing to take care of Wel; a less charitable one is that he is hoping to be in his right mind for some entertainment. Wel takes a swig. It tastes earthy, like chewing on grass.

Kuras continues chanting. He does it automatically, trance-like; he has been saying these same texts his entire life, their power only growing in him with each repetition. Wel thinks that that sort of duty sounds nice, compared to the exertion and constant surprise of Ammon-Re’s swinging barque at Siwah and his own unpredictable connection with either the material world or the world of the divine.

His feet begin to hurt from standing, and then they stop. His heart beats faster than he thinks it is supposed to, but his mind is languid, unable to keep pace with the speed of his body. This ceremony is, he thinks, extraordinarily boring. He hopes he hasn’t said it out loud, that would be quite rude. Nobody is looking at him, so he supposes he hasn’t. Or at least, his eyes tell him that nobody is looking at him, but what do they know? What do they ever know? He has always assumed that he can tell the difference between seeing the world in front of him and seeing what the god wants him to see, but–

–yes. He can. He knows the difference, because he is watching it now: Kuras’s droning fades into a hum, and the blaze of the fire complimenting the rising sun brightening much faster than it could in reality.

In the way of dreams and visions, two things are true at once.

He is in the desert.

He is also in the path of the rising tide of blood that has submerged him in dreams since before he can remember, and this time it is going to drown him.

“Why do you want to see this, Wel?” asks Ammon-Re, the god’s voice made out of the desert sand itself.

“What?” says Wel. “I don’t. I don’t, I don’t want to know.” He has no idea what he’s trying to refuse. That doesn’t stop it from suddenly feeling like a lie.

“You’ve been asking me,” says the god, and he sounds sad. “You’ve been begging, my prophet, ever since you left my temple. You left the side of your brethren, and chose your enemy instead. How can I refuse?”

“My enemy?” says Wel stupidly. “You chose Setpenre Meryamun. You made him your son.” He is sure enough of that.

“Wel,” says the god, in a tone of voice that implies he is being very dense. The sand rises with the water. It brushes at his face. It holds his ankles. It feels like hands holding his ankles. It is hands holding his ankles.

“There’s someone there,” his father says. “Perhaps they know the way to the next marker.”

His father is holding his ankles, because Wel is on his shoulders. He is, in some way, both his child self and the adult; his current body a shade, overlaid on his former form.

“Maybe we should…” his mother says, just like the previous time he had seen this. This time, though, the scene is sharp and clear and continuous. The three of them turn to watch the party approaching them, and soon the forms sharpen from the haze of heat in the distance. They are moving with purpose. Wel’s mind is divided: the childhood memory feels only vague fear. The grown man, who has travelled with Alexander’s army through lands stocked with brigands who rob travellers nearly constantly, and must be laboriously subdued before the travelling city can move on, recognizes the intentions in their movements instinctively.

“Get off the camel, Maye,” says his father, his voice tight. “Perhaps they’ll be content with that.”

“Are you insane?” His mother hisses. “Give up the camel? Even if they leave us be, we’ll–” she glances at Wel, and doesn’t say what will happen. It’s not exactly difficult for him to guess.

“Take the water-skin and hide it under your skirt, then,” his father says, but it doesn’t have any real ring of authority to it, and Maye doesn’t do it. Instead she settles herself more comfortably, leaning forward as if in preparation for a race. Then she reaches underneath her clothing, pulling at her upper thigh, and brings out her knife.

It is the same knife that Wel’s body, still in a haoma-trance at the temple of Ahura Mazda in Tyre, has strapped to his thigh.

Hannibal’s knife.

The raiding-party draws closer, inexorably. They have a certain desperation to their movements; likely they, too, are lost, but they each have a camel, and each camel is laden with baggage; they’ll last longer, perhaps even long enough to find the way either to Siwah or back to Paraetonium or Memphis. And each item looted raises their chances.

The man in front of the raiding party, leading them on, is speaking. Wel strains his ears, but it is only in the moment before they attack that he can actually make out speech. He doesn’t know the words, but he recognizes the language. It’s what Hannibal and Bacaxa sometimes speak among themselves: Phoenician.

The leader is middle-aged, his skin tanned so far by sun that it is impossible to tell whether he was originally dark or fair, his hair covered by a silk cap. His cheekbones cast the bottom of his face into shadow; perhaps it’s the structure of his face, but perhaps he is just gaunt from hunger.

There are five of them. Not enough to attack a real travelling-party, but certainly enough to take a single man, woman and child. Sweaty hands grab Wel’s sides, and his father lifts him down from his shoulders and gives him a rough, panicked shove to shelter behind him. Wel stumbles and almost falls, and by the time he’s righted his balance, it is almost over. A grim-faced old man from the back of the party has run his father through with a long, curved sword. The sharp-cheeked leader, instead of injuring the camel to get to his mother, simply draws his own beast up alongside it, and then launches himself from one to the other. Maye is so surprised that she barely reacts; he draws a blade across her throat from the back, and throws her easily off the camel.

That’s it. Wel has seen battles, now; from that perspective, it can hardly even be counted as a fighting engagement. His parents are dispatched so easily they might not have existed. Except they still do, writhing and bleeding out on the ground.

“Wel,” Maye says, blood spurting from her neck, “come here.”

Wel goes, and there is that knife again. It glints a gold reflection of the desert sun, but he can see the rest of it clearly now, the handle a hard wood like the cornel used in the Macedonians’ long spears. He knows it. He knows.

The part of him that is observing knows what comes next. The part of him that was participating just knows his mother’s plea. He collapses on top of her, half an embrace and half a stumble, and she brings one of her palms away from where it had been futilely trying to stem the flow of blood from her own throat to touch his head, the close-cropped scalp and single lock of hair hanging down beside his ear in the fashion of children. He begins to cry, more a reflex than an emotion. There are no more emotions left. He ought not to cry, because tears are water. But he’s going to die now anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.

Maye grabs hold of his hair, and jerks the knife towards his throat.

He jerks away. It is all too easy; she is weak.

“Come here,” she says again, “Come here, come here, it’s better this way–”

The leader of the raiding party has watched this action with something like amusement. When he sees the knife, though, he walks over and inspects it, like he is considering it in a bazaar and not in the hand of a desperate, dying woman.

He hasn’t even looked at Wel, and he only glances at him now; not long enough, apparently, to realize that he’s Egyptian. Siwah is known for being popular with Greek pilgrims; the difficulty of reaching it only increases its reputation. Now, he speaks to him only for the sake of having an audience, and he says it in Greek. The terrified child standing over the body of his mother doesn’t understand it. But the shade of the prophet watching his own history from outside of it does.

“This will make a lovely gift for my son,” the man says.

The rising sea of blood behind Wel’s eyes subsides, washes away, from everything except him. He won’t see it again, because he doesn’t need to. He is stained. It lives inside him now.

When his eyes focus once more on Kuras, worshipping the sacred fire of Ahura Mazda, he finds that he is not holding the knife, nor even reaching for it. That, too, lives inside of him.

Inner Sea- Siwah, Winter 324/3

Hannibal hovers a finger above Wel’s brow, thinking for a moment that he’d like to touch it, then decides against it.

His face is free of sweat, his forehead relaxed. His mouth is slightly open in the unconscious childishness of sleep. It’s not a sight Hannibal gets to see often; usually, Wel sleeps with a small frown on his face, pieces of the past and future working their way through his mind even while he isn’t aware of it. But ever since they’d boarded the ship, Wel’s sleep has been calm.

They’re in a small cabin on the top deck, the only cabin there is. Usually, it would belong to the captain, or to a higher-ranking general if one were on board. The last time they’d made a long journey away from the army, they were merely travellers, free to buy passage on a merchant ship and sleep on the deck with the other passengers and sailors. Now, they are accompanied by an honour guard, provided with letters and seals and messengers with secret passwords to give their journey every haste and convenience that it can have. A trireme had been arranged in Tyre that would take then to Paraetonium. Wel is both the leader of this expedition and the guest of honour; therefore, the cabin is his. It’s entirely possible that he would have preferred to sleep on the deck, under the stars, except that the deck is crowded with sailors and guards, and the cabin is private, and in any case he couldn’t have turned the cabin down without causing offense.

He’d made the most of it by throwing himself down on the bed the moment they’d retired to the room for the night, pulling off his clothes like a too-heavy skin, and murmuring “fuck me like you mean it” sleepily into the blankets. Wel shut his eyes tight as Hannibal obliged and made little sounds of pain-pleasure, then immediately fell asleep with his nose buried in Hannibal’s chest.

Now Hannibal can’t sleep. His groin is sticky with come, and he could go draw a bucket of seawater to wash himself off, but he can’t shake the feeling that if he leaves this room, Wel will be gone when he comes back. It’s impossible, there’s nowhere for him to go, but he stays anyway, and watches.

The nightmare, the one that always returns, is not in evidence. Its absence weighs more heavily than its presence. Hannibal returns to the memory he always comes back to at such moments– Wel, drawing his knife across Malchus’ throat, blood-soaked and glorious. It had been, at the time, all he’d ever wanted. To see the priest, forbidden to kill anything but the flesh of sacrifice, kill for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s not that the moment has paled, but it now seems incomplete. Wel had never talked about his own descent into violence and away from the principles of his order. It was simply something inevitable about him. Not even worth a debrief.

He opens his eyes, and Hannibal is caught staring, their eyes meeting and holding the other’s. Then Wel yawns and says, “Is it almost morning?”

“No,” says Hannibal quietly. “Not even the third watch.”

“Oh.” Wel closes his eyes again, seemingly to go back to sleep. Then he says, gently, as if not intended to be heard at all, “How does it feel?”

There are many ways that Hannibal could answer that question, but it seems dangerous to take a guess at how he should. “How does what feel?” he whispers back.

“To have discharged your blood-feud. To be done.”

Hannibal curls a hand around the back of Wel’s neck. It’s very warm, but he does not smell of fever.

“I took Alexander’s coin in the hopes that in the army and its roaming, I would find what I needed to finish my vengeance,” he says. “I was right, and now I am free to live any life I choose. And yet I choose the exact same one that I had before. You are the expert on such things, not I. How do you think I feel?”

“I think you–” Wel stops. Not just a pause, a full stop, like the sentence is finished.

Hannibal grips the back of his neck harder. He feels the twitch of pain beneath his fingers. “Yes?” he demands.

“Love me,” finishes the seer, as if it should have been obvious. He has likely delivered even more earth-shattering prophecies than that, in that same calm voice. It is obvious, but all the prophecies that really matter are.

That has nothing to do with blood-feud, Hannibal could say back, but he knows it would come out of his mouth sounding lost, as if he’d simply missed a step in the conversation. Perhaps he has.

Wel closes his eyes again. He looks pained. Hannibal wants to reach into his mouth, shove a fist down his throat, and grab all his secret sorrows from where they wait, perched, for a signal to rise and fly out of his mouth that may never come.

“What do you want to do to me?” Wel asks. “Anything. Do it. Please.”

And part of Hannibal just wants to understand him, the way philosophers seek to understand Truth. Wants to do nothing but talk with Wel, forever, wants to hear a description of every single moment of his life from Wel’s perspective, and it still wouldn’t be enough to truly understand.

Another part wants to shove a fist in Wel’s mouth and bite every smooth patch of skin on his body. Hannibal is good at holding back his violence until it is needed, usually. But something about the way Wel is asking— he doesn’t want to talk. He wants to be acted upon. To not have to choose what to do next, to not think anything about the future but what Hannibal chooses to give him next.

He gags sweetly as Hannibal pries open his jaw with his probing fingers, and doesn’t struggle. Hannibal holds him down like that, the soft back of his throat a point of threatened pressure that makes movement impossible, as he first licks, then bites, every part of Wel’s flesh that he can reach. He doesn’t mean to draw blood, but somehow Wel’s skin seems softer than usual, as if the porousness of his mind were manifesting physically. There is no obvious time to stop. Hannibal pulls himself up and his hand out of Wel’s mouth when he hears the guards changing at the third watch outside on the deck.

There are tears leaking out of Wel’s eyes, and then more than leaking; streaming, pushed by something more than physical pain. Hannibal cradles the back of his head, holding Wel’s face against his own shoulder, so that it is slippery with tears. He wonders what he’s just punished Wel for, but the prophet is asleep in his arms before he works up the courage to ask.

*

The last time he’d seen Siwah, it was from the perspective of a guardsman, camped outside the centre of the village with the Macedonian troops. It is very different from the perspective of a house beside the temple; beautiful, for one. The sacred spring in front of the temple stretches out in front of the house, and the famous salt is collected on the far side of it; to the back of the temple there is another lake, and a third, smaller body of water behind it. He can understand the rationale behind camping all the soldiers practically in the desert, all those years ago; the Macedonians have a habit of immediately stripping off and jumping into any appealing-looking body of water. The oasis water is precious both by definition in the desert surrounding it and by consecration to the god, and a horde of sweaty soldiers splashing around in it would have been an excellent way to give offence to nearly everyone in this town. Nobody here even knows how to swim.

But times have changed. Hannibal is no longer a common soldier; he is the personal– well, personal something, to the leader of of Alexander’s envoys to the oracle, a former priest of the temple himself, held in great honour by everyone. That honour is shown in exactly the way Wel likes least as they enter the village; a parade of seemingly every person and animal in the entire oasis, followed by a great feast outside the temple. They are greeted on their arrival for the feast by the high priest: an old man whose age seems to have given him solidity, not frailty, dark as a Libyan or perhaps a Kushite, and a touch of grey hair standing out on his chin. When Wel sees who is waiting to greet them, he mutters a prayer that Hannibal recognizes as a farewell to the soul of one departed; he surmises that this man must be new, or at least new to this role, his presence therefore announcing the death of his predecessor. Wel fidgets on his camel, seeming undecided for a moment; then he dismounts as they draw near, and embraces the high priest utterly without ceremony. They hold each other for too long for the gesture to be symbolic, and the high priest murmurs something in Wel’s ear.

This, then, must be the man who had brought Wel in from the desert. Hannibal has never had cause for jealousy about Wel before. Other have access to him, of course, but Alexander and the generals are Wel’s– clients, as if he were a merchant selling the truth. They don’t know him. But this man had seen him as a child, recognized his gift, watched him grow into it. Hannibal wants to kill him. It would be impractical.

And the thought leaves his mind quickly, as so does the high priest and his attendants. They withdraw into the temple, and as the villagers and guardsmen tuck into their meal, Wel withdraws and sits under a tree.

For once, Hannibal isn’t sure if he’s allowed to join him. Wel’s eyes are closed, his head tipped back against the trunk of the tree, the curve of his neck quivering slightly with emotion or perhaps the words he is preparing to say. Then he opens his eyes and beckons Hannibal over, offhandedly.

Hannibal sits down beside him, and Wel permits him to slip an arm around his shoulders. Hannibal preens. He wonders if the high priest can see them, from the temple, and hopes he can.

He tries to call his mind back to the business of the day. “You’re not hopeful,” he says, unnecessarily.

“There’s nothing to be hopeful about. Hephaestion isn’t a god. He never was, he isn’t now, and he isn’t going to be made one. Alexander first came here because this oracle is truthful. Now he’s hoping that we’ll turn into yet another divine-justification-for-hire, like Dodona or Delphi. And when we don’t, I’ll be blamed.”

“He’s grief-mad,” says Hannibal. “The Greeks think it honourable, to become exceedingly stupid upon the death of a lover. I suppose we can blame Homer for it.”

“I blame nobody but Alexander for it.” Wel’s voice is harsh, with a ringing authority that he contains, but rarely brings out. Something about the temple, the air here, the water, seems that it is drawing something old and powerful from the depths of him to shimmer on the surface. “Well. I need to go in, and ask what I was sent here to ask. Joh is waiting.”

Joh, thinks Hannibal. The high priest. He decides he must, at least, meet the man. Wel leans towards him one last time, and Hannibal presses a kiss beside his ear. Then he watches Wel ascend the stone steps to the temple. The door swings open, and then he is gone.

*

When he comes out, Wel assembles Alexander’s expedition. Even the guardsmen are invested enough in the outcome of this trip that it only makes sense to inform them all together. A few villagers gather around as well, though they clearly don’t understand a word of Greek and are only there for the entertainment value of watching Wel speak it.

“The god has been generous,” Wel announces. “Hephaestion son of Amyntor will be worshipped as divine hero.”

There is, from the Army men, an audible sigh. Also a few muted cheers, but they’re more for show. Nobody is truly excited about it; merely relieved at the compromise. A divine hero: not a god, but by now Alexander must surely know that the request was insane. He can still build a shrine to his friend, make sacrifices and rites, abide with him forever. It will be enough.

Wel stands in front of them, and he does not look relieved. He seems to be waiting for someone else to dismiss them, but there is nobody, and having been called to assembly, the well-trained men of Macedon are waiting patiently for the conclusion to the thing.

“That’s it,” says Wel, lamely, and his voice trembles.

The men start to disperse, muttering. They are used to receiving instructions from a King whose divine inspiration permits no public displays of doubt. If Alexander is ever uneasy, it is a private emotion fit only for the eyes of– well, now fit only for the shrine of a newly minted divine hero. Wel’s unease, on the other hand, is legible to everyone. He’s not used to having to hide his emotions; usually, whatever torments him is exactly what makes him valuable.

It’s now dusk; Hannibal would have liked to watch the sunset over the sand, but whatever Wel has on his mind is surely more important. They walk along the dusty laneway to the house they’ve been assigned. It is not, an apologetic acolyte had specified, the house that Wel had used to occupy; apparently that one is currently undergoing repairs, a necessary condition of mud-brick buildings.

Their baggage has been brought to the house. Wel changes, from a road-muddied Greek chiton to a clean white wraparound skirt of the sort the men of the village all wear. It does not seem like the right time to make a joke about desiring to see him shirtless while dressed more often. Wel’s face is pulled into a small grimace, not dramatic but interior. His expression is almost neutral because he is not really here. His mind is elsewhere. But what else could there be? This was it, the mission is complete. They’ve been successful, or rather, Wel had been successful. Perhaps the god would not have been so generous if it were anyone but his own chosen favourite asking.

Hannibal is about to try to come up with a question that will get Wel talking, when Wel suddenly finishes dressing and straightens up with a casual smile on his face that is somehow worse than the grimace. It looks like he’s being tortured. “Let’s go watch the sunset,” he says cheerily.

They do, standing at the outskirts of the village. Wel talks; pointing out features of the village, the temple on the hill, the sand, the clothes of the villagers, the youths that he recognizes from when they were little children. They pick up a respectful retinue of villagers who are eager to ask Wel questions, and though Hannibal can’t understand the language, Wel considerately keeps him looped in by double-checking on the occasional answer– how many elephants does the army have, Hannibal? Hannibal, do you remember which river was the fastest in all India? Hannibal, how long did it take you to learn to hold a sarissa? All with that torturously cheerful expression on his face. It’s excruciating.

An extraordinary thing seems to be happening, where Wel is simultaneously right in front of him, and also retreating into the distance. Hannibal has the feeling that they are not standing on the edge of the desert together but instead that he is alone, and Wel mounted on a camel riding as fast as possible towards the horizon. Even worse, the feeling continues once the villagers grow tired of their questions, and they return to the house and undress for sleep. Now is when Hannibal should force a confidence, should kiss him, should slap him, should do something. But every instant that goes by with no action brings the possibility of action in the next instant all the more remote.

They settle down to sleep. The house is equipped with a structure on the roof where linens can be hung for privacy when sleeping outdoors in the summer; but unlike the scorching heat of the desert, the autumn in the oasis is cool at night. Some further gift of the god, surely. It is cool enough to sleep indoors, on a feather mattress that feels impossibly soft after the period of mat-sleeping after the burning of the baggage in India.

Hannibal can fall asleep almost at will. It’s a survival skill for a soldier; if you have only a few hours’ rest between a march and the battle, better to make the most of them. But he doesn’t go to sleep right away; still hoping that something will come to him, some obvious way to get Wel back from wherever he has gone.

It isn’t Hannibal who makes the first move; it is Wel, who leans in close and hugs Hannibal so tightly that for a moment he is truly and gloriously unable to draw breath.

But then he lets go. He draws back, lets out a deep breath, and closes his eyes.

Hannibal closes his eyes too. He will get the story of what happened in the temple later; when they’re back on the road, far from this place that seems to have a hold on Wel that Hannibal cannot reach.

*

Hannibal wakes up alone.

It is unusual that he is alone. It is even more unusual that he managed to become that way without waking up himself. Although he isn’t a light sleeper by default, there is a part of his mind that seems always to be engaged in keeping track of Wel. That part stays vigilant even while they sleep, waking Hannibal for any interesting nightmares or prolonged periods of movement. It seems unlikely that Wel’s sleep could have been disturbed enough to prompt him to leave the bed, without Hannibal noticing.

Which means that his sleep wasn’t disturbed; he was never sleeping in the first place. It occurs to Hannibal that he recalls Wel’s face relaxed, his lashes fluttering on his cheeks like they do in sleep, his breathing slow and even. He’d been pretending to sleep.

Hannibal gets out of the bed, and after a moment’s consideration wraps his lower half in one of the Egyptian linen skirts from Wel’s baggage. He justifies the desire to wear something belonging to Wel with the reasoning that if someone where to look outside, they would think less of a local wandering in the dark than a visitor.

And he is going outside, because the house has the unmistakable hollowness of a house containing only one soul. Hannibal checks every room just in case, including the rooftop. Wel is not there, but the night is dark, and through a high window in the temple on the hill, Hannibal fancies he can see a lamp-light.

For the second time in his life, Hannibal sets off towards the Siwan temple of Ammon-Re by himself in the dead of night. Also for the second time in his life, the glow of lampyrids shows around him unseasonably late. They had blinked in the night, too, the evening Wel had first wandered to his fireside. This time, there is no Ptolemy outside the door to converse with. But there is light inside, shining out the gap in between the great doors and the stone floor they sweep across.

Hannibal pushes the door open and Wel is there, as he’d known he would be.

Wel turns. He’s holding an oil-lamp, a good bright one shining steadily and illuminating his face from below. “Come in, Hannibal” he says softly. “Close the door.”

Hannibal does. When the door swings shut, he has the absurd impression that it also locks him in; his hand hovers over the handle, wanting to pull it back open just to check that he can. He forces himself to drop his hand down to his side instead, and turn to face Wel.

Wel places the lamp down on the pedestal of the god’s image, and the otherworldly lit-from-underneath quality of Wel’s face transfers to the god’s image instead. Unlike most temples, where the god takes pride of place in the centre of the room, the figure is in the back, to give more room to the swinging barque that interprets his will. It makes the room feel very large as Wel walks towards him.

“There are lampyrids out tonight,” says Hannibal. His voice echoes in the room where he had once heard the voice of Ammon-Re say, go with him. In an instant, the memory slides into place. The strange high, accented voice, speaking Greek– he’d thought it odd, for the god. But of course it hadn’t been the god. It had been his prophet. He wonders if Wel had known that he was speaking to another, or if it had been for himself alone.

Wel traces his fingertips along the wall. “Lampyrids spend much of their lifespans transforming, transitioning from a mud-creature living off of the soil into a winged luminous thing. I know because Setpenre Meryamun sent several of the soil-creatures to his old teacher Aristotle; by the time they arrived in Greece, they had reached their final form. They flew out of the case the Pharaoh had sent them in, and escaped without the philosopher being able to make any observations on them besides the obvious. Aristotle sent a letter back about it which was read aloud at dinner.”

So Wel wants to talk about transformation. It’s only natural, for a man returning to his hometown to notice the ways in which he is different from when he left it. “Have you returned to this place a different creature entirely?” he asks. “Or are you recognizable?”

“I’m recognizable to my god, but only because he has been with me during the transformation,” Wel says. “And to my old colleagues in the priesthood, because they do not see it.” He finally takes his eyes off the wall, where they had been watching the patterns traced on stone by his graceful fingers. He turns them on Hannibal. “I’d expected them to be able to tell that I have become something different. Expected that every kill I make against the law of our profession– every life I take that is not the flesh of sacrifice– must be marked on me somewhere.”

“And could they?” They’ve never spoken of this before. Hannibal had almost thought they weren’t going to; that it would simply pass into reality without comment, perhaps even without recognition. Do the lampyrids remember burrowing underground? Do they know they were once other than what they briefly are? Surely not. The recognition of transformation is for humans alone.

“No,” says Wel. He is now close enough that Hannibal can smell him; sweat and incense and wine, fresh from libation and not stale from drinking. He smells holy. He smells purified.

“They didn’t need to,” Wel continues. “Ammon-Re knows. I think I always knew there would be a reckoning. I only thought…”

He is close enough now that it feels natural, inevitable, for Hannibal to wrap his arms around him loosely, palms resting on the priest’s delicate shoulders. Wel raises a palm to Hannibal’s cheek, a thumb caressing gently under his eye. Hannibal closes his eyes, letting him touch. It is tender in a way that would have been impossible only a little while ago, across the distance that had opened after the oracle-reading. Now there is no distance left. That’s all he wants; to be close. He can’t think of anything else. He has to know everything Wel knows, everything he thinks, everything he feels. “Thought what?”

“That it would be me,” Wel whispers. His right hand moves. The knife that Hannibal’s father had gifted him after a trip through this very desert glints in the light of the single lamp, the light flashing through Hannibal’s closed eyelids, and he opens them just in time to stare into Wel’s face as Wel drives the blade into Hannibal’s stomach.

It’s cold, and then it’s burning hot, and then Wel drags the knife to the side through Hannibal’s flesh and it is blinding pain like nothing he has ever experienced. It seems a stupid thing to be preoccupied with, while being stabbed: that it hurts. But it does. And the worst part is that the pain crowds out everything else, all philosophy, all religion, all meaning and context, history and future, all reality except pain itself.

So this is what it feels like. He’s been in Wel’s position often enough. He’s seen the light leave the eyes of the dying. He knows what’s happening in his torso, the stench of guts falling out, the blood slipping through his fingers. Does Wel appreciate what he’s being given? Does he know that Hannibal has let himself be known, seen, and never more so than in this moment? Is he paying attention? Does he want it? Is he–

Babylon, Spring 323

There’s no guard posted outside the palace in Babylon. Perhaps they don’t need one: the Babylonians are an old, proud people, and they have plenty of temples that are quite interesting enough that nobody needs to go adventuring around the royal palace for a bit of excitement.

Wel hasn’t washed from the road. He’s dusty and tired and smells like sweaty horse, and is certain that that is the correct state to appear in front of the Pharaoh in. There is nothing more important than the news Wel has to bring. There used to be– the men would probably say there should be– but there isn’t.

He sweeps through the halls of the palace. He hasn’t been here before, but it’s never hard to figure out which room a king is holding court in. Clerks and eunuchs have the same movement patterns as ants, and can be traced to their source.

There also isn’t a guard outside the room that is the centre of activity, which is a little odder. No matter. Wel pushes the doors open; he is willing to make a grand entrance, to have all eyes on him.

This was the point. To be able to bring this news to Alexander, the chosen son of his god. It justifies Wel’s presence here. It justifies his presence among the living, arguably.

Beside that, what was done was nothing. He doesn’t want to think about– anything that is not his duty, and for now, it is easy not to.

He pushes open the doors, and enters a room full of complete chaos.

Eunuchs are wailing. It’s a practised sort of wail, a ritual sound that Persian eunuchs have to be proficient in; and yet there is an edge of real terror behind it. They’re arranged around the throne, tearing their expensive clothes and hitting themselves in the chest. Sitting on the throne, is… some guy.

Wel blinks. He definitely does not recognize the guy. Also, he’s wearing dirty old rags, and staring around in what seems to be confusion at the chaos around him.

Wel recognizes Alexander’s favourite, Bagoas, who throws himself at his feet. “Priest!” he wails. “Help us! Remove him!”

When a Persian acts strangely, it’s usually because of some arcane ritual or rule of behaviour. It makes sense that eunuchs are not permitted to drag an interloper off the throne themselves; that ought to be a guard’s job. But there are no guards in the room– where the fuck are they?– and it seems pretty silly that the entire assembly of eunuchs are simply doing nothing. Someone who is not the King sitting on the throne, physically sitting on it, is, well, a bad omen. The worst omen there could possibly be, really. And poor Bagoas is merely lying on the floor, quaking.

Well, Wel isn’t a guardsman, but there’s nothing stopping him from doing a little violence. Especially not now, now that his god has made it clear that he’ll never be clean from it again; Wel’s vengeance, not his purification, was the price for the gift Wel has carried back from the desert to his Pharaoh.

He strides forward and grabs the man. He’d expected at least a little resistance– had almost been looking forward to it, really– but he goes along with Wel’s rough hands docilely, like a child being pulled away from a bonfire.

Wel pulls his captive into the hallway, as the eunuchs start doing whatever it is they feel they have to do to restore the sanctity of the throne. Except one: Bagoas follows him out.

“My lord and his companions have taken a short break to go walking,” he says, his voice shaking. “They were engaged in the distribution into the army of the new Persian troops. Alexander said they would return shortly to the task. I don’t know how this man got in. The guards are unhappy about the admission of my race into the regular ranks. They might have followed him, asking him to reconsider.”

The interloper is sedate, humming tunelessly to himself and staring around the hallway in just as much blank wonder as he’d stared around the throne room. He doesn’t seem likely to run off, though Wel keeps a firm grip on his arm anyway in case it’s a ruse. He leans his back against the wall, and Bagoas slides down to sit on the floor, wiping his eyes of the residual tears from the wailing. Wel closes his eyes. He feels extraordinarily tired and somewhat nauseous. This isn’t how he’d expected his return to go. And if he were really honest with himself, he would have to admit he feels little bit… cheated. He’d asked Ammon-Re for something on Alexander’s behalf, and the god had named his price, and Wel had paid it. He hadn’t even thought twice. And now he has come back with Hephaestion’s divinity in his hands, and the image of offering the Pharaoh his friend’s eternity, prostrate as one ought to be before the son of a god, was all that was keeping him from thinking about–

Bagoas jumps to his feet at the clatter of men approaching, then promptly falls onto his face in front of Alexander, who pulls him up quickly and listens to his somewhat disjointed explanation of the situation with a furrowed brow. When Bagoas gestures at Wel and the interloper, the King doesn’t so much startle as visible restrain himself from startling, and Wel at least has that. The matter of the man on the throne needs to be dealt with first; but Alexander wants to throw the whole thing aside and ask Wel for his news first. So perhaps it is still worth something.

It isn’t worth much to a dead king, if the omen of another on the throne holds. They say the omens were bad when they entered Babylon, too. To make matters worse, the whisper in Wel’s mind comes in a voice not his own.

Wel doesn’t hear the rest of the proceedings to do with the interloper. At some point an actual guard takes him off of Wel’s hands, and leads him away presumably to be interrogated or executed. Then the King hesitates, clearly tempted to demand Wel’s report where they stand. Wel has the presence of mind to stand aside and user him, along with the rest of the assembled generals and guards, back into the throne room. The rest of the eunuchs are fussing over the throne still, but they stand aside and fall on their bellies when the King sits back down. The generals sit on couches arranged on both sides, and the scene looks almost normal again; court is in session.

Wel is not sure if it’s his own dashed hopes of a meaningful entrance, or if there really does seem to be a black cloud left over the entire assembly by the omen.

All eyes are on him. There’s no question now of performing the prostration; it would only prolong the proceedings, and annoy the Pharaoh when it is supposed to venerate him. Best to keep it simple. “Ammon-Re sends greetings to his divine son, the Great King Alexander, through his well-beloved priests of Siwah,” he says. “In the matter of Hephaestion son of Amyntor, the horned one gives leave for his worship as divine hero.”

Something complicated happens on Alexander’s face. Wel watches him, as do the generals and eunuchs, as if their lives depend on the emotions battling inside of him– which they probably do. Divine hero is a good outcome; the best the King could, realistically, have hoped for. If he has returned to fitness to rule the world, he will accept it. If he is still grief-mad, who knows what he could do next?

Finally, Alexander stands, and closes the short distance between them to embrace Wel like a brother.

From everyone else in the room, there must be a sigh of relief like a breath of wind. The tension goes out of them, visibly; the generals slap each other on the arm in brotherly communion, the eunuchs grasp each other’s hands. Alexander is back. All will be well.

But Wel, his chest pressed against the King’s in an embrace, hears nothing but the harsh rattle of breath in the other man’s arrow-ruined lungs. He works hard not to show how much effort each gasp of air costs him, but Wel can now feel it as if it were his own pain. The omen of the interloper presses down upon him tighter and tighter, and Wel wonders how long it will be until the divine Hephaestion is reunited with his friend in the afterlife.

Siwah, Winter 324-Summer 323

His lips are wet. He licks them, and then they become wet again. He licks them again, and they become wet again, and he…

*

Someone is touching his stomach. He tries to stop them, but his arms are restrained. He tries to kill them, and encounters the same problem. Someone is feeding him poppy juice and he should spit it out, the better to kill them, but it slides down this throat anyway and he…

*

He hears voices. He does not understand them. He has lost the power of comprehension of speech, then. Perhaps that means that those who believe thoughts to come from the brain are just as wrong as those who believe them to come from the heart; in reality, man’s capacity for reason comes from his stomach. Yes, that makes the most sense. It would be better to kill himself, than to live without it. There should be knife around here somewhere. He tries to roll over to find it, but…

*

He is sitting with Wel under the shaded entrance of the temple of Athena and Zeus the City-Protectors at Rhodes. Wel hands him the knife he had stabbed him with. “You should have it,” he says, “as it was a gift from your father. Who do you think he took it from?”

Hannibal doesn’t understand.

*

His stomach hurts terribly.

Hannibal understands.

*

He hears voices. He does not understand them. He remembers that there are many tongues on the Earth, and he does not know all of them. He opens his eyes.

There are two women in the room with him. They see him stir, and one touches the other’s shoulder, then runs out of the room. The other hovers over him, making soothing wordless noises. She presses a wet cloth to his lips for him to drink from, and he tries to motion that he feels capable of drinking from a cup. He can’t; his arms are tied down.

He is hazy with poppy-juice, but at the first attempt to struggle against his bonds, a lightning-bolt of pain shoots across his abdomen. He goes still, and then the high priest, the one whom Wel had embraced as they entered the village, enters the tent. He’s accompanied by another man trailing behind him, deferential.

The high priest says something in Egyptian, and the other man steps forward to translate. “Joh son of Hanabes, High Priest of Siwah, greets you and says that you have been bound because you kept trying to harm your caregivers.”

“You may unbind me,” says Hannibal, his voice sounding high and strange to his own ears. The translator frowns and says “You do speak Greek?” and Hannibal tries again, and says it in Greek.

The larger and sturdier of the village-women comes forward and briskly unties his arms from the frame of the bed. She speaks as well, which the translator relays to Hannibal as, “She says it is all right; sick men often try to attack in fever.”

I don’t recall apologizing, he wants to answer, but he has been winded by the effort of speaking already.

The translator, obviously not used to such work, isn’t very good; he speaks well enough, but he has none of the self-effacing manner learned by the translators in the army, where speaking through them feels almost like speaking directly with one’s interlocutor. Hannibal tries to ignore his twitchy discomfort, and focus on the man he actually wants to speak to. Up close, Joh son of Hanabes looks older than he had appeared when showing himself publicly as high priest. His close-shaved head still permits a few sprinkles of grey to show through, and deep lines fan from his eyes. He rubs at his face as he sits down on a stool next to the bed, and Hannibal marshals himself to attempt speech again.

“Why did you not let me die? Surely that was the intention.” It comes out in Greek on the first try this time.

He amuses himself by trying to guess the meaning of the words before they’re translated, but all he can hear in the other man’s voice is tiredness. “We did,” comes the answer. “You stayed for three days beneath the altar. The god demanded your sacrifice and took what he wanted from you. Whatever that was, it wasn’t your life. Eventually a visitor came, and we needed to remove you. That was two new moons ago.”

Hannibal blinks up at the ceiling, bland whitewashed mud-brick. Three days. He should have died from loss of blood, and then died again from heat and thirst.

“I was the sacrifice demanded in return for the divinity of Hephaestion,” he says.

“No,” says Joh sharply– at least that word sounds similar in all languages. “Wel’s retribution was the sacrifice. The most sacred and powerful prophet that Ammon-Re has ever had has been despoiled. He has taken the lives of both humans and animals, in contravention of our most sacred dictate. And the fault is yours.”

Hannibal tries very hard not to smile. He takes a deeper breath than he has so far attempted, and the resulting stab of pain works quite well enough to prevent any untoward facial expression. It is not lost on him that the punishment for Wel’s having killed was for him to kill more; and the god’s rejection of Hannibal’s soul has meant that his presence is imposed indefinitely on his priests. All gods like to make things inconvenient for their worshippers, and Ammon-Re is no exception.

“What made you decide on Wel?” Hannibal asks.

“You don’t seem to think rescuing a child alone in the desert would be motivation enough.”

“Maybe to save, if your customs frown on exposure. Not to keep. Surely you could have sent him to Memphis. Given him to a family of farmers with no son, or indentured him to a craftsman.”

Joh stares at him a long time before speaking. He has a good stare for a man of authority, his entire face seeming to radiate a pure lack of sympathy.

Finally he says flatly, “He was far off the route either to Memphis or Paraetonium. If he god hadn’t wanted him, I would not have been led to him. And what about you, Hannibal of Carthage? How did you come to follow him here, when you could be back with your regiment enjoying the sacred women of Babylon?”

Of course Joh knows his name; he’d probably been the one to pronounce his death sentence– or so he thought– directly from the will of the god. But the sound of it in the other man’s mouth, surrounded by unfamiliar words, hits him for the first time with the truth of his condition. He had entered Siwah side-by-side with the only true kin he had ever met, despite a lifetime of forging family and brothers-in-arms. Now he is alone. The sound of his name in Wel’s mouth the final time, inviting him into the temple, rings in his ears. Nobody should be permitted to say it again, after that. Not that he can do much about it in his current state.

“I suppose I must give the same answer,” he says. “The gods lead us to our destinies, and history teaches that any attempt to avoid fate only serves to bring it about.”

“Was that what you soaking him in blood was? An attempt to avoid the fate of being attached forever to a priest?”

“Ammon-Re knows I did no such thing,” Hannibal says, and he is certain it is true, as if Wel’s knife had carved into his flesh some of Wel’s insight. “Like the lampyrids, Wel began life as one thing and became another. I can whisper through the chrysalis, but what hatches follows its own nature and is beyond me. Is not Wel’s bloodlust beloved of the god also? After all, it was the price he demanded. Not that Wel be cleansed. That he become bloodier, on Ammon-Re’s command.”

The long speech leaves him out of breath, and it’s a good thing that Joh simply fixes him with that unimpressed stare again in answer. Then he breaks it, and stares off into the distance instead, a finger stroking beneath his lower lip.

“Perhaps you ought to ask the god yourself,” Joh says finally, and rises to leave before the translator is even finished speaking.

*

It is a long time before Hannibal tries to stand up. He loses count of the phases of the moon visible through the window of the room he is in. There are stars visible too, just barely. Wel must be back in Babylon by now, having delivered the good news to his Pharaoh. The nights are hot in Babylon, and plenty of people sleep outdoors. It is too maudlin to contemplate the idea that he and Wel could be looking at the same star at the same moment, so he doesn’t. But as soon as he can stand and walk short distances, he starts sleeping on the rooftop mattress of the small house he’s convalescing in.

The medicine-women come once a day, and then once every few days, and then on the first day that he manages to do a single push-up, just to try it, alone in his room, the senior of the two somehow knows it, like the very air of this place makes secrets impossible, and she comes with the translator to say, “You are healed. It is time for you to leave in case someone else gets sick.”

It seems pointless to object that that implies that nobody else in the village is sick now, and there is therefore no reason to kick him out. His tent has apparently been stored in the temple storeroom, and the Greek-speaking priest, who introduces himself only when pressed as Thothmose, reluctantly leads him there to get it back. He makes Hannibal wait at the bottom of the stone steps while he retrieves it, along with the cookware and coin-purse that had been in it. Mercifully, the purse is intact; evidently, they do want him to be able to leave.

But he can’t go yet. “When may I consult the oracle?” Hannibal asks as Thothmose hands over his belongings, and the priest winces.

“You? Consult the oracle?” he says, as if he hadn’t been right there speaking the words when Joh had suggested it. Hannibal just smiles pleasantly.

“Let me go check,” Thothmose mumbles, and disappears back into the temple.

After what seems like a very long time for the mere consultation of a schedule, he reappears. “You may come in right now,” he says, “If you’re gone from Siwah by nightfall.”

Hannibal cocks his head. He looks around, and notices more than a few villagers gathering to stare at him. Evidently, he had gathered a reputation; and now that he has been kicked out of the sick-house, he’s too visible for anyone’s comfort. For the first time since he woke up, he begins to feel like himself again. The pain in his stomach lessens, soothed by the attention.

He spreads his hands, conciliatory. “Whatever the god and his priests will, I will gladly do.”

Thothmose looks like he doesn’t believe it for a moment, probably because it’s a lie. He’ll do this, now, because it suits him. “Wait outside,” the priest says. “I’ll come get you when all is prepared.”

Hannibal climbs the steps, and sits down on the wide stone entranceway where he had once conversed with Ptolemy. It’s where the rest of the generals, while waiting for Alexander to consult the true oracle interpreted by Wel inside, had been permitted to ask questions of minor priests. Had they known, as they approached the temple, that they ought to prepare questions? Had any of them asked about something important, or were they all merely about petty squabbles of rank or property?

What is he supposed to ask? You’re as lonely as a shipwreck survivor, Bacaxa had told him the first time he had insisted on coming to Siwah. He wants now what he wanted then: to know what to do, what current of the river of his mind to follow. Only now, he knows what answer he wants, and that makes it different.

The door to the temple swings open, and he walks into the house of Ammon-Re for the third– and, he fervently hopes, last– time in his life.

It looks very different from either of the two previous times. The first time, the temple had been empty; although, he now realizes, Wel had been somewhere out of sight. The second time, Wel’s presence had seemed to take up the whole space. Now it seems crowded, and each individual in the room proportionally smaller and less important. There are eight men holding what looks like a model of a boat on sticks. Hanging down from the edges of the boat are small precious stones placed at regular intervals around the edges, and a large grey-black one that hangs down lower, attached at the centre. They all sway gently, and the men holding the poles sway with them. The movement of the bearers causes the stones to shift more, and more men have to move to keep the thing balanced, and before very long it is impossible to tell which movement causes which other, the entire assembly moving in a way that looks halfway in between a graceful dance and a drunken stagger. Off to the side, where he can’t be hit by the barque, is Thothmose. He has lost all the nervous antagonism he had before; now, he is focused entirely on the movement of the vessel that transmits the god’s will, and that it is his job to interpret. It’s as if Hannibal isn’t even there.

He should ask a question. That is what he is here to do. And yet, Thothmose doesn’t look to him for one. He closes his eyes, and Hannibal doesn’t need to speak this question for the god to hear it. Hannibal is the one who had been summoned today, not Ammon-Re. The god was already ready and waiting to speak.

Thothmose opens his mouth. As if Hannibal needed a reminder that he isn’t Wel and doesn’t get to have personal conversations with the god, Ammon-Re speaks in hexameter, as the Pythoness of Delphi is said to do:

Claim then the flesh which in greed and in love have you hungered;
He will be yours if the flesh of my son, godlike, rests on my soil.

Thosthmose stops. The barque slows, then stills, the men underneath it having hardly broken a sweat. That’s it. That’s the prophecy.

Hannibal turns his face upwards. It is still daylight; sun streams in through the skylight through which the smoke of sacrifices escapes. He waits, one more moment, for the ceiling to collapse. It’s had enough chances. When it doesn’t, he turns on his heel and walks out of the temple.

*

The perimeter of the village is a stark no-man’s-land. On one side, water and greenery and animals. On the other, death. The money returned to him along with his tent will do to buy him a camel and four days’ worth of grain for himself and the animal; if the camel is fast and the way-markers visible, he may be able to make it to Paraetonium in three days. And from there… well, that depends on the meaning of the oracle.

Hannibal does not allow himself to be reduced to petty displays of anger. At least, not when people are watching. Nobody is watching now. He kicks a rock as hard as he can and mutters “fucking oracles.”

The first line is clear enough. He has hungered for plenty of flesh in his lifetime, in all different ways; but all of it had paled, faded into insignificance, the moment Wel stumbled into his firesite.

The second is more disturbing. Wel has never referred to himself as the son of his god; he obstinately insists that he is the son of nobody at all. If he thought that perhaps Wel were simply not being forthcoming, he would happily follow the god’s edict to live with him in Egypt. He would even live here, if Wel’s destiny willed it. But the trade cannot possibly be so clear. Ammon-Re had offered Hephaestion’s divinity in return for Wel’s revenge. To offer Wel in return for nothing at all… no.

No, there is only one person alive who calls himself, and is called, the son of Ammon-Re. But he has chosen to rule from Babylon, not Egypt. Hannibal kicks another rock, and watches it disappear into the sand in a cloud of dust.

It is only because he is already squinting into the sand that he notices that there is another disturbance, farther away. Someone is riding in. Well, they surely wouldn’t have been able to see him in much detail. He draws himself up into a proud soldier’s posture, as if it is his duty to greet new arrivals to the village.

It ends up not mattering a bit what he looks like. The Libyan on the camel– one of the desert beasts so fast that it’s impossible for city folk to even mount them– barely even glances at him as he continues his gallop, not even slowing to respect the boundaries of the village. The moment he enters the oasis, however, he starts shouting with the voice of a herald who knows that nobody must be without the news he brings.

“The Pharaoh is dead!” He hurls into the air. “That Pharaoh is dead!” He says it in Egyptian, then in Greek, then Numidian, then starts again. The villagers have their own dialect here, and before long the official announcement is being echoed in that tongue too, like a strange valley where an echo comes back in a different voice each time.

Hannibal blinks.

In the midst of a battle, some freeze, and some act. Those who freeze die. Those who act get a pay raise. Hannibal was making pretty good money, by the end of the campaign.

There had been no heir. Even if Alexander named a successor in time– and if he’d died in battle as he’d surely wanted to, then he likely hadn’t– there will still be squabbling. If he’d been assassinated, like the majority of the Macedonian kings to date, it will be even worse. Either way, the whole world is now a battle. Fortunately, Hannibal has received his orders. And now they actually make sense.

He follows the herald into the village, a widening wake of chaos. It seems unlikely that these people usually care much about the death of a Pharaoh, but this one is different. This one, Siwah had made. He manages to find someone to sell him a camel, four days’ worth of grain and a few pieces of fruit, a few pieces of papyrus, and some ink. The herald is settling in for the night, looking forward to a hot meal and some beer; Hannibal checks with him that the way-markers are visible, and he confirms that the travel is as good as it ever gets through the desert.

He buys some goat meat being sold by an enterprising villager who has set up a roast in the square as if it’s a festival and not a mass confusion event, and heads into the desert, alone, before nightfall. With a few hours of daylight left, he can get a head start on a full stomach.

The last few minutes of visible light, he saves to write a letter.

Hannibal son of Lectis to Ptolemy son of Phillip,

I pray for your good health to Ammon-Re, whose shrine I have recently left. On the occasion of our meeting there, I said that when the moment to fulfill the priest’s words was at hand, you would understand your instructions. Since the moment is now, I must tell you that I, too, have received instructions from the god, and I believe our intentions to be complimentary. The god desires his son to be buried on Egyptian soil. The new Pharaoh, whoever he may be, surely will not object to carrying out such an honour, and the people of Egypt still less. I will be at Memphis, where I will take up residence as close as possible to the temple of Ptah and leave instructions there for the delivery to me of a letter from you, containing any instructions you deem prudent to send.

He pulls out the other piece of papyrus, considering starting over and addressing Ptolemy as son of Lagos instead. Hailing him openly as Alexander’s brother is risky. But whether or not the rumour is true, it will be politically useful to Ptolemy now; and Ammon-Re has forced Hannibal to cast in his lot with the general without even knowing the political situation at Babylon. Instead, he uses the second piece to write another letter, to be sent in the opposite direction.

Hannibal son of Lectis to Alanat the Rhodian,

I am still alive, wife, and I pray that you are the same. If not, and this letter finds one of our children instead, consider it addressed to you instead, my dear.

I am not yet at liberty to return to the shining city which owns the sea. A far-off god, not my own but having dominion over one dear to me, has sent me a final labour. Tell Mismalka the Younger not to marry unless she desires to; I believe I have found what I promised her.

Babylon, Summer 323

Chapter Notes

On the day the Pharaoh dies, Wel stays in his room.

By actual number, probably most people do. It only seems like everyone even tangentially involved in the business of the empire is milling about, because the ones who are are so loud about it.

The chaos is immediate. The bodyguards turn against each other. The generals call a meeting, the soldiers force their way in, and somehow an entire faction ends up camped on the other side of the Euphrates, all before the sun has gone down on the corpse. Wel– along with all of the priests, clerks, tradesmen, eunuchs, whores, engineers, wives, and merchants of the army– listens to the chaos huddled in bed, and occasionally peeks out the window.

They are soon joined in inaction by any Persians who had thought they might have a say in the future. With the death of the Pharaoh, the fragile beginnings of a newly-woven tapestry of Greek-Persian relations are unravelled entirely. Not just unravelled but torn apart, burned, and stomped on: Wel hears the Persians hurriedly packing their things and preparing to leave talking hysterically about the army’s rejection of Heracles as successor, supposedly Alexander’s son by the daughter of a beloved Persian satrap. Illegitimate, yes, but nobody is legitimate; and otherwise the perfect union of Macedonian and Persian nobility, apparently a fine strong child. But the Macedonians, now that they have no Medizing king to please, no longer have any interest in anything Persian, even half-Persian; particularly not to rule them.

By nightfall, there is no more Persian or Aramaic to be heard in the halls of the palace or in the streets around it; every royal Persian with the means to do so has fled.

No. Not every. Wel slips out of his room in the darkness, knowing that there’s at least one left.

The death-room of Alexander, previously the site of armed combat, is now unguarded. The squabbling has moved on from the body. He pushes the door opens and hears a high gasp, a small frightened voice squeaking, “Who’s there?”

He holds his lamp up to his face. “It’s all right. Weldjebauend, the priest of Ammon-Re.”

“Oh.” Bagoas the eunuch is sitting on the floor by the head of the bed, the corpse visible only as a figure covered by linen. The air in the room is still, the position of his body stiff; Bagoas has been here a long time. Only a few days ago, he had been a beautiful youth. Now, even in the lamplight, Wel can see lines on his face. “Have you come to embalm him? Please, nobody is saying anything about the embalming. I’ve been asking everyone who comes in. They all–”

He stops. Wel doesn’t need him to continue. They all care so much about their own power that they’ve already forgotten him, is what he means.

“I’m not an embalmer,” Wel says as kindly as he can. “But I’ll find out about it. I’ll go to the Egyptian quarter in the city tomorrow. If there are no men skilled enough here, I’ll send for the very best from Memphis or Thebes myself.”

Bagoas’ shoulders relax a tiny bit. His throat works but he doesn’t answer.

Wel stares at the linen-wrapped form. It seems too small to be the Pharaoh. In a brief moment of insanity he wants to lift the corner over the head and check, but he doesn’t. In body, he had been small; and death by fever makes the sufferer thin. That Bagoas is here is guarantee enough.

“Who is supposed to give the order to embalm him?” Wel asks.

Bagoas gives an ugly little laugh, a sound Wel is sure he had never made in front of Alexander. Possibly he hadn’t even been capable of it before this moment. Everyone is discovering new things about themselves today. “The successor,” he says. “The successor is supposed to take care of the honour and funeral of the dead king. One of the guards tried to explain it to me. Perdiccas and Leonnatus are camped with an army. Meleager has another part of the army, and they think my lord’s half-wit brother ought to be king. Some want to wait and see what Roxana gives birth to. And they won’t have Heracles because–”

“I know,” says Wel gently.

“I don’t care,” says Bagoas, suddenly fierce; and Wel can see why, after the death of Hephaestion, this seemingly demure youth was the King’s only true confidant. “I don’t care who is king now. It’s nothing to me.”

“It ought to be something,” says Wel, more sharply. “You want to see him embalmed, do you not? And buried, and worshipped according to what the son of Ammon-Re and lord of the world is due?”

Bagoas is quiet a moment, and Wel sees his fingers twitch up towards the bed, then drop back down; an aborted instinct to hold on to the dead man’s hand.

“Everybody is choosing,” he says softly. “Their loyalty. They have to, I know. But I don’t know how. The Wise Lord chose my destiny for me, once. But now nothing is clear.”

Wel swallows. “I know how you feel.”

“But you’re a seer,” Bagoas beseeches. “Surely you can know something. See something. Tell me which man deserves my loyalty now, which of them will do honour to my lord, and I will do what I can for his cause.”

The moon shines in through the open window. It doesn’t yet smell of death in here, but it surely will soon. Wel walks over to the window and stares out across the city. The river which splits it in two shines with moonlight like a huge snake. On the other side, the tiered temple looms.

He tries to think about the generals. He knows them all well enough as Alexander’s friends, and not at all as men unto themselves. The god offers nothing; like Bagoas, Ammon-Re cared for his chosen one and not at all for anything else in this far-off land.

But Wel doesn’t need a direct communication from the divine to be insightful. If he involved himself, talked to the men vying for power, witnessed the theatre performance of the current moment, he would be able to see more clearly than others the characters and likely futures of the players in the drama. He doesn’t want to. But, like Bagoas, he needs to choose if he’s to survive here. He could leave now, go back to Siwah. But there are memories there he’d rather not revisit.

(Is he buried in the village graveyard? Was he burned on the altar? Did the god crumble his bones to ash, or leave them to sit under the soil?)

“All right,” he says, and Bagoas looks up from where his head had dropped onto the bed. Probably asleep; how long has it been since the poor thing slept properly? “I’ll choose for you,” Wel says. “For both of us. But I’ll need some time. I don’t see anything any clearer than you, right now.”

The youth nods, and Wel sits down beside him and points to the mat on the floor that was clearly his sleeping-place back when he had actually slept. “Get some rest,” he orders. “I’ll sit up until you wake.”

With an entire palace full of men paid to keep things safe, only with this offer does Bagoas finally consent to let the body out of his sight. He shuffles over to the mat, and is asleep as soon as he lays his head down.

Wel sits exactly where he had been, as promised, keeping watch over the corpse. He will need to spend much more time than he’d like in company, in the coming months; for now, he is content to sit quietly with the sleeping and the dead.

*

Alexander has a brother.

Which is news to Wel, and seems to have been something forgotten until this moment by most of the soldiers who are now calling him King, too. Their defenses of him speak louder than any criticisms could. “It’s not his fault he’s a bit slow,” one Macedonian shouts at the assembly. “That bitch Olympias poisoned him as a kid. At least he’s not a fucking Persian.” The men seem to find this argument a convincing one for his fitness to rule, at least in some sort of complicated joint agreement. They don’t seem to notice that they’re being offered a childlike figurehead to keep them quiet while the real leaders pull the strings.

It’s probably just as well. The poor kid– Arrhidaios, though he’s just been given the throne name Phillip– bursts into tears at the sight of all the angry men, and tries to give away his brand-new crown to anyone who’ll take it. Already starved for charm, the soldiers find this charming, and roar their approval of him until someone forces him to take it back.

Wel slips off before the raucous public negotiations of some sort of triumvirate rule have been concluded. Arrhidaios’ distress echoes in him; he feels like he’s the one stuck in front of the assembly, terrified and confused, dressed up, re-named, thrust into the ill-fitting role of a sibling and caretaker whose loss he can barely understand.

So: not him, then.

Not, either, either of the two puppetmasters who had orchestrated today’s factions, Eumenes and Meleager. When Wel thinks back to their faces, he can only picture them as disembodied heads, eyes rolling and blood spurting from the neck.

He banishes the image by spending the rest of the day looking for embalmers. There are some Chaldeans in the city who practice the art of honey-preservation; but when they hear why he’s looking, they shrink back and claim to not know it at all. Eventually he finds one who promises to send for an Egyptian who lives not far away, under whose leadership the locals will be willing to work. Since he doesn’t let Wel know who the man is or see the contents of the letter summoning him, but just repeats “trust me, trust me” over and over, which Wel doesn’t, nightfall finds him back at the palace with little sense of having accomplished anything.

There are some drunk soldiers in the courtyard. Some have obviously not been sober since Alexander was alive. They’re not even trying to hide it; they hoist wine-skins in the air, chanting Phillipos, Meleagros, Perdiccas! Phillipos, Meleagros, Perdiccas! in the world’s worst drinking-song. It’s not even catchy; Meleagros has too many syllables.

The simple child now re-named Phillip will be dead soon. There’s no possible way for him to survive this: he holds too much power, not in his mind but in his body, the simple fact of his ancestry, so his body is what someone, eventually, will take from him.

Meleager, Wel merely hopes will be dead soon, but it seems likely. Alexander had a tendency to notice quality work, and reward it; Meleager is a minor noble who had been with the campaign since the beginning, and not been promoted or commended once. He is simply not smart enough for the role he is trying to seize.

(Hannibal had received three modest pay raises over the course of his service. He’d brought a full purse to Siwah, planning to buy good salt and fine Egyptian gold jewlery. He’d wanted Wel to wear it. Wel had said he would. On his return, a gold scarab ring had been among the gifts Alexander had given him in thanks; he’d never put it on. It’s probably under the bed somewhere.)

That only leaves one of the soldiers’ trimvirate to evaluate. “Has Perdiccas accepted, then?” Wel asks.

“Oh,” says one vaguely. “Well, I think they’re doing the ceremony of reconciliation tomorrow? I don’t know.”

Wel rolls his eyes. He finds a clerk who’s complaining loudly that the letters he has to write are going to take him all night, and asks the man to send a servant to his room to wake him at the second watch. When he does, Wel goes and relieves Bagoas, who is still sitting up keeping watch over the abandoned, unembalmed corpse.

Sitting watch is better than sleeping. He no longer dreams of the knife; he no longer dreams at all. In the blackest night, with Bagoas sound asleep behind him and Alexander soundly dead in front, he whispers into the darkness that he’d plunge the knife into his own belly to take it all back.

*

Wel watches the ceremony of reconciliation the next day from the outer wall of the city. It goes about as well as can be expected, which is to say that it ends with three hundred men summarily executed via elephant trampling and Meleager murdered in the temple.

So. Perdiccas it is, then.

He stays on the wall to watch him come back into the city, riding at the head of the newly reconciled army– for, against all the odds, whatever the hell just happened seems to have actually done the trick. The sense of order having been restored is more from fatigue than any real renewed friendship between the factions. Perdiccas waves to the city-folk as they pass by, who mostly couldn’t care less. Wel squints, and can see Alexander’s signet ring on the hand he’s waving around.

Perdiccas calls another meeting. This time, there’s no bloodshed, and Perdiccas assigns new satraps from among the remaining generals to nearly everywhere but the Indian holdings. There is a long line outside of the room of people waiting to pay homage to Perdiccas– to the King. That is who he is now. As the generals file out, the more minor nobles and priests and clerks and and general layabouts file in. None but the very few Persian eunuchs left– minus Bagoas– perform prostration. This is the Macedonian empire now, with no room for Persian obsequities.

Wel bows, and reminds Perdiccas of who he is. Most kings have clerks whose entire job is to know the name that goes with every face that will come before his lord, and whisper it in his ear. Alexander had never needed one; he remembered everybody, including every infantryman ever commended to him after a battle. So there is nobody trained to perform the service, and Perdiccas is completely lost.

“Oh,” he says. “Egyptian. That’s nice.” It’s not quite the hostility reserved for all things Persian, but it is clear that the new king has no use for the religious ceremonies that Wel had been in charge of for the previous one. Still, he isn’t sent away. No reason to think he won’t keep getting paid.

Perdiccas dismisses him, and that is that. He wanders out of the room, and drums his fingers on his thigh before forcing himself to head in the direction of the death-room where Bagoas now resides permanently. It wasn’t so much a choice as a narrowing of all other choices. Not much of an insight, but he might as well be the bearer of bad news.

“Weldjebauend?”

Wel turns. Not many Greeks even know his name, let alone attempt to say it. The voice is familiar, but seems to belong to a previous life: it’s Ptolemy, who had enjoyed and encouraged Wel’s first forays into recreational physical violence back in Persepolis. Before it was burned. Before the whole world was burned.

Wel bows a little. “I hope your satrapy appointment is pleasing to you,” he says vacuously.

“It is,” says Ptolemy. “I asked for, and received, your country: Egypt. In fact, I was wondering if I might consult with you on the customs of your people, who are now my people.”

“Uh,” says Wel, “Congratulations. Sure.”

He expects some sort of superstitious claptrap about pyramids or bellyaching about labour strikes. Instead, Ptolemy says, “Would you come back to my apartment with me, and perhaps share some beer? I suppose I’ve got to learn to like the stuff.”

Which is a little charming, even though the thick Babylonian beer is a mile away from the clear sweet drink the Egyptians prefer. If Ptolemy can learn to tolerate the former, the latter will be a pleasant surprise when he arrives in Egypt. Visiting Bagoas can wait.

Ptolemy does indeed call for beer as soon as they sit down in the room that functions as his office, and a Chaldean servant brings something almost drinkable. Ptolemy doesn’t ask any questions. He waits until Wel’s finished nearly the whole cup, then reaches into his desk. “I’ve had a letter,” he says, and places it in front of Wel.

It’s a little torn, sand-stained, cracked along the fold. But Wel looks at the papyrus, and his stomach clenches. His childhood home makes many good things, but papyrus isn’t one of them; the reeds are curiously brittle from the desert air, and the result cracks and breaks more easily than stuff made from Nile-reeds. He looks at the letter, and he knows it came from Siwah.

“Can you read Greek?” Ptolemy says, misinterpreting his hesitation.

“Yes,” says Wel, and forces his hand forward to grasp it.

He reads the letter.

He has the curious feeling of watching the sun shift all of a sudden on a sheet of shimmering faience, or of being suspended in the moment where you stop looking at the surface of a body of water and realize you can see through to the bottom. The particular nausea of the forced realization that perspective is not reality. He hadn’t known. He hadn’t seen. He hadn’t even suspected, or bothered to hope, or allowed himself to think about it for long enough to conceive of what hope would feel like.

People have survived worse, and they’ve died of less. A soldier would have known deep in his soul that you can’t consider a man dead whom you haven’t burned or buried yourself. But Wel is not a soldier; just a killer, which is different. With numb fingers, he tries to hand the letter back.

“Keep it,” says Ptolemy. “I’ve already sent a response. Usually I wouldn’t go handing out sensitive correspondence, of course…”

Wel clutches at it. He can’t help himself. “I’ll keep it– private,” he says.

Ptolemy smiles blandly, a denial of conspiracy as well as a confirmation. Then he leans back in his chair, and his face softens. “It must have been difficult for you, to leave your companion behind when he got sick,” he says. “Your loyalty to the late king is admirable.”

He refills Wel’s cup, and Wel drinks it. His hand is shaking.

“Hannibal and I had…” he starts to say, and merely the thought of it, the beginning of a sentence where he’s going to actually talk about him, fills him with a sense of relief so intense it’s nearly obscene. He’d meant to say a falling out, or something equally bland and uninviting of further inquiry. Instead he says, “blood-feud.” And in the moment it comes out of his mouth he realizes he’s never said it before, not even to Hannibal. It had been washed away by the torrent of blood, made redundant by the god’s demand. But he wants someone to see that they were bound together by blood before they had even met. Maybe, if that’s true, what happened next was neither of their faults.

“Of what kind?” Ptolemy asks. Practical. He’s heard it all before; nobody does blood-feud like the Macedonians.

And now that he’s let it out, the rest– it feels private. It burns at the core of him; it would be like describing the act of love in detail, a betrayal. Had it not been just as intimate?

“Only the gods nurse their grudges forever,” Wel says, and doesn’t add men end them with blood. Ptolemy nods, satisfied. Wel clutches the letter to his chest, a more eloquent statement than any words, but he also begins for the first time to think about the contents. “Ammon-Re wants his Pharaoh buried in Egypt,” he says slowly. Well, of course he does. (And he had told Hannibal, and not Wel. Well, to be fair, Hannibal is the one who has probably spent more time in his temple recently.)

“And Alexander desired it as well. He asked to be buried at Siwah, but such a bier as he must have will never make it across the desert to the oasis.”

Wel bites his lip. A part of him wants to argue, to figure out a way; but he is not a general, and Ptolemy is. Moving around large objects and groups of people is his art. It would be a poor tribute to a Pharaoh who conquered the world by moving faster and planning more carefully than others to leave his body stranded in the desert through shoddy logistics.

“All the Egyptians were talking of how well the new city on the coast is prospering,” Wel says.

Ptolemy nods. “Yes. Alexandria-on-the-Nile-delta was my thought as well. Not right away; we’ll need to bring him to Memphis, while things are made ready. But I think we will be able to arrange it.”

We. Wel doesn’t miss the casual implication, but how can he resent it when his god, his lover and his Pharaoh all seem to be commanding the same thing?

“I was under the impression,” he says delicately, “that, now the succession has been somewhat resolved, Perdiccas will want to bring the body back to Macedon…”

“Yes,” says Ptolemy, “he will.”

Wel swallows. The texture of the letter is solid in between his fingers. He understands why Ptolemy wants to give it to him: if he weren’t able to read it over again whenever he wants, it would be all too easy to convince himself that he imagined this conversation. “All right,” he says.

Ptolemy smiles, and refills his beer-cup one last time. “It will be a while before any action is ready, of course,” he says. “Be at ease, Wel. I will call upon you when I need you, and I promise that I will fulfill our obligations of piety and loyalty.”

It’s not just that. Wel isn’t a politician, but he isn’t stupid. Having Alexander’s body in Egypt would be a tactical coup for Ptolemy.

But in that, their purposes align, and that must be a god-given gift. He watches the new Egyptian satrap drain his cup a final time, and throw the dregs of it on the ground as a libation in the Greek fashion. Wel follows suit, and is only slightly unsteady on his feet when he takes his leave.

He wants nothing more than to go to sleep. He feels like he’s lived three days in the space of the last one.

But he goes to the death-room first, where Bagoas’ haggard face is bathed in moonlight as he looks up at Wel’s entry.

“It’s Ptolemy,” Wel says, and Bagos nods.

Chapter End Notes

A note for those of you who like to set expectations by chapter count– the final chapter of the stated 39 is an epilogue that I’m planning on posting along with the preceding one. So this will wrap up (*insert sound of my brain exploding*) next Saturday.

Syria, Spring 321

There is no need for scouts, but Hannibal sends them anyway. Mostly the “scouts” are the young sons of volunteers who insisted on being brought along for this exact purpose: to join with hoi polloi of every city in between Babylon and Alexandria to watch the spectacle.

And hear it. The noise is tremendous. It’s like a physical object, with a distinct composition that can be turned over in the mind and considered. At the core, the centre of the noise, are the bells. From the “scouts” who have come back to report excitedly on the approaching procession, he knows that there are bells hanging all around the moving temple that holds the coffin, hung down from a garland set into an encircling perimeter of huge gold rings. There are also bells on the mules; four poles of them, and each pole harnessing four teams, and each team consisting of four mules. Sixty-four animals, each with two bells hanging down from its golden crown. So much for the bells; and then, clustered around the pealing like a cloud of insects, are the voices of the mourners. Teams of them from every nation, women with strong voices who know the old chants and can walk as long and tirelessly as any army.

Women– and priests. Yes, there must be priests there too.

And as Hannibal and his regiment sit waiting, as they look towards the source of the noise, it comes into view. The first thing visible is the standard: a purple banner wrapped around with an enormous golden olive wreath of so many leaves that it catches the sun in every direction at once and seems to become a sort of miniature sun. It would be enough to track the entire procession with, even if the rest of it weren’t equally visible; an entire Ionic temple of gold, goat-stag heads projecting in all directions, a figurine of Victory with her trophy on each corner. And of course in the middle of it all, protected by nets on the sides of the chamber but open to be visible to onlookers, the coffin.

Ptolemy had written, early on in the plot, that it had taken six days for anyone to even bother getting embalmers in, such had been the chaos. Well, things have changed a bit. There has never been a funeral bier like this.

He calls over the nearest translators. Ptolemy had done well to hire a Carthaginian to contract mercenaries for the first action of his new, cosmopolitan Egypt; the famously patchwork Carthaginian army, made up of more races and languages than any other in the world, had taught him the danger of leaving factions unable to communicate with each other. Hannibal is determined not to repeat any of his city’s more disastrous communications breakdowns. Each unit has a double-pay man bilingual at least in Greek and the local language of his men, and specialist translators with yet more combinations are tasked with riding around with wax tablets hung about their necks advertising which tongues they speak. “Get them in line. This isn’t a victory-party,” Hannibal says to the translators. “Not yet,” he adds, because he knows fighting men, and they like to hear such things.

They ride away to convey the message. Egyptians, Libyans, Nubians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Macedonians gradually quiet down. This is what they had come for, many of them volunteers and not mercenaries at all: to get the body, and bring it south, bring honour and glory to their land, and– for those who had been on the campaign– grasp one last glorious adventure.

There will be other adventures, after this, of course. There will be wars aplenty, for many years to come. But they will not, cannot be, glorious. The only leader who could make them so is in the coffin. What all the men here have in common is wanting to follow him, whether it is for the first time or for one last time. For some definition of following, anyway.

After what feels like several years of waiting– it always does– Ptolemy gives an arm-signal. Trumpets blast, the faces of the heralds going red with effort. This is not a moment for stealth. Stealth would be required if they were stealing a corpse. But they are not: they are receiving a funeral procession, on the command of both the god and the godlike king, and merely diverting it. It was an error, nothing more, that some misguided souls planned to send Alexander to Macedon, and used their temporary earthly power to try to do so. Ptolemy, and Hannibal, and their entire army, are here merely to correct the error.

They advance double-time, mostly because the infantry are excited and need to work off some energy if they’re going to be kept in hand once they arrive at the procession. This is not meant to be a pitched battle; Ptolemy has assured him that there are enough plants and sympathizers among the mourners that the handover should take place mostly peacefully. It’s the “mostly” that gets the men riled up.

Hannibal allows it, marching at the head of the foremost phalanx and feeling the excited press of men behind him. Ptolemy had offered him a horse command, in thanks for his recruiting work, but he’d refused. Ptolemy had been surprised, and nearly insisted, until Hannibal said, Did not Alexander win Chaeronea from the Sacred Band with a foot-command? So here he is, on foot. Tyre, and the sea beyond it, shines on their left. On their right, advancing steadily into their path, the bier shines even more brightly.

And then they come together, and all is confusion. Organized confusion, for they know their orders: the foot regiments part like water to entirely surround the procession, while the horse split to divert its course from the front and ensure compliance from the rear.

The regiments of mourners, however, panic at being suddenly surrounded by foreign soldiers. The Madeconian guardsmen accompanying the procession panic too, which used to be out of character for them; but things are different with Alexander in a gilded box than they had been with him in a plumed helmet.

There’s no organized defense, but with the procession entirely trapped, it has the potential to become something much worse; a rout where the fleeing side has nowhere to go. All of the defenders have dropped their spears to reach for their swords, each man thinking only of his own life. The bier grinds to a halt with a great clanging of bells. Wagons of accompanying goods crash into each other, people clambering over them and each other in search of safety or perhaps just a moment of peace. Pots filled with wine and grain crash to the ground and shatter. They’re good painted vessels, little pieces of battle-scenes visible on the shards littering the earth; but they work just as well to cut the feet and legs of anyone whose sandals rip.

But it wasn’t for nothing that Hannibal had spent so much time and money on translators. He was prepared for this, too. He gives a different hand-signal, and his units, made up of every type of man in the known world, begin a maneuver that none of them had ever trained or fought with before: speaking.

“We come in peace,” says every single foot-soldier, in Greek and then in Aramaic, to the man closest to him. The accents are, by and large, atrocious. More than one defending guard lets his weapon down just to lean in and shout “What?” at the opposing soldier trying to talk to him. But they’d all drilled for days, just one simple phrase in two common tongues, and Hannibal looks around, and it is enough. The defenders don’t exactly believe them, but they don’t have to. They just have to be unsure enough not to put up a fight.

The slow procession of the funeral begins to bend slightly to the left, heading towards the southern outskirts of Tyre where Prolemy plans to spend the night once control is established. It’s working. Everything is going to be okay, and Hannibal will have done as the god asked, and then–

–and then some joker, a Macedonian because of course it’s a Macedonian, shouts in a braying voice, “Yeah! You’re attacking in peace, like I fucked your mom to make her a virgin again!”

Just as suddenly as calm had descended, chaos breaks out. It’s ugly. Soldiers grab for their weapons again; mourning-women try to escape through the fray, being impaled by accident or just out of a surplus of rage. Even Hannibal’s phalanx is disorganized, though they’re able to keep the defenders trapped. But instead of a transfer, it’s going to be a massacre.

Well. It wasn’t what Ptolemy ordered. But now that it’s here, a massacre is fine by Hannibal. I forsee a great contest of my friends will be my funeral games, the King had said on his deathbed. He certainly wasn’t wrong. The formation having pretty much fallen apart, Hannibal orders his phalanx to follow their double-pay man and keep pressing in, then slowly fights his way through the fray to find the man who had shouted.

Just as he finds him and is about to engage him, all eyes turn as if compelled to the very top of the golden bier. It takes a moment for the image to resolve, for everyone to figure out what they’re even looking at; a figure clad in a leopard-skin is up there, holding tight to the rod of the purple pennant with one hand and holding the other up towards the sky. For a vanishing moment, everyone has the same thought; that it must be the dead King come back to life. It would be just like him, surely.

“People of the Pharaoh,” shouts the figure, “lay down your weapons, every one.”

The impression of Alexander returned dissipates immediately. The man on the bier has an Egyptian accent.

Also, Alexander had certainly never told anyone to lay down their weapons.

They do it anyway. Hannibal even does it– or almost does, until he sees the loudmouth open his mouth to shout something else. He inserts his sword into the mouth instead, and all the way down the man’s throat, until he discreetly gurgles his last. Then he lays his down, too.

Wel, from the top of the bier, glares at him.

Hannibal doesn’t listen to the rest of the speech. Something about prophecy, and piety, and omens. Priestly stuff. It goes down well. It goes down better when he announces the buyouts Ptolemy is offering for any men wishing to leave here and go home to Macedon, or Greece, or anywhere else in the world they wish. What Hannibal hears is only one thing: Wel is here. He is going to Egypt. They are going to Egypt together.

*

That night, he takes the body of the loudmouth Macedonian from where he had stashed it in a bush amidst the chaos and brings it to the entrance of the underworks of the bier.

The bier takes everything humanity has ever known about siege-engines, translated into the single-minded purpose of transporting a corpse with as much gold, jewels and sculptures as possible, over the roughest terrain possible. Rougher, in fact, than had been officially planned; Ptolemy has plants among the engineers, too, who had taken on the job of ensuring that it would survive not the officially planned trip to Macedon, but the true path over desert to Memphis. As soon as they’d parked the procession and its followers for the night outside of Tyre, Bacaxa, who had helped build it at Babylon and been travelling with it from the east, had insisted on showing him the suspension. Or at least, what can be viewed of the suspension; she had ingeniously covered the devices at the middle of the axles with cylinders in such a way that they were difficult to see, preventing anyone from asking exactly why it needed such heavy-duty shock absorption.

Which is why Hannibal knows his way around the maze that is the elaborate underside of the bier. He knows, too, that at this point customs are simply too confused, and people too tired, to care about anything but their own meal and sleep. Which is why nobody will question the body of the loudmouth, covered in glittering pottery shards and strung up at the entrance to the dark maze. It must be the honourable custom of some other tribe, everyone will think. Hannibal hangs the lampyrid-man at the entrance, and retreats into the shadows, and waits.

It is, in miniature, a little like the wait he had endured while recovering in Siwah. He knows that he is here for a reason, that something is going to happen. But it’s not happening now, and all he can do is watch the moments slip by until one of them, inevitably, is the one he’s waiting for.

And then, after all the ones that aren’t, there is one that is.

Someone has come into the gloom of the space underneath the funeral-chamber. Hannibal, standing behind a support-beam, doesn’t move. He can’t be sure; it would not do to be discovered lurking here, with the adorned body of a soldier, by anyone else.

The figure comes towards him, and he slips away. The other man stops.

“Hannibal?” says Wel.

Hannibal almost steps out immediately. He’s here. Wel is here.

He freezes. He wants to hear Wel say his name again, exactly like that, to erase like the torrential rain of India the imprint of every other tongue that has ever pronounced it.

“Hannibal,” says Wel again. Then, “I forgive you.”

Outside of Tyre, Spring 321

Wel sees the dead body, a soldier of no account dressed up in shards of glazed pottery and glass like a glittering bug, and calls on his god.

If I am not permitted to have this, to be this, then don’t let me enter, he begs Ammon-Re. Let me die where I stand, rather than walk away.

He knows what the creature is. It’s him, in a way; something that has grown from what it was. He’s not sure what he’s asking for. He belongs to the god; he is a seer. He’s not sure he could stop being that if he tried. But he is also what he’d felt standing on the bier, watching the carnage beneath him and feeling, briefly, nothing but power. He had the power to stop it, yes, but he’d also had the power to let it continue. To make it worse. To take it only for himself, greedily horde it and not pass it on to the god whose vessel of sacrifice he is supposed to be.

Is he asking to be released?

“Enter,” instructs the god, through Wel’s own mouth.

Wel does. He calls Hannibal’s name, and that makes it real: he can feel him here. Wel grasps the knife against his thigh, the weight of it against his palm familiar and almost soothing. The last time he had been alone with Ammon-Re and Hannibal, the god had demanded Hannibal as sacrifice. It was, in a way, the price for Wel. Hannibal had taken him from the god. There is, undeniably, a piece of Wel that is no longer his to offer up. But if there’s still retribution to be paid for that, Wel would rather cut it from his own stomach.

It wasn’t him, Wel prays desperately. He led me to it, he delighted in it, but it was me, just me, all along. I wanted it. I wanted to kill. I still want to. Not for you, but for myself. Forgive me, or kill me. He calls for Hannibal again, his voice sounding hollow to his own ears.

For a moment, everything is still.

“I forgive you,” says Wel’s god.

And then Hannibal is in front of him, and Wel falls into him– literally falls, the knife clattering to the ground. Hannibal’s hands are in his hair, where they always are. He cannot get away. Hannibal’s voice is at his ear, as it should be. “You dropped your forgiveness, Wel,” he says.

“Take it,” says Wel. “You can have it. Forgive me.”

Hannibal takes the knife.

Then he casts his own cloak on the bare ground, and lies Wel down on it. Wel goes, his back scraping against the coarse wool. He had left the leopardskin in his tent; he has been travelling with the retinue in full ceremonial garb, hot and sticky but necessary for the occasion. Without the fur, though, he is clad only in an embroidered linen skirt and plain leather sandals he replaces the jewel-encrusted ones with as soon as they set up camp each night.

Hannibal kneels above him with the knife, and Wel thinks that he should have worn the rest of his good clothing: he is going to die here. That he isn’t properly attired is the only concern that passes through his mind. The rest of him is at peace. It was always meant to be this way.

Hannibal cuts him, and for a moment Wel thinks he’s ripped through to cleave his breast in two; the slice starts just beneath his neck, trailing down his sternum over his belly, stopping at his navel. He can’t stop himself from whimpering, some animal part of him still terrified of the fountain of his own blood surely about to erupt from his flesh; but it doesn’t come. He looks down; the cut is shallow. Hannibal leans down and kisses him, his mouth hot and wet and tasting of meat and blood. “Wel,” he murmurs. “Be still, and let me.”

If he hadn’t said it, Wel might have been able to stay still; but at the instruction, let me, he can’t help himself. His cock twitches against Hannibal’s thigh and aches at the sparse contact, and his hands find Hannibal’s shoulders and pulls him down to rub against him. “I will,” he promises, even as he utterly fails to do just that.

Hannibal’s laugh is just a hint of one, barely a rumble in his chest before he pulls away far enough to get the knife in between them again. He leaves Wel his knee planted on the ground in between his legs, pressing in hard right where he wants it, and Wel is busy trying to push against it when Hannibal starts on his shoulders.

He cuts ribbons of blood into them, long shallow strokes going diagonally down Wel’s arms from shoulder to wrist. Halfway down Wel’s arm twitches away seemingly of its own accord, self-protective; it hurts, it feels like the cuts are going much deeper than they are in reality, but Hannibal just holds his hand to the ground and keeps going.

When he’s done both arms, he turns Wel’s right arm over, exposing the Ammon-Re cartouche tattooed on the inside of his wrist. He looks thoughtful.

The god had led him here. The god had given him to Hannibal. Wel is sullied, a killer, he will never speak truth again from the temple in Siwah. What will he care? “You can,” he says, in a voice that sounds drunk. “If you want. You can cut it off. Put your mark on me instead of his.”

Hannibal raises his wrist, gently, to his mouth. For an absurd moment Wel thinks he’s going to use his teeth instead of the knife, but instead he just presses his lips to it in a kiss. “I was offered a deal,” he says. “The body of Alexander in Egypt, in exchange for you. I have done my part. I am secure enough in my position that I would prefer to keep the reminder of the one who gave you to me.”

That was why. That was why Hannibal had stayed in Egypt, writing letters to Ptolemy, recruiting mercenaries, seemingly contented in his task. A tightness seizes Wel’s throat, and he turns his face away when tears gather at the corner of his eyes.

Hannibal grasps his chin lightly and pulls him back. “I thought…” says Wel. He can’t say the rest. It seems absurd, now, to have ever imagined that Hannibal was focused on anything but him.

“You thought I was hiding from you? Ignoring you? Truly?” As if in retaliation– no, definitely in retaliation for Wel’s lack of faith, he removes his thigh from where it had been pressing deliciously into Wel’s groin, shuffles back, and cuts the first slash into his leg. He works the same as he had for Wel’s arms, shallow diagonal cuts from pelvis to ankle, and each cut is like a band of fire. Wel bites his wrist against the pain, his own blood filling his mouth, the tears smearing underneath his eyes. For good measure, Hannibal does his feet; two stripes across each sole, holding his ankle firmly so he can’t twitch away. Walking will be nearly impossible for the next few days, and they’ve been walking from dawn to dusk and are surely going to try to cover even more ground as they approach Egypt.

It’s agony. It feels like forgiveness. Hannibal kisses the bottoms of his feet, licking over the cuts, and Wel can’t stop the sound he makes. Hush, he thinks deliriously to himself, and the voice in is head comes in Hannibal’s voice. The Pharaoh will hear, all the way from the underworld.

He’s surprised to find that he’s still hard, when Hannibal pulls away the bloodied fabric of Wel’s skirt and shucks off his own battle-stained chiton. He ignores Wel’s cock entirely and instead wipes a hand up his thigh, gathering as much blood as he can in his palm, and presses the warm wetness to his entrance. It’s quite a bit of blood; it drips down between his cheeks, surely staining Hannibal’s cloak in a great pool where it had been touched before only by droplets running down his limbs. It’s slippery enough that Hannibal’s fingers go in easily, rubbing at him in a way he hasn’t felt since–

“I missed this,” Wel says. “Missed the way this feels– I missed you. I didn’t–”

“You could have touched yourself like this,” Hannibal points out, but the poise the arch question demands is absent. His voice shakes with emotion, his eyes wide and mouth slack. He looks animal.

Wel shakes his head. He couldn’t have, because then Hannibal wouldn’t have been the last person to touch him.

Hannibal smears more blood over his own cock, mesmerizing. Meat. It’s just meat, like anything else. Wel stares at it until he can’t any more because Hannibal is pushing in, not quite slick enough, inexorable, painful and glorious.

“There,” Wel breathes when he’s in. He pulls him down again and this time Hannibal goes, his arms and chest becoming slick with blood. All of the cuts seem to pull and shift as they move together, tearing further and oozing more blood, making them slicker.

The sea of blood, it turns out, was never outside of him. It was never something external to overwhelm and drown him. It was inside, a wave made of nothing but Wel himself, all along.

He shoves himself against Hannibal’s belly with as much force as he can from the ground, and everything builds, the pain, the pleasure, the knowledge that it’s over and it is something bigger than the two of them and it being over is, maybe, the end of the world, but somehow they alone are going to be rewarded. His orgasm is a long, drawn-out thing, a wave that drowns him and holds him under, and Hannibal fucks him through it and then beyond it. When he spills into Wel’s body, it is only reciprocal; he is covered in Wel’s blood and seed. He owes his own, and Hannibal has already given blood aplenty.

They lie underneath the still, gold-encrusted body of the Pharaoh, and Wel wonders if they might be the only two happy people in the entire world at that moment.

Happy, despite the fact that he is not sure he has ever hurt more in his life, even in the moments before a vision. That was a pain that he knew came from outside him, it was divine; this is just his body, base animal that it is, and it hurts.

Hannibal pushes himself up on an elbow, and looks down at him. He looks more fascinated than either pleased or regretful. Then he smiles and says, “A wound dipped in the salt water of the sea will not fester.” He kneels, and gathers the cloak under Wel’s body, and picks him up.

Wel just clings to his neck. “Oh, hell,” he mumbles.

There is nobody about in the darkness of the camp, the only fires burning late on the far-off outskirts. The factions are now intermingled in a way that would make public celebrations awkward; Hannibal’s Egyptians and mercenaries mostly went off to drink in the city, or in the countryside where they won’t be seen. It means that nobody notices them, nude and covered with blood, as Hannibal carries him to the sea.

The sea is, for all that Wel knows that it’s about to bring him an amount of pain that he frankly feels too tired to deal with right now, beautiful. The moon shines off of the still surface of the water in the small inlet that Hannibal carries him to, and to the right the bridge of land that the army had built eleven years ago to capture the city is still there; a little wider from silt deposits and the occasional pile of rocks where someone decided to make it wide enough for several carts abreast.

Hannibal stands at the edge of the water. The solemnity he had felt under the bier has evaporated and now Wel is just tired, and in pain, and overwhelmingly happy to be tired and in pain in Hannibal’s arms. He is comfortable. It’s a new feeling.

“Do I have to?” he tries half-heartedly.

Hannibal kisses him chastely on the forehead and walks into the water. The salt sears every cut on his body, and Wel actually dips his face underneath the surface just to scream as soon as they’re in deep enough, and then he has salt in his mouth too, and emerges spluttering to Hannibal’s fond laugh.

He’s still in Hannibal’s arms, a light burden but held nonetheless. He tightens his grip around Hannibal’s neck, and holds on until the sting starts to ebb, and then they are just holding each other and being held by the sea.

“Wel,” says Hannibal.

“Mmm?”

Wel can feel Hannibal’s throat move, something monumental about to be said, but he knows before Hannibal says it that it’s going to be fine. It’s a comfortable prophecy. He likes it. He closes his eyes and lays his head against Hannibal’s chest to listen to the words come straight from their source in his body.

“Come back to Carthage with me. Marry my daughter, Mismalka, who desires women and also to raise children, and our blood will be mingled forever.”

Wel blinks his eyes open, and stares out to sea. He can see it, living in a city where all is foreign to him but Hannibal, the wife he thought he’d never have a friend to him and a mother to children with Hannibal’s eyes– and, surely, Hannibal’s tastes and abilities.

“I saw you today,” he says slowly. “You may have been a hoplite by trade, but you’re a general in your heart. Your descendants will be great generals. I see things too clearly. It’s not good for me; I can kill, but I would never survive in battle. Are you sure you want your childrens’ children to inherit my kind of crazy?”

Hannibal turns them around, the cloak still underneath Wel trailing through the water like a pennant. The bier shines even in the moonlight, impossible not to look at. Impossible not to remember who’s inside. Wel raises his head, and looks.

“I think,” says Hannibal, “there will never again be a great general who isn’t some kind of crazy.”

Wel subsides back against Hannibal’s chest. “You’re right,” he says softly. “I accept.”

Hannibal kisses him, and Wel is at peace, and they head towards the shore.

Epilogue: Propontis, 182 BC

Hannibal Barca to Scipio “Africanus,”

Be well, though I know you are not. Or if you were, surely you will not be for long. I heard of your defence of me before your former colleagues in the Senate in Rome: that I ought to have been allowed to live on the grounds that I am a tame and harmless old bird who cannot fly without his tail feathers. Very magnanimous. Very unflattering. Very much like what you would say if you didn’t believe for a moment the news of my death, and were looking forward to hearing my reaction.

So I must congratulate you again, Scipio, on your insight. Yes, I was in Bithynia, where I had been well-received. But nothing lasts forever; I’d always known my hosts would give me up to the Romans. I was prepared. Μέν with friends such as those, one hardly needs enemies; δέ with enemies such as yourself, I feel my cup of friendship refilled.

That both of our native cities rewarded our heroism and service with baseless accusations of treachery is hardly surprising, and yet I must tell you that however expected, I feel just as betrayed by Rome’s ill-treatment of you as you do on my own behalf towards Carthage. I told you, at our meeting at Zama Regia, that two of my ancestors travelled with Alexander; but at the time, I allowed you to assume that it meant Greek blood in my veins. The fiction was useful when we both vied for the title of successor of Heracles in Italy, but now you will know the truth. My great-great grandfather was an Egyptian, his father-in-law a Carthaginian warrior who gave his daughter in friendship: just as Alexander insisted that he and Hephaestion marry sisters, so that their blood would never be parted in the veins of their descendants. Though the gods chose not to fulfill Alexander’s hopes, they smiled on those of the ancestor whose name I bear.

And so, in friendship, are customs and blood mixed across races: the Phoenician and Egyptian of my ancestors, the Macedonian and Persian that Alexander desired to unite– and I hope, now that we have been equally cast out by our people, that we may set aside our Punic and Roman loyalties and find friendship together. The Propontis is beautiful to look out over, Scipio, when you have a house on the water. There is no glory to be found here, but if you have had your fill of glory as I have, I believe we could find plenty to fill our days with.

Ever yours,

Hannibal

Notes

Don’t believe everything you read in a fanfiction, kids. That said, if some things in this fanfiction can be believed, they come from the following places:

– Arrian of Nicomedia’s Anabasis of Alexander was the most important resource for the basic chronology of this story. In particular, the Landmark edition, with its maps, marginalia on dates, footnotes, and appendices, was so crucial that when I had to give it back to the library I ended up buying my own copy rather than settle for a different edition.

– The basic events of the latter part of the story are taken from Diodorus Siculus.

– Plutarch’s Life of Alexander provided most of the “funner” stories, including Wel’s first scene with Alexander.

– Herodotus, inevitably, was the source for most of the background information on Egyptian and Persian customs as well as physical descriptions of some locations and general, um, Herodotosity.

– Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed was invaluable for its through history of Hannibal’s homeland, including a careful and unsensational treatment of human sacrifice in the ancient world.

– Waldemar Heckel’s Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great, essentially a dictionary which provides a biography and list of attestations in ancient sources for any person who had even tangential contact with Alexander, was extremely useful for filling in details on background characters.

– Donald W. Engel’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army provided a realistic and actually pretty riveting extrapolation of how food, water and transportation must have worked based on the ancient sources and the terrain, which was useful for descriptions over everyday goings-on. It also, with its description of the Gedrosian desert march as a “logistical tour de force,” single-handedly convinced me to write a version of it instead of skipping over it with a “well, that was unpleasant” summary.

– The Stanford ORBIS Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, while set too late for my time period, was nontheless helpful in constructing estimates of travel timing.

– Richard Tomback’s dissertation A Comparative Semitic Lexicon of the Phoenician and Punic Languages was the source– though of course all errors and bits of dumbassery are mine– for Hannibal’s “Il Mostro” name.

– A.B. Bosworth’s Errors in Arrian helped straighten out some questions about the cast of minor characters present for this story.

– Plato’s Symposium is the main (indirect) source on the ideology of the Theban Sacred Band.

– The cannibal hymn: https://www.sofiatopia.org/maat/cannibal.htm

– I am indebted to personal correspondence with editors at worldhistory.org, who shall remain nameless on the grounds they likely didn’t intend to have their names attached to some weirdo’s NBC Hannibal fanfiction, for context on Bacaxa’s mothers background.

– Finally, special thanks to Aristophanes, for always being there when I needed a reminder that you can absolutely use the word “fuck” (and more) in the ancient world, and Mary Renault and Gore Vidal for the ~vibes~ and making this seem like a reasonable thing to write in the first place.

If you want more, there is technically, kind of, a sequel; with the caveat that it is not a planned-out story like this was, it basically happened because some friends were doing a 500 word ficlet-a-day challenge and I wanted to join in, but I was in the middle of writing this and didn’t want to leave the universe. So I would consider it more a collection of suggestions and daydreams about things that could happen next, but not always “canon-compliant” (when you write the sequel before the real-quel, you get inconsistencies between the texts– did you know?)

Thank you so much to everyone who gave this a chance and made it this far, I love you <3