The following passage contains mature themes, and is not intended for
examined the face in her bronze mirror. "Such dull features,"
she thought, frowning at her saffron-tinted reflection, believing she
saw in it the trial of every Epirote winter suffered by her forebears.
She narrowed her examination to her eyes, tracing a flicker of interest
in them as they regarded themselves. "Yes, those are fine,"
she said. "But the resthopeless!"
Before her, laid out like military assets
on a battlefield, were the tools of a despised but lucrative trade: depilatories,
astringents, demulcents, emoliants, pomades, perfumes, balms. Next to
a jar filled with a Syrian unguent of beef fat, thyme and seagull droppings,
she had a flask of Corinthian warming ointment made from sesame oil and
turpentine. There was an Egyptian face powder that smelled of oleander
and milled so fine it flowed like liquid between her fingers; though its
color was perfectly white, it rouged her cheek when she applied it. She
also tried a curious device invented by a Syracusan that, with a single
click, cut all the hairs of the eyebrow to a uniform length.
These were in addition to the usual natron
powder, foundation of metallic mercury, kohl for the eyes, chervil for
the breathall the attributes of an expensive courtesan. No respectable
woman, installed in domestic glory within her walls, would need to create
a seductively wan complexion by daubing her skin with lead, or fake a
blush with ochre pencils. Such freedom was the gift of ignorance.
And so that afternoon, Olympias, consort
of the King of Macedonia, daughter of the royal house of Epirus, initiate
advanced grade in the holy mysteries of Demeter, the Kabeiroi and the
Great Mother, painted herself like a cheap flute-girl.
This wasn't necessary in past years. From
the moment of their first meeting Philip had shown himself vulnerable
to her attraction. They had encountered each other on Samothrace, confronting
the celebrated Mysteries, but Olympias presented herself to him as a very
solvable enigma. When they first married he would interrupt his endless
campaigns and sieges to steal nights with her. An heir was anticipated
at any timeand yet, strangely, had not come.
This delay she first attributed to her tendency
to climax early, often several times before her partner could lumber up
his own (and relatively brief) contribution. Her pleasure may have acted
to drive off the male humors necessary to the process of conception, her
doctors told her. So she held herself back.
Yet something still seemed to go awry, something
that impinged or intruded upon the process. Too often the king left her
bed at the earliest courteous instance, lips moving silently, a slash
of annoyance across his face. "Too much muttering, not enough mothering,"
she said as she mixed the kohl with its little spoon. The result was a
maddeningly empty cradle.
Philip came to her just as she finished
her preparations. There was a faint look of irritation on his face, the
kind he wore when state business pulled him away from dice games and drinking
parties. He hardly looked at her until she turned to him, her face glazed
dazzling white like a funeral jar, her cheeks like puddles of dried blood.
"You look like a streetwalker,"
"Shall I take it off?" she asked,
Not quite by accident, her gown fell open.
The look of gray distraction finally left Philip's face as he eyed what
he saw there.
"No, I suppose not."
When he touched her, it was always the same,
like a traveler always taking the identical route through a half-understood
country. His first move was to denude her left
shoulder and seize the breast. He did so. She kept her eyes on him, shifting
her weight precisely in time with the force of his attentions.
Philip never had trouble spearing generals
and envoys with his eyes. When he was was alone with Olympias, though,
he could never hold her gaze. She was never so shy, searching his full,
square, deceptively kind face, taking the measure of him. This inevitably
distracted him, until she found herself turned around. He was pushing
her down from behind.
"The back is still your best sideand
most affordable, I would think."
"Three obols a go, if that's all you've
got," she replied, tight-lipped.
He yanked up her gown, regarding the cleaved
haunch as it swelled down from her hips and rounded off at that swale
of lubricious womanhood. A mound of true sweetness, he thought, though
with that cloying softness of her sex, that quicksand prospect of letting
him sink slickly away until he could go no farther. But this was like
sleeping on a too-soft pillow after weeks on campaignan adjustment
he was just too impatient to make. So he took the other road.
She started at this, turning to face him.
Camp-style buggery was not the object of her afternoon's work.
"But if you prefer, we might have a
special price on the 'racehorse'..." she said, coaxing him back onto
"Now here is something," he thought,
as she settled in jockey position athwart him. The gown had been disposed
of, and she was looking down at him through tumbling flutes of sweet-smelling
hair, breasts standing forward and free, that same vaguely appraising
look on her face. The latter annoyed him, but not much in that soft vise.
She turned away as she commenced to rock, not in passion but to avoid
his breath, which stank of sprats and whatever wine painted his throat.
"Don't I bounce lightly?" she
It began pleasantly enough. The kind of
friction between them, though, was rarely the right kind, and soon both
became frustrated. She could easily have come and dared not. He wanted
to have done with it but couldn't. The position was unique, yet impractical
for him, since he needed to use his hips.
At last he half-rose from the cushions,
bucking into her from below until he finished. Olympias grasped him with
her thighs like a real rider, her body first hardening and then pouring
herself out around him. Then she lay to his side, one leg still slung
Monarchy's duty done, the king planted a
preemptory kiss on the top of her head and moved to slip away. He was
restrained by her rigid, cocked leg.
"Let me go," he said. "I
"Tossing dice no doubt."
"The worth of my pursuits is not for
you to judge. Let me up."
"And what about this business?"
He opened his mouth to reply, but was distracted
by the peculiar sight of her rubbing her cheek against the royal tool.
Pulling back, she revealed a coat of white lead transferred from her face
to the bulb. She was smiling with childish delight at this. Her cheek
now covered with a pink impasto of ochre, metal, and spunk.
"Damn you woman, what are you doing
She used her fingers to smear the rest of
him with her paint. "So squeamish! SeeI've made a statue of
your best feature
"Chamberlain! Pheredeipnos! Fetch water!"
She propped herself up on an elbow, like a drinker at a party. "O
Philip, why do you have such contempt for me?"
The chamberlain opened the door and enteredbut
was frozen in his tracks by Olympias' withering stare. Then he retreated.
She turned back to Philip. "You are
too proud, sir. Your serpent is pretty, but so is mine
He felt her root beneath his head and pull
something from under the pillow. She was now dangling a long, colorful
object in front of his face. Looking closely, he met the beaded eyes of
a small snake.
"Sisyphus, salute your king,"
she addressed the snake.
Sisyphus opened his mouth, revealing a blue
interior and a pair of needle-thin fangs.
Philip shot to his feet, dumping Olympias
on the floor. "By the gods, you should live in a cage! I should send
you back to that tree in Dodona you fell from!"
"My love, wait
" she laughed.
"He's harmless, just a little baby
He slammed the bedroom door behind him.
An hour later, Philip was slouching beside
his general Parmenion on a drinking couch. The room was small and deliberately
hard to find, adjoining the back of the portico that overlooked the flats
of the king's burgeoning capital. Now deep in his cups, Philip was imagining
what it would take to fill Pella's lagoon with his very own navy.
"The Athenian contractors pay a talent
and a half for each vessel, not counting pay and supplies," Parmenion
"Perhaps we might shave a little off
" The prospect of cheap, boundless military capability
made Philip's eyes shine like an impatient bridegroom's.
"Dangerous. The Athenians have motivated
men at the oars, even citizens
Parmenion broke off. Lowering his cup, Philip
saw why: Olympias had found them.
His wife was standing there clearly and
unabashedly naked. She had done nothing to clean herself after their labors,
her eyes caked with mineral black, her cheek still smeared with the royal
seed. Philip glanced at Parmenion the officer's eyes were prudently
lowered, but a smile played on his lips.
Philip could think of nothing to say, until
he finally sighed, "Woman, you are an affliction."
Olympias was looking up and away from them,
her arms raised.
"Rejoice, O Macedon!" she cried.
The king opened his mouth to call the chamberlain,
but the words died in his throat. Small objects were cascading down from
between Olympias's thighs. They were hard, round. Each was propelled from
her in force, bouncing and rolling on the tiles.
"I am an oak! I have conceived in Zeus!"
Stunned, Philip could only watch as the
shining, growing heap of acorns collected at the feet of his Queen.
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