EMPIRE OF ASHES A NOVEL OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT

ADVISORY: The following passage contains mature themes, and is not intended for children.

Prologue

Olympias 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 rest—hopeless!"
     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 breath—all 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 time—and 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," he said.
     "Shall I take it off?" she asked, rising.
     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 side—and 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 campaign—an 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 the couch.
     "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 asked him.
     "Expertly, expertly."
     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 around him.
     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 have business."
     "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 to me?"
     She used her fingers to smear the rest of him with her paint. "So squeamish! See—I've made a statue of your best feature…"
     "Chamberlain! Pheredeipnos! Fetch water!" he cried.
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 entered—but 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 told him.
     "Perhaps we might shave a little off the pay…" 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.

copyright©2004 Nicholas Nicastro

ISBN 0451213661

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ISBN 0451213661

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