MAY, 323 BCE

ALEXANDER OF MACEDONIA HAD DECIDED YESTERDAY TO KILL the man himself. Usually he delegated such tasks, but not today. His father had taught him many things that served him well, but one lesson above all he'd never forgotten.

Executions were for the living.

Six hundred of his finest guardsmen stood assembled. Fearless men who, in battle after battle, had surged head-on into opposing ranks or dutifully protected his vulnerable flank. Thanks to them the indestructible Macedonian phalanx had conquered Asia. But there'd be no fighting today. None of the men carried weapons or wore armor. Instead, though weary, they'd gathered in light dress, caps on their heads, eyes focused.

Alexander, too, studied the scene through unusually tired eyes.

He was leader of Macedonia and Greece, Lord of Asia, Ruler of Persia. Some called him king of the world. Others a god. One of his generals once said that he was the only philosopher ever seen in arms.

But he was also human.

And his beloved Hephaestion lay dead.

The man had been everything to him-confidant, cavalry commander, Grand Vizier, lover. Aristotle had taught him as a child that a friend was a second self, and that had been Hephaestion. He recalled with amusement how his friend had once been mistaken for him. The error caused a general embarrassment, but Alexander had only smiled and noted that the confusion over Hephaestion was unimportant for he, too, was Alexander.

He dismounted his horse. The day was bright and warm. Spring rains from yesterday had passed. An omen? Perhaps.

Twelve years he'd swept east, conquering Asia Minor, Persia, Egypt, and parts of India. His goal now was to advance south and claim Arabia, then west to North Africa, Sicily, and Iberia. Already ships and troops were being amassed. The march would soon begin, but first he had to settle the matter of Hephaestion's untimely death.

He trod across the soft earth, fresh mud sucking at his sandals.

Small in stature, brisk in speech and walk, his fair-skinned, stocky body bore witness to countless wounds. From his Albanian mother he'd inherited a straight nose, a brief chin, and a mouth that could not help but reveal emotion. Like his troops, he was clean shaven, his blond hair unkempt, his eyes-one blue-gray, the other brown-always wary. He prided himself on his patience, but of late he'd found his anger increasingly hard to check. He'd come to enjoy being feared.

"Physician," he said in a low voice, as he approached. "It is said that prophets are best who make the truest guess."

The man did not reply. At least he knew his place.

"From Euripides. A play I much enjoy. But more is expected from a prophet than that, would you not say?"

He doubted Glaucias would reply. The man was wild-eyed with terror.

And he should be scared. Yesterday, during the rain, horses had bent the trunks of two tall palms close to the ground. There they'd been roped, the two lashings intertwined into a single binding, then fastened to another stout palm. Now the physician was tied in the center of the V formed by the trees, each arm secured to a rope, and Alexander held a sword.

"It was your duty to make the truest guess," he said through clenched teeth, his eyes tearing. "Why could you not save him?"

The man's jaw clattered uncontrollably. "I tried."

"How? You did not give him the draught."

Glaucias' head shook in terror. "There was an accident a few days before. Most of the supply spilled. I sent an emissary for more, but he'd not arrived by the time...of the final illness."

"Were you not told to always have plenty available?"

"I did, my king. There was an accident." He started to sob.

Alexander ignored the display. "We both agreed that we did not want it to be like the last time."

He knew the physician recalled, from two years past, when Alexander and Hephaestion had both suffered fever. Then, too, the supply had run low, but more had been obtained and the draught relieved them both.

Fear dripped from Glaucias' forehead. Terrified eyes pleaded for mercy. But all Alexander could see was his lover's dead glare. As children, they'd both been students of Aristotle-Alexander the son of a king, Hephaestion the heir of a warrior. They'd bonded thanks to a shared appreciation of Homer and the Iliad. Hephaestion had been Patroclus to Alexander's Achilles. Spoiled, spiteful, overbearing, and not all that bright, Hephaestion had still been a wonder. Now he was gone.

"Why did you allow him to die?"

No one but Glaucias could hear him. He'd ordered his troops only close enough to watch. Most of the original Greek warriors who'd crossed with him into Asia were either dead or retired. Persian recruits, conscripted into fighting after he'd conquered their world, now made up the bulk of his force. Good men, every one of them.

"You're my physician," he said in a whisper. "My life is in your hands. The lives of all those I hold dear are in your hands. Yet you failed me." Self-control succumbed to grief and he fought the urge to again weep. "With an accident."

He laid the sword flat across the taut ropes.

"Please, my king. I beg you. It was not my fault. I do not deserve this."

He stared at the man. "Not your fault?" His grief immediately evolved into anger. "How could you say such a thing?" He raised the sword. "It was your duty to help."

"My king. You need me. I am the only one, besides yourself, who knows of the liquid. If it is needed and you are incapable, how would you receive it?" The man was talking fast. Trying whatever might work.

"Others can be taught."

"But it requires skill. Knowledge."

"Your skill was useless for Hephaestion. He did not benefit from your great knowledge." The words formed, but he found them hard to speak. Finally, he summoned his courage and said, more to himself than his victim, "He died."

The time last fall at Ecbatana was to be one of great spectacle-a festival in honor of Dionysius with athletics, music, and three thousand actors and artists, newly arrived from Greece, to entertain the troops. The drinking and merriment should have continued for weeks, but the revelry ended when Hephaestion fell sick.

"I told him not to eat," Glaucias said. "But he ignored me. He ate fowl and drank wine. I told him not to."

"And where were you?" He did not wait for an answer. "At the theater. Watching a performance. While my Hephaestion lay dying."

But Alexander had been in the stadium viewing a race and that guilt amplified his anger.

"The fever, my king. You know its force. It comes quickly and overpowers. No food. You cannot have food. We knew that from last time. Refraining would have provided the time needed for the draught to arrive."

"You should have been there," he screamed, and he saw that his troops heard him. He calmed and said in a near whisper, "The draught should have been available."

He noticed a restlessness among his men. He needed to regain control. What had Aristotle said? A king speaks only through deeds. Which was why he'd broken with tradition and ordered Hephaestion's body embalmed. Following more of Homer's prose, as Achilles had done for his fallen Patroclus, he'd commanded the manes and tails of all horses to be severed. He forbade the playing of any musical instrument and sent emissaries to the oracle of Ammon for guidance on how best to remember his beloved. Then, to alleviate his grief, he fell upon the Cossaeans and put the entire nation to the sword-his offering to the evaporating shade of his beloved Hephaestion.

Anger had ruled him.

And still did.

He swung the sword through the air and stopped it close to Glaucias' bearded face. "The fever has again taken me," he whispered.

"Then, my king, you will need me. I can help."

"As you helped Hephaestion?"

He could still see, from three days ago, Hephaestion's funeral pyre. Five stories high, a furlong square at its base, decorated with gilded eagles, ships' prows, lions, bulls, and centaurs. Envoys had come from throughout the Mediterranean world to watch it burn.

And all because of this man's incompetence.

He whirled the sword behind the physician. "I won't require your help."

"No. Please," Glaucias screamed.

Alexander sawed the tight strands of rope with the sharp blade. Each stroke seemed to purge his rage. He plunged the edge into the bundle. Strands released with pops, like bones breaking. One more blow and the sword bit through the remaining restraints. The two palms, freed from their hold, rushed skyward, one left, the other right, Glaucias tied in between.

The man shrieked as his body momentarily stopped the trees' retreat, then his arms ripped from their sockets and his chest exploded in a cascade of crimson.

Palm branches rattled like falling water, and the trunks groaned from their journey back upright.

Glaucias' body thudded to the wet earth, his arms and part of his chest dangling in the branches. Quiet returned as the trees again stood straight. No soldier uttered a sound.

Alexander faced his men and shrieked, "Alalalalai."

His men repeated the Macedonian war chant, their cries rumbling across the damp plain and echoing off the fortifications of Babylon. People watching from atop the city walls screamed back. He waited until the sound quieted, then called out, "Never forget him."

He knew they would wonder if he meant Hephaestion or the hapless soul who'd just paid the price of disappointing his king.

But it did not matter.

Not anymore.

He planted the sword into the wet earth and retreated to his horse. What he'd said to the physician was true. The fever was once again upon him.

And he welcomed it.

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