(to Reginald Shepherd; to Kirk K Hall)
Michael was a scribe in the great library; son of a Greek father and an Egyptian mother, a free man but not a citizen, he had no fortune. Day after day, he sat at a carrel and transcribed the texts of fading scrolls onto leaves of fragrant new papyrus, which would, when he was finished, be glued together into a single strip and rolled around the wooden or ivory spindle of the book he had just copied, now discarded, of no use save as tinder for a poor clerk's cooking fire. He had copied thus, in his fine secretarial hand, horrifying dramas by Aeschylus and Euripides; vulgar comedies of Aristophanes and comedies less lewd and less funny by Menander; Socrates' dialogues with Plato, and the works of other philosophers; lyric verse by poets too numerous to recall their names; the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides and Xenophon of Athens. All around him, at other carrels, his fellow scribes, free men and slaves, did their own work. They wrote in Greek, Attic and the Koine; in Latin, Persian, Syriac, Aramaic; one old man with a shaven head copied out the antique characters with which the builders of the Sphinx and the Pyramids had inscribed their chronicles. In the library were scrolls of woven silk from lands no-one alive had ever visited where, it was said, the men were of yellow complexion and had slanted eyes like a cat's. These scrolls had never needed copying; in any case they were curiosities only. No scholar or scribe in the library could interpret the fluid script, which appeared to have been written with brush rather than pen.
In the evening, when Michael left the library and the compound of the Serapis temple to which it was attached, he would pass a small shrine to Mother Isis. Michael's own mother had been convert to a small, heretical Jewish sect, recently arrived from Palestine, his father a devotee of Zeus-Ammon in His aspect as the Divine Alexander. Many were the times, Michael recalled, his father had taken him to the tomb of the god in the center of the city, where the sere, whispery voices of eunuch priests combined with the whisper of their linen gowns in a rustle like sand blowing across the desert. In the huge rock-crystal sarcophagus lay the incorrupt body of Ammon's son and heir and avatar. His limbs were bound in linen bandages but His head, propped on a marble pillow, was exposed in all its horrifying beauty. Golden ram's horns were scarcely distinguishable from the golden glory of His hair. Before the portico of the tomb stood an immense sculpture of Alexander as a youth, astride Bucephalus; in this representation the god lacked horns, appearing to be no more than a lovely boy waving a sword with childish, martial enthusiasm. Michael's father had been a foot-soldier in the Roman governor's standing guard.
Michael's mother had given him a name from the scriptures of her faith and she, too, had taken her son to her devotions, in the small, dim temple of the Apostles. Here was no splendor of gold, marble, or crystal, for it was a poor, unpopular sect whose prophets and priests, moreover, forbade the making of images. How did you worship a deity whose face you could not know, Michael wondered now. At the conclusion of the ceremony, each congregant was given to eat a scrap of their dead god's mummified flesh and to drink a swallow of His still fluid blood. Michael's father scoffed at these rites, saying one ought offer to the gods one's own body and the fruits of one's labor, not accept a god's offering. Too, if the sect were ever to expand, the supply of blood and mummia would soon be exhausted. The household had often been unhappy. Until his early death, Michael's father called his son Nikias, a good Greek name.
But now Michael's parents both were dead, embalmed and buried with full ceremony, and their son, neither martial nor mystic, gave his small devotions to Mother Isis. At the portal to the shrine, he shifted his bundle of old papyri to extract a copper from his purse. This purchased a tiny sheaf of dried wheat and barley stalks bound with crimson linen thread. Within, he presented the grain to the image of the goddess, stern and beautiful, suckling the hawk-headed infant Horus at Her breast, but he offered no prayer nor made any petition. Michael's was a small, close-bound life into which the imposition of a deity could only bring disorder.
Michael lived in what the Romans called an island, a tenement of mean apartments. In Rome, he understood, these islands were built of wood and often burned down. But Italy was a fertile land, overgrown with forests; here on the edge of the great desert lumber was too valuable and Michael's building was of good brick. Nevertheless, it stood on a narrow alley inland from the harbor and equally distant from the lake, far from broad avenues and grand edifices. Nor was it a Greek quarter -- Michael's neighbors were Syrians, Jews, Cypriots, native Egyptians, his landlord a Sicilian who claimed Syracusan ancestry but whose Greek was barbarous. At the door, Michael nodded to the old crone whom the tenants paid to watch for strangers, and then he climbed to his apartment on the fourth floor.
A dark shadow at the unshuttered window, Hephaestion turned to greet him. "I snared a pigeon today," the slave said, "here at the window." He took one step, tall and lithe, but with the second step became a cripple once more, lurching sadly to the left. "Meat for our supper. Welcome home, master. What did you bring me to read?"
Michael turned away, away from the sight of Hephaestion's halt, painful progress. When Hephaestion went out to the market he used a stick, but at home disdained it. "I've asked you not to call me master," Michael muttered, unhappy.
After Michael's mother succumbed to the wasting sickness that no amount of her dead god's flesh or blood could cure, after Michael had the body embalmed, the funerary portrait painted, the coffin laid to rest, he found in her belongings a jar full of coins. They were coins from nearly every realm in the empire, most copper, some silver, a few gold. He understood that this fund had been hoarded up to hire a matchmaker, but Michael wanted no wife. He had looked around the dingy, shabby apartment and could not imagine bringing a wife home to it; no woman he could wish to marry would consent to wed a poor scribe. He hid the jar of money away. He tried to forget its existence.
"But you are my master," Hephaestion said.
Michael had not intended to purchase a slave. A slave could do nothing for him that a wife couldn't, or that he couldn't do for himself. He prepared his own simple meals, swept out the corners of his room. A good house slave would be more costly than a wife.
"The master of my body," said Hephaestion.
The next figure chivvied out onto the yellow sands of the circus was black, a Nubian, slight and tall and limber. He was naked, armed only with a short sword and a small weighted net. The crowd shouted its approval, and the whites of the black youth's eyes showed as he stared wildly around the arena and into the circling seats above. He couldn't be more than seventeen or eighteen. His eyes seemed for an instant to catch Michael's, in the stands, and Michael caught his breath. The sands of the arena were already stained in patches, and the lion was not satisfied, for every time it caught its prey a gang of armed men whipped it away and dragged the corpse from the circus. The lion coughed, circling; the crowd roared.
"The master of my soul," Hephaestion said.
When Michael finally found the place deep in the labyrinth below the stadium, the Nubian's leg had been bandaged and he lay on the stone floor of a filthy cell. In bad Latin, the games-master explained that the slave would be tended for a week or two, until it were sure the wound would heal or no. If it appeared he might fight again, he would be well cared for -- he had killed the lion, after all. If not, if as seemed likely he would not walk again, why, he might be sold -- you didn't need sound legs to pull a galley's oars. And then, in his cell, delirious, the wounded Nubian slave called out, "Master," in clear Greek. "Friend."
"But you are the master of my heart," said Michael. "I am your slave."
"What, O abject one," asked Hephaestion, "did you bring me to read?"
Michael shook his head. "Book Six of Achilles Tatius."
"Leucippe and Cleitophon? Oh, splendid. You know I was enjoying that one." Smiling broadly, his teeth forming a sharp white gash in the indistinct dark face, Hephaestion raised his hand to stroke Michael's cheek. "Do you recall the discussion on shipboard, in Book Two I think, whether boys or women are better to love?"
Michael let his lips graze Hephaestion's palm. "I've told you, Hephaestion, I don't pay attention to the text when I'm copying. I'd make mistakes."
"My master? Make mistakes?"
Pushing the fragile scrolls into Hephaestion's arms, Michael moved away. "Besides, these fabulous histories, these romances -- Chariton, Achilles Tatius, Heliodorus -- they're not literature." He went to the window, where his only view was of the windows of the island across the alley. "Aristotle would have condemned them, if anyone had dared to write such trash in Aristotle's time."
"Aristotle," said Hephaestion, across the room, "was a dried-up old olive of a philosopher, all the oil rendered out and long ago rancid. I enjoy them, Michael, that's what they're for."
"You enjoy them?"
This was a new argument. Besides his precise, legible hand and the ability to read itself, Michael's education was self-acquired, snatched in fragments during early days in the library when he worked far more slowly than now, during apprenticeship when the librarians encouraged him to learn what he could. If he was familiar with prosody, if he recognized the essentials of a good style, they said, he would be less likely to make careless errors in copying. He had studied thus Demosthenes the Orator and Aristotle, parsed lines or whole poems of Hesiod and Sappho, and yet he often feared that, having no tutor to answer his questions, he had misunderstood; that his response to a certain work was suspect. Enjoy a piece of writing? Euripides had terrified him, episodes of the Argonautica thrilled him, the Philippics shamed him for his father's Macedonian ancestry and devotion to Alexander. If he were properly educated, might he have enjoyed the texts as well?
Michael had thought he was succoring a beautiful savage from the lands above the cataracts, a youth taken as hunters trap a lion, who might have learned a few words of a civilized tongue from his captors during the long journey downriver. But when he returned to the circus with the full sum and sat down by the feverish slave in his cell, spoke to him, Michael had learned quite otherwise. Hephaestion was the only name the youth had ever borne, Greek the language of his upbringing. His mother, true, was a Nubian slave, the boy born a slave and never manumitted, but the father had reared him as though he were the equal of the legitimate son. "My mother died," Hephaestion whispered through dry, cracked lips. "I believe his wife poisoned her. My father died. My elder brother inherited me. His mother made Cassander sell me." Michael wiped his brow with a damp cloth and helped him sip a mouthful of water with a little wine. "Cassander," murmured the youth, his voice hoarse with tenderness. "My poor, dear brother."
A prosperous member of the governor's suite, Hephaestion's father had not stinted in educating his sons. Hephaestion might have found a new master by virtue of his knowledge of the classics, his command of rhetoric and prosody, or his beauty, but he was sold only for his strong arm and black skin. "A bad return on investment for the family," Hephaestion said later, amused.
Now his lame foot dragged across the floor as he approached. "Michael?"
"Enjoy them?" Michael repeated.
Hephaestion placed a hand on his shoulder. "Of course. Didn't you enjoy the Odyssey?"
"I have never read Homer," Michael said with all the dignity he could summon up, "only copied him." Nevertheless, he turned into Hephaestion's arms.
"My dear master is tired and hungry. Let me serve your supper, Michael. A fine little stewed pigeon."
But Michael wouldn't let go. It shamed him to understand that his mastery consisted solely in being born free. Their fathers' positions could not be compared. True, Michael's skin was more fair, his hair straight, but black Nubians had ruled Egypt for a time, long before the coming of the Romans or Alexander, or even Cambyses the Persian, and neither was Michael pure-blood Hellene. And it horrified him to understand that, had Hephaestion's father died only a few years earlier, his beloved would likely have been gelded. That he should be lamed, solely, seemed very nearly a bargain. Caressing Hephaestion's shoulders and back, and then lower, feeling the fine flesh through the fine linen of his kilt, Michael asked, "And which proved better, in the argument, women or boys?"
"Indecisive." Hephaestion's voice came rich with amusement. "The arguments for boys seemed to me more conclusive, but Cleitophon loves Leucippe and they're the heroes of the tale, so he's said to win."
"For myself, I prefer neither boys nor women," muttered Michael, "but a man."
In the library the next morning, Michael was assigned to copy the final books of Achilles Tatius's history of Leucippe and Cleitophon. Michael was pleased, on Hephaestion's account -- it seldom happened that he worked on the same text more than one day running. At first he attempted to take in the story, but found that he became not only slow and clumsy in his transcription but bewildered by the narrative. In classical drama you were presented a story you already knew, characters whether divine or mortal familiar since childhood, so that you could pick up the script at any point and know where you were. And events, horrific as they might be, were reported -- recounted in sublime, balanced verse: it wasn't as though you were present for the murders and kidnaps and attacks by pirates. The pictures called up in your mind were composed, static.
Achilles Tatius told a new story -- as did Heliodorus, Michael supposed, or Chariton -- concerning people no more divine nor especially heroic than Michael himself, helpless in the grip of fate and the author's intentions; and though in the Argonautica, too, the reader was thrust willy-nilly into the thick of the action, you had there the mediation of verse and your certain knowledge of the outcome. Too, Achilles Tatius's prose was not Attic but demotic -- breathless, so it seemed to Michael, rapid, enthusiastic. Michael blinked and shook his head, and closed his mind to the sense of the words, allowing only their shapes, the forms of the letters, to move him, to move his right hand and the pen it held across the papyrus.
Now he found himself able to work properly, with good speed and the accuracy for which the librarians praised him. The words flowed through him as water from Father Nile flowed down an irrigation ditch, purposeful and sure, bringing its fertility to the desert-colored papyrus and raising a crop as straight and healthy as any farmer's furrowed field of barley. That the harvest would be gathered in by others, scholars or priests or, perhaps, a happy reader like Hephaestion, was inconsequential to Michael's own needs and his pride: he would be paid for his labor.
By evening, Michael's fingers and forearm were sore. He delivered the newly copied leaves to the proctor of scribes, to be taken to the department of the library where they would be pasted together in their sequence and made into a book. He gathered together the old scrolls -- tinder for his fire, he would say if anyone asked -- and went home. This time he did not pause at the Isis shrine, for he was hungry and tired.
At the entrance to the copyists' room in the library there was a sculpture that had been centuries ancient when Alexander and his engineers traced out the streets of the city on the ground between harbor and lake; ancient when Cambyses slaughtered the Serapis bull in Memphis and declared the doctrines of Zoroaster in precincts sacred to gods Who had been old when the Persians were yet barbarian mountain tribes. The old shaven-headed scribe who copied the holy writings of the Pharaohs had once told Michael that the statue had been brought downriver from antique Karnak and represented a secretary in the court of Amenophis; he traced out the characters of the figure's name, but Michael couldn't get his tongue around the harsh syllables of that language.
Sometimes, when Michael reached his room, he found Hephaestion sitting by the window or, if the light was already gone, under the tall lampstand. With his bad leg, Hephaestion could hardly assume the posture of the ancient stone scribe, cross-legged, but he sat upright in the chair, his back straight, the left leg with its healed but hideous scar extended. He balanced a flat board across his knees. Most often, he would be reading, the furled ends of a scroll held apart with one hand as the index finger of the other traced the lines of text. He murmured the words under his breath, and might be so immersed that he didn't notice Michael's entrance. Michael walked quietly, in any case, barefoot -- his father the soldier had done his best to rear Michael with a soldier's discipline and to a soldier's hardiness.
Michael would close the door silently, but the click of the latch alerted Hephaestion and the slave looked up, smiling. His noble features were distinct from those of the granite secretary, who more resembled Michael himself, although Hephaestion's shoulders were as broad, the sculpting of his torso as robust and clear, dark as carved basalt. He wore no linen head cloth, but his nappy hair was cropped so close that in the dusk it appeared his scalp was shaved, like a true-blood Egyptian's, until you saw that no polished gleam lay across it. Soon after bringing Hephaestion home, Michael had noticed the tiny punctures in the lobes of his small ears. His father, Hephaestion said, had hung baubles from the holes to ornament his exotic, favored son; and Michael had taken the last few coins from his mother's hoard to an Athenian jeweller, purchased a pair of tiny golden bees as delicate and lifelike as if Hephaestion's namesake Himself, the god, had crafted them for His faithless wife. You expected the bees to take flight, buzzing, and then to crawl in search of nectar into the furled flowers of Hephaestion's ears. He always removed them when he left the apartment, then donned them again before Michael's return.
Hephaestion's head was turned toward the window. A clear beam of late sunlight falling over the cornice of the building across the alley poured through the window of the apartment, slicing the dusk like the blade of a knife, illuminating the board he held on his lap. One golden bee glinted; then, when Hephaestion turned his head to regard the papyrus, a little shadow engulfed the bauble. His right hand lifted into the burnishing light, dipped the reed pen into a tiny pot balanced on the corner of the board, and he wrote another few words.
Most often Hephaestion would be reading from the store of old scrolls Michael had brought him -- this was the first occasion Michael had caught him in the act of writing. Not that he was unaware Hephaestion sometimes wrote. There might be ink stains, indelible, on the lovely, defenseless pale skin of the palm and the under-sides of long fingers. He had asked Michael to pilfer a supply of pens and of ink from the library stores. Once, having provided a meager meal of stewed lentils and greens, with cheap, sour beer rather than wine, he confessed to having spent a larger portion than anticipated of the household money on papyrus. "For a moment," he said, his expression between doleful and amused, "only for a moment, I thought of pawning one of my bees." He shook his head. "I could never do that, dear master."
Caught between what he wished to say and what he felt he could say, Michael had reached to clasp Hephaestion's hand. "You'd be arrested on suspicion of theft. Flogged, at best."
"At best," Hephaestion agreed; and the next day Michael spoke to the elderly former scribe who watched over the stores at the library. Of course Michael had stolen neither pens nor ink, but purchased them from this person at a discount. Now he bought a supply of new papyrus leaves as well, and asked Hephaestion to tell him when he wanted more. But he did not ask why Hephaestion needed it.
For another moment, Michael did not close the door behind him, only stared across the room. "Hephaestion?"
Startled, the slave flinched and looked up. On the corner of the board across his legs, the little pot of ink wobbled, then overbalanced. An instant later, it made a tiny crash, hitting the floor. Without noticing the intervening steps, Michael found himself crouched at Hephaestion's side, lifting the board from his lap. "Oh! It's spoiled!" he cried, desolate, seeing the new black stain on the white linen of Hephaestion's kilt, darker than the color of his skin where it showed through the weave.
"Not to worry, Michael," Hephaestion murmured, comforting, placing a warm palm over Michael's ear. "I have it all in my head."
"I meant -- " Michael glanced down to where he had placed the board on the floor, unthinking, and saw the stream of ink across the leaf of papyrus, already spreading, blotting, painting a thick black stain across the lines of cramped characters and over the blank, unwritten portion. "I'm sorry, Hephaestion."
"Not to worry. My own fault, in any case. What was I thinking? I knew you would be home soon." Hephaestion's other hand added its urging to the first, pressing Michael's head down against a warm, firm, linen-covered thigh. His fingers tangled in Michael's hair. "I hadn't even begun to prepare your supper, Michael."
Michael smelled the sharp odor of spilled ink, felt damp in the fibers that scratched his cheek, knew his own paler skin was being stained as well, where the stain would show, didn't care. "But your manuscript," he muttered; "your kilt."
Stretching his crippled leg out farther, Hephaestion bent to press his lips against the crown of Michael's head. "Who's to care if a slave's garment is stained?"
"I am!" Struggling out of Hephaestion's grasp, Michael sat back on his heels. "I care. And I care that I caused you to spoil your work."
Two of Hephaestion's fingers brushed Michael's cheek where it had rested a moment before on Hephaestion's thigh. "Now it looks like a bruise, as though I had struck you. My work? Michael, my work is to care for you."
Long ago, one night when they lay together on Michael's thin pallet, wrapped in blankets and each other's arms against the damp chill of the Delta winter, Michael had whispered that he wished to manumit his slave. "Dearest master," Hephaestion replied, "you should only be throwing money to the magistrates, the way the audience threw coins to me when I killed the lion. And who collected that money?"
Rising to his feet, Michael grasped both of Hephaestion's hands, pulled him upright. "I shall wash your kilt," he said, unwrapping the fabric from Hephaestion's hips, "and I will wear it myself. You shall have mine, Hephaestion." Holding the bundled linen in his hand, he stepped back. "It's to be expected a scribe's clothing bear ink stains." He looked away from the noble, naked black figure, silhouetted against the open window. "I'll prepare supper as well."
"And what shall I do, master?" Hephaestion did not move, as if understanding that motion, the lurching motion of a cripple, would wreck the illusion.
"Slave?" Bringing his hands together, Michael lifted the stained kilt as if to inhale the scent of Hephaestion's sweat, but all he smelled was the ink. He rubbed at his cheek with the cloth and turned away. "In my absence, you will repair the damage done by your stupid clumsiness."
Turning away, Michael went to the door. "To the manuscript. Once you can be forgiven spoiling your papyrus. Once."
As he passed under the lintel, he paused at the sound of his name.
"Michael. It was not your coin that bought me."
Bending to the fountain in the atrium of his island, Michael did not care to consider what any witness might think, seeing a free man perform labor fit only for slave or woman; nor when he went himself down the alley to the shop at the corner to purchase a flask of sharp, new Syrian wine, two small loaves of unleavened bread, and a dish of stew, barley, vegetables, goat. The proprietor of the shop looked at him oddly as she gathered his order -- he had folded the wet linen over his shoulder; although he had scrubbed his face, the stain doubtless still showed; she knew Michael owned a slave. Nevertheless, she made no untoward remark. No-one was to understand just what Hephaestion meant to Michael.
When he returned to his apartment, he found that Hephaestion had lit the charcoal brazier in the corner. Obedient, he had also lit the lamp on the tall stand and sat under it, straight-backed, the board once again across his knees, writing -- or was it copying? Michael had walked heavily, this time, not to startle him. On Michael's entrance, Hephaestion looked up, smiled fondly, but spoke no word before resuming his task. No more did Michael, as he set out their meal and mixed the wine half and half with water. Once all was ready, Michael said, "Will you come eat now, master?"
Rising, he helped Hephaestion set aside the board -- the ink pot corked, the pen laid on the window sill -- and moved the lamp stand over by the table. He owned a single, narrow, battered dining couch. Reclining, nude, both legs outstretched so you wouldn't know one did not bend, Hephaestion appeared regal rather than patrician. The golden bees glittered, lamplit, and lamplight gleamed on his dark, polished skin. Michael moved the plate of bread, the stew, the wine cup closer for him, then perched himself on the end of the couch, near Hephaestion's feet.
Hephaestion set the wine cup down, mock-clumsy, so that a few drops spilled from the rim to the surface of the table, puddling like ink, and said, mock-stern, "You aren't going to ask what I was writing, are you?"
"You never asked what I brought you to read this evening, Hephaestion."
"Oh? Something good?"
"The final books of Leucippe and Cleitophon." Happy, Michael watched the delight appear on Hephaestion's face.
"That is fine, Michael. Thank you. I did so wish to find out how it ends." Grinning, Hephaestion scooped up a mouthful of stew with a bit of bread. Chewing, he went on, "Achilles Tatius is a demon for ingenuity. He ends each book with one or the other, Cleitophon or Leucippe, in such straits that you can't imagine their ever escaping. And then, in the next book, they do -- only to face worse trials. He's nearly as clever as Heliodorus -- in the Aethiopica, you know, the hero sees his heroine killed three times! Once her head's cut off, another time she's disembowelled; I don't remember the third but it must have been just as nasty. And each time it's a trick, with an entirely rational and plausible explanation."
"I tried to read a little today," Michael admitted, "while I was copying."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"It was confusing."
"Oh -- of course. You were beginning three quarters of the way through. Of course it was confusing."
"And -- " Michael lifted his own wine cup, held it to hide a smile. "And, as I predicted, I made mistakes."
"Michael?" Serious now, Hephaestion reached for another scrap of bread, then held it as if he couldn't imagine what it was. "You spend all of every day bent over an old book, deciphering some dead scribe's hen scratches, copying them. How could you be expected to enjoy reading? It's your work. I certainly don't get much pleasure out of sweeping this room." He smiled again; humorous, he tossed the bread at Michael's head. "Or trying to get ink stains out of your linen. Must you wipe your inky hands on your thighs?"
Michael plucked up the bread from his lap and ate it. "At least I've never spilled a whole pot of ink on myself."
"Never. I'm good at what I do."
"I know that you must be." Swinging his lamed leg wide, off the couch, Hephaestion sat up. Reaching out, he placed both hands on Michael's shoulders. "You are my dear master, my beloved, Michael, and, I am sure, the finest scribe in all the Serapeion."
"Oh!" Helpless, Michael grinned. "Only of the Greek scribes, I suppose." Bending his head, he rested his cheek for a moment against the back of Hephaestion's hand. "We should finish our supper, Hephaestion."
A little later, replete, he seemed to have worked out what Hephaestion had suggested. He sipped at a second cup of wine. Hephaestion had mixed it, using less water than Michael might. "Do you think that's it, Hephaestion? That reading is too much like work, and that's why I don't . . . enjoy it?"
Speculative, Hephaestion regarded him. "You said yourself that you don't really read the text you copy. You like stories, don't you?"
Still, it didn't ring quite true. Michael could scarcely imagine the parched scholars who came to the library gaining real pleasure of their researches. A book was useful for the information it contained. Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Ptolemy the Geographer, Strabo. Scholars didn't come to the library in search of stories, did they? And yet, the library contained the fabulous romances of Achilles Tatius, Chariton, Heliodorus as well, and Michael was paid to copy them so that they would never be forgotten. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides -- what were their plays but stories? Stories everyone knew, but stories nonetheless. The Iliad and the Odyssey, for that matter. He knew a scribe, a former slave, who had earned the price of his freedom by setting himself up in the market every evening after his duties at the library. Michael had always supposed he earned his coppers by transcribing letters for the illiterate. But perhaps, after all, he took old papyri from the library and recopied them, sold the new books to affluent men who read for pleasure.
Standing up, Michael gathered together the empty dishes. "I'll wash these. Did you complete the task I set you, Hephaestion? Shall I put the lamp back for you?" Without waiting for a reply, he carried the lampstand to its place beside the chair. Spread out on the board on the floor were two leaves of papyrus, the one with its stain, the other no more than writing. Unlike Michael's own secretarial hand, Hephaestion's was cramped and cursive, difficult to read -- a scholar's hand, the writing of someone more concerned with words than letters, whose goal was to set the words down as much as to have them read. It would be a chore to copy from that hand.
Returning to the table, he picked up the dishes. On the couch, Hephaestion gazed at him, calm, fond. "My mother used to tell me stories," Michael muttered. "Stories of her god, that the priest had told her. And my father told me stories about Alexander."
"And which did you prefer, master? The fabulous adventures of Alexander, I'd wager."
Not bothering to reply -- for Hephaestion was correct, was sure to know it -- Michael took the dishes and went downstairs. He didn't hurry, because the stairs were dark, and it occurred to him, not for the first time, that the four flights of steep, worn stairs must be horribly difficult for Hephaestion, yet the slave never complained. Not out of fear of an irascible master, nor gratitude for Michael's rescuing him from the arena and, probably, the galleys. Michael had offered him his freedom and been refused. If Hephaestion's father had had the selling of him, he would have gone to a patrician's or a scholar's household, not a poor scribe's; if his father had freed him, whether or not also legitimating him, Hephaestion might have become a scholar himself.
And yet, what could Michael offer him, more than his love and old manuscripts from the library? He could not move to a suburban villa without stairs, or even to the lowest floor of the island. He couldn't purchase another, able-bodied slave, to perform those tasks that were difficult for crippled Hephaestion. And he knew that Hephaestion was allowing Michael to coddle him this evening, would not thank him for doing so regularly or often.
The dishes washed, dripping through his fingers, Michael climbed the stairs again. Opening the door of his room, he saw Hephaestion seated once again in the chair under the lamp, board across his knees. But Hephaestion was not writing. "I've finished," he said.
"Finished copying the spoiled page? Good." Michael stacked the clean dishes on the shelf above the brazier. "Would you like more wine before bed? I think there's a little left."
"Finished, Michael. Completed."
Michael had no proper mixing bowl, so must use the wine cups themselves. He divided the last of the wine between the two, dipped out a ladle of cool water for each, swirled the cups until the two liquids were mixed. The cups were good enough, not the fragile blown glass or artfully painted ceramic Hephaestion must have drunk from as a child, in his father's house, but good enough. Holding one in each hand, Michael brought them across the room. He set his own on the floor by Hephaestion's chair, the other on the board, next to the sheaf of papyri on which Hephaestion's hand lay, possessive and beautiful.
"Hephaestion," Michael said slowly, before he sat down, "beloved, I think that I will never read Achilles Tatius. As you said, I can't separate a book from the labor of copying it." He rested his palm for an instant on the crown of Hephaestion's head, then, when Hephaestion moved under his touch, drew the fingers down over the small, furled ear, the jaw. "But I do enjoy stories. Would you tell me the story of Leucippe and Cleitophon?"
"A fabulous history, such as Aristotle would disapprove?"
"The less Aristotle would like it," Michael said, grateful for Hephaestion's smile, "the better."
Hephaestion's own hand rose, drew Michael's against his mouth, so that Michael felt the warm, humid breath on his palm. "He never really approved of Alexander, you know, after he'd freed the Greek cities in Asia and went on to Egypt and Persia."
"All the better."
Hephaestion's lips kissed Michael's palm. "A fabulous history, with brigands and pirates, shipwrecks and desperate escapes, lovers separated and finally reunited?"
"All of that." Drawing away, reluctant yet happy, Michael settled himself comfortably on the floor and lifted his wine cup. Expectant, he gazed up at Hephaestion's lovely face. "And not to forget that shipboard debate."
"On the virtues of boys versus those of women?" Hephaestion asked with a sly grin.
Michael nodded, and sipped his wine.
"But you're forgetting, Michael, I haven't finished Achilles Tatius yet, you only brought me the last books today."
"Oh! I had forgotten." Disappointed, Michael regarded his own reflection in the wine cup. "But you've read all of Heliodorus. Do you remember it, Hephaestion? Can you tell me that story?"
Hephaestion set down his cup, spread his hands out on the board. "Michael, it would take weeks."
"We have weeks, don't we? We have all the time in the world. And by the time you've told me Heliodorus, you'll have read Achilles Tatius. And after that Chariton. Please, Hephaestion, tell me the story."
Silent a moment, searching his memory, perhaps, his eyes wide, unseeing, Hephaestion considered. At length, he said, "Michael, I should like to be comfortable. Could you take away this board? It makes my leg ache to hold it so. And then I'll tell you a story."
After setting the board aside, Michael sat again, at Hephaestion's direction, between his legs, his arm and his cheek resting against the unhurt knee. Gentle, affectionate fingers toyed with his hair, caressed his shoulders, as Hephaestion spoke. "I'll tell you a story, Michael, but not Heliodorus or Chariton or Achilles Tatius. This is the story of two young men who lived not long ago, who loved each other dearly and well, and of the wonderful, terrible adventures that befell them."
Entering the library in the morning, Michael greeted his fellow scribes, those who had arrived before him, and went to the proctor to receive the text assigned to him today. He was given three sharp, new reed pens and a supply of fresh papyri. Seating himself at his carrel, he uncorked his ink pot. Today's text was a comedy of Menander, Dyskolos -- The Misanthrope.
Michael glanced around the long, bright copyists' room. The other scribes were busy, bent at their own desks, the endless scratching of their pens a dusty, whispery sound like a breeze on the sands of the desert. Even the proctor himself at his high lectern at the far end of the hall was preoccupied. Michael arranged his pens, the ink pot, the blank papyrus to his liking, then stole another searching glance down the hall.
Setting aside the Menander scroll, unopened, he placed a different text on the inclined surface of the desk, angled so that he could move his gaze from it to the copy without discomfort. Puzzling out the cramped scholar's scrawl of the original, he wrote Book One in his fair, secretarial hand at the head of a blank sheet and, smiling, began to transcribe a new volume for the great library's incomparable collection, where anyone, anyone at all, anyone who wished, could read the story.
NAME IS HEPHAESTION SON OF CREON OF EGYPTIAN ALEXANDRIA
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