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"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Thais of Athens preview - Chapter VII: Hesiona's awakening

Despite the recent horrific strikes of fate, Thais' health, beauty and energetic nature keep her from being idly mournful for long. As Alexander's army approaches Memphis, Thais gets to re-unite with an old friend and spend some time observing construction of the new capitol - Alexandria.

Against the advice of men experienced in politics, Alexander rejected the underhanded tricks of his father and always acted straightforwardly, kept his word, and fulfilled his promises to a letter. His ability to make lightning-fast decisions surpassed even that of Themistocles. He never gave up on his goals and acted with such confidence in successful outcome that his captains considered it divine foresight. During the first large battle at Granic the senior officers could still reproach him for carelessness. But after the giant battle at Issus, when Alexander and thirty-five thousand Macedonians and Thessalian horsemen decimated hundreds of thousands of Darius's soldiers with minimal casualties, his associates started treating Alexander with reverent fear. The old simplicity, even familiarity in their attitude was replaced by worship. Alexander's habit of suddenly throwing himself into the most dangerous spots in the battle made him akin to Achilles, whom he counted among his ancestors. He fought with the same rage: in a short period of time he received two serious wounds – one to the hip and another one in the shoulder, from which he recovered inhumanly fast.

“He must be surrounded by the greatest beauties of Ionia, Syria and Egypt?” - Thais asked.

Nearchus burst out in a kindly laughter.
“You'd be surprised! Imagine that, Alexander doesn't have anyone, unless you count some plain-looking widow he took into his tent after his senior officers advised him not to inspire gossip among his soldiers and take a lover... Tens of thousands of young women have been sold into slavery – he could have had his pick. During the battle of Issus he took in all of Darius's possessions, as well as his family, including his mother, wife and two daughters. Darius's wife Stateira was considered the first beauty of Asia, and the princesses are beautiful as well.”
“And he didn't take her?”

“No. And wouldn't let anyone else have them, telling everyone that the women were to be his hostages.”

Thais picked up a handful of Karian almonds from a clay platter – a common Helenian treat, which she missed greatly in Egypt.

“Then, he doesn't like women at all?” - she asked.

“I wouldn't say so. When Ptolemy hinted that the ladies of the Persian royal family were beautiful, Alexander answered almost with anguish, 'Yes – and it is a torture to my eyes!' No, he senses feminine beauty keenly and reveres it!”

“Then why does he avoid women?”

“I think, Alexander is not an ordinary man. He is indifferent to food and drink. I have seen him disgusted by the gluttony of his comrades, who wanted to have a feast after each victory. He is not greedy, even though there isn't a person in Hellas who ever possessed such treasures. His favorite occupation is to read at night and spend his days consulting with the crypti – the people who survey the way ahead – and talking with the philosophers.”

“What of the widow?”

“She doesn't love Alexander and is afraid of him, hiding in the back section of the tent, like a mouse.”

It was Thais’ turn to laugh.

“How well do you understand him, close friend? Or are there others, even closer? Ptolemy? Hephaestion?”

“Most likely. Hephaestion - exactly because he is Alexander’s complete opposite. Ptolemy always stands for himself, although Alexander highly values his cleverness and ability to make decisions quickly. I know the sea, but he is distant from it. We, his closest friends, have become more distant from him lately. Alexander’s decisions are difficult to foresee, and his actions are frequently inexplicable.”

“For example?”

“Sometimes Alexander acts like a wise ruler, merciful toward those he conquered, respectful of the others’ traditions and temples, filled with good intentions toward the citizens of the taken cities. And sometimes he is akin to a wild, untamed barbarian. He destroys cities to their very foundations and sets off bloody massacres. Macedonians have demonstrated at Thebes, what they were capable of.”


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“There are ruins further down. See: that looks like a column!”

“I want to see that,” – Thais said, “Water is not cold, despite winter time. …Unlike in Hellas…”

“The locals wouldn’t be caught dead swimming this time of year!” – Nearchus said with a chuckle, and grew suddenly glum.

Thais realized that he remembered Egesikhora. She gently patted his arm.

“I’ll go for a dive,” – and she ran toward the sea.

Hesiona dashed after her, but were both passed by Nearchus.

“In that case, I am going first. A-e-o…” – he yelled, clearing his lungs, the way sea sponge divers did.

Shedding his clothes, the Cretan dove, followed by Thais and, much to her surprise, Hesiona, who ended up closely by. Thais knew that the Theban was a decent swimmer but never considered her capable of more. Concerned, she signed to Hesiona to go back to the surface, but the girl shook her head stubbornly and went even deeper, into the dusky shadow, where Nearchus was already beckoning them. A large image of an octopus with fanciful curves of his tentacles was clearly visible in a ray of light on a flat surface of a very large stone slab. A fallen column had a wide top and narrowed toward the bottom after a Cretan fashion. They didn’t have enough breath to examine it. Thais went up. Hesiona suddenly fell behind. Movements of her arms slowed down. Nearchus dashed to her aid, shoving the Theban up and catching her at the surface just in time. As she recovered, Hesiona lowered her eyes guiltily and no longer tried competing with swimmers like Nearchus and Thais. Those two kept diving until they became cold. Climbing out to a dry slab warmed by the sun, Thais was surprised for the second time. Hesiona didn’t rush to get dressed but was taking her time to dry her hair, not heeding Nearchus who jumped and walked on his arms to get warm, glancing at his companions discreetly, as was appropriate for a polite hymnophile.

Thais’ deep tan that used to scandalize Athenian fashionistas, grew paler in Egypt, her coppery skin became lighter. Hesiona, barely gilded by the sun, looked charming even next to the famous hetaera. Her legs, which were as strong as Thais’, could have looked too muscular, had they not been so beautifully outlined. Her hair became fluffed by the wind and surrounded her head in a thick mane, seemingly too heavy for the delicate maidenly neck. Hesiona really did tip her head to the side. Deep shadows hid her large eyes and gave the girl’s face an expression of tired sadness. She rested one hand on a prominent curve of her hip and used the other to brush the sand off her body with slow smooth movements. A brief sigh of a shore wind tossed Hesiona’s hair over her forehead and she started with chill and lifted her head. Suddenly embarrassed, she covered herself with her hair and ran away under the questionable protection of the tall clumps of dry grass.

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