Naheshi stood on the platform of a temple at twilight—whether at daybreak or sunset, he could not say. It was a temple such as he had known in his childhood—a ziggurat, a man-made mountain where the goddess might be pleased to dwell on earth—but taller than any building he had ever seen before. Far below him, a bird floated lazily past. Even below that was a market square filled with tiny worshipers, their remote, doll-like faces raised to the platform in expectation. Over his head was only the sky. An unearthly, luminous golden-rose around the horizon shifted to green then to indigo at the height of the heavens. The gods were above that sky, and their ears were bent toward him.
He stood poised for a minute, as if to catch the note struck by an invisible string. He could see himself from the outside—a skinny eight-year-old boy—and yet he was inside himself as well. A note was making its way up his throat, swelling: a sunrise, a life that was more than his own, the song of the gods themselves, the song that created the heavens and the earth. And then the moment came, and he opened his mouth, and the music poured out like that made by the stars as they passed: a celestial, throbbing, melancholy arc of song that was at the same time supremely joyous. His lungs swelled and his throat pulsed with the physicality of the music, but the sound seemed not to be his own but, rather, descended from above and wrapped around him like an embrace. The voice was not a mere child’s but held within it all the sorrow of conquered peoples, fallen cities, and abandoned altars. Nonetheless, it was a song of joy. Tears starred his lashes, yet his heart was bursting with unbearable ecstasy.
The dream faded, and Naheshi’s eyelids fluttered reluctantly open.
His mouth was pasty and his face slick with sweat. He slitted his eyes against the glare from the outside. The bumping of the wagon had lulled him to sleep. Under the tented cover, held up into a long half cylinder by wooden hoops, the air was breathlessly hot, but there was a beautiful golden light sifting through the linen canvas. The maids were drowsing, too, their pretty heads lolling. No stream of girlish chatter broke the quiet.
Naheshi grasped in vain at the fleeting shreds of music that echoed in his ears as the dream faded. He could not quite reach it, could not quite make that melody come back to life in his waking mind. Ever since he had left home, which had to have been thirty years before—Dear gods, can I really be thirty-eight years old?—the dream had haunted him, unutterably sweet in its promise yet somehow bitter, because he always awoke before it finished. It left him feeling as if he were on the edge of something wonderful and important, a deep and marvelous revelation that would make him truly happy, as he had not ever been. He would willingly have plunged into this dream and never returned… which was far from true for most of his dreams, troubling as they were. The priests said the gods sometimes sent dreams to instruct men. He didn’t know, after all these years, whether kindly gods or cruel had sent this one. The disappointment of its abrupt ending made waking life almost physically painful.
Naheshi consoled himself with a dried date slipped from the small bag in his purse. As he chewed and savored the syrupy fruit, he ran over lists in his mind. He had double-checked everything. Nothing was missing, no one left behind. No one hurt, no fights, no illnesses. The one exception was his manservant, Pilsiya, who had disappeared—run away, no doubt, or killed in a brawl in the port. He’d been a decent servant, but though Naheshi was embarrassed to admit it, he hadn’t liked the fellow very well. Pilsiya had been silent and efficient, keeping the apartment and his master’s clothes immaculate. He had produced excellent meals. He’d been, in short, irreproachable… except that everything he did had seemed sauced with a sort of veiled insolence. Naheshi still smarted from the aggrieved sigh Pilsiya had heaved the night before his disappearance, when Naheshi—the master—had dared to ask his servant’s opinion on something quite harmless.
Well, good riddance. The feeling that he constantly had to impress his slave had been tiring. On the other hand, he had to fend for himself until he could find a replacement. As the queen’s chamberlain, he could hardly be expected to take his linen down to the washerwomen and do his own shopping forever. Even if he was a slave, he had a certain amount of dignity to maintain. His pauper’s style of living did not reflect well on the queen.
The court of King Ammishtamru of Ugarit had spent only a few weeks at the coast this year. Ammishtamru was expected to make the long biennial journey to Hattusha to pay his respects to the Great King, whose vassal he was, and he had to be back before the fall rains started. So there they were, in the stifling weather of late spring, a great multicolored procession of wagons and chariots and men and horses, reversing their usual seasonal itinerary. They streamed up the road from the summer palace at Appu, heading northeast back to the city of Ugarit itself. A seagull patrolling the skies along the shore would have seen them shaken out along the dusty white road like a bolt of the finest brightly dyed wool.
Perhaps the queen would go back to the summer palace later if the king’s other women chose not to. She didn’t like to share the coastal residence any more than she liked to share the king. That would mean a lot of extra work for Naheshi, who was not a bit fond of the sea in any case. He preferred the hot city to the airy summer palace within hearing distance of the surf. In fact, it would be a relief to get back to his snug apartment and his tablets. But the choice was his lady’s. It was his greatest pleasure to make himself useful to her.
He must have drifted off to sleep again, because he woke suddenly to the clatter of galloping hooves. One of the mounted couriers who kept watch alongside the royal caravan had pulled up his frothing horse beside the wagon.
“Chamberlain, the queen wants to see you.”
“Tell her I’m coming.” A sparkle of anxiety raised the hairs on Naheshi's neck. Had he forgotten something? Was the queen displeased?
The soldier galloped away.
“Stop for a moment, driver,” Naheshi called through the open front flap of the tent. The man hauled back on the reins, and the long-suffering mules slowed to a halt. Naheshi stumbled up to the driver’s bench, groped for a spoke of the wheel with his foot, then slid awkwardly over the edge of the wagon and jumped to the earth with a thud. He heard the crack of the man’s whip almost before he’d teetered to a balance, and the wagon rumbled forward again, catching up with the rest of the caravan.
Naheshi hurried through the dust toward the front of the line, avoiding the rumps of pungently sweating animals. At its head were the chariots of King Ammishtamru and his older sons, moving at the slow pace of the foot soldiers who surrounded them. Behind them followed the queen’s mule-drawn litter—a long cushioned palanquin of gilded cedarwood, its carrying poles tipped with stylized lilies, its sides veiled with gauzy Egyptian linen. The little bronze bells suspended from the bottom tinkled to the rhythm of the ambling animals. Directly behind came the litter of the king’s second wife, Lady Pizidku, and her daughters, followed by that of Prince Ibi-ranu’s wife and, finally, the litter bearing the royal concubines. A small face peeked out through the crack in the Lady Pizidku’s curtains, and Naheshi nodded respectfully at the girl. Princess Apapu stared back at him, solemn and unsmiling, as he trudged past. He heard over his shoulder her childish voice announcing to her mother, “It’s that eunuch of hers.”
Naheshi was breathless and his hair was sticking to his temples by the time he reached his mistress’s litter. “My lady,” he called several times before the curtain drew back.
Taddu was stretched out on the cushions with her two children, who were sleeping like a pair of puppies, curled up together. The queen took after her father's side of the family: small and slim, with broad cheekbones and a little pointed chin that gave her a foxy aspect.
Her golden-brown eyes narrowed with exasperation. “Shhh, Naheshi,” she hissed. The young queen was hot and testy and made no effort to be charming. “Don’t wake them up. It’s taken me all this time to get them to sleep. Bring me that game board we packed, and tell Ishtar-ummiya to come up here with me. I’m dying of boredom.”
“Immediately, my lady.” He bowed low to the curtain, which she had let fall again, and retraced his steps to the wagon at the back of the line from which he’d just come. The return didn't take as long as the going, since the train was moving forward slowly, but he barely had the energy to climb back up over the side of the driver’s seat. He would never get used to the humidity in coastal Ugarit. He was a mountain boy.
The maids were sprawled over the contents of the wagon, half-asleep in the suffocating heat of afternoon. The one with a single dark brow opened an eye as Naheshi stumbled over the their legs.
“Ishtar-ummiya,” he ordered, mopping his face on his sleeve, “up, my beauty. Your mistress wishes to see you right now. Where is that game board?”
“Did we pack the game board?” She shrugged. “I thought it was still on the clothes chest.”
Naheshi lifted his eyes heavenward. These slaves were impossible. “Look for it, featherbrain dear. Open some of those boxes you’re sitting on. And hurry. The queen is waiting for you. In fact, go on up to her litter. I’ll find the board.”
Again, the driver hauled back on the reins. The handmaid slid out of the wagon with considerably more grace than her overseer had, and she swished off into the white dust. The driver followed her swaying silhouette admiringly with his eyes.
No grumbling this time. Funny how much appearance counts in the way people treat you, Naheshi thought.
The board, the board—where was it? Surely, he hadn’t left it in the apartment. He’d looked around, and he would have sworn he’d forgotten nothing. The queen, already uncomfortable and out of sorts, would be very disappointed in him. Pulling out his penknife, he cut the sealing string on one chest after another and rummaged around, but it was nowhere. The girls exerted only a desultory effort to help. Finally, he gave a reluctant prod to Agipsharri, who was drowsing on the other side of the wagon. Even the thought of touching the disgusting old thing made him shudder, and he knew a scene would follow.
The older eunuch opened one eye and considered Naheshi with bleary distaste. “What is it?”
“The queen wants her senet board. It’s in one of the other wagons. Go find it, and take it up to her.”
“Why should I do it, eh? There are plenty of younger people here—”
“You should do it because I, your supervisor, tell you to, you insubordinate dog. Now, move.”
And I tell you to go because I want you out of the wagon; I don’t want you near me. You reek of pee, and you’re always judging me.
“Oooh!” Agipsharri fluttered his eyes at the maids. “To find the sssenet board, he tells me, our sssupervisor. Will he ssspank me if I don’t, think you, girlsss?”
Naheshi felt the heat rise to his cheeks as if his face had been suspended over coals. The piece of dog shit was doing his rankest imitation of an Assyrian accent. Naheshi knew his Ugaritic was impeccable; everyone told him so. He had a gift for languages—that was one of the very few things he could say in his own favor—and he knew he’d never sounded like that, or at least not for a long time. His tenuous control over the other servants would be undermined if they started laughing at him. With his youthful face and natural timidity, he had no automatic dignity and had to work hard at looking and sounding authoritative. Agipsharri never let pass an opportunity to make him appear a fool.
The old reprobate was grinning and looking around to see what impact his performance had had on the maids. They were whispering and giggling. “Ssspank you? Yesss! We want to ssee it!”
Naheshi drew up to his full height and armed himself with his most imperious expression. If he backed down at this point, he would never be able to control the vile fellow. “I’m warning you, Agipsharri. Now.”
“Would you care to make me do it, karubu-face?”
He always calls me that, curse him. Naheshi ground his teeth. The karubuma were sexless—and well-fed—divine messengers with the winged bodies of lions.
Agipsharri continued, reveling in his superior's chagrin. “We all know how you Assyrians just take over whatever you want. Care to employ a little aggression, eh? Just because I’m old and have brittle bones—”
“Up and out of this wagon, Agipsharri.” Naheshi heard his own voice shooting skyward.
“Ooh, catfight!” squealed the maids, fully awake.
By the gods, Naheshi hated such squabbles. They played into everyone’s most ridiculous expectations: two silly eunuchs screeching at each other. Agipsharri had no sense of dignity.
“I know you don’t recognize our mistress as the rightful queen, Agipsharri, but your opinions don’t matter. Lady Pizidku herself has accepted in good grace the king’s marriage, and I think you—who are, after all, nothing but a slave—should, too. Believe me, it was none of my doing that got you switched to the Lady Taduhepa’s household.”
Agipsharri had not been the only member of the former queen’s entourage to be transferred, but most of them had eventually come around. Naheshi had labored tirelessly to make everyone happy, and for once, his mild temperament had worked to his advantage. He was not so sure that they actually respected him, but they seemed to like him well enough. Still, all it took was one insolent spark for him to lose control of the whole household. The queen would be disappointed in him and angry. He couldn’t bear the thought of it. He sat back and tried to breathe calmly while he thought about what to do.
From out of the shriveled old puffball of his face, Agipsharri’s small eyes were watching him, a sneer curling up his lip.
Naheshi fretted. He thinks he has me. Then with a dull pang, he added to himself, Dear gods, is that what I will look like in a few years?
Aloud, he said haughtily, “You are the queen’s slave. Perhaps I should go see if she would like to have you whipped for insubordination. Or maybe the king would like to hear about how a slave has dishonored his wife’s service.”
“And you are what, Nahish-shulmanu, eh? Are you not a slave, too? Or are you her pretty little lapdog? Is that it, eh? Are—”
The slap exploded like a thunderclap in the enclosed space of the wagon tent. Naheshi drew back, staring at his hand as if it had acted of its own accord. Agipsharri was too dumbstruck to react. The maids were agog. In the five years he had supervised the queen’s household, Naheshi had never laid hands on anyone. He was not a violent person. He was, quite frankly, afraid of Agipsharri and his poisonous tongue. The old bastard probably had the gift of the evil eye. But no one could speak that way about his queen, his dear Lady Taddu, let alone this toad.
“Out! And if I ever hear any words disrespectful of my lady from you again, you’ll be cleaning latrines for the rest of your life.”
Muttering maledictions, Agipsharri stumbled to the front of the wagon and snarled at the driver to stop. He lowered his vast bulk over the side, rocking the whole wagon as he relieved it of his weight, and stumped off to the vehicle behind theirs, making sure everyone heard his groans and complaints. Naheshi watched him uneasily through the back flap of the tent cloth to convince himself that Agipsharri was really making an effort to find the board. The gods only knew what tale he would carry up to the queen when he found it. She would be angry that he’d taken so long to fulfill her command.
Naheshi opened his purse, pulled out a few dates, and stuffed them nervously into his cheek to chew. He needed a taste of sweet. His good mood had curdled. Just when he felt he had taken care of his duties well, he made a bad decision or did not measure up in one way or another.
Despite his efforts to relax his eyebrows, his anxiety must have shown on his face, because one of the maids said with unexpected sympathy, “Don’t mind him. He’s just a hateful old prune.”
Naheshi managed a smile, spat the pits into his hand, then straightened up and put on his chamberlain expression. “Let’s get these boxes tied back up, girls. We’ll be back at the palace before much longer, and someone’s going to have to carry them.”
Moments later, as they passed the quarries that pocked the rocky coast between the road and the breakers, they heard Agipsharri’s shrill voice again outside the wagon, demanding that the driver stop. The old eunuch crawled up the spokes of the wheel and heaved himself back into the wagon, tilting everyone momentarily. He stumbled, wheezing like a blown horse, to his spot among the bales.
“Karubu face, the queen you wantsss.” He grinned insolently at Naheshi. A bright-pink imprint of four fingers shone on his puffy cheek. Naheshi, his heart pounding, braved the driver’s annoyance and climbed out of the wagon again, trudging up through the dust and heat to the queen’s litter.
“My lady, it’s Naheshi,” he called in a loud whisper as he walked along at her side. The curtains flipped open, and the queen confronted him, her eyes blazing and her pretty mouth a downward sickle.
“What's going on between you and Agipsharri? He said you hit him.”
“It’s true, my lady. I… I slapped him. He was impertinent and insubordinate. Forgive me. I lost control of myself. He defiles your name even to take it in his mouth.” Naheshi bowed his head meekly, ready for her wrath, but instead, she burst out laughing.
“Why are you apologizing? He’s just a slave; you should have him flogged if he’s insubordinate. You know he reports everything to her, the evil old spy.”
Naheshi realized she meant the former queen. “Lady Pizidku seems to be an honorable person, my lady. I can’t imagine she would do any harm, no matter what he reports.”
“Stop defending the Old Cow. I think she’s put a charm on the king to win him back, even though she’s old enough to be my mother.” She thrust a silver ewer at him, dangling it by its handle. “Refill this while you’re running around; it’s so hot, and we’re all parched.”
“Don’t wake the children!” The queen pulled shut the curtains in his face.
He bobbed his head. The litter continued to move forward, its bells tinkling, but Naheshi halted and let it pass him by. He trudged back to his own wagon and climbed in again, picking his way unsteadily over the sprawled legs of the drowsing maids to where the tall clay jar of water was wedged among the chests and bales of textiles and pieces of furniture. Naheshi ladled out enough to fill the ewer, splashing his shoes. Then he stopped the wagon, climbed out, and plodded forward again, nearly staggering. With a bow, he proffered the icy ewer to the queen, who took it without a word of thanks—without even interrupting her conversation with Ishtar-ummiya, who was crowing appreciatively at her mistress’s story.
As he dragged himself rearward yet again, the king’s chariot circled back as well and positioned itself alongside the lady Pizidku’s litter. He heard Ammishtamru’s growly laughter over the clatter of harness and saw him throw back his head in hilarity, his red beard pointed upward. Naheshi shook his head, saddened for his mistress. It should have been her litter the king sought.
Naheshi called once more for the wagon driver to stop, and the man actually extended a hand to pull him up, grinning with malicious humor. “All your pretty clothes are a mess, eunuch. I hope she smiled at you at least.”
Naheshi glared at the fellow, but the driver was freeborn. There was nothing the chamberlain could do to curb his insolence. Naheshi settled himself, hot and exhausted, among the bundles. His stamina was meager; such days drained him. The maids, between sleep and wakefulness, watched him, boredom plain on their faces.
“Abdi-rama.” He smiled wearily at the little servant with the long hair in her eyes, who was drowsing beside him. “Do you remember the palace at Amurru? You must have been just a child when we left.”
“Of course I do, silly.” She flicked his arm pertly with the back of her fingertips. “I’m the same age as my lady the queen. I had just been assigned to serve the king’s daughter, as she was then. What a time we all had. Oh-ho! You can’t imagine. She was always getting all of us into trouble, the mistress. Oh, there was never a dull moment around her!” She clapped her hands at the delightful memory of their mischief.
“Do you remember the Great Lady? I was her personal secretary.”
“Yes, Nahish-shulmanu. You’ve told us that ten thousand times.” She rolled her eyes, but her smile was warm. “I liked her. Everybody did. There was nothing high-and-mighty about her, for all that she’s the sister of the Great King. Everybody said she ran the kingdom. Well, she really will soon, I guess, when King Benteshina dies.”
“She was like a mother to me.” He sighed, remembering her quiet solicitude that had been balm for his lacerated young soul. The good Queen Gasshulawiya, his dear Great Lady. He thought of her as an older woman, although she was probably not that much older than he.
Abdi-rama hooted with laughter. “You sure didn’t take after your ‘mother’! What a towering bag of bones you were. We used to laugh like anything to see you trailing after her, as tall as the city wall and as big around as a stylus. We called you the Pine Tree.”
Naheshi winced. How could she laugh about such a thing? His memories of life in the palace of Amurru, in the service of the Great Lady, were sacred to him. “I was just a boy when I came to Amurru. I was growing into my height. I could never get enough food or sleep—”
“And your bones hurt. Yes, you’ve told us. And the Great Lady entrusted her daughter to you when she got married. You’ve told us that, too.”
He dropped his eyes, ashamed of his lack of discipline.
The girl patted his hand. “Hoi, Nahish-shulmanu; you’re not so bad. A little young to be repeating your stories, but you’re a nice supervisor.” She rearranged the folded tapestry beneath her head and rolled over onto her side, away from him.
That probably means I’m not hard enough on the girls. I shouldn’t let them be so familiar.
The other maids were sprawled over every folded-up cushion and carpet, their skirts pulled up over their knees with no pretense of modesty. Naheshi was too exhausted to rebuke them. He felt he would collapse if he so much as had to wave a hand. Even Agipsharri was spread out on his back, snoring, a toad-like mound of fat. An unsavory sight, but at least Naheshi was spared his mockery for a few hours. He did not understand what attracted people to power. It took too much energy.
Again, the sound of hooves clattered alongside the wagon.
“Chamberlain,” came the rider’s raised voice. “I have the prince and princess here.
Our lady the queen wants you to take them for a while. She said to tell you she wants to sleep.”
The royal children were sitting, one in front of the other, before the soldier, their tunics hiked up and their chubby bare legs sticking out. They reached for Naheshi as he extended his long arms across the driver’s seat and lifted Prince Utri-sharrumma, still drowsy and red-faced, under the armpits.
“Here you go, my little prince. Come sit with Naheshi while your lady mama takes a nap.”
He set the boy down in the wagon then ferried the little princess Batashiya over. They were too sleepy even to complain. Batashiya whined a bit and repositioned her thumb in her mouth, but then she and her brother snuggled up next to Naheshi as he settled himself among the bales. They sank back into sleep, the four-year-old prince’s little fist clutching a handful of the eunuch’s skirts. He watched them tenderly. Their dark curly heads were damp with the heat, their plump faces flushed. They looked so much like his Taddu and her brother when they were babies that it took him back to those happy days in Amurru, serving the Great Lady. He stroked the prince’s ringlets. Maybe he had looked like that once. Even sweaty, the children smelled sweet, like small animals. They were as hot as braziers against his hip, but he didn’t care. His mistress needed a little space in her narrow litter.
Abdi-rama opened one eye, saw the royal children, and smiled before falling back to sleep. Before much longer, Naheshi himself had drifted off, and he didn’t even smell the dye works as they passed the port and headed inland up the steep road to the city.