In The Beginning

A Novel

By D. E. Austin

 

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Copyright 2000  D E Austin     All Rights Reserved

                                                                                                                      

    Areshen of Isin, military governor of Ur in the seventeenth year that Ibisien was king of Ur and king of the Four Quarters, decided to observe the military spectacle from atop the House of Dry Reeds, one of a dozen fortresses built into the circuit of Ur's city walls.  Areshen glanced a moment's curious interest toward several dozen war chariots now maneuvering beneath the city walls, directing a measure of his attention, however, toward the Lianuri, a small crossroads tavern a mile and a half south of Ur's city gates, a tavern popular with soldiers doing active service in the field since the tavern's patron gods, to put it bluntly as Areshen of Isin was wont to do, were cheap, propitiation of the most meager sort all that was necessary at the door.

   How pleasant, Areshen sighed, it might have been to pass the rest of the afternoon, perhaps even the rest of the evening over a cup of beer in the Lianuri, the walls of Ur and the problems of the world forgotten.

   Areshen glanced another moment's annoyance toward the raucous din beneath the city walls, another Sixty of chariot preparing for maneuvers on parched, barren field a short distance below, glanced then toward the city itself and the king's palace lying in the shadow of the temple.  Ibisien, king of Ur and King of the Four Quarters, would be an annoying headache no matter how brief the audience scheduled for later this afternoon.  Still, Areshen anticipated no great difficulties or unpleasantries at the king's palace.  A great many more unpleasant difficulties and the associated headaches would come later in the evening as soon as Areshen arrived home and set eyes on Setith, his wife, though more accurately, mistress and task master of the Four Quarters of his house.

   An amusing little war along the frontiers at a considerable distance from Ur necessitating his prolonged absence from the city would have been an appreciated diversion at the moment.

   At least two or three more cups before either Ibisien, king of Ur, or Setith, task mistress of his household, Areshen sighed, turning his attention back to the dry and barren fields beneath the city walls, abandoned pasture land spreading off into the distance.  Areshen watched with cautious fascination as the next formation of chariots began its charge.  The billowing clouds of thick gray dust raised by galloping hooves and several dozen whirring wheels was an impressive sight indeed, a sight which must certainly strike terror into the hearts of Amuru's barbaric horse soldiers from the west or Gipul's slightly more civilized hordes from Elam to the east.  The first of Ur's chariots tore into enemy lines a quick moment later, young, untried soldiers hurling their javelins with maniacal fury.  A quick instant after this, however, and Areshen found himself sighing once again, this time in despondent frustration, his one consolation the fact that Amuru's horsemen were indeed far to the west, Gipul's armies of Elam lounging in their fortresses an equal distance to the east.  None of those furiously hurled javelins actually hit their targets, stacked bales of swamp reeds sitting in the middle of the open field.  One of the younger soldiers, however, managed a precise hit to the rear of a companion's chariot, that chariot's driver startled and unbalanced by an attack from unexpected quarters, its occupants finally ending an inglorious heap on the ground. A quick minute later crews from both chariots stood face to face angrily brandishing swords, preparing to battle not the enemy swamp reeds but each other, might indeed have done so had not the commander of the Sixty to which all four soldiers belonged rushed forward to intervene.

   Areshen leaned his elbow onto the fortress walls, his head onto his hand, and once again sought consolation in nothing more than a long, despondent sigh.  When certain that the Sixty's commander, an experienced and talented officer with whom Areshen had campaigned in the western desserts, had in fact prevented an untimely battle among his own men, Areshen twisted a laconic gaze about the city of Ur for another few moments.  The city, one of the largest and wealthiest in the southern part of Sumer, was still Sumer's cultural and financial center even if Isin had now become the center of Sumer and Akkad's military command, Isin's Shar Dulur fortress of late a quiet and peaceful refuge from the financial and political intrigue so prevalent in the south, a refuge to which Areshen desperately longed to return.  But Ur, Areshen sighed, could just not be abandoned to the barbarians from the western deserts, nor even to the slightly more civilized Gipul and Elam, no matter how pleasant and intriguing the thought seemed at the moment. And besides, Areshen groaned, Setith maintained her primary residence here in Ur; Ur sacked and his wife's property looted would be a bothersome ordeal indeed, month's of bitter, stinging invective better avoided if at all possible.  Areshen pondered the Sacred Area near the center of Ur for another long minute, its temple and palaces surrounded by walls quite as formidable and massive as those which surrounded the outer city.  The temple itself, the view of which dominated not only the Sacred Area but the entire city, was certainly as grand as any such edifice Areshen had ever seen anywhere in Sumer and Akkad, a staged, pyramidal tower hundreds of feet across at its base with some sort of small  -  shack?  -  though Areshen wasn't certain what they called it  -  a shack no larger than his own house stuck on top in which the High Priests and Priestesses of Nanna and Ningal sat waiting for the god and goddess patrons of Ur to put in an appearance.

   Who knows, Areshen sighed.  He certainly didn't.  Areshen gazed another long moment toward the hectic, constant din which was Ur's Sacred Area, then found himself breaking into a soft, idle smile for memories of a recent conversation he had had with Ur's king, a conversation which had occurred in the back of the king's palace just beyond the walls of the Sacred Area, a conversation which had occurred over very large cups of wine.

   Ibisien, still smarting because he had not, like his grandfather, been deified during his own lifetime, spent entire afternoons sitting in his palace in the shadow of the Sacred Area's walls denigrating Shubari, the High Priest of the High Priests and Priestesses of Nanna and Ningal, a position Ibisien would himself have occupied had his divinity been recognized.

   "Shubari," Ibisien scoffed, "climbs the temple steps morning and night, plops his fat behind down in the Divine Chamber, and then engulfs said chamber with gas emanating from his own fat behind."

   "Oh?" Areshen asked.

   "He farts," Ibisien declared, reaching for the royal cup once again.  "Shubari sits atop the temple and farts; farts, pops, squeaks, rattles, booms which shake the whole temple morning and night.  It's a wonder of wonders the temple hasn't collapsed.  If you were a god, Areshen," Ibisien had whined on, thrusting his cup toward the nearest wine steward, "a god in search of somewhere to rest your weary feet, and you wandered into your holy temple atop your holy mountain and found that every other response during the course of the liturgy was a fart, would you be inclined to look kindly upon the city?  Ur will end a desolate waste, and it will be the High Priest Shubari's fault.  All Shubari's fault, I tell you.  It will certainly not be my fault."

   "Exalted One," Areshen had answered, not really certain if exalted one was currently in fashion when addressing the king in palace, not really concerned if it was not, "if you want to be Nanna's or Ningal's or whoever's High Priest, why not just climb on up the temple steps yourself.  Your guard, after all, is more than a match for Shubari's.  As soon as the gods show up, tell them that Areshen of Isin recommends you for the job."

   Areshen couldn't help but smile again as he remembered the king's shudder, the long pull Ibisien had taken from his cup.

   "The idea, military governor," Ibisien had then belched, "is to have my fat behind placed on top of the temple, not have the gods burn the temple down."

   Areshen glanced again toward Ibisien's palace, then toward the Sacred Area's fortress like walls rising just beyond, the flat toped temple with its little house for visiting gods stuck on top, and Areshen couldn't restrain another moment's soft, irreverent chuckle.  If Nanna and Ningal ever did decide to put in an appearance in the Holy Chamber atop Ur's temple, he was going to be in big trouble.

   "Your only hope," the king enjoyed informing him, "is that Nanna and Ningal will be as drunk as you usually are, Areshen.  It still, however, might be to your advantage to absent yourself from Ur for the time being, perhaps a small war or two in the western desserts with the Amuru, somewhere where the gods cannot find you."

   Areshen glanced a final long minute toward the military exercises progressing on the open plain beneath the city walls, another Sixty of chariot launching a furious charge against the stacked swamp reeds.  When Areshen realized that the swamp reeds would be quite justified proclaiming themselves the victors, he pushed himself along the walls' walkway, then toward the steps which led down into the fortress' interior.  Descending finally into the shadows, Areshen made his way across the fortress' courtyard, this surrounded on all sides by long lines of storerooms and soldier's quarters.  In many places the fortress' interior walls were in desperate need of repair, plaster and the occasional mud brick from which the fortress had been constructed laying in crumbling heaps on the ground.  Areshen was quite aware, however, that the garrison commander was not really to blame for the fortress' condition.  Nanna and Ningal were gods with voracious appetites, Areshen sighed, and wondered if their bellies were as huge as Shubari's, the High Priest who fed them every morning and night.  Areshen, over the twenty year course of his military career, had been assigned to garrisons in cities all across Sumer and Akkad, had been military governor of a number of those cities over the past ten years.  None of the resident gods in most other cities seemed to eat as much as the gods with which Ur had been  -  Areshen would like to have said cursed, but decided not to press his luck.  He'd never actually seen anyone struck by lightning, but he'd heard of it often enough.

   How, Areshen dared ask himself, however, could so much grain and standing meat and silver and gold pass through the Gate of Judgment into the Sacred Area and then just disappear?  Throughout the day solid processions of porters and donkey caravans wound their way through the streets of Ur toward the Sacred Area.  A hundred Scribal Priests sat at table across the Sacred Area's Great Court of Nanna meticulously recording the wealth of Ur and it's surrounding farm villages as it was carried through the Gate of Judgment into the temple precinct.  And still, the garrison commander of a wall fortress could not afford plaster for the fortress walls?

   Areshen shrugged, decided he'd ask this same question of Ur's king during his audience scheduled for later this afternoon, would do so whether or not Ibisien was well fortified by the royal cup.  Areshen finally walked from the courtyard into one of the small chambers beneath the fortress walls.  Meshduri, garrison commander, sat at a table beneath the chamber's single window through which daylight entered from the courtyard.

   "Areshen," Meshduri mumbled in greeting, lifted a damp clothe, and then rubbed it with energetic fury across the small clay writing tablet sitting on the table in front of him.  Areshen broke into an amused smile as he watched this act of mischief from a corner of his eye, lifted the god from its niche in the chamber's far wall, tossed it onto the floor, then lowered himself into the niche, not really all that uncomfortable a seat.

   "Tudith is watching you, Meshduri," Areshen chuckled as he nodded toward the god laying on the floor.  Meshduri glanced up from his work with an expression of distracted annoyance, continuing, however, to rub furiously at the stubborn tablet in front of him, a provisions voucher of some sort, Areshen suspected.  A temple or palace scribe caught doing that which the garrison commander of Ur's walls was now doing might loose the offending hand if he was lucky, his head if he was not.

   "Tudith," Meshduri finally stated as he nodded toward the god lying at Areshen's feet, "has been in a remarkably lenient mood of late, has not had a great deal to say about anything in quite some time.  Haven't, for that matter, heard a peep out of him in weeks."

   Areshen returned a soft chuckle as he watched Meshduri lift the tablet in order to examine the erasure, then a reed stylus in order to forge a new line where the old one had been obliterated.

   "Do I want to know what you are writing, Meshduri?" Areshen asked.

   "No, military governor of all the king's armies, you most certainly do not," and Meshduri bent to his work.

   Areshen could not suppress another soft chuckle, both for Meshduri's use of the title he used when in Ur, as well as for the expression of intense concentration now in Meshduri's features as he inexpertly though carefully inscribed the new line of characters onto the tablet.  More than likely the tampering was well intentioned, probably an attempt to extort extra rations of grain for the men in his command from the High Priest Shubari's and the Sacred Area's well stuffed granaries.  This sort of mischief was quite in character for Meshduri, was typical of garrison commanders in cities all across Sumer and Akkad.  Areshen himself had lifted many a damp clothe over writing tablets during the course of his career.

   "There," Meshduri finally exclaimed as he lifted the tablet in careful inspection, a mischievous smile settling into his features.  "I should have continued my studies and gone on to the priesthood instead of wasting myself in a military career, Areshen.  Perhaps today I would be Shubari's chief scribe sitting in a temple palace drinking wine and listening to Shubari's farts echo off the temple walls."

   "Perhaps," Areshen chuckled, then jerked a thumb in the air toward the chamber's southern wall.  Meshduri lowered the tablet to the table with a long, despondent sigh.

   "That bad?" Meshduri asked.

   "One of the throwers nailed one of our own chariots.  I would commend the young fellow's aim had I thought the target intentional.  Had the javelin drawn blood I might have stood and applauded, so beautiful was the sight."

   "I doubt the target was intentional," Meshduri continued, nodding toward the south himself.  "You were watching Atiduru's new babies, sweet young things their tongues still wet with mother's milk.  They've had no time to make enemies among themselves which must be dispatched in training accidents," and again Meshduri released a long, pondering sigh.  "The target was not intentional, Areshen.  And Atiduru, you can rest assured, will discipline the thrower all the more severely for the fact."

   "Is it my imagination," Areshen asked as he leaned further into the wall niche, resting his feet on the god laying on the floor, "or are these children different than we were at their age?"

   "I spend most of my time these days contemplating new ways to pry provisions from fat Shubari, hoping he's sitting on top of the temple farting while I'm raiding his granaries.  I have little time to spend personally with my sweet young darlings in the field.  Atiduru has not changed, however, the same ugly cuss he's always been.  He'll wean his pretty little rabble soon enough."

   "Judging by what I just saw, Meshduri, Atiduru is going to have his hands full.  I swear these children are different today.  You and I played with little toy javelins when we were boys.  When was the last time you saw a boy chasing his nurse along Ur's streets with his little toy javelin giving her a good jab in the ass?"

   Meshduri chuckled, settling then into brooding solemnity when he continued.

   "They're all emulating Ibisien today, I suppose."

   "I suppose," Areshen sighed.  Ur's king, delicately attired and adorned with a pound or two of cosmetics and polish of every costly sort, had probably never touched a javelin, toy or other, in his life.  Twenty years ago, twelve and thirteen year old boys on the streets of Ur strutted, most boasting of the commissions they would one day earn in Sumer's armies.  Today most boys wafted along with dainty and elegant step, fawning over each other, each, it seemed, another Ibisien weighed down in perfume and polish, many of them, Areshen suspected, Ibisien's personal pets fondled, fretted over, and eventually debauched in one of the palace's back chambers.

   "Atiduru," Meshduri continued, nodding again toward the south and the Six Hundred commander in question, "is still confident that he can make soldiers of the majority of them.  When he falls to his knees and prays in despair to Tudith, then I will worry."

   Areshen chuckled, rolling the god face down on the floor.

   "When that happens," Areshen stated, "I want him relieved."

   "Quite," Meshduri agreed.  "What, to continue with dainty and delicate matters, does Ibisien have to say these days?"

   "I see him later this afternoon.  Gipul," king of Elam to the east and a perennial adversary, though since the time of Ibisien's grandfather a tributary of Ur, "has sent the king another daughter, a rather beautiful one, the harem master tells me.  You can be certain that Gipul has done something which he fears will annoy Ibisien.  Gipul is hoping that Ibisien will be distracted by the new addition to his harem."

   "He won't be, of course."

   "Certainly not by the girl's beauty," Areshen continued.  "Perhaps by her cost, particularly should that cost equal a cask or two of his favorite wine.  Anyway, I suppose I should scrounge a Six Hundred or two from somewhere and take a ride up to Elam, see what Gipul is up to.  Want to come?"

   "Tempting," Meshduri answered.  "It's been a long time since I've seen service in the field, longer still since I've seen the east," a moment's intrigue in Meshduri's features, frowning resignation, however, a quick moment later.  "But I can't, Areshen, not at least in good conscience.  Who will keep Nanna and Ningal from eating too much if I'm not here?  Every soldier on Ur's walls will starve."

   "You're probably right," Areshen answered with an easy smile toward an old friend he genuinely admired.  "By the way, the military governorship of Lagash is vacant, and the civil governor is pressing me for someone Akkadian, or at least partly Akkadian.  Your grandmother was from Akkad, was she not?"

   "That's why I'm so beautiful," Meshduri laughed.  "I could be another Ibisien, at least one of his pets."

   "Quite," Areshen groaned, rolling his eyes.  "If you want Lagash, you can have it.  The last thing we need is any more ethnic problems there.  Tell the Akkadians you're Akkadian, and Sumer that you're Sumer."

   "I'll be rubbing words off tablets all day long keeping that ruse going."

   "Well, think about it, Meshduri.  It would be one less problem for me having someone in Lagash I could trust."

   Meshduri nodded, appreciation in his eyes.  Areshen had known Meshduri for twenty years now, did indeed trust him.  He and Meshduri had first met when they had laid aside their reed pens and writing tablets in order to accept commissions in the army, two young officers who for the first few months had all but been led about by hand by their Sixty's First Soldiers, grizzled, thick necked professionals who lived their lives in the dirt next to their men.

   "Where are you?" Meshduri asked, and Areshen emerged from his reverie.

   "Walking into my first military camp, writing clay still on my hands," Areshen shuddered, smiled when he noticed as obvious a shudder course through Meshduri's body as well.  Meshduri and every other officer in the armies of Sumer and Akkad had lived the same experience.  "I got old Saran, you know."

   "I know," Meshduri shuddered again.

   "Saran was Akkadian, twenty feel tall, almost as large around, the chest, not the stomach.  I felt like a bug crawling into camp.  'Welcome, you sir,' Saran said.  Have you ever heard twenty catapults fired simultaneously, Meshduri?  That's what Saran's 'welcome, young sir' sounded like.  After I picked myself up from the ground, Saran showed me around the camp, three squad of short sword, one of pike, each man just a slightly less ugly version of Saran himself, all of whom, I was certain, thought me incapable of finding my way to the latrine without my nurse.  I almost crawled back to school and my writing tablets that same night."

   "I saw old Saran a month ago, just as ugly as ever as he praised your name to the gods.  He still talks of Ekluru."

   "Does he?" Areshen chuckled, remembering the battle in which he had taken a sword into his own hands when his Sixty had been surrounded by Amuru horsemen.

   "Officers," the Six Hundred's High Priest had shouted into Areshen's face after the battle, "do not lift swords into their own hands like common soldiers, particularly an officer who still looks like he could find a place in the king's harem.  When you're older," the High Priest had bellowed, "you may, though I doubt it, give orders and direct battles.  Until then, you'll stand on a hill and look like a beautiful virgin for your men to protect, not act like a fool and destroy Holy Order."

   The military governor under whom Areshen had served at the time, however, had been far more tolerant.  And old Saran and the men of his Sixty had accepted their new officer far sooner than was normally the case, despite the fact that that officer had endangered the course of the battle by tampering with Holy Order.

   "Saran," Meshduri continued, "said something quite extraordinary, extraordinary for him, at least.  He's from Uruk, you know, not particularly devout in his worship of Innana; still, he's wary of doing anything which would intentionally and flagrantly disrupt Holy Order.  So I asked him if he thought the current high military governor of Ur a danger to Holy Order.  'You is trying to trick me up, isn't you, sir, you and your officer's ways,' Saran answered.  He then kicked dust toward the front door of his house, the way old ladies still chase demons away in Uruk, I suppose, and leaned forward in whisper.  'Areshen,' Saran then informed me, 'is one of them there peculiar exceptions to Holy Order.  The gods can't find him, and the demons can't get a hold of him.  You might say he's outside Holy Order.  So,' Saran concluded, 'Areshen can get away with things which would piss off the gods if anyone else did it.'"

   "Perhaps that is why I was not struck down by lightning at Ekluru," Areshen chuckled as he pushed himself to his feet and set Tudith back into the wall niche.  "The fact that the High Priest could not explain to the military governor why I was not struck down by lightning was the only thing that saved me, you know."

   Meshduri rose from the table and reached for Areshen's hand as Areshen stood at the chamber's door for a final long moment.

   "Are you happy now, Areshen?" Meshduri asked, quite aware that Areshen was never really happy when duty required his presence in Ur.

   "I'll be happier, I suppose, if I am indeed so fortunate as to escape Ur at the head of an army.  With luck, Gipul's and Elam's transgressions will have been provocative in the extreme, and I will spend the summer campaigning in the east."

   "Ibisien will want to tag along."

   Of course, Areshen sighed.  Ur's king would whine incessantly until Areshen relented.  He would be a nuisance, though not an insurmountable obstacle.

   "A month, perhaps," Areshen continued, "to build Ibi a palace sufficient for his wine stewards, his harem, and his pet boys.  Once Ibi's safely tucked away behind the palace walls, he will spend his time trading wives for wine, posing for the portrait carvers.  Campaigning, Ibisien is his father's son rather than his grandfather's grandson.  He seldom concerns himself with the conduct of the war until it is time for him to stand on the victory platform and listen to the High Priests proclaim his heroism and brilliance in that war's conduct.  All and all, Ibi is the ideal king, Meshduri."

   "Quite," Meshduri agreed with an easy smile and a final embrace of his hand to Areshen's.

   Areshen walked from the chamber back into the fortress's courtyard, then toward the gate room which led through the walls.  A life sized Tinruduri, Tudith's older brother or some such thing, guarded the fortress from his niche in the gate room's walls.  Areshen offered Tinruduri the proper gesture of abeyance, though he doubted anyone in immediate sight would have been scandalized to any great extent had he failed to do so.  Two young soldiers, typical of Ur's, their expressions only slightly more alert than the god's, at least corrected their posture as Areshen walked past.

   They move a bit more quickly than the statue, Areshen sighed as he climbed down the outer steps, then stood for a short moment gazing up and down the crowded city street.  Narrow, less than three paces wide in most places, this street was not unlike most others in Ur.  Born and raised in Sannu, a small farm village a half day's quick march to the north of Ur, city streets still seemed oppressively confining to Areshen.  The solid, monotonous walls of mud brick buildings lined both sides of the street as far as Areshen could see, most structures one story in height in this part of Ur.  Portals at intervals along the street led into small, unadorned entrance chambers which in turn gave access to interior courtyards.

   Areshen waited for a small caravan of heavily laden donkeys to pass, then pushed himself onto the street, walking north.  Most of the residents in this part of the city were still Sumerian.  Areshen glanced down one of a multitude of blind alleys along the street, this particular one an Akkadian enclave into which few Sumerians would dare venture.  Idle youths, many of whom were probably servants absent without permission from wealthy Sumerian households, scowled from the alley toward the better dressed passers by walking along the street.  These, Areshen sighed, were Ibisien's and the city's problem, not his or the army's.

   A short minute later, Areshen approached a small market square perhaps twenty paces from edge to edge.  As crowded as the street itself, small shops and taverns fronted all four walls of the square, entrance to which was gained through an arched portal from the street.  Areshen stood at the portal for another quick moment glancing toward one of the taverns, allowed a brief image of Setith's features to float about the edges of his mind, and then without a great deal of further mental debate walked quickly and purposefully across the market square toward the tavern.  Setith, a very beautiful woman, was a wife Areshen genuinely loved, most of the time, at least, though Setith of late was a bit easier to take after Areshen had paid sufficient, even generous reverence to one or two of the local beer gods who in this particular market square were quite as generous in return.

   "Heluth," Areshen nodded with an easy smile as he approached the tavern's door and a very attractive tavern mistress leaning at the serving board propped across the doorway.  Naked save for a small waist clothe, Heluth returned as broad a smile as Areshen's.

   "Military governor," she began, reaching for the small silver piece from Areshen's hand and setting it one a scale just to make certain.  "Sethurisu is pleased, military governor," Heluth stated as she nodded toward the tavern's god sitting in his wall niche, then reached for a pitcher and cup from a table just inside the tavern's door.

   "Sethur  - " Areshen asked as he reached for his beer, nodding toward the current beer god's predecessors stacked in a row against the tavern's rear wall.

   "It was revealed to me last night, military governor, that Cuthi can no longer be the Divine Lady of my tavern," and Heluth began the formal recitation of the current tavern God's liturgy.  "Cuthi," the goddess Sethurisu had displaced, probably because Cuthi had not been attracting customers to the tavern in sufficient number, "was bathing in the river down by the docks when Ningal descended the temple steps in order to bathe in the river as well. 'Cuthi,' Ningal said when she noticed that Cuthi had big tits, 'you have big tits, Cuthi.'  Cuthi answered, 'yes, I have big tits.  I have indeed been blessed with big tits.'  Then Ningal said, 'yes, you have indeed been blessed with big tits.  Indeed, they are enormous tits, Cuthi.  Because of the enormity of your tits, Cuthi,' Ningal then pronounced, 'you can no longer  be the Divine Lady of beer for Heluth in Shensulith Square.  You have inflamed my jealousy, Cuthi, because you have such enormous tits.  What would happen if my husband descended from the temple in order to bathe here in the river?' Ningal asked.  'What would happen if Nanna were thirsty for beer and he saw how enormous your tits are?  Then you, Cuthi, with your enormous tits, would be the temple goddess instead of me, and I might find myself nothing more than a common beer goddess.  Sethurisu, therefore, shall be the god of beer for Heluth in Shensulith Square.'  And thereupon Ningal drove Cuthi from the city of Ur because Cuthi had been blessed with enormous tits.  This, military governor, was revealed to me, Heluth, in vision, as I lay sleeping on my bed last night," and Heluth shook her head vigorously toward several elderly matrons who had paused near the tavern's door long enough to listen to the liturgy's recitation.

   "Then what will happen, Heluth," Areshen chuckled with a mischievous grin, "if Seth  -  Sheth  -  whatever," and Areshen nodded again toward the tavern's reigning god, "if this fellow has a roving eye himself.  And Sheth  -  the old fellow's not that bad looking, you know, Heluth.  Goddesses will be flocking around him like flies."

   "Areshen," Heluth protested as she leaned closer, "you cost me another god or goddess every time you visit," and Areshen suddenly remembered that it had been at this suggestion that Heluth's former goddess take a swim down by the river in order to attract more customers to the tavern, a suggestion which had obviously not proven profitable.  Areshen little doubted, however, that Heluth's anger was affected.  The sultry and pleading heat in Heluth's eyes communicated just the opposite as she grasped his arm in gentle, fondling embrace.  "I shall go completely out of business, Areshen, because you have driven all my gods away with your blasphemies.  I shall have no choice but to sell myself into your household," and Areshen could not mistake the pleading now in Heluth's grasp to his arm.

   "Heluth, I'm just a poor soldier," Areshen answered.

   Heluth broke into a mirthful chuckle.  She was quite aware of who he was.

   "A poor soldier," she chuckled again.  "Be that so, Areshen, I don't eat much.  I would stay in your own chambers and out of Setith's way.  And I'm  -  pretty, am I not, Areshen?" the pleading in Heluth's eyes ever more genuine.

    "Well, Heluth, give  -  ah?" and Areshen nodded again toward the new tavern god in his wall niche, "give the old boy a chance to prove himself first.  Who knows, perhaps he'll turn out to be a match for Nanna.  Then Ur's new patron will be your beer god, Heluth, which would please me just fine.  In that case, I will be your military governor, and the king will be envious of you instead of the High Priest Shubari."

   "In that case, Areshen, I shall order you to divorce Setith and marry me."

   Areshen chuckled in easy humor, though he grasped the girl's hand in gentle warmth for another long moment.  There was no reason why Heluth's frequent expressions of affection for him should not be genuine.  Even though he was now military governor of Ur (was a great deal more once he passed beyond Ur's walls) Areshen was still basically just a soldier.  If Heluth had been seeking wealth, she would be pursuing one of the High Priests in the Sacred Area's temple palaces or some rich private merchant, individuals who could for more readily afford to keep both wife and concubines.  And Heluth, Areshen realized again, feeling another twinge of vanity for the girl's attention, was far and away one of the most beautiful of that multitude of tavern priestesses who sold their wares (and themselves if the tavern's patron deity was pleased with the proffered offering) in small shops throughout the city.  Areshen grasped Heluth's hand again, exchanged a final though intimate smile, the words "maybe soon, Heluth," as usual, in his eyes.

   Areshen then passed another long minute dividing his attention between his cup and the crowds flowing from shop to shop across the market square, gazing with idle interest toward a scene not far different than might be found in any other city across Sumer and Akkad.  Many faces here in Ur's Shensulith Square were Akkadian, pretty young servants owned by wealthy Sumerian matrons, servants sent to the market square because they were capable of carrying the heaviest loads.  The scene was not that different, Areshen decided, than it had been in Sannu where as a boy he had tormented the village's sour old matrons with his little toy javelin.  Here in Ur's Shensulith Square, however, a hundred inviting targets presented themselves, some of them young, round and firm, others wide and perfect for a younger boy trying to perfect his aim.  A hundred targets everywhere he looked, Areshen sighed with disgust, and not one of them under attack.  What on earth was wrong with Ur's younger generation?  He must, he decided, discuss this perverse and appalling situation with Ur's king during his audience scheduled for later this afternoon.

   "Boys painted like girls, not a javelin to be seen," Areshen had groaned during his last visit to Ibisien's palace.  "If this is what Ur's younger generation is to be, I should be pleased to abandon the lot to the barbarians.  Perhaps Gipul and his horde.  Gipul lives to plunder and pillage, rapes if he can find nothing else to interest him."

   "Oh?" Ibisien had answered, that which Areshen could only call sultry anticipation in Ibisien's features, features painted and polished for more delicately than any of a hundred wives Ibisien had ignored ever since he had ascended the throne.  "Rapes, does Gipul?  I wonder if he does so  -  indiscriminately."

   Areshen turned his attention to a small group of junior priests in front of another tavern on the other side of the square, their attire identifying them as members of the Sacred Area's temple of Nanna and Ningal.  Most of these young priests stumbled about in varying degrees of mirthful intoxication.  Areshen watched with idle interest as two engaged in conversation with a pair of market prostitutes, these not quite as attractive as the Sacred Area's Holy Prostitutes patronized by the wealthier High Priests, though market and wall prostitutes were well within the means of the younger priests.  A quick minute later a price had obviously been negotiated, and two of the young junior priests stumbled from the square in riotous laughter, the prostitutes all but holding them to their feet.

   The temple, Areshen thought as he once more lifted his cup, certainly seemed an easier life than the army, or so he supposed, remembering youthful conversations in which fellow students had thought him a relic from another age for abandoning the higher level studies of the priesthood in favor of a military career.  No one, they said, goes into the army any more.  The way to the top is the temple and Shubari.  Ibisien, the palace, the army - all passť.  Perhaps, but Areshen could not have imagined spending his life sitting at table in the Sacred Area counting sheep and goats and sacks of grain as they were carried into the vaults lining the Great Court.  And besides, it's a trivial matter, Areshen had informed the young critics who had questioned his decision to leave school, but I find it difficult to maintain a pious attitude of reverence toward the gods for more than brief and fleeting moments.  What in the name of the gods, the aspiring young priests and scribes with whom Areshen had studied had asked in amaze, do the gods have to do with anything?  Perhaps of foolish question indeed, Areshen decided as he set his empty cup on the serving board and directed a final quick smile toward Heluth now reciting the beer god's liturgy to another customer.

   Areshen's house lay only another few hundred feet further north from Shensulith Square, though as usual his progress along the street was a time consuming ordeal, everyone in a dense, hurrying crowd competing for narrow paths which avoided the worst accumulation of mud and donkey droppings.  Areshen sometimes regretted having accepted Ibisien's offer of the military governorship of Ur, had accepted it in fact because no one else with even a reasonable measure of competency had seemed interested in doing so.  As unpleasant as life might have been in any of Sumer's cities, it would only be worse if the barbarians from the western deserts or Gipul's slightly more civilized armies of Elam decided to invade.  Areshen was quite aware that he was the most competent general officer capable of directing Sumer's armies should this happen, though not, Areshen sighed, because of any extraordinary capabilities he possessed himself.  It was nothing more than a simple matter of fact that most other city's military governors these days knew the locations of the brothels and the perfume baths in their cities for  better than they knew the locations of the garrisons under their command.  Even a few First Soldiers were beginning to look like High Priests and military governors, the girth of their stomachs truly outstanding, though Areshen had seen a slow reversal of this trend since he had obtained the dismissal of those governors who had allowed the most flagrant deterioration in their commands.

   "But he's the High Priest's brother," Ibisien invariably whined whenever Areshen went to the king's palace in Ur insisting that another civil or military governor be dismissed.

   "Who do you want, king," Areshen replied, "standing on the frontiers the next time the barbarians flood into Sumer?  The High Priests?  The High Priest's brother?  Or me?"

   So far Ibisien had always made the correct choice.  At least, Areshen sighed, Ibi still had that much of his grandfather in him.

 

II

 

   Areshen finally stepped over another pile of donkey droppings laying in the street, then through the portal into his house's small entrance chamber.

   "Military governor," old Shathsurinu began as he attempted to push his bent and aged frame from the bench next the entrance chamber's inner door in order to announce Areshen's arrival.

   "Sit, old friend," and Areshen lay a hand to the old man's shoulder in gentle restraint, then stole a glance through the inner door leading into the house's courtyard.  Several of the household's other servants, like the doorman belonging to Setith rather than to himself, wandered from one room to another across the courtyard, though Setith herself was nowhere in sight.  Sighing a measure of relief, Areshen lowered himself to Shathsurinu's bench.

   "All right, old man," Areshen began, "give it to me straight, no art, or I'll have you hung by your feet and flogged."

   Shathsurinu coughed a long, mirthful laugh, then leaned closer and spoke in a low, conspiratorial voice.

   "Actually, military governor, she's in an unusually good mood.  The captain of the Erub was here less than an hour ago."

   "Is that right?" Areshen asked, the trace of relief settling into his smile.  The Erub, one the larger of that grand fleet of cargo vessels Setith owned, had been several weeks overdue.  The Erub's loss would not have been a major financial tragedy to someone as wealthy as Setith, though it would have annoyed her, and Setith annoyed was best avoided by husband and servants alike.

   "Priests of Nanna and Ningal also visited," Shathsurinu continued, "offering to sell the town of Polanu to the mistress at the price the mistress had proposed.  The Lady Setith is now High Priestess of the goddess Kethlicuri, a divine Lady held in high esteem up and down the Pendurum Canal."

   "Then Setith has had a good day," Areshen stated, another measure of smiling relief in his features.

   "I believe so, military governor," Shathsurinu answered.  "She hasn't even kicked me.  Not once, all day long."

   Areshen chuckled, though only because the old man did so himself.  Areshen, however, was not in the least amused with the way Setith treated her servants, particularly old Shathsurinu, a former first soldier who after his discharge had failed as a private leather merchant in Nippur.  When Shathsurinu and his family had traveled to Ur and approached Areshen offering themselves for sale and asking that Areshen recommend them to Setith, Areshen had begged Shathsurinu to look for a gentler mistress.  Areshen had agreed to intercede on Shathsurinu's behalf only when the old man had repeated his plea, saying that he had been turned down everywhere else, would have to try the temple farms or one of the construction yards along the new canal, a fate even worse than Setith.

   Setith's treatment of Shathsurinu's daughter had been a trying annoyance several months ago, one of those few instances in which Areshen had found it necessary to strap on his courage, stand in front of his wife, and just issue his pronouncement.  Areshen had been well within his right to stand before Setith and declare, "I have spoken."  The house and all of Setith's business ventures belonged to her, but the household, as long as they were married, was his, legally and finally.  Issuing orders to Setith, however, was quite as exciting as issuing orders to the hulking Saran had been in his first military camp.  In this case, Areshen had found circumstances dictating that he do so, in the end, he supposed, the only real principle he believed in.

   Shathsurinu's daughter had spilled wine onto Setith's dress at the dinner table or some such thing.  In a rage, Setith had ordered that a wooden post be driven into the dirt in the middle of the courtyard, the entire household then assembled to witness the punishment.  The girl's arms had then been tied to the post, her body suspended above the ground.  A nail had then been driven through the girl's hands.

   Setith had fully intended to leave the girl hanging in the courtyard until she died.  Even when Areshen returned home and ordered that the girl be cut down, Setith had protested with all manner of pouting and whining for the next two days, as usual her cries ending with the words, "you do not love me anymore."

   Areshen stretched his feet beside Shathsurinu on the entrance chamber's bench for another long moment and wondered.  He had loved Setith very deeply twenty years ago when they had married.  And Setith certainly carried those twenty years well.  Setith was without doubt one of the most beautiful women in Ur, arguably in all of Sumer and Akkad.  But there was something about her which had changed.  Areshen himself had had to discipline soldiers many times over the past twenty years, had had to do so far more often in recent years from a military governor's throne.  But Areshen was pleased to think that his judgments had been dispassionate, rational and just even when the judgment was death.  And there was certainly nothing barbaric in standard methods of military execution, a quick flash of the ax, perhaps just a brief instant's physical pain, though certainly no more than was necessary.  There just seemed something very needless and irrational about nailing a girl's hands to a wooden post over a few drops of spilled wine.

   "It is a perfectly acceptable manner of disciplining servants," Setith had pouted.  "It is quite in accord with the dictates of Holy Order.  The High Priest Shubari has said so himself."

   I'm sure he has, Areshen sighed as he pushed himself form the entrance chamber's bench to his feet.  Shubari, sitting on top of his temple, has spoken, probably in between farts.  One of these days a few ten thousand servants and canal diggers and farm laborers belonging to the temple were going to start wondering if Shubari and his precious temple were worth having nails driven through their hands.  Shubari would once again crawl through the Sacred Area's walls into the king's palace begging for the army's help.  And Ibisien, with a wide smirk of pleasure on his face, would ask Shubari if Nanna and Ningal were sleeping again.

   "I suppose," Ibisien had stated when Shubari had crawled into the palace several months ago asking that a slave revolt in the canal yards near Nippur be put down, "if Nanna and Ningal, who in their benevolent though mysterious wisdom saw fit to make you, Shubari, rather than me, Ibisien, High Priest, are unwilling or unable to suppress the revolt themselves, I can prevail upon the military governor."

   Ibisien had summoned Areshen to the palace a week later, Ibisien in no hurry to see the slave revolt at Nippur suppressed.  Anything which was a source of irritation to Shubari and the temple was a source of drunken, giggling delight to Ibisien and the palace.

   "Areshen, my sweet," Ibisien painted as delicately as ever had pouted when Areshen had finally arrived at the palace, "Shubari and his servants are squabbling again, in Nippur this time.  Something about nails.  Be a darling for me and go do something about it."

   With his usual shudder, Areshen had turned from Ibisien fondling two of his pet boys, and then set off for Nippur several days to the north.  Scrounging a half dozen Sixties of chariot and short sword along the way, all that was really necessary in the situation, Areshen had then chased several thousand terrified canal workers back into the hands of their task masters.  In an irritable mood because of the annoyance, Areshen had then lined the taskmasters and the High Priests who oversaw the task masters onto the banks of the canal and demanded to know why it was necessary for the armies of Sumer and Akkad, busy as it was along the frontiers, to waste their time chasing canal diggers back into their camps.

   "Have they lost their faith?" Areshen had sneered in anger.  "Or have your gods run out of nails?"

   "Wonderful speech, Areshen," Ibisien had giggled in delight when Areshen had returned to Ur's palace.  "Shubari is livid.  The Sacred Area's walls tremble with his farts."

   Ibisien, however, had taken care to maintain a sufficient distance between himself and Areshen, Ur's king now and again glancing toward the sky from the palace's courtyard, watching for the bolt of lightning which must certainly strike down Ur's blasphemous military governor one of these days.

   Areshen lay a hand to Shathsurinu's shoulder one final time, sighed resignation, and then stepped from the house's entrance chamber into the courtyard, one of the largest in this part of Ur, the building's basic design, however, not far different than most others in the city.  Setith's rooms and chambers, a half dozen of the building's largest, lay on the east side of the courtyard, Areshen's, three smaller chambers, on the west.  On the north lay the kitchens and stores, on the south the servant's quarters.  Areshen stood gazing toward a date palm growing in the center of the courtyard, then spun quickly about when he sensed stealthy movement from behind.  Etwabi and Kinshith, very attractive Akkadian serving girls belonging to Setith, both naked, lunged as soon as Areshen turned.

   "I'll have you both flogged," Areshen barked, fixing his expression into the arrogant scowl which Setith wore when addressing misbehaving servants.  "I'll have you both beheaded," Areshen tried, though quite aware that it sounded more a plaintive cry than anything else.

   The girls, giggling in delight, seized Areshen by the arms and pulled him across the courtyard toward his own chambers, then into a small sitting room.

   "Flog me first, military governor," Etwabi crooned as she and Kinshith pushed Areshen down onto the floor cushions, then removed his clothing.

   "Just once," Areshen sighed in defeat as he lay back, the girls now running damp towels over his body, "I would like to be shown the least little bit of respect in my own house."

   "We respect you, Areshen," Kinshith answered, her expression the epitome of dignity and propriety, for less than a second, however.  Areshen rolled his eyes in despair as Kinshith and Etwabi broke into mirthful, clearly disrespectful laughter, dipping their towels into basins of water next to the floor cushions and returning to a task both seemed genuinely to delight in.

   Sighing, laying back again in defeat, Areshen was quite aware it was his own fault that he couldn't even wash the street dust from his own body in his own house.  In fortresses and military camps across Sumer and Akkad even First Soldiers who resembled old Saran, towering hulks their bodies covered with all manner of battle scars, now stood trembling in awe at the approach of the military governor of Ur, the army in its entirety quite aware that its current commander was far less inclined to tolerate lapses in discipline which had grown into acute problems under Areshen's immediate predecessors.  But those were free soldiers, Areshen realized as he stole a quick glance toward the girls now engrossed in their work.  No one had forced his soldiers to lift sword in hand and pledge their lives to king and palace.  They had done so of their own free will, and deserved a military governor who cared enough to insist that discipline be enforced.

   Areshen glanced again toward the girls, and could not understand how Setith could treat them the way she did, girls who were absolutely, unequivocally dependent on Setith for everything, including their lives.  Etwabi and Kinshith, in particular among Setith's servants, had been loyal and faithful for years now, genuinely respectful whenever Setith addressed them.  But the girls were not free.  What else did Setith want from them?  What, for that matter, did Shubari and High Priests all across Sumer and Akkad want from a multitude of others who worked the temple's farms and dug the temple's canals?  Areshen delighted in the light hearted laughter of the girls now washing his body in gentle and caressing touch, was pleased that Setith had not yet broken their spirits.  Areshen was quite aware that he could never bring himself to address them with anything other than clearly feigned anger.  Areshen would certainly never see the household servants as soldiers.  Why do Setith and so many thousands of other household mistresses want their houses devoid of laughter, expressions of dour submission and defeat on every servant's face?  This was never Ur, certainly not the Ur of Areshen's youth.

   And one more revolt in the canal yards, Areshen decided with a defiant measure of anger, and he was going to lead the first Sixty into the Sacred Area, grasp Shubari's fat face with his hands, and demand to know why all these canal and farm revolts had begun as soon as Shubari himself had been proclaimed High Priest.

   "Oh Areshen, my sweet," Ibisien had giggled in the palace, though he had done so, of course, from a safe distance, "you will take me with you when you invade the temple?"

   "Are you not worried, king, that Nan  -  Nin  -  whoever, will strike you down?" Areshen had asked, sighing then for the dismay settling into the king's features.  Ibisien, at least to an extent, was worried, one eye searching the sky for the bolt of lightning.

   "Military governor," Etwabi crooned as she drew an affectionate arm about Areshen's neck, "do not frown.  It ruins your beauty," and Areshen found himself chuckling in easier humor as Etwabi leaned, her kiss to his cheek something more than gentle affection.  Etwabi raised her eyes to Areshen's for another long moment, the same expression of pleading in the girl's features.  Maybe soon, Etwabi, Areshen answered in voiceless intimacy.  Etwabi returned another moment's pleading with her smile, pleading, Areshen knew, to become his lawful concubine.  Kinshith, Areshen noticed, wore little more than gentle amusement in her own features.  Kinshith was quite aware that Etwabi was deeply in love with Areshen.

   For another long moment Areshen wandered through fortresses and military camps in cities all across Sumer and Akkad, realized again that he would always feel an intense satisfaction for the spontaneous salutes and ovations he received from garrisons on parade, subordinate civil and military governors alike standing with barely concealed expressions of envy as their commands demonstrated their loyalty and affection toward Ur's military governor.

   Still, Areshen felt some genuine warmth for the love these two serving girls expressed for him, girls who were obviously not afraid to seize the most powerful man in the world by the arms and fling him onto the floor cushions in his own sitting room.

   "That's better," Etwabi crooned when she noticed the gentle ease and humor now settling into Areshen's eyes.  "Do you still love me, Areshen?"

   "Of course I love you," Areshen chuckled.

   Sensual entrancement now in Etwabi's eyes, she leaned again, this time meeting Areshen's lips with her own, a long moment's gentle though searching passion in her touch.  Areshen felt just as genuine a love for Etwabi wash through his heart, raising his hands to her cheeks in easy, caressing touch.  Kinshith, still smiling amusement, busied herself arranging the towels, would slip away if the lovers failed to emerge from their growing entransement with each other.  Areshen released himself to another long moment's growing passion in Etwabi's arms, taking her finally and obviously into a lover's embrace, stealing a glance of appreciation toward Kinshith preparing to leave.  Areshen's eyes then settled toward the sitting room's door, his frenzied sensual entrancement dissipating in an instant.

   Setith, dressed in all her flowing glory and regalia, swept into the chamber accompanied by three male servants swishing fans and another carrying her portable throne.

   "There," Setith snapped as she pointed, and the portable throne was placed against one of the sitting room's walls, Setith installed upon the throne a quick moment later.

   Areshen sighed another second's resignation, gently urging Etwabi still writhing in entranced frenzy back into consciousness, chuckling with easy amusement for Etwabi's soft gasp as the girl realized that her mistress sat watching her from six feet away.  Areshen then settled his gaze toward his wife for another long moment as two of the male servants arranged the folds of her majestic skirts about her feet, Setith, as usual, scowling a half dozen "you fools" as she directed the procedure.  Setith, Areshen realized again, even though her features seemed perpetually twisted into an expression of annoyance and demand, was indeed quite as beautiful as she had been twenty years ago, a stunning, piercing beauty envied from one side of the city to the other.  Gone though, perhaps forever, Areshen sighed, was that gentle innocence which had so touched his heart when they had first been married.

   "Beloved," Areshen began, "you are looking well."

   "You as well, beloved," Setith answered, a hint of the old, gentle warmth still about the edges of her features, perhaps amusement as she gazed toward the lingering sensual entrancement just now fading from both Areshen's and Etwabi's features.  Areshen was certain that he still loved Setith, just as certain that Setith still loved him, at least as far as she was capable of loving anyone.  Many things which had been of paramount importance to Setith twenty years ago, however, were triviality today, other matters taking their place.

   "And you are now High Priestess of Ke  -  Ka  - "

   "Kethlicuri, beloved," Setith answered, pride most likely motivating the trace of a smile she now wore.  "A respectable little temple."

   In other words, as profitable as a hundred other small temples in the southern part of Sumer over which Setith was already High Priestess, and Areshen lay his head back to the floor cushions as Etwabi and Kinshith now ran their towels across his body with professional detachment, the laughter gone from their eyes.

   "I am pleased, beloved," Areshen answered, wondering if Setith suspected how little he cared about another temple.  She probably did, Areshen decided, the wispy smile in her features concealing a mind as brilliant and as perceptive as any Areshen could imagine.

   "Beloved husband," Setith then continued, and Areshen opened his eyes for the sudden note of affection in his wife's voice, hoping that whatever she was going to ask for would not be totally outrageous.  "It seems that I have also been noticed by Leshinuthu and Bilthu  - "

   "Lesh  -  who?"

   "The patron deities of Bathul, beloved," patient amusement in Setith's voice.

   "Oh Setith," Areshen groaned.  "Bathul  -  that's a long and dangerous journey upriver.  The city pledges, at best, nominal allegiance to Isin."

    Indeed, Areshen sighed, a half dozen senior officers attached to his military headquarters currently residing in Isin had advised that Bathul be sacked once again.

   "Husband, I must go to Bathul.  How can I not?  Leshinuthu and Bilthu have called me by name.  As I lay sleeping on my bed last night - "

   "Yes, beloved, of course," Areshen sighed, wondering why in forty two years he had never once received a nocturnal visitation from any of Sumer's gods himself.  "But Setith, Bathul is a city, one of the largest in Akkad  - " and Areshen sighed in desperation when he realized that he was arguing against himself.  Setith was quite aware that Bathul was a city; her agents and spies probably knew the whereabouts of every last ounce of gold in Bathul's coffers.  "And La  -  whatever, has called upon you to be his  -  her, whatever, High Priestess, beloved?"

   "Yes, beloved," a glint very like a shimmer of polished gold, Areshen decided, flooding across Setith's eyes.  "I have received a message from my agents in Bathul confirming the revelation I received from the city's patron deities.  The entire temple in convocation has pronounced Leshinuthu's and Bilthu's call authentic.  They have called me by name."

   In other words, Areshen suspected, finding it necessary to restrain or at the very least conceal his amusement, Bathul's patron gods had been paid off by Setith's agents, the High Priests composing the temple's convocation acting as financial intermediaries between Setith and said gods.

   "Well, Setith," Areshen sighed, "I suppose you are as capable and as responsible a High Priestess as Shubari is a High Priest here in Ur."

   "Husband, I assure you, you will have far fewer revolts to suppress in Bathul when I am installed there as High Priestess.  I shall reside in Bathul's temple palace myself at least four months a year."

   "Oh?" Areshen replied, genuine amusement now in his features as he recognized possible advantages in the situation.  It was indeed a long and dangerous journey upriver to Bathul.  The city itself, however, was prosperous and stable, its civil and military governors reasonably competent men even if they did tend to act a bit independently at times.  Still, all Areshen really need do was write them asking that they keep an eye on Setith, dissuade her from anything overtly malicious, overlook that which was mere mischief.  And Setith was indeed right about one very important matter - there had been relatively few insurrections in towns over which she was already High Priestess, though Areshen wasn't really certain why.  Setith was no one's idea of a gentle task mistress.  But the advantages, Areshen again thought, a soft, contented smile breaking across his features - Setith in Bathul four months a year, far, far away Bathul.

   "Then you do not object, beloved?" Setith asked when she noticed Areshen's smile.

   "No, beloved.  You may go to Bathul," Areshen answered, his smile broader still when he realized there would be no reason to listen to Setith's pleading for the next two months.  "But Setith, please be gentle with Bathul.  It's pledge of submission to me and Isin is hedging and tentative at best.  It needs to be sacked again, but I haven't found the time.  Don't do anything to aggravate the situation."

   "Areshen," Setith replied, protest in her voice, "I am always gentle.  Etwabi, Kinshith, am I not a gentle mistress?"

   "Of course, mistress," Kinshith replied.

   "Yes, mistress," Etwabi replied, sincerity in the girl's voice, perhaps even protest equal to Setith's.

   "Please, beloved," Areshen just continued.  "I cannot understand some of the things that you do."

   "Areshen, you are a soldier, one of unprecedented acclaim, but you just do not understand Holy Order."

   "I used to, before the High Priest Shubari became its interpreter."

   "Areshen, everyone and everything has its place.  That has not changed.  Even Shubari, an atrocious lump of lard sitting on top of the temple intentionally farting into the faces of the gods, cannot change Holy Order."

   Areshen broke into a soft chuckle.  He could never accuse Setith of not retaining at least a measure of her sense of humor.

   "And beloved," Setith continued, "you intentionally tamper with Holy Order yourself when you consort with the servants as though they were your equals and your friends.  Dear Etwabi and Kinshith, for instance.  I'm doing nothing more than looking out for their best interests, would be scandalously remiss in my duty to them did I not order them whipped when they needed it.  I know you love the girls, Areshen; I love you all the more because you do.  But they are children.  You may love them without reservation or restraint, but you must never allow them to presume themselves capable of deciding what is in their own best interest.  Nothing would more disturb Holy Order or provoke the wrath of the gods.  And beloved, you must take Etwabi into concubinage if you and she are going to continue having sex with each other.  You are the only governor in Sumer and Akkad who does not bother to take concubines, Areshen.  People are beginning to talk.  You flaunt Holy Order.  There is a proper way in everything."

   "Of course, beloved," Areshen sighed, deciding, however, on one more attempt at irreverent protest. "But Setith, nails through servant's hands?  That seems a bit  -  harsh, at least to me.  What perverted god told Shubari that that was a proper means of discipline?" and Areshen twisted questioning eyes toward Setith.  As he might have suspected, Setith just gazed down from the heights of her throne with an expression of benevolent tolerance, quite as though she might toward a barbarian from the western deserts who couldn't possibly understand the complexities of Sumer's faith or social customs.

   "Beloved," Setith pronounced as she stretched an arm toward one of the male servants who lifted her from the throne, "come visit me tonight in my chambers.  We will fornicate with each other, and then we will discuss it all further."

   Areshen nodded, watched Setith and her entourage depart, and then settled back onto the floor cushions, his mood not really foul, though as usual after an audience with Setith, not what it had been before.  Oh for the days when he and Setith had made love, Areshen sighed.  Now that Setith was High Priestess of this and that's temple in towns all across Sumer and Akkad, they fornicated, the act somehow different in Setith's mind, as though forbidden to ordinary people.  Now that Setith was High Priestess of Bathul, a throne become in recent years quite as prestigious as Ur's and Shubari's, Areshen supposed he and Setith would be required to put on public performances laying on a temple's altar, a few dozen gawking priest standing in a circle applauding.  Not, Areshen decided, on a bet.  Holy Order be damned.

   Etwabi and Kinshith both released a noticeable measure of tension with Setith's departure, though even their moods now remained subdued.

   "Enough," Areshen sighed as he pushed the towels away.  "Please," he repeated, gentle vehemence in his voice when they hesitated.

   Both Etwabi and Kinshith pushed themselves from the floor cushions, then toward the door.  Kinshith passed through the door into the courtyard.  Etwabi, however, turned back toward Areshen, the emotional plea clearly evident in her features.  Areshen gazed toward a young woman he genuinely loved for another quick moment, as usual impressed with the keen intelligence which darted from her eyes, and then raised an arm toward her.  With a gentle sigh of relief, Etwabi pushed herself back to the floor cushions and once more settled herself into Areshen's arms.

   Areshen met Etwabi's lips with his own in a moment's soft, affectionate touch.  He then reached for her hands, and spent another long moment examining the scars.  The flesh through which the nails had been driven was now healed, as much as it would probably ever heal.  Physically, the wounds did nothing to diminish the young woman's striking beauty, though Areshen wondered how else they had affected her.  Kinshith and most of the younger of Setith's other female servants spent endless hours adorning themselves with all manner of perfume and jewelry and every sort of finery, each hoping that the next young man with whom they became romantically involved would approach Setith asking for her permission to propose marriage.  As intransigent as Setith could be in most matters, she never refused her servant's suitors, asking only the original purchase price if the young man could afford it, extending credit at generous rates of interest if he could not.

   Etwabi, however, seemed to take no interest whatsoever in the myriad of proposals a young woman as beautiful as she could expect to receive, ignored the young men who flocked about her whenever she was sent to the market square, just came home and insisted she was happy with Setith, still happy with Setith, even after Setith had suspended her from a post in the middle of the courtyard with a nail driven through her hands.

   "Areshen  - " Etwabi began as she brushed a gentle hand to his cheek, a questioning expression in her features for the concern in his own.

   "Etwabi," Areshen began, his own expression breaking from anger into gentle warmth, "I could find you a husband without difficulty.  You certainly do not want to remain here with Setith."

   "I do," Areshen.  At least for now."

   "Etwabi  - " Areshen sighed, and Etwabi grasped his hands, gentle ease in her features.

   "Areshen, the mistress loves me very deeply."

   "Etwabi," Areshen gasped, "she hung you from a post  - "

   "She loves me, Areshen."

   "And she said the High Priests told her that it was a perfectly acceptable means of punishment."

   "Of course she did, Areshen.  She had to.  She hated what she had to do to me, but how can you defy Holy Order?"

   "Etwabi  - "

   "Areshen, you do not understand.  It was not at all that which it seemed to you.  Areshen, will you listen?  Patiently?"

   Areshen sighed, laying back in defeat.

   "The mistress was angry, of course.  But it was not from her anger that she acted as she did.  She consulted with the High Priests very carefully; she always does when she finds it necessary to punish one of us.  The morning of my punishment, the mistress came to me and fell on her knees in front of me crying.  'Oh my beloved Etwabi,' she said to me, 'the gods have lost their minds.  I should never have gone to the High Priest,' and I was shocked as I looked at her, Areshen.  Even though I am a child, I knew that the mistress should not speak so.  She told me the punishment the gods had revealed to the High Priest.  'Beloved Etwabi,' the mistress said and I was terrified by the look in her eyes now.  'Shubari is insane.  We will run away together to one of my towns where the gods are not so cruel.'  I was shocked, Areshen, and I was frightened.  I pled with the mistress and I took her hands into my own.  I would never have dared do anything like that before.  I begged the mistress not to defy Nanna and Ningal because they are more powerful than almost every other god and would find us no matter where we ran and would then be very angry with the mistress.  When the High Priest Executioner came the mistress took me into her arms and she wouldn't let me go.  'I was wrong to come to you,' the mistress screamed at the High Priest Executioner.  'Tell Shubari, that fat, far  - ' well, the mistress can speak just like a soldier when she wants to.  The High Priest Executioner, however, was a very pious and wise young man.  He explained to the mistress and me why we must not defy Holy Order."

   Areshen nodded, settling into a long moment's speculative wonder.  It had just been too long, he supposed, since he and Setith had spent more than brief and fleeting moments with each other, Setith scurrying from one temple to another seeing to all manner of financial concern, he to fortresses and military camps along the frontiers, a dozen tribes of barbarians a constant, unrelenting nuisance.  Setith, defying the High Priest?  And doing so on a servant's behalf?  Perhaps there was indeed a trace of the girl Areshen had married twenty years ago remaining in Setith.  He just couldn't be certain, however, Areshen realized again, little doubting that Setith's invitation to join her in her chambers this evening would be forgotten as affairs of business and temple drove triviality such as sex from her mind.  Setith had extended Areshen any number of such invitations to her chambers over the past few years, just the hint of sensual intrigue about the edges of her features.  Invariably, however, sometime during the course of the day, a servant would appear with the mistress' apologies, the mistress detained with temple and business matters of one sort or another.

   Perhaps, Areshen sighed as he again wrapped Etwabi into his arms in a long moment's gentle silence, perhaps that young executioner priest had indeed been a pious, sincere young man.  But what of the High Priest Shubari, and once more Areshen felt the old anger course through his being.  So many thousands of gentle, trusting creatures like the young woman he now held in his arms waiting for Shubari to descend from the temple and reveal the latest pronouncement from the gods, and Shubari just farts out, "nails."  Yes, Areshen groaned in anger, one of these days he was going to haul that farting piece of blubber off the temple and pound a few nails through his hands.  Perhaps Shubari would then decide that he had misinterpreted the latest pronouncement from Ur's  -  stinking gods.  Let the lightning came, and Areshen glared toward the ceiling in anger.  Do it now.  You might not have another chance.

   "Areshen, you're frowning again," Etwabi whispered in a gentle, soothing voice, caressing Areshen's shoulders until she felt his tension subside.

   "Etwabi, perhaps Setith is right.  Perhaps I do not understand.  I certainly do not understand you.  Your family's gods are not Ur's gods.  You have said so yourself many times, as does your brother every time he visits."

   "Teru," Etwabi continued with a soft chuckle, "is a nuisance to you, isn't he, Areshen?  He knows you love me.  He speaks presumptuously because of it."

   "He speaks his mind, Etwabi.  He just does not realize that he is wasting it one the person to whom he is speaking.  The total of my understanding of our gods could be written on one, single, small tablet.  I could never begin to understand his gods as well."

   "Teru has only one."

   "Who has told him that he and his whole family must leave Ur for the north."

   "Yes."

   "You should go with him, Etwabi.  Setith would not object."

   Areshen felt immediately the intimate strength in Etwabi's embrace.  He no longer attempted to deny the depth of his feeling for her, however, and again pulled her into his arms.

   "Areshen  - " Etwabi tried, almost a soft, pleading cry as she met his eyes.  Areshen just pulled her head onto his shoulder, held a woman he genuinely loved in warm embrace, and wondered again why he had not just gone ahead and made her his concubine.  She had pled so many times now.  Setith certainly did not seem to object, had, as a genuine expression of her own love for Areshen, offered to release Etwabi to him at five sixths the price she had paid for her.  Other civil and military governors kept as many as a dozen concubines.  Both these other governors and Setith thought it exceptionally bizarre that the military governor of Ur, not a wealthy man, but certainly far from destitute, kept none.

   Again Etwabi raised pleading eyes to Areshen.

   "Perhaps soon, Etwabi," Areshen began in a gentle voice.  "Give me a little more time, beloved," and Areshen felt again the intimate strength of Etwabi's arms as she cried for the word.

   "I love you, Areshen," she whispered.

   "What would your brother say, Etwabi?"

   "You know what he would say, Areshen.  He would be furious."

   "He would be furious if he saw us now, I suppose," Areshen chuckled.

   "Stop, Areshen," though he couldn't restrain another soft chuckle, quite aware that Etwabi still felt at least a twinge of concern for the simple fact that she was naked as she lay in Areshen's arms.

   "Etwabi," her brother, fanatical in his devotion to his strange god native somewhere to the western deserts, had gasped the last time he had visited, "you are naked."

   Areshen, just as naked at the time, had stared back in amusement and confusion.  Half of Ur was naked at least half the time.  Ur's gods didn't seem to have much to say on the matter.

   "Besides," Etwabi finally continued, "Teru will forget me when he leaves Ur.  They all will.  They'll be far away in the north."

   "You will be lonely, Etwabi.  And they will take their gods  -  their god with them.  Will you not be lonely without your god, Etwabi?"

   Areshen felt Etwabi's soft chuckle, and realized that another woman was staring toward him as though she might toward a barbarian from the western deserts.

   "Teru's god does not live in stone, Areshen, or so Teru says.  I really don't understand all of Teru's words myself.  I suppose that is why he is always so furious with me."

   Areshen released a long sigh, deciding to change the subject before the onset of the inevitable headache any discussion of the gods caused him.

   "I see Ibisien later this afternoon," Areshen continued in an idle and complacent tone.  "Actually, I should be at the palace now, but he  can wait."

   Etwabi broke into a soft chuckle, quite aware that Areshen held Ur's king in esteem only slightly higher than he held the High Priest Shubari and Ur's gods.  Etwabi was also quite aware, however, of where the real power in Sumer and Akkad lay these days.  She was holding the man who wielded it in her own arms.  Areshen had no pressing need to bow in respect to anyone, though Areshen being Areshen, he still offered the pretense of a bow to Ur's king, at least in public.

   "I'm going to ask Ibisien about this nail thing," Areshen continued.  "It is quite within the purview of the Assembly to nullify this asinine foolishness of Shubari's, and they are damn well going to do it."

   "My brother respects you, Areshen," Etwabi just said, chuckling for the expression of amaze in Areshen's features.  "Teru says that you are a decent man, god fearing in your own way, even if you don't believe in god."

   "Most people call me 'the man with no god of his own,'" Areshen chuckled.

   "Teru disagrees, Areshen."

   "Has he been talking to his god again?"

   "You really are awful, Areshen.  I am certainly going to loose you to a lightning bolt."

   Areshen chuckled, glanced toward the ceiling, then chuckled a bit more softly.

   "Teru says that it will be his son who talks to god."

   "To god?"

   "That's how Teru says it.  I don't understand Teru either.  He also said something very frightening, Areshen.  He said that the nails will be gone before the end of the year because Sumer is ruled by a decent man and the nails are an aberration.  But Teru says there will come a time, many years from now, when a land even greater than Sumer will rule the world, another land which will use nails against their own people, and they will drive nails even into the hands and feet of our god."

   Areshen met Etwabi's eyes in silence for a long moment, genuine concern for her in his own.  Areshen could not help but notice the gentle faith in Etwabi's voice whenever she spoke of the gods, or god, as her brother Teru put it.  Perhaps that was why he had never made Etwabi his concubine.  Teru planned to take his whole family into the north.  As bitter as the arguments between Teru and Etwabi had been, Areshen had always sensed a genuine love between brother and sister whenever he had seen them together.  Areshen further suspected that Etwabi was far more pious than she would admit even to herself at the moment.  If Etwabi did remain in Ur when Teru and his family migrated into the north, Areshen knew that he would never abandon her, would most certainly never allow her to again endure the pain the High Priests had subjected her to.  Again, however, Areshen heard the gentle faith in Etwabi's voice, and genuinely doubted that she would be happy remaining in Ur once her family had gone, no matter how much she loved him.

 

III

 

   Shubari se Kerbi, High Priest of the High Priests of Nanna and Ningal, processed from the Sacred Area's Sacred Palace to the steps of the temple accompanied by the Noble Priests, the Incantation Priests, the Throne Bearer Priests, the Executioner Priests, the Libations Priest, the Incense Priest, the Lower Order Priests, and many other priests, the entire route of the procession across Ur's Sacred Area well protected by heavily armed contingents of the temple guard.

   Beneath the towering walls of the temple, Ur's the House of the Unending Union Between Heaven and Earth, another Sixty of the temple guard armed with pike and short sword stood to attention.  The High Priest Shubari, outstanding in the midst of a sea of flowing, fluttering robes due both to the fact of the High Priest's massive bulk as well as the ostentatious majesty of his own regalia, stood for another brief moment at the base of the temple's steps gazing with an expression of benevolent concern toward the faithful of Ur now crowded among the palaces, courtyards, and workshops within the Sacred Area's walls.  A dozen Incantation Priests, those who would accompany the High Priest the entire distance to the top of the temple, sighed with relief.  At least Shubari endeavored to maintain a demeanor of pious solemnity in public.  If the manner in which the High Priest Shubari comported himself in the Divine Chamber atop the temple ever became a topic of popular discussion, a far greater percentage of the temple's revenue accumulated in the Great Court of Nanna would have to be expended paying for the guards the Sacred Area would need.

   Shubari finally settled his mass onto the portable throne, and a dozen Throne Bearer Priests bent toward gold plated carry poles extending to the front and to the rear of the throne, the priests groaning in strain as they lifted it and its massive occupant onto their shoulders.  Followed by those priests who would accompany the High Priest up the slopes of Ur's Holy Mountain, the High Priest Shubari began his ascent to the domain of the gods.

   Shubari allowed his features to lapse into apathy as the distance from the admiring crowds of faithful standing at the base of the temple increased.  He glanced another long moment toward the roofs of the king's palace just now visible to the south of the Sacred Area's walls.  Ibisien, Shubari muttered, his brow wrinkled in annoyance; Ibisien, a lover of boys and men, who was probably sitting in his palace squirming in giggling delight as his scribes, poets, and portrait carvers labored with pen or chisel extolling the virtue and justice of a king who was seldom sober enough to appreciate any of it anyway.  Ibisien, however, was by and large harmless, a king, Shubari decided, who reveled in his grandfather's glory and honor, he and his statue carvers completely unconcerned for the fact that he had done nothing himself to merit the glory and honor in which he reveled.  The Assembly, at least, was competent enough to realize this as well, had refrained from petitioning for Ibisien's recognition as a living god.

   Areshen, however, military governor of Ur, was a different matter altogether, far from harmless.  And Shubari was quite aware that the Akkadian city of Isin was now far more than Areshen's military headquarters.  How dare that blasphemous apostate with no god of his own, Shubari seethed, criticize the manner in which the High Priest of the High Priests of Nanna and Ningal oversaw the faithful who worked on the temple's farms and dug the temple's canals?  What does Areshen, a man without even a single concubine, a man who frolics with his wife's servants quite as though they were his friends and his equals, know of the difficulties the High Priest faced as interpreter of Holy Order, the Sacred Vessel through which Nanna and Ningal spoke to the people of Ur?  Perhaps, Shubari decided, when Setith was installed as High Priestess in Bathul, she might be persuaded to pull Areshen back onto his leash.  Then again, Shubari sighed, Setith's cadre of agents and spies was quite as extensive as his own.  And Setith, Shubari sighed again, was a very expensive bitch.

   Shubari's greatest concern, however, was the suppression of any popular movement in which the further privatization of Sumer's farms and factories was again advocated.  It had taken years for Shubari to under the damage the present king's grandfather had done when he had wrested so much of the economy of Sumer from the control of its temple and religious institutions, confiscating farm after farm, factory after factory all across Sumer and Akkad and placing them under the jurisdiction of the king's palace, or even worse, into the hands of private individuals.  Even today there were dozens, perhaps still hundreds of individuals, the bitch Setith for instance, owned by no one, their wealth and their influence rivaling that of the temple in the city in which they resided, a dangerous and blasphemous situation.  People owned by absolutely no one, Shubari mumbled in amaze, people with no one to whip them for the pleasure of the gods.  How perverse society had become under Ibisien's grandfather.  How fortunate that he, Shubari, had become High Priest when he had.  Perhaps, if a few thousand more people were hung from posts with nails driven through their hands, the delicate balance of Holy Order upon which Sumer depended could be restored.

   Shubari doubted that Areshen of Isin, even if he did in fact now rule most of Sumer and Akkad form his military headquarters in Isin, felt any great measure of personal concern regarding social or economic matters in Ur or Sumer.  Shubari doubted that Areshen, raised according to his spies and informants on a pig farm near Sannu, knew a great deal about such matters to begin with.  Areshen was undeniably a brilliant soldier, had completely revitalized the armies of Sumer and Akkad the garrisons of which were loyal to him almost to the last man.  But Areshen had one major flaw which Shubari, High Priest of Nanna and Ningal, could not tolerate.  Areshen was not afraid to fart into the faces of the gods.  I, Shubari seethed, am the only man in Sumer entitled to fart into the faces of the gods.

   Shubari sighed in frustration, this time when he felt the portable throne bump to the floor beneath the entrance chamber's pillars, a tall domed structure on the temple's first terrace which gave access through a rear portal to another set of steps leading up to the temple's summit and the Divine Chamber.  At the entrance chamber's rear portal stood the half dozen male and female prostitutes who spent their days waiting in the entrance chamber hoping to service Nanna and Ningal should god or goddess appear wishing to be serviced.

   With the help of two straining Incantation Priests, Shubari pushed himself from the portable throne and then walked to the chamber's rear portal, glaring with dismay toward the steps which led up to the Divine Chamber, steps, Shubari sighed, which he must climb with nothing more than the shoulders of Incantation Priests for help.  Perhaps, Shubari mused, Nanna and Ningal should pronounce that they had granted their permission for the Throne Bearer Priests to carry the High Priest the rest of the way up.  No, Shubari sighed again, the fewer who knew what really went on in the Divine Chamber, the better, and Shubari turned to the male and female prostitutes who immediately intoned their liturgies.

   "Most noble and exalted High Priest of Nanna," the female prostitutes chanted in unison, "we have waited faithfully and in prayer, beseeching Nanna to come so that we may fornicate with him.  He has not come."

   "Most noble and exalted High Priest of Ningal," the male prostitutes chanted, the same formula with the appropriate variations, the word "not," as usual, inserted into the final line.

   When the holy prostitutes had concluded their liturgies, Shubari stood panting with mouth open for another long moment, though no one in the entrance chamber expected him to deliver the proper response, an ancient liturgy of considerable length and detail.  Everyone in the entrance chamber, however, was quite aware of the advantages of keeping their own mouths shut.  Only the most brazen and daring of gamblers and risk takers chanced revealing the liberties the High Priest Shubari took with proper liturgical procedure.  Most who did so soon felt the bite of the ax to their necks.

   Shubari gazed across the submissive and pious faces in front of him, daring them to show the least hint of emotion as he delivered his response to their liturgy.  Shubari then thrust his face toward the holy prostitutes, his liturgical response a rasping, thundering belch which echoed off the entrance chamber's four walls for a length of time most present would previously have considered impossible.  As usual, the Incantation Priests, particularly those one or two who were devout worshippers of Nanna and Ningal, struggled to control their despondent sighs.  Only they would hear similar liturgical responses resounding off the walls of the Divine Chamber atop the temple, responses intentionally directed toward the Holy Couch on which Nanna and Ningal sat, and emanating from a posterior orifice in the High Priest Shubari's body.

 

   In the beginning, there was water.  Then An separated the waters above from the waters below, and so there were waters above and there were waters below.  It was An who separated the waters above from the waters below.

   Then An said to his wife Tiatul, "come wife, Tiatul, let us fornicate," and so An fornicated with Tiatul.  Then Tiatul said, "Look, An.  I have produced another god because we fornicated."

   An then made a man from the clay of the ground because An was fatigued.  "I will rest now," An said to the man he had made from the clay of the ground, "because I am fatigued.  You shall do my work for me and feed me so that I may rest.  I will fornicate with Tiatul and she will produce many more gods for you to feed.  Then the earth will flourish with cattle and green things of every kind.  Then I shall eat of the produce of the earth which you shall gather for me.  There will be many gods for you to feed."

   The man had sons and daughters and they lived in the south where two rivers flow to the sea.

   Then a flood came, but Gosunuri built a boat and got away.

   Then after the flood the king of Epil came and learned to write, and ruled the entire land of Sumer.  Then every other king since Epil was king has said, "I am the king of Epil," because the king of Epil was a great king who ruled the entire land of Sumer.

   Then the king of Oculu came, but nothing important happened.

   Then the king of Ur came who was called Apanada and said, "I will build a temple which will rise up to heaven."  Then Epenatu was king of Ur.  Epenatu did not die like other kings.  Instead, Epenatu and his entire household, his cup bearer and his harp players, his clowns and his butler, his soldiers and his donkeys, his wives and his concubines, all said to each other, "we will not die like other men."  The reason they said this, the cup bearer and the harp players, the clowns and the butler, the soldiers and the donkeys, the wives and the concubines, was because they loved their king.  "We shall go with the king into his tomb."  And so the entire household of Epenatu, the cup bearer and the harp players, the clowns and the butler, soldiers and donkeys, wife and concubines, accompanied the king into his tomb.  In all, twenty one men and two hundred and fifty six women accompanied Epenatu into his tomb, and so they did not die like other men.

   Then Innana came and leaned against a Tubul tree and looked down on her private parts.  "My private parts are magnificent private parts," Innana said to herself, and she admired her private parts.  "From my private parts shall flow all the wealth of Sumer, the cattle and the green things of the earth of every kind."  That is why the High Priest of Uruk is called the High Priest of Innana, although the people of Akkad say that it was Tursetil who looked down on her private parts in admiration, but it was not.  It was Innana who looked down on her private parts in admiration.

   Then Mestipal was king of Tagru and he said to the High Priest of Tagru, "you are no longer the High Priest of Tagru, because the people of Tagru have cried out to me.  The High Priest of Tagru taxes our cattle, he taxes our beer, he taxes our beds.  We can pay no more taxes."  So the king of Tagru said to the High Priest of Tagru, "let us climb together to the top of the temple.  Have no fear, High Priest of Tagru, for I, the king of Tagru, will certainly not throw you off the top of the temple."   So the king of Tagru climbed to the top of the temple with the High Priest of Tagru.  When the king of Tagru had climbed with the High Priest of Tagru to the top of the temple, the king threw the High Priest off.

   Then Peshenendu was king of Tagru and he gave the temple back to the High Priest when he saw that the gods of Tagru were angry and he realized that it was not right for Mestipal to have thrown the High Priest off the top of the temple.

   The kingship passed to Sargon who built his city in Akkad.  Sargon conquered the whole world.  The Sargon said, "I am a god."  And so Sargon became a god.  Sargon was the first king who became a god, though the people of Sumer say that Sargon did not become a god.  It was Sargon's son who became a god.

   Finally kingship passed back to Ur again and Urnammu became king of Ur.  Urnammu was king of Ur for seventeen years.  Then Shulgi became king of Ur.  Shulgi was king of Ur for seven hundred and forty eight years.  Then Shuasen became king of Ur.  Shuasen was king of Ur for nine years.  Then Ulanu became king of Ur.  Ulanu was king of Ur for nine years.  Then Ibisien became king of Ur.  Ibisien is still king of Ur.

   After kingship had again passed to Ur, Urnammu who ruled for seventeen years said, "I am the king of the Four Quarters of the world."  Then Urnammu wrote down the laws and said, "if a man puts out another man's eye, he must pay that man ten shekels of silver because he has put out another man's eye.  If a man promises to deliver five loads of bricks and he only delivers four loads of bricks, then he must deliver one more load of bricks.  If two men are fighting and one of them grasps the other man's private parts, the man who grasped the other man's private parts shall have his hand cut off unless he pays the other man five shekels of silver."  Urnammu built The House that Rises up to Heaven in Ur.

   Then Shulgi became king of Ur.  Shulgi who ruled Ur for forty seven years said, "I am the High Priest too."  And so Shulgi became the High Priest too.  Then Shulgi said, "Now I am a god."  And so Shulgi became a god.

   Then Shuasen became king of Ur.  Shuasen who ruled Ur for fourteen years didn't do anything important.

   Then Ulanu became king of Ur.  Ulanu who ruled Ur for nine years didn't do anything important either.

   Then Ibisien became king of Ur and king of the Four Quarters, but most people say that Areshen of Isin is king of the Four Quarters.

   This is why.

   The people of Tabru said that Areshen was their king and that Ibisien was not their king because Areshen was their military governor.

   Then Ibisien said to Areshen, "you shall be military governor of Oritu instead of Tabru, because the people of Tabru say that you are king instead of me.  They name the year as they choose instead of according to my command."

   Then the people of Oritu said that Areshen was their king and that Ibisien was not their king because Areshen was their military governor.

   Then Ibisien said to Areshen, "you shall be military governor of Susa instead of Oritu, because the people of Oritu say that you are king instead of me.  They name the year as they choose instead of according to my command."

   Then the people of Susa and the people of Asshur and the people of Dolitu and the people of Nippur and the people of Lituru and many other people said that Areshen was their king and that Ibisien was not their king because Areshen was their military governor.

   Then Ibisien said to Areshen, "why do the people of Susa and the people of Asshur and the people of Dolitu and the people Nippur and the people of Lituru and many other people say that you are king instead of me?  They name the year as they choose instead of according to my command."

   Areshen said, "I don't know, king."

   Most people say that Areshen called Ibisien king because Areshen did not want to be the king.  Still, Areshen did not say to the cities which called him king instead of Ibisien, "you must not call me king instead of Ibisien," even though Ibisien said that Areshen said to the people who called him king instead of Ibisien, "you must not call me king instead of Ibisien."

   Then in the tenth year that Ibisien was king of Ur, the Amuru broke across the wall that Shulgi had built in the north to keep the Amuru out of Sumer and Akkad and the Amuru pillaged Sumer and Akkad.

   Areshen went to the palace and said, "king, you must make me military governor of Tabru or the Amuru will sack it."

   But Ibisien said, "I will not, because the people of Tabru will call you king and name the year as they choose instead of according to my command.  Belslurud will lead the army."

   And so the Amuru sacked Tabru.

   Then Areshen went to the palace and said, "king, you must make me military governor of Akkad or the Amuru will sack it."

   But Ibisien said, "I will not, because the people of Akkad will call you king and name the year as they choose instead of according to my command.  Teredu will lead the army."

   And so the Amuru sacked Akkad.

   Then Areshen went to the palace  -  (fourteen repetitions of the formula omitted)

   Then all the people of Sumer went to the palace and said, "king, you must make Areshen military governor of Isin, because the Amuru have overrun the entire north.  The north no longer sends its grain to the south and we are starving.  Send Areshen to drive the Amuru back across the walls that Shulgi built to keep the Amuru out."

   So the king said to Areshen, "Areshen, you may go to Isin and be the military governor and drive the Amuru back across the wall that Shulgi built to keep the Amuru out, but you must not let the people of Isin call you king and name the year as they choose instead of according to my command."

   Ibisien said this because all the people of Sumer went to his palace and grasped his private parts until he said it.

   Then Areshen gathered the armies of Sumer and Akkad onto boats.  Areshen gathered twenty seven thousand foot soldiers and four hundred and twenty nine chariots onto boats and sailed up the copper river where he slaughtered the Amuru to the last man and then drove all the rest of the Amuru back across the wall that Shulgi had built to keep the Amuru out.  Then Areshen said to the Amuru he did not drive back across the wall that Shulgi had built to keep the Amuru out, "you may remain in Sumer and Akkad.  The High Priests will give you land to farm.  The High Priests will not mistreat you because Sumer and Akkad is a land of law and justice.  The laws have been written down."  Areshen really believed this.  He then showed the chiefs of the Amuru and their horses the laws which Urnammu had written down, and the Amuru and their horses said that they would not sack any more cities because of the justice of the laws which had been written down.

   Then Ibisien said to Areshen, "you are not military governor of Isin anymore.  You will be military governor of Ur."  Ibisien said this because the people of Isin called Areshen their king.  The High Priests of Isin also said that Areshen was a god, and Ibisien wanted Areshen to demand that the people of Isin stop calling Areshen their king and their god.  Ibisien also wanted the people of Sumer and Akkad to let go of his private parts.  But Areshen did not ask the people of Isin to stop calling him their king and their god.  Areshen did, however, make the people of Sumer and Akkad let go of Ibisien's private parts.

   "You must let go of Ibisien's private parts," Areshen said, "or I will have to pay him five shekels of silver."

 

   Areshen glanced up from the tablet for a quick moment, then gazed through a window into the courtyard of Teru's house, a small private school for aspiring young scribes not far from his own house.  A dozen students, most of them very young and the author of the tablet Areshen had been reading most likely among them, were busy at a bench in the middle of the courtyard preparing new writing tablets, picking small pebbles from pales of clay, then packing the clay into small wooden molds.

   Teru se Shathsurinu, Etwabi's brother, made a marginal living as a private teacher here in this house, would have done better teaching in a temple school, but for doctrinal reasons Areshen supposed he would never understand, Teru refused to affiliate himself either with the temple or the High Priest Shubari.

   Areshen glanced another quick moment toward the young man sitting at table across the room.  Twenty five, with bright, intelligent eyes, the resemblance between Teru and Etwabi was striking.  Areshen fell again into the warmth of Etwabi's arms, pondering the passionate, urging strength of her embrace.  Etwabi, before Areshen had left, had pled yet again to become his concubine, Areshen promising to give the matter serious consideration as he stepped through the door, Ibisien and the palace his ultimate destination.  Perhaps, Areshen had then decided, a few minutes conversation with Teru might be settling.  Ibisien and the palace, as usual, could wait.

   Areshen read again the final few lines on the tablet, then with an easy smile pushed it back across the table toward Teru.

   "You will, of course," Areshen stated, "wipe this slate clean."

   The young teacher released a soft chuckle, then answered in complacent resignation.

   "I will, of course.  It seems a pity to do so, however.  An eight year old's tablet onto which a measure of truth has been inscribed is wiped clean, while the archives of temple and palace sit undisturbed, the lies therein contained sanctioned and eventually ennobled.  Sumer would best be served by it gods," Teru sneered, "should those gods descend from the temple and wipe the officially sanctioned slate of Sumer clean."

   "Truth is a dangerous thing in Sumer these days, my young friend.  The archives of Isin will tolerate no more of it than will the archives here in Ur.  Not only am I god in Isin, but now I am Akkadian as well, nine feet tall, son of the king of Mari."

   "You are not?" Teru chuckled, feigned disbelief in his features.

   "It serves no one, Isin or Ur, that I was born on a temple farm a few hour's drive from the walls of Ur and am as Sumer as Ibisien or Shubari.  Anyway, enough of nonsense.  Are you leaving Ur, Teru?"

   "You're quite in love with Etwabi, aren't you, military governor?" Teru asked with a gentle smile.

   "I want her to know happiness, Teru.  I don't want her to suffer needlessly.  She says that you will not take your god with you  -  or cannot take your god with you  - " and Areshen hesitated, glanced about the chamber in vain for Teru's god, then just waited for Teru to explain.

   "Our god can be taken nowhere, Areshen, because he lives in something which can either be harder than stone or metal, or something which can be far more malleable.  He lives in human hearts.  He will always live in Etwabi's heart whether or not she remains in Ur," and Teru glanced toward the child's tablet laying on the table.  "Did you notice young Tethoduri's dissertation on the flood?"

   "Certainly the brevity of it.  'Gosunuri built a boat.'"

   "Tethoduri's family are devout in their worship of An.  They came from a very ancient town where An still appears first on every list of the gods.  'We are privileged,' young Tethoduri argues.  'We need no minor gods to intercede for us.  The god of the sky is our god.'  Then Tethoduri stands in wonder as I argue that there is a god even more ancient than An, a god, in fact, begotten by no one, a god who has never had need of wife or consort.  'How can that be?' young Tethoduri asks.  'Did your god not take a consort, there would be not other gods, no people, no nothing.  Your god would forever be alone.'"

   "And is he?" Areshen asked.

   "No, not as long as there are people like Etwabi, and young Tethoduri in the world.  And you, Areshen."

   "Me?"

   "Three months ago," Teru continued with a soft smile, "Tethoduri's dissertation on the flood might have been as elaborate as that of any other of my students, few of whom can fathom my family's retelling of the flood poem, Sumer's, I will argue, a corruption of the original.  Nor, I suppose, can young Tethoduri yet understand the complexities, though he is obviously now trying to do so.  And I did not tell him to do so, Areshen.  I did no more than recite my family's traditional poem of the flood."

   "The one that has the promise at the end?"

   "I always suspected that you understood more than you would ever admit, Areshen.  Yes, the one with the promise at the end.  Someone else, as I say, told young Tethoduri to listen.  It was not I.  Tethoduri is not yet able to understand our  -  strange god from the deserts, not yet able to expound on truths he suspects lay hidden within that god's poetry.  He now finds that something is lacking in Sumer's traditions, however, a lengthy dissertation on its flood poem not worth his time.  To conclude, Areshen, our god will still be with Etwabi even if I and the rest of my family leave Ur."

   Again Teru broke into a soft smile as the military governor of Ur, the man now proclaimed in most city's library's save Ur's to be the divine king of the Four Quarters of the World, messaged the ache from his head.  The only gods who did not give Areshen of Isin headaches, Teru supposed, were the beer gods in Shensulith Square, gods Areshen was known to reverence with considerable ardor.

   "Teru," Areshen finally stated, "it almost sounds quite as though you would not be unhappy were Etwabi to remain here in Ur with me."

   "I would cry for the distance between Etwabi and me, military governor, not because there would be any distance between Etwabi and god.  And the fact that Etwabi continued to reside in the household of Areshen would not be a matter of concern to me.  Areshen's dissertation on the flood would make Tethoduri's seem verbose."

   "Perhaps that is why they call me the man with no god of his own," Areshen chuckled.

   "I would prefer to think, the man with no gods, Areshen."

   "Oh?  Have you  -  ah  - "

    "Been talking to god again?  Let me just say that I try to listen."

   "Before the battle of Duri Kul, the priests taking the auspices plucked the liver from the sheep, and it was full of worms, the auspices unreadable.  'You must not fight, military governor,' the priests pronounced.  'The gods have spoken.'  I fought anyway, and won, a decisive victory.  Then before the second  battle of Duri Kul, the priests plucked a clean liver from the sheep and slapped it onto the altar.  'The auspices are favorable, military governor.  You will vanquish the Amuru today.  The gods have spoken.'  It rained in the desert; my chariots were mired to their axles in the mud.  No one vanquished anyone that day," and Areshen turned a questioning expression of amusement toward the young man sitting across the table.  Areshen was quite aware that this and most of his other philosophical musings were sources of considerable amusement to Teru.  Areshen was unconcerned for the fact, however.  He genuinely enjoyed his impromptu conversations with this intelligent young man.

   "I own no sheep, Areshen," Teru just chuckled.  "I seldom have the price even of a liver.  So I must do the best I can without them."

   "And I suppose I must do the best I can despite them," Areshen answered, releasing a long sigh of annoyance as he glanced toward the courtyard, the garish and ostentatious magnificence of the palace's courtyards now on his mind.  "I suppose Ibisien will be devastated if I don't put in an appearance today."

   "Why do you bother with Ibisien and Ur, military governor?  Very few others do."

   Areshen chuckled, though Teru's observation was most certainly true.  Ur and the palace of Ibisien were now little more than pretense; a great many, for that matter, were not even bothering with the pretense any more.  Most other civil and military governors in Sumer and Akkad, a few of whom now refereed to themselves as loyal and faithful servant kings of Areshen, divine king of Isin and king of the Four Quarters, addressed their correspondence to Areshen's military headquarters near Isin rather than to Ur and Ibisien.

   "I suppose I still respect Ibisien," Areshen finally answered.  "At leas to an extent."

   "He does nothing," Teru replied, question in his own features.  "He sits in his palace stupefied, a cup of wine in one hand, his latest little boy pet in the other."

   "Which leaves him little time to do much harm, Teru.  But what of Shubari, and Shubari's sitting on top of temples all across Sumer and Akkad?  There seems to have been a rather remarkable renewal in piety across Sumer and Akkad over the past few years, wouldn't you say?  The temples are flourishing.  People flock into the Sacred Area to pay their taxes without a single visit from the temple guard."

   "When the Amuru poured across the walls eight years ago, people began trickling back into the temple here in Ur.  When the famine came, the trickle became a flood."

   "And now Shubari is old king  -  what's his name, all over again," and Areshen nodded toward the writing tablet laying on the table.  "Half the people in Ur are ready to follow fat Shubari into his tomb, Teru.  Those who do so will be very annoyed when the harp and pipe players fall silent and the music blown from Shubari's hind end is all the bounces off the crypt's walls."

   "In other words," Teru chuckled, "you are asking how so many people can follow a man like Shubari, his  -  eccentricities during liturgical services atop the temple known to more than a few."

   "It is the same, my advisors and agents in Isin tell me, everywhere in Sumer and Akkad.  Even in Nippur, especially in Nippur," Areshen sighed in frustration.  The high temple of Enlil, the god Enlil for centuries now supreme in the Sumerian pantheon of the gods, lay in the city of Nippur, a city considered sacred across Sumer and Akkad and the office of its High Priest, ceremonially at least, a position even more prestigious than Shubari's in Ur.  Even in Nippur, however, especially in Nippur, Areshen sighed again, the High Priest enjoyed the unswerving loyalty of the city's Sumerian and Akkadian populace, driving nails through their hands one after the other.  Nippur, however, had also been the site of the most recent slave revolt by a tribe of Amuru which had been settled there by Areshen after the war, a tribe the chiefs of which had believed Areshen when he had told them that Sumer was a land of law and justice.

   "Is it true," Teru chuckled, a moment's mirth in his features, "that you presented the tablets of Urnammu to the Amuru's horses?"

   "Old Terthex and Serthos," Areshen chuckled, "feigned ignorance during the treaty negotiations when I showed the tablets to the council of chiefs at the war's conclusion.  Both Terthex and Serthos, before they returned to their tribes, reluctantly I might add, were educated in Nippur, are quite as literate as any High Priest.  During the negotiations, however, they judged it convenient to forget everything they had learned in Nippur.  'Then I will show the tablets to the most intelligent of the company presently assembled,' I informed them, and carried the tablets to their horses tethered just beyond the council fires."

   Areshen sat in pondering silence another moment, vehemence in his voice when he continued.

   "The military governor of Nippur has told me that many of the Amuru who have lost loved ones to the High Priest's nails have been found on the roads leading west, fleeing back across the walls.  When they arrive home, those who happen to have survived the nails will show their brethren the scars in their hands.  'This is the justice that Areshen promised us when he held the tablets of Urnammu in his hands proclaiming Sumer to be a land of law.'  Then another hundred thousand Amuru will pour across the walls, Teru, and none of the chiefs will believe anything I have to say to them.  The child writing the next history of it all will just write, 'Areshen slaughtered them all,' and nothing will follow.  The child will not write that Areshen allowed some of the Amuru to return home, that Areshen allowed others to settle in Sumer and Akkad.  The Amuru will look at the scars on the hands of their brothers and sisters who believed Areshen the last time, and they will say, 'do not believe Areshen.  He is a liar.  Do not believe him when he tells you that the High Priests are just and gentle.  Fight to the death this time.'  And that is what they will do, Teru."

   Teru wasn't certain how to answer, could not help but notice the anger in Areshen's eyes.

   "Nails," Areshen sighed, once again in a thoughtful and contemplative tone, "have also not  been written onto the tablets of Sumer and Akkad."

   "They are an aberration," Teru answered.  "They do not belong in Sumer and Akkad.  They will go before the end of the year."

   Areshen finally broke into a soft smile once again.

   "So Etwabi has said.  Has your god spoken, Teru?  Will he speak to the High Priests as well?"

   "God has spoken, military governor.  It will be the military governor, however, who speaks to the High Priests."

   "Somehow I suspected you might say that, Teru," Areshen sighed as he pushed himself to his feet.  "Come to my house before you leave Ur, Teru.  Your god will not object to a short visit, will he?"

   "Not unless you demand that I begin paying homage to Eshla," Teru answered with a soft chuckle.  Eshla, sitting in her small niche near the entrance chamber in Areshen's house, was duly reverenced by Setith and the household servants.  To Areshen, Eshla's head was a convenient place to toss his cloak on a cold winter's day.

   "Your god is a jealous god, Teru," Areshen stated, not really surprised when Teru readily agreed.

   "He is a jealous god," Teru observed.

   "And he seems to take a great deal of interest in the manner in which you conduct yourself," and Areshen aimed a questioning smile toward Teru, a young man who Areshen would readily admit lived his life according to the demands of his god, no matter how strange and bizarre those demands seemed.  To Areshen, the gods were a slightly greater nuisance than a family pet.  As a child in the small temple village of Sannu, Areshen remembered having to feed his family's gods at the most inconvenient times, his mother forever scolding him when he was tardy.  Both of the family's dogs had always seemed far more patient.

   "What," Teru began, hesitantly at first, obviously searching his thought, "have the gods of Sumer promised you, Areshen?"

   "Promised?" Areshen asked.  The question didn't seem to make sense.  You feed gods.  If you feed them according to schedules annoying in their regularity, they stay off your back until it's time to feed them again.  "Your god has promised you something, Teru?"

   "That's the one aspect of my family's belief which young Tethoduri cannot understand either, though I believe he is trying to do so."

   "Well, my young friend," Areshen concluded as he pushed himself toward the door, "if you are able, write and tell me how it is with you when you have moved to the north."

   "I will indeed be able to do so, Areshen.  Were I to travel to India, I would still not find myself beyond the king of Isin's influence."

   "Teru," Areshen answered, though now with a subtle and yielding expression of amusement, "I am the lowly and humble military governor of Ur."

   "A ruse," Teru chuckled, "that will also not last the year."

 

IV

 

   Areshen stood at the serving board of another street side tavern, deciding to placate one more beer god before placating Ibisien at the palace.  Areshen spent another long moment gazing toward the towering walls of Ur's Sacred Area a short distance up the street, another caravan of heavily laden donkeys proceeding toward the south portal.  A half dozen other caravans of donkeys and porters proceeded along Ur's streets toward a maze of alleys and cul de sacs which lay in the shadow of the Sacred Area's walls.  This a section of the city containing a confusing jumble of factory workshops and warehouses, most of the buildings belonged to the temple, a few to Ibisien and the palace.  A smaller number were still owned by private individuals, though most of these contracted to temple or palace as well, bankruptcy the inevitable fate of those attempting to defy the High Priest Shubari by insisting that it was possible to exist denying ownership by the patron gods of Ur.

   Areshen gazed again toward the south portal in the Sacred Area's wall, a Sixty of heavily armed temple guard posted near the massive bronze doors, and he wondered what it might have been like spending his life sitting in the Great Court of Nanna counting everything from chickens to sacks of gold, meticulously recording figures onto tabulation tablets collected at the end of the day by the Tabulation Priests.

   "Look at this," Ibisien had whined in the palace a few weeks ago, handing Areshen a tablet stolen by one of the palace's spies, a tablet on which a Tabulation Priest's figures were orderly arranged in tidy rows and columns.  "Have you ever seen anything so outrageous, Areshen?  Cover your nose, Areshen," Ibisien had howled in righteous indignation, "cover your nose, or the lies will leap from this tablet and bite it.  I will sue Shubari, and the temple, Areshen.  That is what I will do.  Shubari is no better than a common thief."

   Areshen released a long, pondering sigh as he turned his attention from the Sacred Area's south portal to the equally magnificent entrance chamber which led into the interior courtyards of the king's palace.  More than likely Ibisien would spend at least an hour ranting and raving over some further annoyance the High Priest Shubari had caused him.  The bickering between king and High Priest seemed incessant, the bodies of spies reporting to one or the other found floating in the river with amazing regularity.

   With a final sigh and an amused nod of appreciation toward the beer god, Areshen pushed himself from the tavern back onto the street, glanced a final moment's annoyance toward the walls of the Sacred Area, then made his way toward the palace's entrance chamber.  Whatever all the bickering between temple and palace was about, it was quite beyond him.  Perhaps it was time to retire to Isin for another month or two, a quiet month or two behind the walls of the fortress he had made his military headquarters.  Areshen was quite aware that the people of Isin now called Shar Dulur Fortress the palace of the King of the Four Quarters.  He still hesitated to do so himself, however, and genuinely hoped that Ibisien would give him no reason to begin doing so.

   Areshen stepped through the arched portal into the palace's huge entrance chamber, a grand and imposing hall as large as his house's entire courtyard in which a dozen members of the palace guard stood to attention.  The First Soldier of the guard whose duty it was to protect Ibisien, King of the Four Quarters, turned and approached, then stood to rigid attention when he recognized the visitor, the man saluted by Sumer and Akkad beyond the walls of Ur as the other King of the Four Quarters.  A quick, conspiratorial nod from Areshen, however, arrested the First Soldier's salute.

   "First Soldier," Areshen intoned in standard formula, "I am Areshen, son of Kuru, loyal and humble military governor of Ur, and beg audience with Ibisien, king of Ur."

   "You may pass, Areshen son of Kuru," the First Soldier intoned, wondering if the day would ever come when Ibisien would instruct him to say otherwise.  Probably not.  Ibisien was an effeminate, perfumed and polished drunken.  But he wasn't suicidal.  Some of the palace's soldiers were loyal to Areshen as military governor of Ur; most of the rest were loyal to him as king of Isin.  Save for one or two fanatics, however, all were loyal to him, and the one or two exceptions had doubtlessly apprised Ibisien of the fact a very long time ago.

   Areshen stepped through another maze of entrance chambers, male and female servants of every capacity scurrying here and there along passages which led into the hidden recesses of the palace.  Areshen then stepped into the first of the palace's two great courtyards.  A hundred feet across and adorned with ornamental stone pools, benches constructed from costly Lebanon cedar, and life sized gods standing in several dozen wall niches, portals from this courtyard led to the chambers of the harem.  Areshen crossed the courtyard glancing with idle interest toward a few dozen of Ibisien's wives scattered among the benches and wondered if any of these women, most extraordinarily beautiful daughters of rulers and potentates from across the world, ever engaged in trysts beyond the palace walls.  Most apparently did not.  There were very few children in Ibisien's palace, and Ibisien certainly didn't make children.

   On the other side of the harem courtyard, Areshen passed through another series of entrance chambers in which servants and palace officials of superior rank and prestige tended to the needs of dignitaries from cities which still acknowledged at least the pretense of Ur's and Ibisien's preeminence, most of these cities laying in the southern part of Sumer.  Beyond these chambers, Areshen progressed into the palace's inner courtyard, this even more elaborate and ostentatious than the outer, then into the chambers of the palace's inner sanctum, the domain of officials such as the Harem Master, the Chief Cup Bearer, and the Judge of Audiences.  In the Great Hall's long, narrow entrance loggia sat the Judge of Audiences himself on an imposing throne near the Great Hall's massive bronze doors, a long line of supplicants waiting their turn to plead for admittance.  The old, bearded official on throne shrugged as soon as he noticed Areshen, nothing to report, and turned his attention back to the supplicant currently arguing his case.

   Areshen nodded appreciation toward the Judge of Audiences, then toward the young soldier who without hesitation pulled the bronze doors open just enough for his to pass through.  Areshen then pushed himself into the Great Hall of the palace of Ibisien, a chamber quite as large as the palace's inner courtyard with massive stone columns rising on either side of a colorfully carpeted central aisle leading toward the head of the chamber and the throne.  Areshen edged his way through the crowds of elegantly attired officials without haste, then spent another long minute standing in the shadows beside one of the stone columns a dozen paces from the head of the chamber, though close enough to hear the proceedings at the throne without a great deal of difficulty.

   Ibisien, in his early forties, sat with an expression of benign disinterest, head on hand, eyes quite as glazed as they always were, emissaries from Gipul king of Elam pleading before the throne.  How, Areshen asked himself, does Ibisien find time to apply that which must certainly be a barrel full of cosmetics to his face every morning and still have time left over to conduct his Assembly?  Setith, who spent an hour relining every morning while her handmaids attended to her, looked plain and unadorned by comparison.  Ibisien was undeniably an attractive individual, years younger in appearance than his actual age.  Ibisien was also the epitome of - delicate charm, Areshen decided, his occasional gesture from the throne delivered with graceful, flowing eloquence, the motions of his hand every bit as - sweet as anything Areshen had seen in the harem courtyard, a courtyard filled with women who had spent their entire lives devoting themselves to the study of feminine poise and allure.  Ibisien's mannerisms were certainly not copied from his wives, however, few of whom had ever seen their husband from a distance closer than ten paces.

   Areshen glanced another long moment about the crowds of Sumer's officialdom packed into the Great Hall, a sight even more depressing than that to be had on Ur's streets.  Urbane, eloquently dressed, everyone in the crowd seemed intent on emulating the king of Ur in the manner of their appearance.  None appeared as though he might have jabbed a feminine ass or two with his little toy spear.  Most, for that matter, probably emulated Ibisien in the manner of their sexual proclivities, feminine posteriors or otherwise of very little interest to them.  This, Areshen sighed, was Ur, at least today.  Still, all of this was no great or immediate concern.  Perversity was the High Priest Shubari driving nails through helpless servant's hands, and it was the increasing prevalence of this perversity which had compelled Areshen to attend the king's Assembly this afternoon.

   Areshen turned his attention back to the emissaries from Elam, an aged man with a long, white beard now pleading before the throne.  Beards were a rarity in most of Sumer and Akkad these days, rare also in Elam to the east, were certainly rare in the Assembly of Ibisien.  Long popular in Akkad to the north, beards had gone out of style in the south for at least a generation now, though a few older men such as this emissary from Elam and the elderly Judge of Audiences on the other side of the Great Hall's door still wore them.

   "Exalted one of Ur," the emissary from Gipul king of Elam continued as he fixed his attention on a half conscious Ibisien lolling on the throne, then turned a quick moment later to one of his colleagues tugging on the sleeves of his robes.  Both glanced an instant toward Areshen standing in the shadows a short distance to the rear.  The bearded emissary then turned back to the throne, his expression and his voice now exuding poise and confidence as he addressed Ur's king.

   "Exalted one of Ur," and Ibisien's eyes cracked open, at least a measure of lucidity now evident in his features, "Gipul of Elam," the emissary continued, "intends no disrespect, nor does the east wish to severe the ancient and holy bond between itself and Ur.  Elam merely desires that it be allowed to name the year as it chooses, a privilege, exalted one of Ur, which you have graciously extended to many other cities throughout the world over the past eight years.  Perhaps, exalted one of Ur, we could also discuss one or two additional matters of a trivial nature allowing us to decided for ourselves that which is our own best interest -" and the emissary fell silent as Ibisien finally raised his head, his hand thrust forward as though to block further debate.  Ibisien searched the Great Hall, found Areshen a quick moment later, and then pushed himself from the throne to his feet.

   "My apologies, emissary from Elam," Ibisien intoned, his usual sweet and melodious high pitched croon, "but I too have noticed that the military governor of Ur is now present in my Assembly," and Ibisien bent a beckoning hand toward Areshen.  "Military governor, my loyal and faithful military governor, attend your king."

   With a resigned sigh, Areshen pushed himself from the stone column to the head of the Great Hall, and then stepped onto the throne platform.  The officialdom of Ur crowded about the Great Hall had now settled into silence, dread anticipation on a hundred faces, all wondering if this would be the day the charade came to an end.  Areshen, however, studied only Ibisien's exotically polished and perfumed features as he stepped forward, and felt again a grudging admiration for the king of Ur.  Ibisien remained every bit the study of poised and confident majesty the stone carvers had chiseled onto a hundred slabs of stone.  Nothing in Ibisien's features betrayed the least hint of concern.  This, Areshen sighed, is how the degenerate little fruit fly will appear should the day ever actually come.  Not today, however, Areshen had already decided.  Instead of seating himself on the throne of Ur, Areshen stood before Ibisien, bowed his head in one quick moment of submissive respect, and then watched the usual expression of relief and gratitude settle into Ibisien's eyes, an expression only he was close enough to see.  The collective sigh of relief which swept across the officialdom of Ur gathered in the palace's Great Hall, however, was even more audible than it had been last time.

   "I must," Ibisien then informed his Assembly, "retire to my chambers in order to confer with my military governor, my loyal and faithful military governor," an emphatic nod of his head toward the emissaries from Elam.  "Lushir, my sweet," and Ibisien crooked an arm toward the king's gallery seated beside the throne platform.  As Ibisien led Areshen toward the Great Hall's rear portal, a nephew or cousin or some such, certainly not a son, Areshen decided, stepped onto the throne platform.  The current heir apparent, quite as delicately perfumed and polished as Ibisien, seated himself onto the throne, then with a graceful waft of his hand toward the emissaries from Elam allowed the debate to continue.

   Ibisien led Areshen through the Great Hall's rear portal, across a small courtyard in which alert wine stewards were already trotting, and then into a lavishly decorated sitting room.  The first wine stewards had already appeared at the door by the time Areshen seated himself onto an expensively cushioned couch.  Ibisien, seated on a couch a respectful distance across the chamber and quite aware that Areshen would just move if he attempted to sit closer, held his cup out toward the wine steward.

   Ibisien took a long pull from his cup, a moment's blissful tranquillity descending across his features, and only then turned toward Areshen.

   "Did you hear him?  Did you hear old white beard, Areshen?  One or two trivial matters, says the old farter," the ever present note of whining complaint in Ibisien's voice.  "He speaks as though you and I were no longer friends, Areshen.  You are still my friend, Areshen, are you not?"

   "King," Areshen began, "I want to discuss these nails -"

   "Areshen," Ibisien pouted, "tell me you are my friend."

   Areshen sighed.

   "I am your friend, king."

   Ibisien broke into a soft, giggling chuckle, lifted his cup once more, then settled into complacent ease.

   "I will never understand you, Areshen.  You loathe me, have no reason whatsoever to humor me, and still you will do so by telling me that you are my friend."

   "I do not loathe you, king.  The word is far too - vehement."

   This time Ibisien broke into a long moment's genuine laughter, meeting Areshen's eyes with appreciation in his own.

   "They tell me that you do not yet hold King's Assembly in Isin, Areshen.  You really must.  It is important that a king be seen by his people.  They will forget the great victories you have won in battle, and you will only have to fight more battles because of it.  You must hold Assembly, and you must have the stone carvers glorify the victories you have won.  It would not hurt to become a god in a few more of your cities as well.  I should have been a god - but, that's another matter.  Setith could certainly assist you when she's installed in Bathul.  And when you are king of Ur as well as Isin -"

   "King, I have no wish to sit on your throne."

   Again Ibisien directed a quick glance of appreciation toward Areshen.  Ibisien genuinely believed him.  It didn't really make any difference, however, what either of them believed, Ibisien decided.  Events would unfold as they would.

   "Have you ever heard the name Apitu, Areshen?" Ibisien asked.

   "He was your grandfather's military governor, was he not?"

   "My grandfather loved Apitu.  And Apitu was loyal to my grandfather.  Loyal to the point of insanity.  Apitu would have followed Shulgi into his tomb as readily as the ancients followed King Epenatu into his.  But my grandfather was also quite insane, insanely jealous of his throne, and Apitu was a very capable military governor.  'Apitu,' my grandfather therefore said, 'you must go to Egypt for me.  There you will find the magnificent pyramid of Cheops.  If you can't find the way, ask someone.  There are many stones in the pyramid of Cheops, Apitu.  Count them.  Count them all.  When you have finished, go the pyramids of Manroe, Cherus, Menesa, and any other you can find.  Count the stones in them as well.  When you have counted them all, you may return to Ur and report your findings.'  Apitu, it seems, has been delayed.  He has yet to return."

   Areshen could not help but break into mirthful laughter as he lifted his own cup.  "Am I to go to Egypt, king, and count stones with Apitu."

   "Yes.  And see what is delaying him while you are there."

   In laughter himself, Ibisien gulped the rest of his wine, then thrust his cup toward the nearest wine steward.  When Ibisien continued, however, it was in quiet, thoughtful solemnity.

   "Send Areshen to Egypt to count stones, they all begged me.  Send Areshen to Egypt while it is still possible to do so.  No, I answered.  Areshen is Apitu, exalted one.  But I, I answered, am not my grandfather."

   Areshen nodded, appreciation in his own eyes this time as he lifted his cup.

   "You do know, Areshen," complacent quiet in Ibisien's voice, "that is was the High Priest Shubari who during the famine eight years ago stood in the harbor refusing to allow the grain ships you sent from the north to birth."

   "I suspected as much even at the time, king," and Areshen felt again that same seething anger at the thought of Ur's High Priest.

   "'The gods,' Shubari proclaimed, 'have spoken.  The grain from the north is poison.'  So Ur starved.  Sumer starved.  But Shubari got fat.  He's gotten fatter with every passing year."

   "Shubari is the reason I want to speak to you, king.  It is no longer sufficient that Shubari and his gods be worshipped by starving people.  He now demands that they worship him with nails driven through their hands.  The people of Sumer will do so.  Many Akkadians will do so.  But the Amuru digging canals and working on the temple's farms will not.  It is time that you and the Assembly speak to Shubari.  If you do not, a hundred thousand Amuru will again cross the western walls in order to do so."

   "The temple," Ibisien whined, "will say that I am meddling in affairs which are matters of Holy Order, Areshen."

   "I will not."

   "An excellent point, military governor, and obviously the one which will decide the issue.  I'm still not certain, however, that the Assembly will be favorably disposed to render a resounding ovation in support of a pronouncement against Shubari.  Well over half of the Assembly now hold minor priest hoods.  Still a greater number are indebted to Shubari.  Our noble High Priest made an obscene profit eight years ago selling his own grain rather than allowing the grain you shipped from the north to be sold in Ur."

   Areshen sighed in frustration.

   "The sue the temple, king.  The last time I was here you had advocates waiting in every courtyard for instructions, that over a balance on a tabulation tablet which didn't add up.  When I am in Isin, a hundred advocates stand in the corridors of Shar Dulur fortress, each having devised some new scheme hoping to ingratiate themselves with me, schemes which in almost every case involve suit brought against some temple somewhere."

   "But those suits do not involve matters of Holy Order, Areshen.  They involve, as you say, figures on tabulation tablets which do not add up.  No civil tribunal will hear a case involving Holy Order.  Such cases are summarily dismissed.  They can only be heard in the temple courts."

   "Holy Order," Areshen mumbled.  "Setith pitches buckets of Holy Order into my face at least once a day," and with a long sigh of resignation, Areshen nodded toward the Great Hall.  "Then it must be the Assembly, king.  You must put an end to this nail nonsense.  I have never seen any of your servants here in the palace hanging from posts with nails driven through their hands."

   "No, you have not, Areshen.  The fact that I choose not to adopt the latest innovations suggested by the temple is an endless source of farting irritation to Shubari," and Ibisien sat in pondering silence, determination finally settling into his features.  "Very well, military governor, I will pronounce in Assembly that nails may not be used in corporal punishment inflicted on servants of any class.  I cannot promise, however, a resounding ovation, particularly over an issue such as this.  After all, they're  -  servants," Ibisien shrugged.  "And it is no secret these days that unless the ovation my pronouncement receives is at least as resounding as one of the High Priest Shubari's farts, it will be enforced only with a great deal of difficulty, may, in fact, have to be enforced by the military governor."

   "But it can be enforced?" Areshen asked.  "And the issue will be addressable in the civil courts rather than simply a matter for the temple courts?"

   Ibisien broke into a soft smile.

   "You have become remarkably well acquainted with judicial procedure over the past few years, Areshen.  I believe you are quite adequately prepared to conduct Assembly in Isin.  Eshieri conducts your Assembly there at the moment, does he not?"

   "Meneturu watches Asch  -  Esh  - whatever, very closely."

   Ibisien broke into soft laughter for the thought.  A fat little stone beer god now sat Isin's throne.  One of Areshen's trusted lieutenants watched the beer god's every move.

   Ibisien returned to his wine for another long moment, complacent resignation in his voice when he continued.

   "Perhaps I shall retire to Egypt myself when it is time  - "

   "King, I do not want Ur's throne.  I never wanted  - " Areshen tried, sitting in silence when Ibisien just waved a fatigued and inebriated arm in the air.  "Why Egypt?" Areshen then asked.  Why would anyone want to got to Egypt, a land far to the west, admittedly one of fabulous wealth in the distant past, though for centuries now a land constantly at war with itself, barbarians plundering from every side, thieves busily digging into the burial crypts beneath the tombs of its ancient kings.

   "I suppose I would like to see Egypt's royal tombs myself," Ibisien continued.  "They say they are far more grand than even Ur's temple.  Can you imagine it, Areshen, monuments of such size built when Epenatu sat Ur's throne.  All of Epenatu's household followed their king joyfully into his tomb.  How much more the ancients of Egypt must have loved their king.  All Egypt, they say, labored over the king's tomb, many devoting their lives to no other occupation.  The ages have changed, Areshen.  No one loves their kings the way Sumer loved Epenatu and all Egypt laboring over the tomb loved its king."

   "But why would you want to go to Egypt today, king?  It has been dead for centuries, has it not?  A dozen warlords from lower Egypt contend with another dozen up river over a meaningless throne."

   "No longer, apparently.  It seems one has prevailed, has ruled for a generation now without anything approaching the conflagrations of the past.  Our merchants in the cedar forests of Lebanon are once again in competition with merchants from Egypt."

   "Then we are no longer alone in the world?"

   "Perhaps not," Ibisien agreed, reaching for a papyrus scroll on a nearby table and removing the ribbon.  "Beautiful, is it not?" Ibisien asked as he held the document up for Areshen's inspection.  "Chutrinsu," and Ibisien nodded, probably toward the chambers of his chief scribe, "purchased this scroll from a merchant just back from Lebanon.  Chutrinsu's first passion remains things Sumerian, literature and artifacts.  Whenever someone digs a new tomb, digs any sort of a hole, for that matter, Chutrinsu is there playing in the dirt.  You would be surprised what he finds buried in the ground, pots and things from Sargon's time, writing tablets composed in the old script.  It is rumored that Chutrinsu is notified whenever someone is planning to rob some old king's tomb.  He will offer the best price for whatever the robbers find," Ibisien chuckled, turning finally back to the scroll.  "My grandfather was also a collector of these documents.  He had nearly four dozen of them at one time, as well as the services of an Egyptian scribe fleeing the latest war to translate them.  This scroll, it seems, is a collection of lamentations, some composed eight centuries ago when Snedre sat the throne.  By the way, the kings in Egypt are all gods, did you know that, Areshen, all of them gods, the physician's slap to their little rumps as they plop from the womb conferring divinity upon them.  I should have been a god  - "

   Again Ibisien gazed toward the Egyptian scroll in searching thought.

   "Listen to the words, Areshen.  It seems the calamities through which Egypt lived were the author's inspiration.  The words are frightening indeed.

     'The mistress says, I am hungry,

     'Vile servants eat their fill.

     'The king's small son lies naked in the street.

     'The butler enters the dressing room like a thief.

     'The royal barge is trodden by cattle;

     'the king's path by all the people of the village.

     'That which was high is now low;

     'that which was low is now high.

     'The man who laughed now mourns;

     'the man who mourned now laughs.

     'No seed is sown in the field;

     'no one who has been injured receives justice at the gate.

     'The widow laments,

     'but no one hears her cry.

     'The orphan says, I am hungry,

     'but no one listens to its plea."

   Ibisien lowered the document with a pondering sigh, then reached again for his cup.

   "Are you returning to Isin, Areshen?"

   "By your leave, king.  The Amuru are moving in the west, nothing ominous, raids on cattle farms, that sort of thing.  I would like to post another Six Hundred or two along the western walls, however.  Is Gipul going to be a problem in the east, king?  I have no wish to fight both west and east at the same time."

   "Gipul has sent me another daughter, a very beautiful one, the harem master tells me," Ibisien stated with no great expression of enthusiasm in his features.  "She is expected, with my assistance, to produce a child for Gipul and Elam with Sumerian blood in its veins, a child who will one day take its place near the head of my Assembly.  I suppose if I make such a child for Gipul, we will have no great problems with Elam for at least another generation."

   "Do your best, king," Areshen chuckled as he pushed himself to his feet.  "Each of us is called upon to make certain sacrifices, to do things we are not ordinary wont to do in order that the greater good be served."

   "Areshen, were you not so extraordinarily beautiful yourself, I would have you beheaded."

 

 

V

 

   Areshen passed another week in Ur watching a few more Sixties of chariot hurl javelins toward each other, sighing in despondency as he lowered his head onto his hands atop the city walls.  Perhaps, he groaned, Ibisien might prove a bit more competent finding his target, and the king of Elam's daughter would bear a son.  At least that would give Ur's younger generation of soldiers a bit more time to prepare.

   Areshen descended from the city walls, fought donkey caravans along the streets, then stood idly on the brick peers which surrounded the city's river harbor a short distance from the Sacred Area's walls.  Several dozen very attractive young women, probably Akkadian servants, swam naked a short distance away.  A half dozen boys not much younger completely ignored them.  Ur, Areshen sighed.  Perhaps it deserved Elam's king Gipul.  Gipul's sons and daughters, according to Areshen's spies, numbered in the hundreds, and that a conservative estimate, the location of a half dozen of Gipul's harems scattered across the hills of Elam still not certain.

   Areshen turned in disgust from the women molested by absolutely no one to ponder the boat in which Setith would journey upriver to Bathul, this quite as magnificent as the royal barge tied up a short distance away.  Setith and her entourage would pass at least part of the journey beneath billowing white canopies which had been erected near the boat's grand castle, the captain and his crew now scurrying fore and aft making last moment preparations, none daring to be found wanting by their mistress.

   Areshen turned from one of a dozen such luxurious vessels his wife owned, and pondered Setith herself now standing a short distance away, the same authoritative scowl in her features as she issued final instruction to several dozen of her senior household stewards who oversaw her various business ventures scattered across the southern part of Sumer.

   "Well, I'm leaving," Setith had said early this morning when she had walked into Areshen's sleeping chambers with nothing more than a pair of maid servants in train, a single man servant waving the fan.  "You will come and see me off, won't you, beloved?"  

   "I will miss you, beloved," Areshen had replied when he had pushed himself to his feet, noticing something very strange in Setith's eyes, something which almost looked like emotion.  For one very wild and sensual moment it almost appeared as though Setith, a woman of unrivaled beauty, wanted something she had not had time for in a very long time now.  Just as she turned to her maid servants with instructions to commence the complicated process of unfastening several dozen catches holding her gowns in place, however, a steward bearing a stack of tabulation tablets decided it was the perfect moment to demand Setith's attention

   Setith passed another long minute on the peer issuing final instructions to the posturing, bowing officials who composed her Assembly, her features stern and regal when she finally dismissed them to their individual domains.  Setith then turned toward Areshen, her expression dissolving into gentle warmth as she approached.

   "Well, I'm off, I suppose," Setith began.  Is it really emotion in her eyes, Areshen asked himself?  If he strained, he could catch just the glimpse of the sweet young girl he had married twenty years ago, perhaps even the glimpse of a lover like no other he could ever have imagined, a lover in whose arms he had felt that same piercing rapture the last time he and she had  -  when?  How long, indeed, had it been?

   "I shall miss you, beloved," Areshen stated again.

   "Will you, beloved?" Setith asked, sincerity obvious in her voice.

   "Setith, are you all right?"

   "This pronouncement by the king in Assembly against the High Priest Shubari was most distressing to me  - "

   "Setith  -  nails  - "

   "Beloved, I feel as relieved as you that the nails are gone.  It is the manner in which they came and went which distresses me.  How could the gods have allowed even a travesty such as Shubari to have promulgated such a thing in the first place if the promulgation was destined to be overturned by the king in Assembly?  No one possessed of the least measure of reason is unaware of Shubari's antics atop the temple.  Even so, no one expected a High Priest capable of promulgating anything but the true intentions of the gods.  I know I am sometimes not a gentle mistress, husband, but it has never been my intention to act cruelly.  I wish only to abide by the principles of Holy Order.  It is most distressing, Holy Order bandied about by the likes of Shubari and Ibisien, Shubari's more intelligent promulgations proceeding from his posterior, Ibisien  -  well, you know all about Ibisien."

   Areshen again noticed the sincerity in Setith's eyes.  Her concerns were genuine; at least they very obviously seemed so to her.

   "I think you know what I think about it all, beloved.  Holy Order resides in one's own conscience, not atop a pile of bricks which, since Shubari became High Priest, smells bad."

   Areshen waited patiently for Setith's expression of horror over his latest blasphemy to dissipate.

   "I do believe the people of Isin are correct, beloved," Setith finally continued.  "You certainly must be a god yourself.  Were you not, you would have been struck down by lightening long ago."

   Areshen released a quick chuckle, then felt a moment's weary concern as he met Setith's eyes again, the very evident note of adoration in his wife's features not affected in the least.  Setith was quite aware that her husband was the undisputed master of the armies of Sumer and Akkad, was hailed as divine king in Isin and most other cities in the north, was, ultimately, the ruler of the civilized world.  To Setith and the rest of the old nobility of Ur, however, Areshen, even though Sumerian by birth, was just another Akkadian Sargon.  He would rule, would effect superficial changes, and would eventually be absorbed by the clearly superior Sumerian culture of Ur and the south.  Areshen glanced again toward Setith's eyes, not at all certain that he felt comfortable as an object of her adoration.

   "I shall be a good High Priestess in Bathul, beloved," Setith promised.

   "I believe you will be, beloved," Areshen answered in all honesty as he walked Setith to the steps leading to her boat.  As strict and as unyielding a mistress as Setith could be, her servants genuinely loved her, a fact Areshen again discovered that same evening when Etwabi walked into his sitting room twisting this way and that in order to show Areshen the new dress Setith had purchased for her.

   "I did not need a new one," Etwabi stated.  "My old dress was in perfectly good condition.  But the mistress said that I must have a new one anyway.  Look at the clothe, Areshen," and Etwabi bent to lift the hem line at her ankles.  "It is exquisite.  It comes from the temple looms."

   Again Areshen could not help but notice the glint in Etwabi's eyes, eyes so perceptive and intelligent, as she spoke of her feelings for Setith.  Etwabi, in her late twenties herself, little more than ten years younger than Setith, still considered herself to be Setith's child, the child of a noble parent exhibiting boundless wisdom and love for her children.

   "It is a beautiful dress indeed," Areshen answered with a gentle smile as he watched Etwabi twirl.  Again, however, he saw this beautiful young woman hung naked from a pole in the middle of the courtyard, the ropes biding her wrists bloody from the nail driven through her hands.  Areshen had walked up and down endless expanses of field after the battle of the Amuru wall, fields on which sixty thousand Amuru lay dead, thousands more of Sumer's soldiers, and Areshen had felt the pathos any other soldier might have felt at the conclusion of the battle.  He had never before felt horror, however, until that day he had ordered that a helpless young woman be cut down from a pole in the middle of the courtyard.

   But Etwabi had already explained why she still loved Setith.  What good would it do to ask her again?  Areshen doubted he would understand any more of it now.  And he would never understand why servants in every one of Ur's market places still spoke of Shubari and the temple in tones of submissive respect.  Even in the holy city of Nippur, its High Priest still showing no signs of complying with the king of Ur's pronouncement banning the use of nails in the corporal punishment of servants, these same servants continued to bow to High Priest and temple.  The Amuru slaves working on the temple farms and digging the temple canals around Nippur, however, would not do so much longer.  Tempers short to begin with would only grow shorter with the approach of summer, now only a month away.  Shubari and his ilk would again drive the farms and canal yards into revolt, would then expect the army to clean the whole mess up.

   "Military governor," Etwabi began when she finally settled herself onto the floor cushions beside Areshen, "you are frowning again.  It so spoils your beauty."

   Areshen lay his lips to Etwabi's in gentle touch for a quick moment, then watched the same smile of entrancement break across her features.

   "I talked with your brother last week, Etwabi.  He says he would not be unduly distressed were you to remain here in Ur when he leaves for the north."

   "He'd scold me for wearing this dress, though.  I believe he would rather see me walk the streets naked like an Amuru slave girl."

   Areshen sighed, again supposing he would never understand Teru's concerns, a young man who lived life in Ur and took extraordinary pains to remain detached and aloof from its culture.

   "Everyone buys the temple's clothe, Etwabi," Areshen just shrugged.  The manufacture of such was Ur's principle export, the clothe sold as far away as Lebanon on the Upper Sea.  In the past, merchants had traveled ever further west over trade routes stabilized by Sargon and the like centuries ago.  Areshen himself thought the temple clothe trade no more than an age old fact of Ur's economic life.

   "I really don't understand all of Teru's concerns either," Etwabi shrugged herself.  "He says that I am now more Sumer than the people of Sumer."

   "So it has been said of Akkadians for a hundred years now.  But half of Ur now speaks Akkadian.  The other half glory in their Akkadian names, little king Ibi a prime example.  What is Sumer and what is Akkad anyway?"

   Again Etwabi just shrugged, raising a hand to Areshen's cheek, caressing in gentle, idle touch.

   "You are going back to Isin?"

   "For a time.  Perhaps, Etwabi, I will make you High Priestess of Isin."

   "Areshen, stop," Etwabi chuckled, nervously for the blasphemy.

   "They have made me a god in Isin.  I suppose that must entitle me to a say in the choice of the city's High Priestess."

   "What is Isin like, Areshen?  Are you happy there?"

   "The city is Ur, perhaps a bit smaller, but not so different, temple sticking up in the air over everything else, priests everywhere with whips in their hands, Amuru slaves doing most of the work.  I reside in Shar Dulur fortress along the banks of the canal about a mile north of the city."

   "Shar Dulur is your palace?" Etwabi asked, easy amusement in her smile.

   "The king of Isin's palace," Areshen sighed.  He hadn't with any real effort bothered to deny it for some years now, and he allowed a brief image of Shar Dulur's massive, forbidding walls surrounding a half dozen stark courtyards to run through his mind.  Dark and functional, the well guarded interior of Shar Dulur left visiting officials from various cities across Sumer and Akkad shuddering with an impression of deep, silent gloom.  No harp or pipe players sat in the courtyards of Shar Dulur as they did in most other palaces and even a few fortresses across Sumer and Akkad.  No lavishly attired and adorned prostitutes wandered from chamber to chamber in Shar Dulur seeking out wealthy officials soaking in baths of perfume.  Well armed infantry proficient with their weapons haunted Shar Dulur's interior, scowling First Soldiers interested only in the condition of their troops equipment.

   "Will you take with me you to Shar Dulur sometime, Areshen?" Etwabi asked.

   "I doubt you would like it there, Etwabi.  Most who are summoned to Shar Dulur are quite anxious to leave again as soon as possible."

 

   Areshen leaned idly into the chariot's rail as the young driver guided it around another lumbering ox cart, then reigned the spirited team of Erubian horse into a quick trot.  There then passed another long hour across narrow, dusty roads leading along the banks of the river, another half dozen ox carts, a thoroughly boring afternoon.  Proceeding north, now a short distance from the city of Uruk, Areshen glanced with passing interest toward the tiny fishing village of Eredinu, a settlement very different from the temple farms and villages inhabited by Sumerians and Akkadians.  The people of Eredinu, not really Sumerian or Akkadian, built their homes from bundled stacks of swamp reeds, the ornate, curving roof of their little Assembly Hall visible for some distance in every direction.  A village built from river plants, Areshen thought, certainly construction for more perishable than a temple village built from brick, and yet there still seemed something very ancient in the look of this little village laying in the uncultivated hinterland between Sumer's cities.  Areshen glanced another minute toward the village's inhabitants who in turn studied the passing chariot with a small measure of curious interest.  Even the people of Eredinu looked ancient.  For as long as anyone could remember, these people, and others resembling them, had lived in the isolated pockets of wilderness between Sumer's cities and villages, ignoring and ignored by civilization all around them.

   "You will live far more comfortably," the High Priests in nearby cities had informed the chiefs of a few of these villages, "if you work on our farms and dig our canals and sacrifice to our gods."

   "Thank you, but no thank you," the chiefs always answered.  "Please continue to ignore us."

   And so they were ignored.  Unlike the Amuru in the western deserts or other large bands of invaders which occasionally wandered down from the eastern mountains, the inhabitants of the swamp villages were few in number, displaying no apparent envy whatsoever toward the wealth of Sumer all around them.  Sumer was more than happy to ignore them.

   A short while later the chariot was rolling through civilization once again, small brick farm villages, irrigation ditches leading from the river and from small branch canals into cultivated fields spreading from horizon to horizon, carefully tended date orchards here and there along the way.  Areshen could easily have pressed on for Shar Dulur throughout the night, obtaining provisions and fresh horses at small, military dispatch stations located at intervals along the road.  He decided instead, however, to placate the beer gods in a small tavern shrine across the road from one of the dispatch stations.

   The station's first soldier, several years retired from service as a regular in Uruk's garrison though still reasonably fit in appearance, stood at Areshen's side near the tavern door and pointed toward several small farm villages a short distance across the open, level fields.

   "That there's Kulden on the right, military governor," the First Soldier continued, sloshing his cup in the air, "Urdunaru on the left."

   "And you're from Urdunaru, First Soldier?" Areshen asked, a definite measure of enthusiasm in his voice now that he had three times offered propitiation to the tavern's beer god.

   "Yes, sir, but I hires most of my temporary help out of Kulden," and the First Soldier sloshed his cup toward the dispatch station across the road, a small mud brick building, brick stables and mule pens to the rear.  "There's not much work here what calls for a big load of brain thinking, military governor, but it's still hard to find anyone in Urdunaru these days what wants to do any honest work, especially the young ones.  Crazy old Bathesag, she's High Priestess of the mud house in Urdunaru, says Urdunaru's gonna be the next holy city after Nippur cause her god says so, and everybody's gonna be rich anyway, so why work?"

   "Your dispatch station appears to be in reasonably good order, First Soldier, despite your problems."

   "Thank you, military governor.  I keeps it that way because I knows how to work around the latest pronouncing coming outa crazy old Bathesag's mouth."

   Areshen propitiated the beer god several more times over the course of the evening, proffered his apologies to a very attractive serving girl nodding a seductive invitation toward the shrine's rear chamber, and then slept the beer god's generosity off on a small cot in the rear of the dispatch station.  Over the course of the following day Areshen reverenced a few more beer gods along the road, finally guiding the chariot himself along narrow paths which led beneath the city of Isin's walls.  The young driver who had attempted to match Areshen cup for cup at the last few taverns lay sprawled and snoring on the chariot's floor.

   Glancing his usual annoyance toward the staged tower of Isin's temple laying near the center of the city, Areshen finally guided the team at a walking pace along a narrow dirt path which led along the banks of the Indumu Canal north of Isin's walls, a quiet, tranquil scene, slowly flowing water off to his left, a broad expanse of carefully tended orchard off to his right.  Areshen had walked from Shar Dulur fortress many times over the past few years in order to stroll this restful stretch of road by himself, glancing with passing interest whenever he did so toward the occasional soldier standing along the banks of the canal working a fishing line, then toward shaded glades nestled among the orchards in which a young couple escaping the confines of Isin for the day might be sitting in each other's arms.

   A year or so ago the manager of the orchard had appeared in Isin's temple precinct complaining about the constant trespass of temple property by young residents of the city as well as by soldiers from Shar Dulur Fortress.  Isin's High Priest had ordered the trespassing stopped.  Areshen had then rescinded the High Priest's order when a young advocate retained by Shar Dulur's Chamber of Judicial Affairs had informed him that suit brought against the temple had every chance of success.

   "Why?" Areshen had asked of the young man standing in front of his table in Shar Dulur fortress with an expression of confident anticipation, a recent graduate from the scribal schools hoping for a profitable military contract.

   "Because your divinity has been recognized by the temple, king," the young advocate had answered, explaining that such recognition would bolster Shar Dulur's case against the High Priest and the temple in several minor, yet possible advantageous ways.

   "Suits brought against the temple," the young advocate had continued, "are rarely successful.  The rules of procedure and evidence before a temple tribunal allow the gods certain advantages in order to insure that we do not suffer their wrath should judgment be rendered against them.  Now that you are a god yourself, exalted one, I will be able to argue your case unhampered by any number of presumptions normally favoring the temple gods against whom suit is brought."

   "Oh?" Areshen had mumbled, glancing again toward the confidence in the young advocate's features, deciding that the young man, at least, knew what he was talking about.  "Very well," Areshen had then stated, "get it done."

 

VI

 

   The massive walls of Shar Dulur fortress, the fortress for some time now acknowledged by most of Sumer and Akkad to be Shar Dulur palace, were visible in the near distance ahead, cold, bleak, forbidding walls surrounding six interior courtyards quite as lacking in any sort of ornamental adornment as were the fortress' exterior walls.  With a final sigh of resignation, Areshen reigned the chariot on, promising himself that he would return to the banks of the canal later this afternoon with fishing line in hand if no one in Shar Dulur had anything of consequence to report.  Several minutes later, Areshen guided the chariot to a stop in a gate room which provided access to the first of Shar Dulur's courtyards, the First Soldier in charge of the day watch emerging from a small chamber in one of the gate room's walls.

   "Name, rank, and unit," the First soldier challenged, nothing in his features indicating that he recognized the driver now stepping from the chariot.  Probably newly assigned to Shar Dulur, Areshen suspected, handing the First Soldier a small tablet on which a pictographic design confirming his identity had been impressed.

   "Areshen, king's garrison, king," Areshen stated, and noticed nothing more than a slight disruption in the First Soldier's composure.  His superiors had most likely warned his to expect this.  A military or civil governor from any other city across Sumer and Akkad might have approached Shar Dulur with a mile long entourage of wine stewards and concubines in train.  The king of Isin, however, was just as likely to stumble into the gate room sloshing a cup of beer in one hand, holding a line of fish in the other.  Areshen had several times contemplating accepting Ibisien's advice and sitting for the portrait carvers, contemplated it seriously whenever he was detained along the roads for any length of time by some ardent young officer who did not recognize him.  Another tavern shrine, however, had always demanded his attention on the way to the portrait carver's shops.  Fish needed to be caught on a great many more occasions.

   "You may pass," the gate room's First Soldier stated as he handed the tablet back to Areshen, then turned as Areshen pointed to the young soldier still snoring on the chariot's floor.

   "Do something about him," Areshen groaned, then pushed his way from the gate room into the first courtyard, three levels of chambers towering above him on all sides.  Almost a hundred paces across with uniformed soldiers guarding portals leading further into the depths of Shar Dulur, the courtyard was filled with the usual assortment of expensively dressed officials and dignitaries, many from cities across Sumer and Akkad, most waiting to be received by any number of a multitude of similarly dressed clerks and officials staffing the civil departments of Isin's government housed at Shar Dulur.  Areshen edged his way through the shadows along one of the courtyard's walls, carefully avoiding those few who might recognize and thus detain him with all manner of tedious supplication he was in no mood for at the moment.  He then walked toward a well guarded entrance chamber which led into the military sections of Shar Dulur.  Another large courtyard, long, narrow passages and several flights of stairs, and Areshen finally stumbled into a small chamber furnished with table and chairs, a god in his wall niche whose head still lay in one of the chamber's corners gathering dust, the usual stack of dispatches waiting for him on the table.  With another long sigh of resignation, Areshen collapsed onto the chair, then reached for a handful of the tablets.

 

   Tell Areshen, King of Isin, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Quarters:

   Shalisu, overseer of the Inilumna Canal says, the retaining wall along the Inilumna Canal which is always collapsing has again collapsed.  I have inspected it and believe that it can be repaired without difficulties.  The scoundrel Eduburi sent me four loads of bricks instead of seven loads of bricks, even after I said, send me seven loads of bricks, do not send me four loads of bricks.  So I asked Eduburi, the scoundrel, why have you sent me four loads of bricks instead of seven loads of bricks?  I said send me seven loads of bricks, I did not say send me four loads of brick.  Is it because you have not been paid that you sent me four loads of bricks instead of seven loads of bricks even after I said, send me seven loads of bricks, do not send me four loads of bricks.  Where are the other three loads of bricks, Eduburi, you scoundrel?  After all, I said send me seven  -

 

   Tell Areshen, Exalted King of Isin,

   Bershorum, military governor of the garrison at Orilim and commander of the Pedulumi reserve says,

the Peldine still have not sent the hundred auxiliaries they promised to send.  That was three days ago.  So I drove to the edge of the woods and I shouted, where are the hundred auxiliaries that you promised to send and did not?  The Peldine shouted back, we will send them tomorrow.  That was on the fourteenth, only three days after the eleventh when I shouted, where are the hundred auxiliaries which you promised to send but did not, and they shouted back, will we send them tomorrow.  On the fifteen, the very next day after the fourteenth, I again drove to the edge of the woods and shouted, the auxiliaries have still not come.  Where are they?  And they shouted back, we will send them tomorrow  -

 

   Tell Areshen of Isin,

   Meshduri, commander of the garrison on Ur's walls who has never erased words from writing tablets says, I am sending you a letter the private scribe Bothlith was hired to write.  Bothlith, an agent of the High Priest Shubari's who was caught erasing words from a tablet by my own agents, the unprincipled scoundrel, says that he was hired by a destitute child living in an alley.  She must have spent everything she had to hire Bothlith.  I could not have afforded him myself.  You do not want to know how I came to be in possession of this letter.  Unless you object, however, and I do not think that you will, I will use Bothlith, the girl's letter, and the girl, all now in my possession and safe keeping, to annoy the High Priest farting Shubari in way I can.

 

   Areshen reached for the tablet which had been placed next to Meshduri's, wondering what the larcenous commander of Ur's walls was up to now.

 

   Tell Shubari, High Priest of Nanna and Ningal at Ur,

   Kitulu, his slave girl says, for eight months now I have carried the baby, but it has happened as I told you it might.  The baby is now dead.  You did not send me a present.  And you have not visited me.  Please come and visit me so that I may see my master's face again.  My dress is badly torn as well.  You said that I would have a new dress but I still haven't gotten it and they won't let me into the temple to see you.  Please come and let me look at my master again.

 

   Areshen lowered the tablet to the table with a long sigh of annoyance.  The least fat Shubari High Priest of Ur could have done was put the girl to work in one of the temple factories.  Leave it to Shubari just to toss her onto the streets when he was tired of her.  In this case, however, the girl had been fortunate.  Meshduri, his agents always on the prowl for means to annoy Shubari and the temple, would keep both the girl and the letter she had dictated in safe keeping for quite some time.  The pittance the girl's maintenance would have cost Shubari was now going to multiply astronomically, a fact Shubari would realize when he discovered that she had fallen into Meshduri's hands, someone who knew that abandonment was an actionable offense and one with a great deal of social stigma attached, Meshduri someone who wouldn't hesitate to confront even Ur's High Priest over the matter.  Meshduri would be able to feed the garrison manning Ur's walls for the next six months by the time he finished shaking Shubari up and down by his fat ankles.

   Areshen plowed through another stack of correspondence sitting on the table, certainly not the total of that which was received at Shar Dulur, but a representative assortment of those dispatches which his chief scribes found interesting or amusing.  A great deal of the correspondence consisted of complaints by merchants against other merchants requesting intervention the palace's Chamber of Civil Affairs, merchants declaring their fellows to be scoundrels, fault laying anywhere but at their own doorstep.  Military dispatches, particularly those from governors currently assigned cities in the north and the west, stated that spies and agents had detected a slight increase in activity among various tribes of Amuru, though no patterns of large scale, coordinated movement had been identified by analysts at Shar Dulur.  One of the Asshur kings from the distant north had written stating that it would not be necessary for Areshen to post another half dozen Six Hundreds beneath the walls of his palace.  The barbarians from the mountains, the Asshur king continued, "are now under control, barbarians who forced me to assume the title King of the Four Quarters, a title which I assure you, true King of the Four Quarters, I assumed by the advise of my advisors which are all scoundrels and it's all their fault, not mine, only to frighten the barbarians away.  I shall of course, Areshen, King of the Four Quarters and my very good friend to whom and I am loyal and those who say that I am not are all scoundrels and liars and it's all their fault, divest myself of the title of King of the Four Quarters at my earliest opportunity, should you or the commanders of the Six Hundreds now guarding my palace walls request that I do so.  If not, then I shall continue to call myself King of the Four Quarters, in case the barbarians decide to return, and then I will divest myself of the title King of the Four Quarters at my earliest opportunity, even though my advisors, who are all scoundrels and liars and it's all their fault, insisted that I call myself King of the Four Quarters  - "

   Areshen broke into a soft chuckle as he pushed himself to his feet.  So that was why old Meneturu had sent those half dozen Six Hundreds north into Asshur.  Areshen made his way through a maze of interconnecting chambers on the fortress' third level, then toward the chamber occupied by Meneturu, a garrison and field commander since the time of Shulgi, though in recent years quite at home behind table in palace.

   Areshen stood at the chamber's door in easy amusement for a quick moment, watching as Meneturu, gray streaking his hair though still fit and rugged in appearance, divided his attention between the dispatch he held in one hand and the pretty young palace servant he fondled with the other.  Meneturu, finally noticing Areshen in the doorway, turned back to the girl sitting beside him on the chamber's couch.

   "Up with you," Meneturu barked.  "How many times have I told you not to bother me when I'm working.  Put your clothes back on, and then go fetch the king of cup of beer."

   With a pouting frown toward Meneturu and a seductive smile toward Areshen as she brushed her hips past him, the girl walked from the chamber.

   "Old man," Areshen chuckled as he snapped a chair from the table about, "you should act your age."

   "What use would I be to you, king," Meneturu answered with equal amusement, "if I did?"

   Areshen laughed with easy mirth as he lowered himself onto the chair.  Meneturu was quite correct.  Now master of the king's Assembly at Isin and Shar Dulur, and senior officer responsible for seeing that the fat little beer god seated on the throne behaved himself when Areshen was not in residence, Meneturu oversaw the day to day activities of Shar Dulur, both its civil and military departments.  Meneturu was still, however, exceptionally capable of donning soldier's attire and leading armies, far more capable of doing so than most of the military governors across Sumer and Akkad now pledging allegiance to Isin and Shar Dulur, these passing most of their time sitting in their palace's perfume baths. "You sent those Six Hundreds up to Asshur?" Areshen began.

   "To remind Susilima of his humble origins."

   Areshen broke into a soft chuckle.  King Susilima of Asshur, "King of the Four Quarters," was another who had been born on a small temple farm beneath Ur's walls.  Susilima had been posted to the frontiers of Asshur as military governor by Ibisien's grandfather, and then forgotten.  Susilima was now more Asshurian than the Asshurians.

   "He always did have a big head," Areshen continued, "very little in it, but a big one nonetheless.  Anyway, is he really worse than all the others?  Half the civil and military governors you and I campaigned with, Meneturu, now sit in their palace baths dreaming up another grandiose title for themselves."

   "Susilima's no wore than the others," Meneturu agreed.  "He did build the entire dispatch system in Asshur by himself, almost single handed.  He's become a bit muddled in his advancing years, however, lost an entire Six Hundred in the mountains trying to direct a battle himself.  I just want to remind the good king that he owes his crown to us, that we can demand it back any time we want to, and will do so if he doesn't stay put in his palace baths and leave the fighting to us," and Meneturu screwed the weathered, battle hardened lines of his face into an expression of annoyance and scorn.  "Speaking of delicate little bath lilies, what does Ibisien have to say these days?"

   "Gipul of Elam sent Ibi another daughter.  Gipul desperately wants to burn Ur down.  In his last letter to me, he said 'please.'  Perhaps Ibi, considering the circumstances, will adjust to the needs of the occasion and provide Ur with an Elamite son in order to placate Gipul."

   "I hope no one is holding their breath," Meneturu scoffed, his features brightening when the serving girl walked back into the chamber with two cups of beer.

   "Tiluth, my adorable beauty," Meneturu began, "we are going to send you to Ur, to the palace of Ibisien.  If any woman can make a man of that pretty little swamp reed, it is you."

   Areshen chuckled as he watched Meneturu, thought by most of his contemporaries a stomping old Akkadian bull who didn't know enough to slow down, pass another long moment fondling the girl, an expression of giggling delight in her features as she twisted away long enough to lower the cups onto the table, her dress back onto the floor.  With another measure of delight in her features she then found herself wrenched back onto Meneturu's lap.

   "Gipul," Meneturu continued, matters of state still his immediate concern, "is certainly another who feels the weight of the crown on his head.  You'll end fighting Elam, Areshen, if you keep playing at military governor of Ur."

   "Perhaps," Areshen sighed.  "Who's up to what now?"

   "Teremdesh has four or five Six Hundreds chasing crazy old chief Berclef and a couple dozen of his cousins back across the river from Sippar.  Not much profit in it.  Utinari wants to fight a war or two a bit further north which he says need to be fought, those marginally profitable if they're conducted carefully.  I told him I'd talk it over with you when you got back."

   "I think we need to take a look at something a bit closer to home, Meneturu.  I have some nagging concerns about Nippur."

   "Nippur?  Again?" Meneturu asked, his expression now attentive as he turned from the giggling girl toward Areshen.  Wars with the wandering tribes of Amuru to the north and west were a constant nuisance, but had remained a relatively minor nuisance for the past eight years now, were tolerated if the field commander involved had reasonable expectations of a profit from the sale of spoils or slaves.  Nippur, however, the Holy City of Sumer and Akkad, lay only two days quick march to the north.  Although unlikely, it was not beyond the realm of possibility that contentions over Nippur could touch off a major civil conflagration between the large cities of Sumer and Akkad, the financial consequences devastating to all involved.

   "The High Priest of Nippur," Areshen continued, "is rumored to be nothing more than Shubari of Ur's talking mule, is he not, Meneturu?"

   "Most say he's the product of one of Shubari's indiscretions in the back chambers of Ur's temple palace."

   "Quite likely.  That would explain why a High Priest of Nippur would be willing to bow to someone like Shubari.  We're still seeing trouble in the canal yards around Nippur, too."

   "We are.  A half dozen little revolts at the moment, more anticipated."

   "The temple in Nippur is still driving nails through the Amuru diggers' hands.  Ibisien ordered it stopped in Ur.  Shubari farted a few times, but complied."

   "Then wrote the product of his indiscretion in Nippur."

   "Exactly," Areshen agreed.  "Shubari probably said something like, 'little product of my indiscretion, if you do not want anyone to know the circumstances of your origin, do whatever you can to annoy Shar Dulur and Isin.  See how much Areshen will put up with.'"

   "Why not just make the High Priest of Nippur disappear?  Shubari as well, for that matter.  Shubari and the High Priest of Nippur have certainly made enough people disappear over the years."

   "Shubari has spent a great deal of his time in his temple back chambers with his serving girls.  There are plenty of illegitimate Shubari's running around.  By the way, Meshduri has one of these girls in Ur, another Shubari just tossed onto the streets figuring she'd be lost in the crowd.  Anyway, if we make the High Priest of Nippur disappear, Shubari would just have some other subservient product of his indiscretions installed in Nippur.  Temples all across Sumer and Akkad are full of them.  No, Meneturu, it's time we placed Nippur under the jurisdiction of a real military governor, not one which is yet another product of Shubari's conceived in a temple palace's back chamber," and Areshen waited attentively for Meneturu's reaction.

   "There'll be no turning back this time, Areshen," Meneturu stated after a long moment's contemplative silence.  "No more facades, even in the south.  The next time you return to Ur, it will have to be as king of Isin rather than Ur's military governor."

   "I know," Areshen sighed.  "If it were up to me, I'd leave the whole thing to Ibisien and Ur.  Despite Ibisien's  -  eccentricities, I believe he's a reasonable and rational man.  He genuinely loathes Shubari.  They say, when in Assembly he pronounced an end to the nails, he stood the very image of his grandfather, the portrait carvers summoned to make sketches, though I suppose they will receive specific instructions to ignore the cup in one hand, the pet in the other."

   "No doubt," Meneturu chuckled.  "But I'll not hold my breathe waiting for Ibisien to crawl out of that wine cup long enough to do anything of consequence."

   "Nor will I," Areshen sighed, continuing in grave solemnity.  "If nothing is done, little High Priest product of Shubari's indiscretion will just drive the construction camps into revolt once again.  If that happens, we're liable to have a couple hundred crazy old chief Berclef's leading their tribes over the western walls in order to help their kinsmen, eight years ago all over again."

   "Tebro's military governor of Nippur," Meneturu mused, his brow wrinkled in speculative thought.

   "Another puppet of Shubari's, yes.  Even Tebro, however, has enough sense to realize that he can only loose in this situation.  I received a letter from him while I was in Ur, a letter carried by private messenger rather than sent through the military dispatch.  Tebro stated that his garrisons have found ever larger numbers of runaway Amuru on the roads north and west of Nippur, many of them with scars in their hands, anxious to show those scars to their chiefs back home.  Meneturu, we either take Nippur away from Shubari now, or we fight all of Amuru all over again."

   Meneturu sat another long moment in silence, caressing the serving girl's hand with idle motions of his own, then with an easy grin turned back to Areshen.

   "You would proceed against Nippur, Areshen, even were the Amuru not pressing from the west."

   Areshen sighed in nodding agreement.

   "You would as well, old man.  Nail's through helpless servants' hands?  This was never Sumer, Meneturu.  Not, at least, in my time."

   "Nor in my considerably more lengthy time," Meneturu agreed.  "Shubari and all his little products running around will say that it's a social and temple issue, you know; Areshen wants to frolic with the servants as equals.  The old temple families, particularly in Sumer and the south, call Shar Dulur the palace of holy disorder," Meneturu chuckled.  "The king of Isin's household comes and goes as it pleases.  They are certain that you will make a dish maid the next High Priestess of Isin."

   Areshen broke into soft laughter.

   "I offered it to your niece Etwabi before I left Ur.  She declined."

   "Then it will go to our beautiful Telsik," and Meneturu lifted the girl's hand to his lips.

   "The gods will certainly strike both of you down one of these days," the girl answered, a genuine note of complaint and concern in her voice.

   "Perhaps," Meneturu chuckled, turning again toward Areshen.  "Setith is on her way to Bathul?"

   "Where she has promised to spend the next four months," the subtle hint of a grin now crossing Areshen's features.

   "Setith will do well in Bathul," Meneturu chuckled.  "Her piety, unlike that of some we have been discussing, is genuine.  And Bathul is beyond Shubari's influence.  I think Setith's gentler nature will emerge in the north."

   "Perhaps," Areshen agreed.  "Shathsurinu and Teru," Meneturu's brother and nephew, "are well."

   "Did young Teru attempt to sweep the demons from your house or anything like that?"

   "No," Areshen laughed, quite aware that Meneturu knew as little about his own family's god as he knew about the gods of Sumer.

   "Teru's a good boy," Meneturu continued, "a little fanatical at times.  But who knows?  Maybe our family's god really has spoken to him," though the expression of skepticism remained evident in Meneturu's features.

   "He still hasn't decided when he's leaving Ur?"

   "From what I understand, it's an old family oracle or some such thing, passed from father to first born son for generations now, and states that the family of the first born son must leave Ur for the north.  And for generations now, no one yet has obeyed.  I do believe Teru will be the one to do so, however.  Every time I visit, he's performing the old liturgies, burnt offerings, a prayer for this, a prayer for that.  Gets on your nerves sometimes, though he's not as bad as old Binsut was."

   Areshen broke into a long moment's laughter.  Old Binsut, a High Priest of Enlil attached to a Six Hundred Meneturu had commanded, had gotten on Meneturu's nerves one time too often.  The High Priest and his portable god had gone down the road strapped to the rump of a donkey, the men in Meneturu's command lining the road bent double in laughter.

   "I was afraid young Teru would disown me entirely after that act of disrespect for things divine," Meneturu continued.  "It seemed only to amuse him, however.  You said Meshduri is up to something in Ur?"

   "One of Shubari's castoffs has fallen into his hands.  Meshduri will use her to extort a ton or two of grain from the temple.  I think I'll let Meshduri harass Shubari for or month or two, then pull him up here to Isin.  Meshduri is quite adept at eluding the temple's henchmen, but his luck can't hold forever.  After Meshduri gets through shaking Shubari up and down this time, Shubari will be scouring every street in Ur for assassins."

   "Meshduri will be all right," Meneturu answered.  "He has a good head on his shoulders, well attached."

   "Quite," Areshen chuckled.  "Well, old man, start sounding out a few garrisons.  I see no alternative but to march on Nippur again."

   "Everyone in the north is loyal to us.  Some of them are absolutely useless beyond the confines of their perfume baths, but they are loyal.  Uruk and Lagash, perhaps one or two other military governors in the south will decide it is in their best interest to support Isin when the First Soldiers commanding their garrisons have a little chat with them.  I'll have a little chat with the First Soldiers, take care of a few other details as well."

   Areshen nodded his appreciation, quite aware that he could leave the complicated logistics in Meneturu's hands.  Sacking a city the size of Nippur was always a headache, spoils to be divided among the participating commands, property to be reassigned after the city's defeated inhabitants had been slaughtered.

   "The Assembly meets this afternoon," and Meneturu nodded toward an entrance chamber in the courtyard below which led into Shar Dulur's Great Hall, this one of the few chambers at Shar Dulur which rivaled the palace of Ibisien at Ur for ostentatious magnificence.

   "Have Ishi conduct Assembly, will you," Areshen sighed.  "I'm going fishing."

   Meneturu nodded, chuckling for Areshen's pronunciation of Eschieri, the fat little beer good which Meneturu would place onto the throne of Isin in Shar Dulur's Great Hall.

 

 

VII

 

   A half dozen fish dangling from the line he held in his hand, Areshen walked from the banks of the canal back into Shar Dulur late in the afternoon, walked then through several courtyards and entrance chambers, finally into the palace kitchens and past a half dozen grinning cooks who turned toward the chief cook's table in order to watch the spectacle.  Luculsag glanced up from the purchase order tablets spread across her table, a shuddering expression of annoyance creasing the aged lines of her face as Areshen dangled his fish over the table.

   "Don't you dare," Luculsag barked.  "Give those stinking things to Selthu," and Luculsag waved insistent hands in the air, shooing Areshen and his fish toward a young man on the other side of the kitchens.

   "Sweet Luculsag," Areshen called over his shoulder as he handed the fish to an assistant cook, "can I have some beer?"

   "Someone get the king a cup of beer," Luculsag bellowed.  "And hurry up about it or he'll be here all evening pestering me."

   Areshen broke into a soft chuckle, turning to a young female cook who handed him the cup.  As usual, Tecuru could not do so without a seductive little smile from a seductive and intimate distance.  Wearing nothing but a waist clothe pushed blatantly onto her hips, the girl's stance was an obvious display.

   "I finish work in an hour, king," Tecuru crooned, genuine pleading in her eyes as she pushed the waist clothe a revealing distance further down.

   "Eshela," Areshen tried, Eshela the young soldier to whom Tecuru had been betrothed, "would not be pleased," though Areshen had no idea whether or not that was true.  These young people were very different today, and the city of Isin was certainly different than Ur.

   "You are a god, sir.  It is permitted," Tecuru answered, then with an expression of disappointment turned toward Luculsag barking from her table.

   "Tecuru, stop pestering the king."

   Areshen watched the girl mope back to her work, shot a quick glance of appreciation toward Luculsag at her table, then wandered through the kitchen's rear portal with his beer.  Another series of long, narrow chambers, a flight of stairs, and Areshen stood sipping his beer on a balcony overlooking the courtyard around which his own and several dozen other sleeping chambers were arranged.  Half a hundred people idled at brick benches spread across the courtyard below.  Some were palace officials discussing civil matters Areshen preferred to leave in Meneturu's hands whenever possible.  Young soldiers sat in the shadows of date palms with their girls, a few of these daughters of senior military officers and palace officials, most of the others palace servants of one sort or another owned by Shar Dulur and working for several dozen Luculsags sitting at their own tables scattered throughout palace and fortress.

   Again Areshen allowed Luculsag's perpetually frosted features to float through his mind, contemplating an evening a few months ago when the old chief cook had appeared at the door of his chambers with a deeply troubled expression.

   "Manlutib has asked me to become his wife," Luculsag has stated.

   "That is wonderful," Areshen had replied, though he could not understand the hesitancy in Luculsag's voice.  She and Manlutib, a senior household steward who had purchased his freedom a few years ago, had been united for almost forty years in the consort marriage allowed household stewards.

   "When Manlutib comes to you, sir, asking that you release me," Luculsag continued, "you must tell him that you cannot do so."

   "Luculsag  - " Areshen had stammered, stunned by her request.

   "Please, king," the old woman ten years older than Areshen's mothers had pled, "I am your daughter, and your lawful and ritual wife, the greatest gift I have ever received from the gods.  I love Manlutib, but I cannot leave you, sir.  Please do not let me go, sir."

   "Luculsag," Areshen had sighed, "we'll consider it all later," Areshen supposing that the whole thing had something to do with this god business Meneturu had told him about.

   "As you wish, sir," Luculsag had answered, standing a quick moment later in stance women across the palace fifty years younger than she assumed whenever Areshen passed.  "As long as I am here, sir  -  after all, it is permitted."

   Areshen gazed another long minute across the courtyard below, taking a long pull from his beer attempting to settle himself.  In this and Shar Dulur's other courtyards, indeed in courtyards across the city of Isin in which another forty thousand people sat, ultimately in courtyards across the great majority of Sumer and Akkad's other cities, an uncounted multitude were just as certain as Luculsag that they were the king of Isin's ritual and consort wives according to the dictates of a Holy Order Areshen was just as certain was so much nonsense.

   "From the Upper Sea to the borders of India," old Meneturu had smirked just a month ago, "pretty little things peek through their door at night dreaming that you have heard of their beauty.  They are building two more chambers downstairs in order to process the supplication tablets which arrive every day.  Shall I fetch you a barrel or two?"

   "Do they really believe that I'm their husband?" Areshen asked in wonder.

   "Go ask a few of them," Meneturu had shrugged and smirked.  "You will be very busy for a very long time.  Since you are now a god, however, you should have a surplus of creative energy to sustain you along the way."

   Areshen again sipped his beer, gazed across the courtyard, and admitted to himself the most basic and profound of his beliefs.  As hard as he might have tried, at least in his youth, he simply did not believe in the gods of Sumer and Akkad.  And still, Luculsag and that multitude of others residing in cities Areshen had never even seen rejected offers of marriage from others in order to remain the king of Isin's consort wife.

   "They hope for just one visit," Isin's High Priest had explained, urging Areshen to consummate at least a few of his lawful and ritual marriages whenever he traveled.  "Perhaps a dozen a so a night in the city in which you happen to be reposing."

   Areshen had avoided both the High Priest and the High Priest's interpretation of his duty for some time, shuddering for thoughts of the last time he had wandered into the city of Isin, then through a portal into a Sacred Area not dissimilar to Ur's in appearance, the same massive walls, the same staged tower with its Divine Chamber stuck on top.  The High Priest of Isin, again attempting to explain Areshen's recently recognized divinity, had led Areshen down a long passage beneath the temple and then into two vast subterranean chambers in which another hundred of Areshen's sons and daughters and consort wives labored.  Areshen had shuddered just as violently when the High Priest had explained all this.

   "It is your tomb, divine king.  When it is completed, it will be the most magnificent ever built in Sumer.  There will be room for five hundred to accompany you on your journey to the gods when it is time.  I have announced today that I will begin hearing pleas from those who wish to do so.  I, of course, will lead the procession into your tomb when the happy day arrives," and the High Priest had gazed that which Areshen could only call anticipation toward him.  "You've had that cold for quite some time now, haven't you, king?"

   Areshen had returned to Shar Dulur and drunk half a dozen large cups of beer in quick succession trying to drown the High Priest's announcement from his mind, words which sounded as though they might have come from the mouths of the ancients marching into old King Epenatu's tomb in Ur.  Areshen felt gentle affection for those who with such sincerity in their eyes professed to be members of his household, doubting, however, that anyone today would want of their own volition to just walk behind his body into his tomb.  Areshen had then spent the evening standing at the door to his sleeping chamber as one servant after another appeared pleading to be allowed to do so.

   "What do you want me to do with these?" a smirking Meneturu had asked, pointing to another warehouse full of supplication tablets.

   The tablets and the annoying procession at his chamber door had continued in steady streams for another month until Areshen had finally ordered that work on his tomb be stopped and the doors bricked shut.

   "Why?" a devastated High Priest had asked.

   "Ali  -  Enn  - "

   "Enlil?"

   "Yes, Enlil said so.  Last night.  Showed up while I was shaving.  Just popped through the walls and there the old girl was."

   "But king, Enlil is  - "

   "Whatever.  It was dark."

   Areshen again lifted his cup on the balcony overlooking the courtyard, no longer doubting that those who stole glances upward believed, at least, that they loved him.  Do you not realize, Areshen asked the crowd below, that your divine king is a drunk, a pig farmer in his youth who since then has spent his life doing everything he could to dethrone the gods?  Areshen chuckled for the thought, realizing again that he had failed rather spectacularly in his efforts to do so.  Old Meneturu and a few other members of Isin's Assembly had thought it patent nonsense when certain devout members of the Assembly had petitioned the temple in Isin for recognition of Areshen's divinity.  Meneturu, in particular, was quite aware that his younger colleague's character was anything but godlike.  Meneturu, however, had carefully guarded the amusement he had felt over the whole thing, was quite aware that a divine king in Isin would gain Shar Dulur every sort of political advantage.  Meneturu had even dispatched a half dozen Six Hundreds of horse and short sword to the holy city of Nippur in order to assist Sumer's chief god Enlil with his deliberations on the matter of Areshen's divinity.  Enlil sitting in his Divine Chamber atop Nippur's temple had apparently had an excellent view of the chariots ranging in martial ferocity across farmland beneath the city's walls.  Enlil, Nippur's High Priest product of Shubari's indiscretions had announced, is pleased to confirm Areshen of Isin's divinization.  Shubari, according to Meshduri and other of Areshen's spies in Ur who reported to old Meneturu at Shar Dulur, had nearly blown the Sacred Area's walls apart with his farted shouts of protest when he had discovered that Nippur's High Priest product of his indiscretion had betrayed him.

   Areshen swallowed the last of the beer from his cup, then leaned forward toward the balcony's rail.  It had been several years now, however, since he had actually had to say anything.  Several dozen young women pushed themselves to their feet in heated argument, all but one returning to their benches with sour expressions of defeat when a senior household steward pointed to the winner.  Areshen chuckled as he watched her hurry toward the kitchens, then stumbled from the balcony into his sleeping chamber, a plain, unadorned room with floor cushions next to one wall.

   Lowering himself to the cushions, Areshen then spent a long minute gazing toward the ceiling and wondering if he was really sane.  How, he asked himself, can the master of Shar Dulur feel so little happiness from life?  People would certainly think him insane if they knew how he felt at the moment.  He was master of the civilized world.  Kings and rulers from Egypt and India bowed to emissaries from Shar Dulur.  Daughters from the warlords of China had spent years traveling from the furthest reaches of the east in order to become members of his household, hoping for a once in a lifetime visit from Isin's divine king.  And the household here at Shar Dulur was certainly happy, Areshen supposed, nothing here of the perpetually dour expression on the faces of everyone in Ur.

   Areshen shrugged, settling into a resigned humor, wondering if he might have felt differently about it all had he been born to the palace.  Probably not.  Ibisien in Ur had lived in a palace when Areshen had fed pigs in the small temple village of Sannu.  Ibisien had never seemed to find a great deal of joy in life, had climbed into a cup of wine twenty years ago, even before Sumer and Akkad had abandoned him and Ur for Isin.

   Ati stepped through the door into the chamber a moment later carrying a large cup in her hand.  Ati was close to Areshen's own age, not as delicately beautiful as Etwabi, certainly not the stunning beauty which Setith was twenty years after Areshen had married her.  Ati, however, was as pretty as most in Shar Dulur, gifted with that same light of piercing intelligence in her eyes.  The household steward who had made the choice had been quite aware of Areshen's preference.  The younger girls who had pushed themselves to their feet in the courtyard had never really had a chance.

   Ati stood at the door with her hand on the handle, an easy smile in her features as Areshen nodded.  She then pulled the door closed and lowered herself into Areshen's arms.

   "You're getting fat, old lady," Areshen began as he reached for the beer.  Ati, wearing a small waist clothe, was anything but fat.

   "So are you, old man," Ati countered in easy humor.

   "And is that another wrinkle I see?" Areshen continued, gazing toward the edges of Ati's eyes.

   "Gray hairs, more gray hairs," Ati answered, and Areshen finally broke into easy laughter as he poured half the beer into his own cup, handing the other back to Ati, Ati not the type who concerned herself over matters of delicate, social etiquette.

   Areshen gazed toward a close friend for another long moment.  If anyone was now the love of his heart, it was Ati.  She really is very beautiful, Areshen decided, another who looks ten years younger than her actual age.  But it was the emotional intimacy Areshen shared with Ati which he most treasured.  Even Ati, on several occasions, had declined offers of marriage, one or two from palace officials of considerable influence and wealth.  Areshen sometimes pled with others to stop being foolish and accept the proposals they had received.  He had never done so with Ati.

   "Who has proposed to you today, Ati?" Areshen asked as Ati took a long sip from her cup.

   "You still do not believe that I can be happy belonging to you."

   "Ati, any brick from which Shar Dulur is constructed is more pious than you."

   Ati broke into soft, quiet laughter.

   "You only make my point for me, Areshen.  I do not love the horned crown of divinity on your head which you never wear anyway, nor do I love king or master of my household.  I love someone who loves me.  I am happy being your consort wife.  I sometimes feel like your only consort wife in Isin.  When we all belonged to Netumuru before you came to Isin, it was very different.  Netumuru would sell any of us on a whim, consort wives and servants without distinction.  You have never forced any of us to go, Areshen, when we did not want to go.  And Areshen, I would like to meet your Etwabi."

   "Perhaps I will ask Setith for her soon," Areshen answered, noticing something like pleasant anticipation in Ati's eyes.  It had been Ati who explained to him the differences between Ur's and Isin's social customs, though Areshen supposed that a former pig farmer would never really understand the nuances of meaning, a thousand shades of interpretation only those such as Ati who had lived their entire lives in palace could grasp.  Etwabi, as far as Areshen understood the whole matter, would also be his de facto consort wife if she came to Shar Dulur, a union to some degree closer than concubinage in Ur.  Areshen was still not certain, however, why Ati was so anxious to meet Etwabi.  Every female member of Areshen's household both in Shar Dulur and in Isin, and in a hundred other cities across Sumer and Akkad, who was not consort wife to another was by definition Areshen's consort wife since the Assembly had recognized his divinity.  And Ati was quite aware that Areshen loved Etwabi in a very real way.

   "I suppose I would not feel so alone," Ati explained, "if there were another at Shar Dulur who received a summons to your chambers, Areshen.  People here look at me as a curiosity because I am the only wife you ever summon.  And you love Etwabi  - "

   "In a way," Areshen agreed.  "Not more  - "

   "In a way more than you love me," Ati countered in a gentle voice.

   "And in a way not," Areshen answered, a note of argumentative vehemence in his voice.  Areshen gazed toward a woman his own age for another very long moment.  Conversations with Ati, a mature, incredibly intelligent friend, were all that provided Areshen with some sense of emotional balance when he resided at Shar Dulur.  In a very real way, Areshen was certain that he loved Ati as deeply as he loved Setith, Setith for so many years now enamored only with the concerns of her temple and business ventures.

   "Anyway, Ati," Areshen continued, "I believe Etwabi will leave Ur when her family does.  And I will let her go.  She believes in her family's gods.  You, on the other hand  - "

   "I am the model of pious virtue," Ati protested in mischievous laughter.  "I could have been a temple prostitute.  I certainly have the physical qualifications," and Ati drew the cloth from her waste, tossing it aside.  Areshen broke into a soft chuckle for the feigned expression of righteous indignation in Ati's features as she stretched her limbs in display, quite as Heluth in front of her tavern shrine in Shensulith Square might have done trying to attract customers.  Again, however, as Ati settled back into his arms, Areshen felt the strength of his emotional love for her, something very unique and piercing settling into his heart.

   "I will never let you go, Ati," Areshen whispered, the depth of emotion now in his voice, in his eyes as he watched Ati's expression dissolve into radiant warmth.  Ati leaned forward, pressing herself into Areshen's embrace without hesitation.  Ati, Areshen realized again as he met her lips with his own in kiss the strength of unreserved passion, was the only woman in the world with whom he felt no emotional constraint whatsoever.  Setith had wandered off into her own world long ago; Etwabi would do so when she finally found whatever she was searching for.  Ati, however, was just Ati, unconcerned about a great deal of anything.  Again Areshen felt the gentle warmth of her lips to his own, her kiss every bit the emotional passion his own was, the sensual strength of her embrace just now emerging.

   "Perhaps you are a god," Ati chuckled, ease and amusement in her features when she raised her eyes.

   "I still love you," Areshen laughed.

   "And I still love you," Ati answered.

   Again Areshen fell intimately into Ati's eyes, wondering what life might have been like had it just been the two of them on a small temple farm somewhere.  Ati had nowhere else to go, nowhere else she really wanted to be at the moment.  She didn't have temple farms or business ventures to worry about, nor any personal philosophy remarkably different than Areshen's own.  Ati would just delight in spending the rest of the evening in his arms.

   "Areshen," she continued in idle, contemplative quiet, "you are father to everyone in Isin, husband to everyone without consorts of their own, yet you spend time only with me."

   "Are you displeased?"

   "No, of course not, Areshen.  But  -  I am not young."

   "I know.  You are an old woman."

   "And you are an old man," Ati chuckled, digging a hand into his stomach, not a teen ager's, but certainly not a typical forty two year old's either.  Areshen watched the easy delight in Ati's eyes for another long moment, then the subtle hint of thoughtful solemnity once more.

   "Are you really lonely, Ati?" Areshen asked, taking her hands into gentle embrace.

   "When you are away, I am.  Everyone looks at me very strangely.  No one is intimate with me.  How could they be, though, when I sleep with a god  - "

   "Ati  - " Areshen groaned.

   "They believe it, Areshen."

   "Many men pass their evening with only one woman, Ati."

   "The man who call for me rules the world, Areshen."

   Areshen sighed, caressing Ati's hands.  Again he supposed he would just never understand her concerns.

    "Even if I did bring Etwabi here to Shar Dulur, Ati, it still might not be different for you.  Etwabi is certain that she is in love with me, but I am not so certain that she knows her own feelings yet.  I see no permanence in that which exists between Etwabi and me.  I cannot imagine living at Shar Dulur without you, Ati."

   "Areshen  - " Ati whispered, gentle, emotional warmth again breaking across her features.

   "Ati," Areshen continued, urging solemnity now in his voice, "you could become my wife in Isin, my queen  - "

   The expression of shock flashing across Ati's features was no different than it had been the last time.

   "Oh Areshen, no.  It would not be right  - "

   "Setith has always said that she would not mind, Ati.  She nags me incessantly whenever I'm in Ur, thinks it ridiculous that Ibisien has a hundred wives and concubines while I have only one."

   "Areshen, I am a serving girl  - "

   "Ati, you are a woman.  You are an incredibly beautiful woman, every bit as noble in appearance and demeanor as the daughter of any High Priest."

   "But I am not the daughter of a High Priest, Areshen.  I spend my life naked, with cleaning rags  - "

   "Ati, not only are you as beautiful as any High Priest's daughter decked in gowns and lace and gold, but you are so incredibly, marvelously intelligent.  Ati, you are brilliant, far more brilliant than any High Priest's or governor's daughter.  For that matter, most High Priests and governors, held to you, are imbeciles  - "

   "Areshen  - " Ati just pleaded, and again he felt the tremble in her hands.  Areshen just sighed as he wrapped her once more into gentle embrace, quite aware that it was one thing for him to flaunt Holy Order and social custom, another matter entirely for a woman such as Ati who spent her life on hands and knees scrubbing Shar Dulur's floors.  Ati, a servant allowed clothing by her overseers only on rare occasions, a servant passed from one owner to another whenever Shar Dulur was.  Indeed, no High Priest's daughter or military governor's elder wife displayed half the stunning intelligence and poise which radiated from Ati's features.  Even so, the thought of anything beyond that which birth and Holy Order had assigned her seemed to frighten Ati as badly as it might have frightened the superstitious old ladies of Sannu Areshen remembered from his youth, old ladies who spent their days searching the corners of their houses for demons, sweeping them furiously toward the door.

   "Ati," Areshen tried, again caressing her hands in gentle though intimate touch, "you know that I started life myself on a temple farm just outside Ur feeding pigs.  No other military governor for the past hundred years can boast of origins lower than my own."

   "Perhaps," Ati chuckled, a measure of composure returning to her features.  "But just because you can defy Holy Order and get away with it does not mean that I will be able to do so."

   "Old woman, I've watched you hang scrub rags on top of god's heads all over Shar Dulur.  You are no more pious  - "

   "All right," Ati chuckled, "perhaps not.  But I must live in the world, Areshen.  People look at me strangely now.  Were I to become your lawful and ritual wife, it would only be worse.  Me, wearing the robes of a wife  - " Ati shuddered.  "Wives and daughters of governors would call me an aberration, someone who does not know her own place."

   Areshen sighed in frustration, raising his eyes to Ati's when she squeezed his hands with emotional strength.

   "Areshen, I'm the consort wife who loves you, the one you say you love.  Isn't that enough?"

   "I suppose," Areshen sighed.  "For now.  The High Priest in Isin tells me that it is within my right to take any woman in Sumer and Akkad as my wife, including the High Priest's should I so desire."

   "If you love me," Ati answered, "you will make the High Priest's wife your wife rather than me."

   Again Areshen held Ati in silent, intimate warmth, sipping beer and glancing toward the walls in searching thought.

   If he was king of Isin, then Ati should be Isin's queen.  The Assembly had offered the queen's floral crown to Setith.  Setith, however, had not as yet even bothered to visit Isin, a city which had been a social and cultural backwater before Areshen, during the war of the Amuru Wall, had made it the center of Sumer and Akkad's military command.

   Even today, certain High Priests and hereditary governors in the south with close ties to Ur were still not yet prepared to acknowledge the situation as it was, though very few offered more than a ceremonial allegiance to Ur and Ibisien.  Most, for that matter, had ignored Ibisien for ten years now, governors in city after city proclaiming themselves independent from Ur.  For the past eight years, however, an increasing number of cities had recognized the obvious, and the obvious pointed to Shar Dulur and Isin.  And it was no matter of great concern to Areshen and palace officials such as Meneturu that a few of the governors of the more distant cities now called themselves High Lord and Grand Exalted This and That, just as long as the Grand Exalted This and That in question had enough sense to bow, at least in private, to emissaries from Shar Dulur carrying their marching orders.

   Areshen lowered his beer and reached for Ati's hands once more, not really certain if his musings had much to do with his feelings for the extraordinarily intelligent woman of such quiet, confident poise with whom he found a measure of tranquillity, at least for brief and fleeting moments.  Most of the noble born women of Sumer who sat thrones beside Grand Exalted This and Thats displayed about as much intelligence as their husbands, husbands almost as intelligent as the average brick and few of whom were allowed more than a ceremonial role directing the military garrisons located near their cities.  Areshen would rather see Ati herself standing in a commander's chariot giving orders to First Soldiers than allow military governors in most Sumerian cities to do so.  Most First Soldiers, Areshen was certain, would agree.  And still, when Ati climbed from his arms in the morning, she would do nothing more than take rags into her hands and scrub Shar Dulur's floors, would feel foolish wearing anything more than a few inches of cloth about her waist, all because Holy Order decreed this to be her role in life.  It is little wonder, Areshen thought, that someone such as himself could become the master of civilization when civilization was guided by something as ridiculous as Holy Order.

   Areshen raised his eyes to Ati's when he felt new and urging strength in her embrace.  Ati leaned forward, her kiss sweet, the warmth of her lips to his own a light brush of sensuality slowly building to the passionate strength of the love they felt for each other.  Areshen felt the emotional depths of his love for Ati course again through his heart.  He felt as well, however, the first hint of urgency in her kiss.

   "Have I driven all the deep, dark thoughts from your mind?" Ati chuckled, gentle mischief now in her smile, the same in her light, teasing caress.

   "We march on Nippur soon," Areshen answered.  "I am going to place you in one of the command chariots.  You will conquer as you have conquered me."

   "You are being foolish," Ati laughed.  "You have, as usual, had too much beer."

   "Be that as it may, you would be perfectly at home in a chariot.  You respect Holy Order no more than I do.  And besides, there's precedent, the Gutiu queens, for instance," who a century ago had descended from the eastern mountains standing naked and ferocious in their chariots, a great many of Sumer's soldiers captivated, according to the poets, by a magnificent and captivating sight.

   "Perhaps I do respect Holy Order no more than you," Ati continued.  "Perhaps," she chuckled, "I'd enjoy standing in a chariot screaming with a Gutiu queen's maniacal fury.  But Holy Order forbids it, and other people do respect Holy Order.  What would there be without it be chaos?"

   "What indeed," Areshen sighed, deciding it was enough, at least for the moment, to have Ati in his arms.  If Sumer and Holy Order did not recognize who Ati really was, that was their loss.

   "Ati," Areshen whispered as he grasped her hands again, both the embrace and his voice betraying the depths of the emotions he felt, "I think you must always be most beloved to me when all else is done.  There's really only you."

   "Areshen  - " Ati whispered as well, intense and pleading strength now in her arms as she curled herself finally into intimate and passionate embrace.  "It is enough for me to be your beloved, Areshen," Ati cried, pulling him finally into the only gentle and uncomplicated love he had known for a very long time now.

 

VIII

 

   Areshen pushed himself straight in the chariot, then gazed across a mile of open farmland toward the walls of the city of Nippur, the Holy City of Sumer and Akkad.  Areshen gazed another long moment toward the armies of Sumer and Akkad now encamped on open fields beneath the city's walls.

   There was, as old Meneturu at Shar Dulur had stated a month ago, no turning back now, Areshen supposed.  Twenty thousand soldiers, the officers and First Soldiers of which swore allegiance to various cities across Sumer and Akkad and then took orders from Shar Dulur, also studied the walls of Nippur, its portals locked and bared.  A dozen other commanders had led formations of troops on a tour of the south, parading their commands before garrisons still professing loyalty to Ur, the only city still capable of rallying any appreciable opposition again Isin and Shar Dulur.  Ibisien, Areshen's spies in Ur reported, had decided to react to the situation in his usual manner.  The king of Ur had retreated into the back chambers of his palace and gotten drunk.  Shubari, High Priest of Ur, had sent a few dozen products of his indiscretions from city to city across the south calling on them to march in defense of Nippur, the Holy City now besieged by the blasphemous pretender from Isin.  Without exception, however, according to Areshen's staff officers now touring the south, the commanders of those garrisons still professing loyalty to Ur were content to do so behind the locked and bared gates of their fortresses.  The second siege of Nippur, Areshen had finally sighed in relief, would be no spark touching off a general conflagration between the cities of Sumer and Akkad.

   Areshen gazed from his chariot for another long moment toward the closest of the troop encampments now ringing Nippur, hundreds of tents arranged on either side of a narrow dirt track which led directly up to the city's gates.  This military encampment might have seemed an awesome and impressive sight to the uninformed observer, though Areshen was quite aware of the truth.  Sumer's real soldiers were still posted along the frontiers holding a hundred tribes of wandering barbarians at bay.  The troops now encamped on every side of Areshen's chariot brandishing pike and short sword in practice were by and large levies of reserve called back to service just a month ago, half of them, perhaps, capable of scaling Nippur's walls without falling off the ladders.  At least the First Soldiers, Areshen decided as he watched another Sixty of archers loose their arrows, appeared reasonably competent, most of these First Soldiers veterans of campaigns along the frontiers.

   Areshen finally nodded toward the young driver standing beside him in the chariot, the driver reigning the horses forward, then for a mile along the narrow, dusty road leading toward Nippur's walls.

   As usual, Areshen passed a long moment in tranquil thought of Ati as the chariot rumbled along.  Perhaps he would make Etwabi his concubine, perhaps not.  He genuinely loved the quiet though passionate young woman residing in his wife's house in Ur, was certain that the affection Etwabi expressed from him was in great part genuine as well.  But there remained some subtle hint of distance between Etwabi and himself, something Areshen could not quite explain.  My sister, Teru had stated the last time Areshen had visited, is Ur, mostly, but not quite all, at least not yet.

   Again Areshen found himself in Ati's unassuming and gentle arms at Shar Dulur, Ati who was just Ati, and Areshen felt certain that bliss would have been spending his life with Ati in a small, one room farmhouse like the one in which he had begun life, armies and political intrigue someone else's concern.  Who knows, Areshen sighed.  Twenty years ago he had been a young officer with a growing reputation as a successful field strategist, certain that he had found happiness when a young woman from Ur's Sumerian nobility had noticed and then professed her love for him.  Areshen still loved Setith, very deeply, he supposed, though he supposed as well that it was now easier to love Setith from a respectable distance, preferably as great a distance as possible.

   Would he and Ati, Areshen asked himself again, be able to rest quietly in each other's arms today, certain, as they felt emotional and sensual warmth in each other's kiss, that their hearts beat as one, had he and Ati lived the past twenty years in a one room farm house?  Nor, Areshen supposed, would any old farmer living in a one room farm house be likely to tell him.  Most such still feared the gods, would tell him what they believed he wanted to hear rather than the truth.

   Oh for a beer, Areshen sighed as the chariot bounded along, Nippur's walls looming ever larger in the near distance.  Setith, sweet Etwabi in Ur, gentle Ati at Shar Dulur  -  and even Heluth, Areshen supposed with a chuckle just a bit less strained, wild exotic Heluth standing in front of her tavern's serving board in Shensulith Square chucking unprofitable gods into the corner.  How genuine, of late, had the spark of pleading in Heluth's eyes become whenever she stated that she would be willing to forgo the honor of being a minor order priestess in order to sell herself into Areshen's household.

   Areshen finally turned his attention back to the walls of Nippur and the earthen ramp which led up to a locked gate, archers standing on the wall towers in both directions for as far as he could see.  Areshen lifted his shield as they approached the walls, though he doubted that any of Nippur's defenders would target a single approaching chariot, particularly since no trumpet declaring the commencement of war had yet sounded.

   When the chariot's driver had reigned the horses to a halt beneath the city's walls, Areshen glanced with studying concentration toward the soldiers gazing down from above, few of whom appeared a great deal more competent than his own soldiers in encampment now besieging the city.  Nippur, the Holy City of Sumer and Akkad, had never before found it necessary to depend on itself for a great deal of anything, its temple of Enlil, Enlil supreme among the Sumerian pantheon of the gods, receiving a share of the produce from every other city across Sumer and Akkad.

   Shubari  -  Areshen sighed in disgust.  Nippur's gates were locked and bared because of Ur's farting High Priest.  Does Shubari really believe that Enlil is suddenly going to wake up and hurl lighting bolts down on the armies surrounding the city?  Areshen sighed annoyance again, pushing himself straight in the chariot.

   "Tebro," he finally shouted toward the walls.  "Tebro, military governor of Nippur and son of a slobbering, flea infested dog?  Where are you, Tebro?  Stand up and render an account of yourself."

   Areshen could not help but notice most of the soldiers atop the walls concealing expressions of amusement as a pink faced, polished, obese little man waddled forward, Tebro typical of most of Sumer and Akkad's military governors, passing his time in his palace's perfume baths.

   "Areshen of Isin," Tebro began, his voice hardly more imposing than a castrate's serving in the city's temple precinct, "we do not fear you.  You dare not defile these sacred walls with your rabble.  Go away.  Lord Enlil will protect us."

   "Shit from a constipated, worm plagued sheep, Tebro," Areshen scoffed, his voice almost a sigh of annoyance as it echoed off the city walls.  Areshen passed another moment studying a few more of the soldiers atop the walls, tense amusement now in their expressions, those closest to Tebro turning their backs as Tebro glared furiously in every direction.

   "Tebro," Areshen continued, "stop playing soldier.  You're not cut out for it.  Climb down from those walls and unbar the gates now and I will let you waddle back to Ur and your sweet Shubari's loving arms."

   "Inumen is High Priest here in Nippur," Tebro answered.  "Enlil is our divine Lord."

   "Inumen began in one of Shubari's back chambers, Tebro.  Most say the same of you.  Climb down from those walls, Tebro.  I'm not interested in you.  I intend to roast the High Priest's liver on the temple's altar.  Unless you climb down from those walls and stop making a nuisance of yourself, your liver will roast on the altar beside the High Priest's."

   Areshen studied Tebro's plump and polished face for another long moment, the crack in his composure obvious, his attempt to conceal his fright comical.  Areshen studied a few more of the amateur archers lining the walls, none of whom would suppose the barbaric nature of his words out of character.  Tebro and the garrison of Nippur were hardly competent enough to maintain order even in the Amuru construction yards along the canals.  The men in Tebro's command could not be pleased that they now faced a man reputed to be far more barbaric than a hundred tribes of savage barbarians he had defeated in battle along the frontiers.

   "Tebro," Areshen continued, the same note of dismissive annoyance in his voice, "you are becoming a bother to me.  If you do not climb down from those walls and unbar the gates, I will return with my army.  When I am finished with Nippur, Enlil will no long sit on his golden couch atop the temple.  He and everyone else on these walls will be relieving their bowels in a mud shit house beside an irrigation ditch.  When I am finished with Nippur, no brick will remain standing on another.  I and my army will feast on the grain piled in your temple while you and yours are fleeing naked across the western deserts.  I will proclaim to the chiefs of every tribe in the desert that you and your men are fair sport, to be taken, spitted, and roasted at their pleasure."

   "You frighten no one," Tebro answered, his voice a terrified squeak.  Again Areshen glanced up and down the walls, a clear measure of concern now evident in every face.  Few of these soldiers were ignorant of the fact that Areshen had indeed razed at least a half dozen towns over the past eight years.  Few doubted that the blasphemous king of Isin was capable of doing the same to the Holy City of Nippur.

   "Tebro," Areshen continued, deciding on a different approach for his final verbal assault, "a short time ago I had an opportunity to tour the Amuru construction yards along one of the canals near Nippur, and I witnessed the manner in which your High Priests discipline the diggers.  In one camp I witnessed a particularly impressive sight, a dozen men and woman suspended from wooden poles, nails driven through their hands.  Now that I have been proclaimed a god, I must endeavor always to conduct myself in a manner pleasing to my fellow gods, and I most certainly cannot allow myself to be outdone by the High Priests.  I shall therefore erect ten thousand wooden poles beneath the walls of Nippur.  Ten thousand of you now standing atop these walls will hang from the posts I will erect, a gift to my fellow gods.  As the blood drains from your hands nailed to my holy posts, I will drive past in my Sacred Chariot one final time in order to be certain that you die well, a pleasing and acceptable sacrifice to my fellow gods."

   Areshen studied the walls a final long moment, heated arguments now breaking out among small clusters of soldiers, First Soldiers running back and forth desperately trying to reestablish order.  Enough for now, Areshen sighed, nodding toward his driver.  A quick moment later the driver reigned the chariot about, then back down the narrow, dusting road from the walls of Nippur.

 

      Areshen sat at a small field table a mile from the city's walls, the folds of a camp tent rising about him on all sides, the usual stack of dispatches sitting on the table.  With a sigh of resignation, Areshen lifted the first of several tablets on which the king of Ur's message was inscribed.

   "They tell me," Ibisien wrote, "that you mean to invest Nippur, Areshen, my loyal and faithful military governor.  Please do not invest Nippur, Areshen, my loyal and faithful military governor.  The High Priest Shubari has also said that you must not invest Nippur, though it is not a matter of great importance to me what the High Priest Shubari says.  Did I say, please do not invest Nippur, Areshen, my loyal and faithful military governor?  If not, then please do not invest Nippur, Areshen, my loyal and faithful military governor.  The High Priest Shubari came to my palace and said that Areshen, my loyal and faithful military governor, must not invest Nippur, though it is not a matter of great importance to me what the High Priest Shubari  - "

   Areshen laid the tablet aside.  From the sound of the message, Ibisien had probably been held to his feet by one scribe while another copied dictation even more drunken and rambling than usual.

   Perhaps Setith had something more interesting to say, and Areshen reached for another tablet.

   "Bathul's finances, beloved husband, are reasonably well ordered.  The temple's assets are by and large adequately accounted for, though I have found it necessary to insist that the High Priests of several chambers, the chamber of past due accounts in particular, attend to their duties with a bit more diligence.  A few temple farms are seriously in arrears, and simply must be prosecuted.  To allow the situation to continue unanswered would displease the Divine Lord Leshinuthu and the Divine Lady Bilthu and seriously disrupt Holy Order.  But I will, beloved husband, be gentle, just as you asked of me.  I will accept as payment for past due accounts owed the temple only single men and women unless the managers or patriarchs of the farms in question wish to offer married men and women, though I will avoid demanding these whenever possible, and I will then accept as payment for past due accounts owed the temple only married men and women unless the managers or patriarchs of the farms in question wish to offer their children, though I will avoid demanding these whenever possible, though I will accept as payment for past due accounts owed the temple single men and women, married men and women, and their children, only if the managers or patriarchs of the farms in question wish to offer them.  Some families, however, have indeed offered themselves into my service, a large number from the village of Betulum, for instance, which has been assaulted by locusts for two consecutive years now and has failed.  At my palace in Bathul appeared the entire village of Betulum pleading to enter my service as my children, saying that they have heard that I am indeed a gentle mistress, beloved in Bathul having been its High Priestess only a month.  This pleased me intensely, beloved husband, so with tears in my eyes, I said to the people of Betulum, only your unmarried men and women shall belong to me for life.  Your children shall serve me for three years, and then I will offer those who desire it their freedom at five sixths the usual price.  The people of Betulum then sang of my generosity in single voice, those who were to become my children for life falling to their knees in adoration before me."

   Areshen lowered his wife's first tablet with an easy smile, doubting none of it, though he would never understand why Setith's thousands of children in towns all across Sumer and Akkad so adored her.  More than a few of them had seen Setith cross, genuinely angry any number of times, though the ill feelings between mistress and servant were always short lived.  Setith's exactions and punishments were, Areshen supposed, less severe than those inflicted on servants by a great many other mistresses.  Even in the one instance when the punishment had been the height of needless cruelty, Etwabi herself had said that Setith had vigorously protested the punishment in front of Ur's Executioner Priests, an act of blasphemy Areshen would never before have suspected Setith capable of.

   Areshen lifted the next tablet on which his wife's letter was written.

   "I am sorry to have disappointed you, beloved husband, the night before I left Ur for Bathul.  I know I promised, but I was called away on an urgent matter which required my immediate and personal attention."

   Areshen chuckled for a quick moment, wondering how much silver had been involved in Setith's urgent and personal matter.  In a very real way, Areshen had indeed been disappointed when one of Setith's servants had informed him that the mistress would not be available to receive him in chambers.  It had been well over a year now since he had really touched Setith with any degree of intimacy, and Setith was still an exceptionally beautiful woman, thought by a great many to be the most beautiful woman in the world.  Areshen had wondered if it might have seemed like the first time with Setith.

   "By the way, beloved, as to the matter of Shar Dulur," and Areshen released a long sigh of frustration.  For a hundred years now most of the assets of Sumer and Akkad had been owned by little more than a hundred people, High Priests, governors, and a few private individuals.  The owner of Shar Dulur, palace of the king of Isin and military headquarters of the armies of Sumer and Akkad, just happened to be Setith.  With another long sigh, Areshen returned to the letter.

   "It seems the current month's payment, as well as those for several previous months, are late.  Please be good enough to instruct the advocates responsible for Isin's accounts to see to this matter at the earliest possible convenience.  I am certain, beloved husband, that we can resolve this matter without once more finding it necessary to resort to a court of law  - "

   Areshen lowered the tablet to the table, then glanced up as Meneturu pushed his massive bulk through the tent's flap.  Now in military attire, Meneturu appeared fit and formidable despite his years and the gray in his hair.

   "Setith's?" and Meneturu nodded toward the tablet Areshen had lowered to the table.

   "Yes," Areshen groaned.  "We have to pay off Shar Dulur, Meneturu, scrounge or pilfer the money from somewhere.  If we don't, Setith will nag me incessantly."

   With an easy chuckle, Meneturu lowered himself to a folding chair next to the table.

   "My spies tell me there's more than enough grain in Nippur's temple stores to do so," Meneturu began.  "We'll have to declare right of conquest in order to get our hands on it, but we'll have to do that anyway in order to dethrone Tebro and the High Priest Inumen.  I will never understand why you did not declare right of conquest in Isin eight years ago."

   "Meneturu, you've known Setith for years.  Would you want to take something away from her without paying for it?"

   "I suppose I wouldn't want to be the first to try," Meneturu chuckled.

   "You're just back from the walls?"

   "Tebro could hardly squeak a word this time.  Most of his men appear to be wilting beautifully, far more rapidly than we might have hoped for.  I would say that tomorrow would not be too soon to have a go at the walls."

   "The troops we have here ourselves are not the sort I'd care to lead toward the frontiers and the tribes, Meneturu."

   "They're as ready as they'll ever be.  Isime and Shulitu will be the only ones with any real work to do if we proceed according to plan."

   Areshen rested in silent thought for a quick moment.  Isime's and Shulitu's Six Hundreds, the only two now engaged in the siege of Nippur which were professional and battle hardened, had been pulled from the western frontiers.  The resulting hole had been plugged by auxiliaries from the tribes currently in the pay of Isin, not a situation Areshen or Meneturu cared to see continued for any length of time.

   "Perhaps," Meneturu continued with a mischievous smile, "we should have brought ten or twenty thousand Su horsemen down here from the east instead of Isime and Shulitu, parade them beneath the walls.  Have you ever heard a Su war scream?  They'd be scraping shit off Nippur's walls for the next six months.  Tebro would drop a considerable load himself."

   "Perhaps," Areshen laughed.  "But then we'd only have to convince the Su to go home.  More than a few of their young princes were educated in Nippur or Ur, would love to set themselves up in a perfume bath somewhere."

   "Most likely.  By the way, Meshduri is here.  He arrived from Ur early this morning.  He's already had a quick look at the walls.  If there are weaknesses to be exploited, Meshduri is the one who will find them," and Areshen smiled for the curious wonder in Meneturu's eyes, Meneturu Akkadian, a stomping old bull according to his colleagues, who could not understand how the urbane and literate Meshduri, Sumerian by birth, could be such a brilliant tactician when it came to defensive walls, both their construction and their destruction.

   "You know, Meneturu, Meshduri and I started out together twenty years ago."

   "Yes, but Meshduri's spent most of his life sitting at table hatching plots against the High Priests.  He's a better scribe than most scribes."

   Areshen shrugged his amusement, watched Meneturu push himself from the tent, and then turned his attention back to several more tablets.  Far less competent a scribe than Meshduri, Areshen soon tired of the nuisance, and pushed himself from the tent as well.  He then walked without haste along narrow dirt paths winding their way through the military encampments, finally down a road which led along the banks of a small irrigation canal.  Areshen glanced another moment toward the city of Nippur off to his right, then toward another series of military encampments spread in open farmland beneath he city's walls.  A moment later he turned his attention toward the small brick village a short distance ahead, then toward a narrow bridge which crossed the canal near which several soldiers had reported last seeing Meshduri.  Areshen pushed himself onto the bridge, studying quiet, palm lined paths which led along the further bank of the canal toward the village, that a small brick temple farm the buildings and residents of which were owned by Nippur's gods, Nippur's High Priests overseeing the god's property.

   Areshen finally noticed Meshduri standing beside a small grove of date palms a short distance from the village.  Meshduri stood close to the canal's banks gazing toward the walls of Nippur in silent, contemplative study.  Meshduri, Areshen chuckled, indeed looked as much a scribe as he did a soldier.  Meshduri was by and large Sumerian, thus smaller in stature than the hulking Akkadian Meneturu, though Meshduri was certainly not an Ibisien, painted and polished more beautifully than any of his wives, was certainly not the plump, boyish, totally useless Tebro squeaking away atop Nippur's walls.  And old Meneturu was right; if there were weaknesses in Nippur's walls to be exploited, Meshduri would find them.

   Meshduri turned from his study of Nippur toward Areshen, the same intense and studying expression in Meshduri's features which Areshen had noticed a month ago when he had come upon him erasing words from tabulation tablets.

   "This is a considerable distance from which to conduct an inspection of the walls, is it not?" Areshen asked in easy humor as he approached.

   "Sometimes true inspiration comes from a distance, from the broad view," Meshduri chuckled, pointing toward the towers of the gate beneath which Areshen had stood taunting Tebro earlier in the day.

   "Meneturu says the same," Areshen agreed, pondering the same section of the walls.

   "I talked with Isime and Shulitu a short time ago.  Both have had a close look at Tebro and his shop keepers atop the walls.  Isime and Shulitu both say you needn't have pulled them from the frontiers.  You should instead have recruited from choirs and castrates in one or two nearby temples."

   "They're that confident," Areshen chuckled, glancing now toward the small village a short distance further down the road.

   "Isime and Shulitu are that confident," Meshduri answered, glancing toward the village himself, guessing Areshen's concern in an instant.  "There's beer there."

   "Good," Areshen stated, pushing himself purposefully forward.  "Are your wife and daughters safe remaining in Ur, Meshduri?  I hear you have been making a considerable nuisance of yourself to Shubari, extorting grain from the temple in unprecedented quantity."

   "I paid my regards to Ibisien at the palace before I left Ur, our beloved king well fortified by the royal cup and in a particularly maudlin mood.  'Not you too, my sweet Meshduri,' he cried.  'Everyone is leaving me for Isin.'  Ibi assured me, however, that Ur is still a city of law and justice.  The households of Areshen and Meshduri will remain under the protection of the palace.  Since the siege of Nippur began, it's become very obvious that Ibisien could spit from Ur's walls into territory beyond his control, but he is still the master of Ur itself, and will do all he can to hold Shubari and the temple in check.  Ibisien, I suppose, remains confident, at least in a corner of his wine soaked mind, that Isin and Shar Dulur are temporary expedients, that we will all eventually return to the fold in Ur."

   "In a beer soaked corner of my mind, Meshduri, I dream of doing just that.  I am not  -  old king what's his name, expecting five hundred members of my household to joyfully walk into my tomb and wait for the grave diggers to shovel dirt down on top of their heads, nor am I Sargon of Agade marching form one end of the world to the other.  I've done two things in my life, Meshduri, fed pigs, and fight the tribes along the frontiers.  Then I return to Shar Dulur and drink beer with Ati.  Sumer worshipped Urnammu because he fought wars and then returned to his palace and wrote laws.  I've never written a single law."

   "Have you heard the way students in the scribal schools talk these days, particularly those in Ur and the south?" Meshduri asked.

   "The army is out of fashion.  The temple and Shubari are the way to the top."

   "The priesthood, the law," Meshduri scowled, then glanced about the small, mud brick buildings of the village among which they now walked, one room farmhouses, grain sheds, narrow paths leading into the surrounding fields.  Meshduri raised a beckoning arm toward a child standing next to one of the sheds.

   "Girl, come here," Meshduri commanded, and with less fear in her features than Areshen might have expected, the ten year old child approached, her eyes wide and wondering as she gazed toward two men in military dress, short swords hanging form their sides.

   "Turn your back to us, girl," Meshduri ordered, "and take your clothes off."

   The girl obeyed quickly, and Areshen winced for the scars covering the child's body from her neck to her ankles.  Flogging was a perfectly acceptable means of discipline throughout Sumer and Akkad provided the instrument used was of a standard sort.  The scars covering this girl's body, however, had obviously been inflicted by a whip onto the chords of which had been affixed small glass beads with sharp and jagged edges.

   "Get dressed, girl," Meshduri sighed, turning again toward Areshen and nodding about the village.  "I talked with the patriarch here a few minutes ago.  They're Cothculimu, eastern Amuru, settled here after the second battle of Kel Dulur," and Meshduri nodded toward the temple thrusting its way above the city of Nippur in the near distance.  "A junior Executioner Priest comes to this village once a week, approaches the patriarch, and orders him to choose someone from the village.  Anyone from the village under thirteen years old. 'Why?" the patriarch asks every week.  'What have we done wrong?'  The Executioner Priest just says, 'choose.  Choose a child.  It is the will of the gods.'"

   Meshduri turned back to the girl as she crept forward, her hand extended.

   "Another?" Meshduri asked, his scowl an obvious affectation.

   "You have more," the girl answered in a voice of amused accusation, a bashful smile in pretty Amuru features.

   Meshduri pulled a piece of date candy from a fold in his uniform and placed it in the girl's hand.  With another soft, bashful smile, she then wandered back toward the shed.

   A quick minute later, Areshen and Meshduri stood near the door of the village's small tavern shrine holding cups.

   "They worship you in Isin," Meshduri finally continued, "because you do not, in fact, write laws.  You spend your time sitting with Ati drinking beer.  By the way  - "

   "She still says no," Areshen sighed.

   "She's frightened," Meshduri answered with gentle sympathy, then continued in solemn quiet.  "We have very fine laws in Sumer today, all the laws we need, and we certainly have all the High Priests and advocates we need to interpret and enforce those laws.  And with all that, Sumer and Akkad have discovered that they need an Isin with a blasphemous Areshen as its king.  Meneturu says that he confronted you about all this last month at Shar Dulur?"

   Areshen chuckled, taking a long pull from his beer.

   "Meneturu informed me that I would march on Nippur even if I could not justify doing so by claiming there to be an external threat along the frontiers, a threat exacerbated by the temple here in Nippur.  I informed Meneturu that he would have done the same."

   "The old bull would have done the same indeed.  Urnammu would not have done so, however.  Shulgi would not have done so.  Scream he, 'I am a god,' all day long from the top of the temple, Shulgi would not have marched against his own Shubari, and Shubaris back then were no different than it our own beloved farter today."

   "Even so, Meshduri, the reason why the blasphemous king of Isin can march on Nippur while the south cowers behind the locked and bared gates of it garrisons is, in fact, a hundred tribes of screaming barbarians along the frontiers."

   "That, and the fact that the blasphemous king of Isin with no god of his own is now a god himself," Meshduri chuckled.

   "A few months ago when all of this was becoming a problem," and Areshen sloshed his cup toward the walls of Nippur, "I woke up in my chamber in Shar Dulur one morning and decided that I would make the whole thing just go away by snapping my fingers.  I snapped my fingers, but the whole thing did not just go away, Meshduri."

   Meshduri broke into easy laughter as he handed his cup to the tavern mistress standing behind the door's serving board.  Areshen did the same, smiling gratitude when she handed a full cup back.

   "The problem did not go away," Areshen again sighed after another long pull from his cup.  "I had expected at least a small bolt of lightning when I snapped my fingers.  Urnammu and Shulgi probably got a least a small bolt of lighting after they were proclaimed gods."

   Again Meshduri broke into easy laughter, enjoying the light spark of slightly intoxicated mischief in Areshen's eyes.  As usual, however, Meshduri could not help but notice the ever present hint of strain and fatigue also evident in Areshen's features.

   "Your divinization is by and large just political expedient, you know, Areshen.  The Assembly in Isin is no different than Ur's, each member fancying himself the epitome of ideological detachment.  Each goes home and lives in the real world at night, however, shopkeepers, servants, scribes with their tablets and brick makers with their spades.  Sumer and Akkad, high and low, think the king of Isin is a god."

   "Meshduri," Areshen stated with abrupt, emphatic annoyance, "the king of Isin is not a god.  Not even a small bolt of lightning, remember?"

   "Oh?" Meshduri asked, an expression of amused wonder in his features.  Areshen laughed with ease, appreciation in his eyes.

   "It is the way they express their love for you, Areshen," Meshduri continued.  "I see no harm in it."

   "Sometimes I wonder, Meshduri.  One of the gods does intrigue me."

   "Oh?" Meshduri asked again, nothing affected in his expression this time.

   "Etwabi's."

   "Meneturu's niece?"

   "Yes.  She has a brother, Teru, teaches in a private school in Ur.  He's a very intelligent young man, though he'll have nothing to do with Shubari or the temple."

   "A very brilliant young man indeed."

   "His god says something that I have never heard any of the gods of Sumer say.  Teru's god says that he is the only god."

   "I hope Shubari doesn't find out that there is only one god.  He'd be out of business if that god didn't happen to reside in his temple."

   "An intriguing thought," Areshen answered.  "Shubari out of business."

   "It probably wouldn't work," Meshduri sighed.  "Shubari would find some way of convincing people that he had captured this god who is the only god."

   "I somehow don't think that Shubari and this god would like each other."

   "That wouldn't bother Shubari."

   "No, I suppose it wouldn't," Areshen sighed, vague and ill defined notions of dealing with Shubari using highly unorthodox methods fading from his mind.

   "The best we can do for now," Meshduri continued, "is to rid Nippur's temple of Shubari junior and the walls of Nippur of Tebro."

   "Tebro, perfumed little bath flower that he is, lawfully remains under my jurisdiction as military governor of Ur.  If he survives our assault, what should we do with him, Meshduri?"

   "He will survive.  He'll be hiding beneath the High Priest's skirts when we climb the walls.  Leave him in Nippur.  The High Priest as well, for that matter.  Restrict them to responsibility for the temple's choir and castrates, then have Isime or Shulitu leave one of their Sixties behind in Nippur to watch them.  Sixty real soldiers well placed in Nippur's Sacred Area will be more than enough to dissuade Tebro and Inumen from any more foolishness.  Nippur, all of Sumer, for that matter, will just assume that Enlil now favors Areshen of Isin who can afford to be lenient.  Inumen dead would just irritate Shubari.  Inumen alive taking orders from Isin instead of Ur will infuriate Shubari.  He'll blow Ur's temple apart farting his outrage, but he'll be powerless to do more.  He cannot send another back chamber product of his assignations to Nippur to replace a High Priest who is still alive."

   "Of course," Areshen nodded as he and Meshduri strolled from the tavern, then along the canal road leading back toward the military encampments.  "You are as brilliant as ever, Meshduri.  That is how it will be done."

   Meshduri nodded his appreciation, his features settling into an easier humor as he decided to change the subject to gentler matters.

   "So Ati still says no?"

   "She belongs on the queen's throne, Meshduri.  Instead, she scrubs Shar Dulur's floors."

   "Sumer is an ancient culture," Meshduri sighed in sympathy.  "Even a king with no god of his own will not change it overnight."

   "Ibisien says he is going to retire to Egypt in the west."

   "He told me the same," Meshduri chuckled.

   "He'd find a quieter time of it among the tribes in the desert, I suspect.  You agreed to join me in Isin without a great deal of protest, Meshduri.  A month ago you did not dare abandon Ur's walls to the temple."

   "Documents well placed with certain of my agents in Ur will hold Shubari and the temple in check for the time being, will also see to the provisioning of the walls for at least the next six months.  I do feel uneasy walking away from Ur, but it pleases me to spend time in the field once again.  I've been sitting at table for far too long now.  And now is certainly not the time to repose quietly at table."

   Areshen nodded in grim resignation.  The approaching hostilities could only conclude in Isin's and Shar Dulur's favor.  Still, this was Nippur, and there was no turning back this time.  Undisputed master of Nippur, Areshen would be undisputed master of the civilized world.  At the moment, however, the only source of comfort and ease seemed the company of the life long friend walking at his side.

   "You're not happy, are you, Areshen?" Meshduri asked, and again Areshen met the eyes of a close, genuine friend.

   "No," Areshen sighed when he realized he could not have hidden his feelings from Meshduri anyway.  "Lately I dream that I have spent my life with Ati in a one room farmhouse.  In this dream I have found happiness.  I find a bit more with Etwabi in Ur.  I find some," Areshen continued with a soft chuckle, "stumbling into the Holy Chamber located at the back of Heluth's tavern shrine in Shensulith Square.  I find, however, very little happiness anywhere else."

   "And Nippur will only make it worse."

   Again Areshen glanced appreciation toward Meshduri, one of the few regular army officers toward whom he would do so.  Their situations could easily have been reversed had one or two lots deciding past commands fallen to Meshduri rather than to himself.  And Meshduri, Areshen realized, might easily have handled it all far better than he had himself.  Meshduri was probably one of the most brilliant soldiers he had ever served with, his brilliance at times taking turns toward the devious; yet the entire garrison manning Ur's walls ate only because Meshduri was indeed brilliant enough to act deviously and then survive having done so.

   Areshen glanced another long moment toward the walls of Nippur now off to their left, then with a resigned sigh turned back to Meshduri.

   "It has to be done, I suppose," Areshen sighed again.

   "The god of Isin has spoken?" Meshduri chuckled.

   "I suppose that's it," Areshen chuckled as well.  "It's not that bad being a god in Shar Dulur as long as I stay out of the city, stay out of Shar Dulur's civil chambers."

   "A great many, as I have said, love you for reasons which have nothing to do with political or religious expedient.  Even Ati would probably follow you to your tomb  - "

   "Meshduri  - " Areshen protested, astounded.

   "She would follow you into your tomb for reasons that have nothing to do with Holy Order.  She doesn't love a god, Areshen, she loves you.  Nor did I leave Ur to be with a god, Areshen.  I, however, will not follow you into your tomb.  I don't like the taste of dirt."

   Areshen chuckled for a long moment, gratitude again in his eyes, then question.

   "Do you believe in the gods, Meshduri?" Areshen asked, apology necessarily in his features for a question of the sort.

   Meshduri walked in silence for a long moment, his brow wrinkled in searching thought.

   "No," he finally answered.  "I suppose I don't."

   "I didn't think so, Meshduri.  I never have.  Your emotional balance is far too stable.  Only old Meneturu is your equal.  Perhaps that is because he believes in only one god, far less of a bother than Sumer's stable full of them."

   "Perhaps," Meshduri laughed, though he gazed toward Areshen in searching question.

   "Eight years ago," Areshen explained, "I was standing on the Amuru wall with twenty thousand soldiers, ten to my left, ten to my right.  A hundred thousand Amuru faced us, Amuru perhaps, but still a hundred thousand of them.  We will die together, twenty thousand soldiers pledged, to me and to each other.  Had we done so, Meshduri, I would have shed no tears, not for myself, not for them.  The average soldier eight years ago was no different than the average soldier today.  He respects the High Priest standing at the altar taking the auspices quite as highly as he respects a maggot in a loaf of stale bread."

   Meshduri chuckled in easy humor, quite aware that it was true.

   "Those soldiers standing on the Amuru wall," Areshen continued, "saw no god when they marched past me in review.  Yet they still knew why they were prepared to die.  Today, Sumer and Akkad applies to the High Priest of Isin for a place beside me in my tomb.  I find no pleasure, Meshduri, no pleasure at all in the thought.  I would have led twenty thousand soldiers to their deaths without remorse.  I would feel nothing but remorse should twenty servants follow me into my tomb thinking I were a god."

   Meshduri gazed back in silence for a long moment, lost, and then just shrugged.

   "I do not think you are a god, Areshen."

   "Thank you," Areshen just sighed, though in a slightly easier humor, turning his attention finally and fully back to the walls of Nippur.  The approaching battle, at least, was a matter of grave concern to no one, the shopkeepers manning Nippur's walls little more than sport for the professional soldiers commanded by Isime and Shulitu.  Gathering and dispatching the city's populace would be a logistical nuisance; that, however, was another concern both Areshen and Meshduri could just shrug away.  The actual slaughter, in which the vanquished population was offered to the gods, would be directed by the High Priests, those in Isin's service planning the festivities with all the enthusiasm Ur's might have displayed.

 

IX

 

   Areshen stood straight in his chariot gazing toward the solid lines of infantry now advancing over the open plain toward the walls of Nippur, Isime's and Shulitu's Six Hundreds approaching the tower gate atop which Tebro, military governor of Nippur, no longer stood.  Marshaling trumpets sounded periodically from place to place; large flags of various shape and color were raised and lowered by the signal corp communicating last minute orders to the formations participating in the morning's campaign.  No one expected anything like a real battle, however.  Had either Isime or Shulitu considered it necessary, siege towers could easily have been constructed for the assault on the walls.

   "Why bother?" both Isime and Shulitu had asked.  "Waste of time.  Do our men good to haul themselves up scaling ladders, work up a little sweat."

   "They're right," Meneturu and Meshduri had agreed.  "Tebro and his shopkeepers cannot stand an hour against real soldiers."

   Areshen studied Nippur's walls another long moment.  Meneturu and Meshduri seemed to be right.  An impressive number of Tebro's shopkeeper soldiers had decided to emulate Nippur's military governor by absenting themselves from their posts.  What, Areshen asked himself, can possibly motivate those who chose to remain on the walls to do so?  Without doubt, High Priests on both sides had found the gods favorably disposed to their cause when they had taken the auspices this morning.  Reports from Meneturu's spies, however, spies for some months now working Nippur's garrison atop the walls, had given Areshen no reason to suspect that the average soldier in Sumer's Holy City was any different than soldiers from other cities, soldiers who rarely considered the High Priest's ceremonies a great deal more than quaint, picturesque rituals from another age.

   Nippur's soldiers who did remains at their posts this morning, Areshen supposed, did so for no other reason than the fact that they were indeed soldiers, soldiers who feared falling into disgrace and disfavor with their fellow soldiers far more than they feared retribution from the gods.

   Areshen turned a quick moment later toward another chariot approaching across the open fields, Meneturu and Meshduri just now completing a full circuit of inspection around the city.  Nothing either in Meneturu's rugged, weathered features, nor in Meshduri's youthful and urbane, indicated that they felt any grave anxiety.  For another long moment as Meneturu reigned the chariot at a quick trot along the advance lines of infantry, Areshen gazed toward the two men whose advice and council he most trusted.  Areshen still felt amused amazement that old Meneturu proclaimed him as competent a strategists as himself.

   "The old bull's quite sincere," Meshduri had stated any number of times.  "He says the same of me, then shakes his head in wonder.  How can two pretty little Sumerians from Ur be an Akkadian's equal moving armies?"

   Again Areshen wondered why the lots had fallen to him instead of Meshduri, a brilliant soldier indeed, and one who with a single Six Hundred could accomplish as much as most of Sumer's military governors could with half a dozen.

   Areshen glanced again toward the walls of Nippur as he waited for Meneturu and Meshduri.  As usual in moments of idle calm, his thoughts settled again toward Ati, and Areshen wondered if Ati was the love of his heart.  Twenty years ago he might never have imagined himself in this situation, had supposed he might eventually take a concubine or two should he attain a rank that demanded such for appearance sake, but had always doubted he would ever really feel compelled to do so.  He still loved Setith, genuinely and deeply.  Could he, he wondered, cope with two loves of the heart?  And then, Areshen cringed, there were Etwabi and Heluth in Ur, Etwabi a gentle and passionate creature owned by Setith pleading to become his concubine, Heluth surviving by catering to customers in the back chamber of her small tavern shrine in Shensulith Square, pleading with all manner of seductive little smiles.  Four loves of the heart, and Areshen cringed again, turning finally in relief to the approaching chariot as Meneturu reigned the horses to a stop.

   "It would save time," Meneturu shrugged, "if they would just open the gates and let us walk on in.  Not a great deal of time, though.  Isime's going to start things off, Shulitu behind Isime.  Both say that it will take about ten minutes longer than it might have had Tebro left the gates open for us."

   "We've certainly given Tebro every opportunity to open them over the past few days," Areshen sighed, turning toward Meshduri standing on the other side of the chariot.

   "Tebro's people still on the walls appear a bit more competent than castrates and choir singers.  Not much, however.  Isime and Shulitu will have no problems.  Our first assault will succeed."

   Areshen glance again toward the older Meneturu, who in turn shrugged a nodding assent.

   "If he says it will succeed, it will succeed," Meneturu's expression of skepticism nothing more than an inability to understand why the pretty little Sumerian standing at his side in the chariot was always right.

   Areshen exchanged a quick glance of amusement with Meshduri, then turned toward the First Soldier of signalmen now approaching his chariot.

   "All report ready, sir," the First Soldier announced.

   For a final long moment, Areshen glanced left and right toward solid lines of infantry and massed formations of chariots stretching into the distance in both directions, entire field groups, their men staring in anticipation toward the walls of Nippur.  Some of these soldiers would carry off the grain stored in Nippur's temple warehouses.  The military governor of Sippar had been promised the gold which had been extorted from his city a generation ago.  A hundred other commanders had arranged pacts of one sort or another over the past month with Meneturu, the negotiations at Shar Dulur tedious and time consuming ordeals in which the orderly and systematic pillage of Nippur had been arranged.  The occupation of Nippur, however, was still going to be a chaotic process for several days at least.  Daughters of High Priests would disappear from the temple palaces only to be found working as dish maids in cities a hundred miles away.  The Assembly at Shar Dulur, possibly Ibisien's and Ur's as well, would be hearing suits for years trying to straighten it all out.

   Still, Areshen sighed, all that did not change the reason he had set the process in motion in the first place, and he turned back to the First Soldier of signalmen with a quick nod of his head.  An instant later the final flags were raised, the war trumpets sounded, and several thousand more soldiers atop Nippur's walls decided they had better places to be at the moment.

   Areshen, by habit alone in his chariot at the commencement of hostilities, reigned the horses forward, then toward the chariot in which Isime stood, this on a low rise little more than a bow shot's range from the city's walls.  Just as Areshen brought his own chariot to a stop beside Isime's, the first scaling ladders fell onto the walls, the defenders above attempting to dislodge them felled by an accurate and sustained fusillade from Isime's archers.  The wall's defenders, Areshen's realized, would have little chance once the veterans of Isime's Six Hundred reached the top.

   "Turn your backs," Isime, a hulking Akkadian very similar to Meneturu in appearance, shouted toward Nippur's soldiers atop the walls.  "Turn your backs and run like the craven dogs that you are.  If you do, my men will not have to stick you."

   Areshen gazed back toward the walls and another hundred of Nippur's defenders who could not possibly have heard Isime's shouted warnings over the tumult of the battle, yet chose to follow his advise all the same.  Areshen then turned again toward Isime, a mix of boredom and amusement in the old tribe fighter's features as he stood watching that which was quite obviously developing into a farce.   Half a hundred archers atop the walls loosed their arrows toward the attackers, the barrage yielding no result whatsoever.  Before they could retreat behind cover once again, however, a clear majority were dispatched by an accurate and deadly volley loosed by their counterparts at the base of the walls.

   "I suspected this was going to be easy, king," Isime began, "but I didn't expect a holiday."

   Areshen chuckled as another dozen scaling ladders fell onto Nippur's walls, none of which the defenders had yet managed to dislodge.  Seconds later the first of Isime's soldiers pulled themselves onto the walls.  A few raised swords against the defenders; most just pushed Nippur's shopkeepers out of their way.  Only when one of the scaling ladders was finally dislodged, a dozen of Isime's troops toppling back onto the ground, did the veteran Six Hundred commander break into emotion.

   "Shame," Isime bellowed, pointing derisively toward the fallen soldiers now picking themselves up from the ground.  "Shame on you all.  Redeem yourselves, or tomorrow you will be castrates singing in the temple choir."

   With expressions of humiliation and anger, the fallen soldiers, most likely ignoring very painful bruises, thrust their ladder back onto the walls.  Isime then turned his attention toward another battle atop the walls, glaring when one of his First Soldiers engaging a half dozen defending swordsmen was impaled through the back, dropping headlong from the walls a quick moment later.

   "Abirinu," Isime sighed.  "I shall miss him.  He will be difficult to replace," and Isime's expression settled back into boredom as he turned again toward Areshen.  "They say the Runuli Amuru are moving in the west, king, excellent horsemen, crack shots with the bow.  I suspect they will be our next real work."

   "Meshduri is touring the west when we finish here," Areshen stated.  "Half a dozen other tribes may need attention as well."

   "You will keep me in mind if something interesting comes along, won't you, king?"

   "You will be the first I summon," Areshen answered, as he expected, satisfaction breaking across Isime's features.  Nippur, after all, was more an expensive bother for Isime and his men than anything else, the spoils to be divided among a vast number of reserve commanders, much of which would just be tied up in litigation anyway.  Along the frontiers, Isime and his fellow professionals operated beyond the jurisdiction of courts presided over by local governors, were subject to order only from Shar Dulur, and disposed of spoils as they saw fit as long as Meneturu and Shar Dulur received an accurate accounting and an appropriate percentage of the profits.

    It was not, however, Areshen realized again, an easy life.  Very few professional soldiers lived a great deal better than the average tavern keeper, none as well as most junior priests serving in temple precincts across Sumer and Akkad.  Areshen himself had had to rely on spoils of war any number of times in the past in order to pay the men in his commands, the army's regular pay mysteriously vanished somewhere between Ur's palace walls and his field headquarters along the frontiers.  Most field commanders, however, would readily agree that the situation had improved now that Isin was recognized as the king's city, a former Six Hundred Commander familiar with problems faced in the field recognized as king.

   Areshen turned back to the walls of Nippur with an expression of satisfaction when the massive bronze gates beneath the towers cracked open, Shulitu's Six Hundred pouring through a quick minute later.  Shulitu's troops by and large ignored the last of the armed shopkeepers cowering in the shadows, pushed instead into the depths of Nippur in search of plunder only a portion of which would be accounted for on a scribe's tally board.

   "Incredible," Isime sighed, shaking his head toward his own men now commanding the walls in both directions.  "If this had been a training exercise, I would order it repeated.  I see no one who can possibly have worked up a decent sweat.  Six months ago we sacked Kulondri, a mud hole in a little valley in the eastern mountains with a wooden palisade around it not five hundred feet across.  It was a far greater challenge, full of Kulondri Su, best shots there are.  It took me half a day and cost me a hundred of my best men," and Isime nodded again toward the walls of Nippur.  "I count perhaps a dozen on the ground here, some of those with nothing more than pricked butts."

   "You have done well here, Isime," Areshen answered.  "I will not impose on you again in the near future."

   Isime returned an expression of appreciation, then easy amusement.

   "Most of my First Soldiers," Isime began, "were delighted when they found out that we were marching again with Areshen of Isin.  We march with the king who has no god of his own, they said, the king who once jabbed a few butts with a sword in his own hand and wasn't even struck down by the gods for doing so."

   "They will never let me forget that," Areshen sighed.

   "I'll admit, I've been tempted a few times myself," and Isime glanced again toward the walls of Nippur, then toward the ceremonial short sword hanging from his side.  "It is ridiculous, you know, king.  I am twice the swordsman any of my First Soldiers are, and I'm bigger and uglier than most of them as well, even if I am an officer.  I've five heads to my credit in private affairs.  What real harm would it do if I whacked off the occasional head or two in battle."

   "The gods would strike you down, Isime."

   Isime stood in contemplative thought for a long moment, then leaned forward across his chariot, his voice low and conspiratorial.

   "You've been a god for over a year now, haven't you, king?" and Isime shot a studying glance toward the sky.  "Couldn't you just have a little chat with the other gods, work a little something out.  Tell then the first head I whack off in battle - it's theirs."

   "I'll consider it," Areshen chuckled, wondering if he should just go ahead and pronounce the innovation.

 

   Areshen stood in silent, searching thought along the raised banks of the canal gazing toward the city of Nippur, the city now emptied of its populace, its temple palaces and streets now patrolled by soldiers under Isime's and Shulitu's command.  The former inhabitants of Nippur now appeared an undulating sea of humanity spreading mile after mile across the open plain beneath the city walls, heavily armed soldiers herding the mass in various directions, few in the conquered populace yet certain that their conqueror's pronouncement concerning their fate was really true.

   "I have decided to break with tradition," Areshen had informed the Assembly of Nippur this morning, several hundred old men standing naked and humiliated in an abandoned irrigation ditch, their heads bowed in submission as they and Nippur waited for judgment  "Nippur will not be put to the sword," Areshen had then pronounced, and a dozen of his senior officers and palace stewards had returned startled expressions of concern for this latest blasphemous pronouncement from the king of Isin.

   "Setith," Areshen had then informed Meneturu and Meshduri in his field tent, "has sent  messengers from Bathul.  She says that she can take ten thousand of them immediately without a great deal of difficulty, will have to house them rather primitively for the time being, but has adequate reserves of grain for them."

   Again Areshen raised his eyes toward the open fields surrounding Nippur, an obvious surge among the masses toward the northern edges of the fields where Setith's agents sat at tables taking supplications.

   "They arrived from Bathul only an hour ago," Meshduri stated as he climbed onto the banks of the canal.

   "What hold does Setith have over them?" Areshen asked.  "I drove past it all just a short time ago.  Women who passed their days in perfume baths go to Bathul to be Setith's cooks and dish maids, yet they fall to their knees thanking the gods for the favor they have received."

   "I suppose I'll never understand it all myself," Meshduri chuckled.  "I've spent my life in fortresses and field tents as well.  Shulitu reports.  Probably two or three thousand still hiding in the cracks across Nippur, no more.  Mostly beggars and lunatics.  Shulitu assures me that Nippur will be completely empty by this evening."

   "Shulitu is still annoyed?" Areshen asked.  Shulitu had been among those who had stared in amazement when Areshen had stated that the populace of Nippur would not be slaughtered en mass.

   "Astonished would be a better word, astonished that you were not instantly consumed by lightning when you issued the announcement.  Shulitu was, I suspect, looking forward to the festivities, festivities in which an officer is free to participate.  'Not a single head to be whacked,' he now mumbles as he mopes about Nippur searching for beggars and lunatics.  He's still searching the sky as well, expects lightning from every passing cloud.  'Sparing a mud hole village in the middle of nowhere is one thing, but Nippur  -  there's going to be repercussions, I tell you.'"

   Areshen broke into a soft chuckle, remembering several dozen people who had stepped quickly from his side just after he had spoken this morning, several dozen people glancing with obvious concern toward a clear blue sky.  Areshen could only with a measure of difficulty restrain himself from glancing toward the sky now.  Still, if the gods sought no retribution earlier in the day for sixty thousand lives blasphemously denied them, he doubted he was in any great danger at the moment.

   "Shulitu," Meshduri continued, "also states that he has found the ideal place in which the High Priest Inumen and the governor Tebro must reside.  Shulitu states that the High Priest's and governor's new palaces will be ready as soon as his men have finished shoveling the donkey shit from their floors."

   "Good," Areshen chuckled.  "Where are Tebro and Inumen now?"

   "Still groveling in a ditch with the rest of Nippur's Assembly, praising your name in song to the gods.  Inumen, at least, is genuinely pious, despite his back chamber origins, and believes you to have found favor with Enlil.  Inumen promises to serve you and Enlil faithfully, will smash any tablets he receives from Ur and Shubari.  I believe him."

   "And Tebro?"

   "Will in the future relieve his bowels only when told to do so by Shulitu's soldiers.

   Areshen finally broke into genuine and easy laughter as he and Meshduri stepped from the banks of the canal, then set off for the city of Nippur now occupied by their own armies.  Meshduri, it seemed, could find amusement in anything.  Just as well, Areshen supposed.  It would be several days yet before they were done with Nippur, perhaps longer if certain people were slow to understand the new order of things.  Meshduri, Areshen realized, was exceptionally capable of providing explanations, conciliatory explanations wherever possible.  He was also, however, capable of dealing with the situation the way he had dealt with Shubari in order to provide for the men in his command.

   "Extortion?" Meshduri chuckled later in the afternoon as he and Areshen sat in the garrison commander's chambers atop the walls of Nippur.  "Perhaps.  This from the dispatch corps," and Meshduri handed Areshen another tablet.

  "She'll be here within the hour," Areshen sighed, something less than complacent ease in his features.

   "It is the perfect solution," Meshduri chuckled.

   "Setith seems to agree.  Her message was ecstasy in writing.  But Setith  -  High Priestess of Nippur?"

   "It's the perfect solution," Meshduri just repeated.  "She's proven herself no puppet of Shubari's as High Priestess of Bathul, an extraordinarily proficient High Priestess as well.  Only Setith could have accepted ten thousand new dependents on a moment's notice.  As High Priestess here in Nippur, Setith will be able to divest herself of any remaining connection to Shubari.  Nippur will again be Nippur under Setith, something more than the facade it was under Shubari and his little back chamber products."

   "And Setith will be the most powerful woman in the world, Meshduri."

   "Trust her, Areshen," Meshduri chuckled.  "I think you'll find the girl you married twenty years ago reemerge once Setith is installed here in Nippur."

   "All right," Areshen sighed, deciding to trust Meshduri's judgment.  "Nippur now?"

   "Most of old Nippur has now departed for their new homes.  Ten thousand are en route to Bathul; another ten or fifteen thousand will be settled on Setith's farms in the south.  The High Priests of Lagash and Uruk have agreed to take a few thousand more."

   "And new Nippur?"

   "A few have already arrive.  Inumen draws lots again in the morning, this time on the temple steps.  Since Isime is from Uruk, his men first atop the walls, the best shops and factories will go to Uruk.  Several dozen agents and advocates from Uruk are here now.  Disputes will be heard in Isin and Shar Dulur for the time being, however.  I suggest you preside yourself, Areshen, at least over a few cases, until we're certain that Ur and Shubari are not going to be a problem."

   Areshen released a long sigh of annoyance, sighed again for Meshduri's sympathetic chuckle.

   "And you," Areshen asked, a clear note of envy in his voice, "are touring the eastern frontiers?"

   "Nippur was very expensive.  It would be most advantageous if a war or two beyond the frontiers happened to break out.  The Liresu would be ideal, not as wealthy a collection of tribes as some, but the chiefs have of late expressed a great deal of interest in a possible war.  If I find their bellicose intentions to be genuine, I will write Meneturu immediately."

   "Do," Areshen urged, glancing for a quick moment about the small chamber atop the walls of Nippur which already seemed oppressive and confining, glancing then toward the door as Setith, the one person in the world who would dare do so unannounced, flowed majestically into the room, the magnificent and sweeping robes of state she now wore already those of the High Priestess of Nippur.

   "Beloved," Setith began, a beaming smile in her features as she bent toward the couch on which Areshen sat, pressing her lips to Areshen's in touch far more intimate than Areshen had been prepared for.  To his amazement, their lips actually touched.

   "And Meshduri, my sweet, beautiful Meshduri," Setith crooned as she pressed her lips to his cheek, the kiss again something more than her usual lip smacking noise from a six inch distance.

   "You are beautiful as well, Setith," Meshduri chuckled as Setith straightened, snapped an arm toward her train of servants, and then lowered herself onto the portable throne next to one of the chamber's walls.

   "Go away," Setith then commanded with a regal wave of her hand, and a half dozen bowing servants retreated from the room.

   "Beloved  - " Areshen tried, question and curiosity in his features.  No servants?  Who would fan her?  It was a very hot day.

   "I am so grateful to you, beloved," Setith just continued, her expression breaking into solemn emotion.  "I am certain that it was because of your intercession on my behalf, beloved, that Enlil chose me to be his High Priestess.  You must have pled passionately to Enlil for me."

   "Actually, beloved, it was Meshduri," Areshen answered.  And Meshduri had not pled; he had ordered, though this was not something either Areshen or Meshduri were about to tell Setith.

   "Meshduri," Setith continued, unprecedented emotion in her eyes.  "I am grateful, sweet Meshduri.  I have therefor decided that you many deduct an entire half of one sixth from next month's payment on Shar Dulur."

   "Setith, that is extraordinary generosity," Meshduri replied, nothing in his features indicating that he felt otherwise.

   "I shall even visit Isin if you wish, beloved," Setith continued as she turned again toward Areshen.  "You may, if you wish, make me your queen."

   "Setith," Areshen answered with an expression bordering on amazement; there was absolutely no profit to be made as queen of Isin.  "That is indeed extraordinary generosity," and Areshen pushed himself from the couch, gazed toward the gentle emotion in Setith's eyes for another long moment, and then lowered himself to a chair less than a pace from her throne.  "Are you certain, beloved?" Areshen asked.  Not only would there be no profit for Setith on Isin's throne, but there very well might be liabilities of many kinds, social, political, and most certainly financial.

   "Yes, beloved," Setith answered.  "I am certain.  I shall be your queen."

   "Setith," Meshduri began as he pushed himself to his feet, "you will be considered a social outcast by Sumer's nobility in Ur; your own people, Setith.  Ibisien and the Assembly will turn their backs on you.  It will be some time before the temple here in Nippur again realizes a profit, Setith, and it has certainly cost you a great deal already to resettle old Nippur.  You have nothing to gain by sitting on Isin's throne.  As a matter of fact  - "

   "Meshduri," Setith countered, Areshen listening in wonder to the emotion in his wife's voice, "I will sit at my husband's side on Isin's throne, despite the  -  liabilities."

   "All right, Setith," subtle curiosity in Meshduri's features as he broke into a final smile.  "I must see to the walls, Setith.  I wish you well," and Meshduri pressed a final kiss to Setith's outstretched hand, curiosity again in his features as he walked from the chamber, asking himself again, Areshen supposed, what had gotten into Setith.  Areshen turned again to his wife, asking himself the same question, astounded when without the help of a single servant Setith pushed herself to her feet.

   "Help me, beloved," Setith began as she reached for the catches on the bulky robes she wore.

   "Let me call your servants  - "

   "No, beloved," Setith answered, laying a hand to Areshen's as she removed the outer robes.  Setith, however, did not stop with the outer robes.  A quick minute later as Setith let the last of her clothing drop to the floor, Areshen in complete and final stupor gazed toward his wife as he had not seen her in a very long time.  Etwabi and Ati, Heluth, any number of other servants who thought nothing of standing naked before Areshen, were very beautiful women.  Setith, however  -  and Areshen gulped for a word.  Setith had no rivals.

   "Do you still think that I am beautiful, beloved?" Setith asked, the same gentle emotion in her eyes, the emotion, however, now mixed with something a great deal more, something Areshen had thought he might never again see in Setith's eyes.

   "Setith  -  you are  - " Areshen choked.  Beautiful didn't ever come close.  Setith was just that which most of Sumer and Akkad had always proclaimed her to be, incomparable, as absolutely stunning now as she had been twenty years ago when he had first taken her into his arms.  And Setith was  -  Setith, Areshen realized again, the epitome of Sumerian nobility who would never dream of showing herself to another man.  Areshen finally felt something very strange and powerful envelope him as he gazed toward Setith standing before him as any servant might.

   Setith broke into a soft smile as she gazed toward the stupor in her husband's eyes, her own giving every indication that she relished Areshen's very obvious display of his feelings.  Setith nodded toward the chamber's couch, looked back toward Areshen standing in dazed paralysis, and with a soft chuckle just grasped his hand.

   It was, Areshen realized as his confusion and amazement began to settle, indeed like the first time, their love the depth of heartfelt emotion one moment, the strength of burning, urging passion the next.  He was holding the first woman he had ever made love to in his arms, a woman who had given herself to him as a virgin twenty years ago.  Nor was there anything feigned in Setith's cries of passion as she pulled Areshen into love, her own passion violent and pleading, the woman who for so long now had scowled over tabulation tablets finally gasping in explosive completion.

   Areshen finally settled into quiet, gentle embrace beside his wife on the chamber's couch.  Only when he had done so did he realize that he had in fact done so.  Setith made no attempt whatsoever to fling herself on toward the thousand concerns of business and temple which had dominated her life for so many years now.  The last time  -  how many years ago had it been, Setith had reached for a handful of tabulation tablets laying next to the couch a moment or two after the act had been completed  -  or had it been a moment or two before that same act's completion.  Areshen gazed again toward Setith, wonder once more enveloping him.  Her head was buried to his chest, her breath shallow gasps as she lay in tranquil quiet, genuine strength in her arms as she clawed into intimate embrace.

   It almost seemed some strange dream to Areshen as he caressed Setith's long, dark hair, as beautiful as she was herself, an entranced ease breaking across her features for Areshen's touch.  Areshen gazed with new intensity toward his wife's features, so absolutely, perfectly stunning now that the scowl she habitually wore was gone, Setith now the sweet and gentle girl he had fallen so deeply and completely in love with twenty years ago.  With something of a start, Areshen realized that he was still very deeply in love with Setith, just as deeply in love with her as he ever had been.  And yet he could still not help but feel that he had just made love to a stranger, someone who for the past twenty years had moved in worlds far different than his own.  For the past ten years he and Setith had rarely seen each other save for the occasional rushed and harried meeting in the courtyard of their house in Ur, Setith bound for one or another of her temples across the southern part of Sumer, Areshen to another fortress or military encampment along the frontiers.  For the past five years, Setith had urged Areshen to come to his senses and take concubines, at least one or two, perhaps even another wife or two now that he was king of Isin and legally entitled to do so.  If, Setith tirelessly informed him, he was ever to have any social standing at all, he must start keeping up appearances.  Even Ibisien of Ur, despite preferences concealed from no one, kept up appearances.  Etwabi, or Ati at Shar Dulur, Setith had urged.  Perhaps, Setith had winked in conspiratorial amusement, that pretty little tavern mistress  -  Heluth?  The one who carried Areshen into the back chamber of her tavern whenever he was too intoxicated to stumble home from Shensulith Square.  Any of them, Setith had urged, could easily become a socially acceptable concubine.

   A long moment later, Setith opened her eyes to Areshen's, Setith breaking immediately into a smile of amusement for the subtle hint of perplexity in Areshen's features.  She's still, Areshen realized with a soft chuckle, as brilliant and as perceptive as she ever was, reads minds on the instant, probably the reason why she owns half of everything in the south not owned by temple or palace.  Why, Areshen asked himself, would someone like Setith want to make such sweet and passionate love to someone like him all of a sudden, a soldier, a king who doesn't even own a single temple?

   Again Setith broke into a soft smile as she read the depths of Areshen's thoughts.

   "I'll explain, beloved," Setith whispered, raising a hand to Areshen's brow in a long moment's gentle caress.  Areshen broke into a soft chuckle, supposing there would indeed have to be an explanation for such uncharacteristic behavior on Setith's part.

   Setith finally pushed herself up, sitting on the chamber's couch in thoughtful silence for another quick moment.

   "Edurub, come here," Setith finally bellowed toward the door, the far more characteristic scowl breaking across her features.  Areshen gazed toward Setith in concern, however.  She made no attempt whatsoever to reach for her clothing still laying on the chamber's floor.

   "Setith  - " amusement and amazement in Areshen's features.

   "Today I am your servant, beloved," Setith answered, gentle warmth settling again into her features as she turned back to Areshen, pushing herself once more into his arms.  "I am Etwabi or Kinshith, beloved, your friend, and yours to command."

   Areshen indeed could not help but notice the piercing sensual warmth in Setith's eyes as she once more leaned forward, her kiss totally lacking in the propriety which might be expected of Nippur's High Priestess.  With just a little effort, Areshen could indeed have imagined the incredibly beautiful woman sitting in his arms an intimate friend, a servant without self conscious concern.

"I do love you, Areshen," Setith whispered, pausing long enough to breathe, then pressing her kiss again with urging, intimate strength.  "Oh, my sweet beloved," Setith cried, her eyes now dazed in blank, sensual excitement as she thrust herself blatantly into Areshen's arms.  "I love you so much, Areshen.  I really do," and with a soft chuckle, Areshen allowed his wife another kiss without the least hint of restraint, found himself wrapping her back into embrace with equal abandon until one of her servants, a bearded, elderly steward noble and distinguished in appearance stood bowing in the chamber's doorway.  Something in old Edurub's eyes made obvious the fact that he had never before seen his mistress in the circumstances or state in which he saw her now.

   And Setith, Areshen realized with ever increasing amazement, was totally unconcerned for the fact, blank, struggling passion in her features.

   "Setith," Areshen chuckled as soon as he could twist his lips from hers.  "Setith," Areshen tried again, nodding toward the chamber's door.

   "Edurub," she sighed as she turned, comprehension slowly settling into her eyes, still, however, not the least hint of concern as the old, bearded servant struggled with his demeanor, a spasmodic twitch of his eyes toward a sight he had obviously not been prepared for.  "Edurub," nothing more than amusement in Setith's features, "be a darling and bring us some beer."

   Edurub effected a clumsy, bowing retreat.  Again Areshen couldn't help but release a soft chuckle as Setith's features broke from scowling authority to gentle entrancement as she clawed back into embrace.  Every kiss, it seemed, was a bit more passionate than the last.  Whatever explanation Setith intended to offer for behavior so out of character, Areshen decided for the moment to just accept the situation as it was, again pulling his wife into intimate embrace when once more it became blatantly obvious that there was nothing affected whatsoever in the passionate strength of her affection for him.

   "Areshen, I've always loved you," Setith cried, now lost in sensual abandon as she thrust herself finally into embrace the struggling strength of which made obvious her intentions.  And yet again Areshen felt the waves of an old, cherished love envelope him, Setith thrusting her way securely into his heart, her pleading caresses overwhelming him as quickly as they had twenty years ago.  Areshen found himself shuddering, an instant away from pulling Setith once more into violent, furious love, then found himself sighing in frustration as the old bearded steward carrying a pitcher of beer and two younger men carrying cups processed into the chamber.

   "Setith," Areshen chuckled, laying a hand to his wife's shoulder.

   "Please, beloved," Setith cried in blind, pleading entrancement, "just once more."

   "But Setith  - " Areshen tried again as he nodded toward the door.

   Setith turned, obvious annoyance in her own sigh as she glared toward the bowing servants, the younger men's eyes bulging with intensity painful in appearance.

   Setith turned back to Areshen, however, something which he could only call wicked mirth in her eyes as she raised a caressing hand yet again to his brow.

   "Setith  - " Areshen gasped, not yet ready for the public performance the ancients might have given.

   "Oh, all right," Setith finally sighed in resignation as she sat back.  "Later then?" a final mischievous smile toward Areshen.

   "Yes  -  later," Areshen chuckled, certain, however, that things would now return to normal.  Later, if it came at all, would come in another five or ten or even twenty years.

   "Beloved," Setith continued, not yet ready to settle completely, "you still love me, don't you.  I felt the strength of your love, Areshen.  I felt it when you made love to me.  I can't imagine a sweeter love, beloved," the same gentle passion washing over Setith's features.

   "Yes, Setith  - " Areshen stuttered, glancing toward another cherished love, the beer just beyond reach.

   "You knew that I needed your love, Areshen, didn't you?  You felt my love for you, and you discovered that you are still very deeply in love with me."

   "Of course, beloved," and even in the presence of a gaping audience, Areshen found himself falling yet again into the piercing intimacy of Setith's wide, searching eyes, certain that he'd never before seen quite such pleading in her features.

   "Oh, Areshen, my sweet beloved, I love you so much," and again Setith curled herself into embrace, her kiss almost driving the beer from Areshen's mind as he once more allowed Setith to bury her lips to his own.  Areshen glanced apology toward the servants, doubting, however, that the gesture was really necessary.  These, like that multitude of Setith's other dependents, felt a genuine love for their mistress, gentle warmth mixed with the stupor in their eyes as they gazed pretense toward the chamber's walls.  Setith, Areshen supposed as he found himself falling into that same dangerous rapture for her kisses, would never understand the inhibitions he felt.  After all, the servants were just her children.  They loved her and she loved them.  She loved them far more than any of the pets which might also have happened to catch her in sensual abandon.  And Setith was right.  Her servants did look upon her as someone who had no need of inhibitions, not quite a divinity, but certainly a consort of divinity.

   Areshen, however, again reminded himself that he was no god as Setith, now fallen completely into sensual oblivion once more, thrust her hands to his body in intimate, urging touch.

   "Setith," Areshen chuckled again, still not ready for that public performance as he grasped her hand in gentle restraint.  "Setith," Areshen repeated, waited until a measure of rational comprehension returned to her eyes, and nodded again toward the servants.

   "Pour, Edurub," Setith sighed, settling into a posture of dignified propriety on the couch.  "Oh honestly," Setith groaned when her servants poured an expensive measure of beer onto the floor, their dexterity improved only after she had pulled one of her garments about herself.  "Honestly," she groaned again, "you see my handmaids every day."

   "But Setith," Areshen tried in mirthful amusement, "you are not a handmaid."

   "Thank you, beloved," equal amusement in Setith's eyes as she watched Areshen reach for a cup and indulge finally in the one true passion of his life.

   "You are looking well, beloved," Setith finally continued, complacent ease in her features.

   "You as well, beloved," Areshen answered, question, however, now in his own features.

   "Bathul has been exhausting," Setith began, her voice quiet solemnity.  Perhaps, Areshen decided, she was now going to explain.  "The temple is in reasonably good order, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.  Expenditures still exceed revenue, will do so for some time until I have settled everyone from Nippur.  But the situation is improving.  Still, beloved, you really should try to notify me a bit sooner whenever you intend to sack a city."

   "I will try, beloved.  You work too hard as it is," Areshen answered in genuine concern as he grasped Setith's hand.  "You never sleep.  They tell me you eat next to nothing.  You must rest for awhile."

   "When I am certain that everyone in Bathul is settled and that Nippur is once again on a sound financial basis, I will rest, Areshen."

   "Could you not call for provisions from your temples in the south, beloved?"

   Setith lowered her eyes for a brief moment in searching, troubled thought, then turned with annoyance in her features as the old, bearded chief steward cleared his throat.

   "Yes, yes, Edurub," Setith groaned.  "What do you want?"

   "Beloved mistress, you promised me that you would confide in the king your husband.  You cannot bear this trouble alone  - "

   "Edurub, you dog and scoundrel, you are brutal to me.  You are an absolute brute.  You order me about incessantly, day and night.  I should walk over to you at once and kick you, you are such an impertinent scoundrel.  I suppose you will not relent?"

   "Beloved mistress," Edurub continued, an expression of adoration and affection still clearly evident in the old steward's eyes as he gazed down on Setith, his voice emotional and pleading, "mistress, jewel of my heart, you must confide in the king your husband.  If you do not wish to tell him, then allow me  - "

   "Oh, very well," Setith sighed, and Edurub turned toward Areshen, his bow now an ostentatious and elaborate display.

   "Exalted one, Divine King of Isin, Ancient King of the Four Quarters, Holy Consort of  - "

   "Yes, yes, Edurub, please continue," Areshen groaned.  The entire litany took forever, and Areshen could not help but notice the grave concern in the old man's eyes for Setith, was beginning to feel a great deal of anxiety himself.

   "The High Priest Shubari of Ur," Edurub began, "has placed a curse of expropriation on the beloved mistress, a curse duly confirmed by propitiation in Assembly which specified that she must never again  -  touch you.  The moment she does, she will be stripped of every office she holds in the south, all her property will be forfeit, and twenty galla demons will cling to her sides."

   Areshen flung startled eyes back toward Setith.  Setith, forbidden to touch him by that miserable piece of blubber in Ur, had done a great deal of very intimate touching over the past few minutes. And Setith, Areshen realized, had done so with something of a fury, fully aware that she was giving up virtually everything she owned in order to do so.

   "Setith  - " Areshen gasped as he grasped and squeezed her hand, the tears stinging his eyes, Setith's whispered and urging expressions of love for him over the past few minutes now ringing in his ears.

   "It will take me years, I suppose," Setith began with a long sigh, "to challenge this in the courts," and again Setith raised thoughtful, searching eyes toward Areshen.  "But it was worth it.  I have my husband, and now our marriage has been reconsumated.  Edurub, you incompetent scoundrel, did you follow my instructions?"

   "Yes, beloved mistress," Edurub answered, avoiding Areshen's studying gaze.  "I was standing just beyond the threshold.  I can testify that you and the king your husband have indeed reconsumated  - "

   "What?" Areshen stammered.

   "It was necessary, beloved," just the hint of amusement in Setith's eyes.

   "Yes  -  I suppose," Areshen sighed, emotion flooding again into his heart when he once more realized the immensity of Setith's sacrifice.  "Setith  - " Areshen tried, no longer able to doubt the sincerity of his wife's love for him, realizing how completely and finally Setith had just proven that love.  Shubari had obviously been certain that Setith's possessions in the south, virtually the entirety of her wealth, had been far more important to her than her husband.  Setith, minutes after she had entered the chamber, had proven Shubari wrong, had done so with a passion violent and frantic in its intensity, had done so, Areshen realized with just a touch of nagging consternation, in front of the required witness.  Had he not stopped her, Setith would have proven Shubari wrong a second time, with three witnesses standing a pace from the chamber's couch.  That, however, Areshen finally decided, was of secondary importance at the moment.

   "Setith  - " Areshen tried in a choking whisper as he squeezed her hand, feeling the tears again sting his eyes as he gazed in wonder toward the woman Sumer and Akkad called the world's most beautiful.

   "I still have Bathul and Nippur," Setith began as she circled Areshen's hand with her own.  "And I shall be your queen, beloved  - "

   "Setith, that is nothing  -  you gave up everything for me the moment  -  Setith  - " and again Areshen saw Setith stepping from her clothing.  She'd done so with something like frantic desperation and fury in her eyes, as though she could not step in his arms quickly enough, had all but pushed him forcefully onto the couch when he had hesitated.

   "Setith  - " and Areshen could think of only one thing to say which seemed to serve the moment.  "I love you, Setith.  I love you more than my own life."

   As soon as he spoke the words, Areshen watched the now obviously genuine expression of entranced, radiant joy settle across Setith's stunning, incredibly beautiful features, could no longer doubt, he realized again, the depth of her feelings for him.  A quick moment later, however, Areshen saw just as genuine an expression of trouble and concern settle into Setith's eyes as she brushed a hand down her body from waist to hip.

   "Beloved," Setith began, "I now have twenty galla demons clinging to my sides.  I know you are only a minor god, Areshen, but you will make the demons go way for me, won't you, beloved?"

   Areshen again gazed into Setith's gentle, emotional eyes, felt a quick moment's quiet amusement as she once more brushed a trembling hand to her waist searching for galla demons, and again Areshen felt something he had not felt with such intensity for twenty years now.  Setith, Areshen realized with a new spark of wonder - his own wife - all along, his own wife had been the one, true love of his heart.

   "Yes, beloved," Areshen cried as he wrapped Setith into his arms.  "Yes, my beloved.  I will make the demons go away.  I will never let anything hurt you again."

 

X

 

   Areshen leaned at the balcony's rails in Shar Dulur fortress, lifted his cup for a long moment, and then turned his attention back toward Setith sitting in the courtyard below.  Standing publicly at his side in Shar Dulur's Great Hall, Setith had become queen of Isin three weeks ago, amusement and some strange little hint of delight in her features for the queen's dress she now wore, a military garment short and revealing which on Setith had left several hundred old men in Shar Dulur's Assembly Hall standing in gaping silence.

   Setith had then met Ati, a woman not dissimilar to herself in temperament, Ati perhaps Setith's one equal in poise and intelligence even if Ati had spent her life scrubbing Shar Dulur's floors.  Ati had always shuddered at just the thought of becoming queen of Isin; Setith, busy with her temples in the south, had never thought about Isin at all.

   Areshen lifted his cup again, then with a soft smile watched Ati walk from a ground floor portal into the courtyard, then without the least hint of hesitation toward the bench on which Setith sat.

   When Setith had arrived at Shar Dulur three weeks ago, Areshen had taken her violently into his arms, holding her in emotional embrace day and night until Ati had walked into the chamber one evening carrying the pitcher of beer.

   "So this is your Ati," Setith had stated, turning her eyes from the trepidation in Areshen's toward the quiet, gentle reserve in Ati's.  Setith and Ati passed a few more tentative moments gazing toward each other, then a few short minutes in quiet, ever more intimate conversation.  Neither Setith nor Ati, Areshen supposed, had needed a great deal more.  Ati had finally found someone in Shar Dulur with whom she could share emotional intimacy, had probably never suspected, however, that it would be with Setith herself.

   "Setith," Areshen had chuckled several days ago as she and he had eaten a quiet meal together, another pastime Setith had not had time for in many years now, "I do believe you are becoming as outrageous an apostate as me.  You and Ati sit together for hours in the courtyard, quite as though you and she were equals."

   "As apostate as you, beloved?" Setith had asked, amusement, and that same gentle glint of love still in her eyes which Areshen supposed he would never again doubt was genuine.  "That is not quite possible, beloved.  No one is your rival in blasphemous conduct," Setith had answered in easy humor, her expression dissolving into emotional warmth as she pulled herself again into Areshen's arms.  The simple, utilitarian battle dress of a queen still seemed to amuse Setith; she had but to stand and unfasten a single catch in order to remove it, could do so, to Areshen's delight, without the assistance of a single servant.

   Areshen glanced another long moment toward Setith in the courtyard below, a sweet, delicate creature one minute, a terror to both husband and servant the next.  Again, however, Areshen felt some new and powerful emotion pound through his heart.  Setith, Areshen again realized, could easily have returned to Ur and retain possession of her temples in the south.  All Shubari and the temple of Ur had asked of her was that she discard any allegiance to a husband who was considered by most of Sumer's old nobility in the south to be an uncivilized barbarian anyway.  Setith, according to old Edurub, had turned from the tablet on which Shubari's demands had been inscribed with tears streaming down her cheeks.

   "I want my husband, Edurub," Setith had cried.  "Take me to Isin, Edurub.  Take me to my husband now."

   Setith had then stood at the rails of her barge making her way down river from Bathul to Isin, fury in her features as she pled with Edurub and the vessel's captain for greater speed.  Setith, a woman of unquestioned piety forbidden relations with her husband, had then walked into a chamber on Nippur's walls and all but wrestled that same husband onto the couch in order to reconsumate their marriage.

   For weeks now, stewards from most of Setith's former temples in the south had appeared at Shar Dulur declaring their intentions to defy Shubari and Ur, pleading with Setith for permission to turn away the new High Priests and Priestesses sent by Shubari.  Had Setith in fact granted such permission, she could easily have regained her possessions.  Save for Ur itself, most of the palaces and garrisons of Sumer and Akkad now answered to Isin and Shar Dulur, answered now, therefor, to Setith as queen of Isin, her office a military command second only to her husband's, the king.

   "No," Setith had answered, however.  "It would be blasphemous, a serious disruption to Holy Order.  We will fight this in the courts," Setith had stated, fully aware that courts in the south would decide in Shubari's and Ur's favor.

   "Remember  -  old king what's his name?" Areshen had chuckled over another quiet dinner a few days later.  "He just marched the High Priest up the temple steps and chucked the old farter over the side, then set up shop himself."

   "And was dead six months later," Setith had cringed, clawing her way again into Areshen's arms.  "Please, beloved, even you could not escape retribution for such blasphemy.  I do not want to loose my husband yet again," and once more Areshen had squeezed the breath from his wife in emotional, struggling embrace.  If any wife had ever proven the depth of her love for her husband, it had been Setith.

   Areshen glanced again toward Setith and Ati sitting together in the courtyard below, one final conversation running through his mind.

   "Ati," Setith had stated, gentle amusement in her eyes as she glanced up from the table, "is a very sweet woman, Areshen.  I am quite in love with her."

   "Yes," Areshen agreed, noticing the subtle hint of mischief in Setith's eyes.

   "And Ati is very beautiful," Setith continued.

   "Very beautiful," Areshen agreed once again, his eyes snapping wide open when he realized Setith's point.

   "Ati and I are very close already, Areshen.  Ibisien's queen in Ur has dozens of cowives, Gipul's in Elam hundreds.  I, however, have none.  Now that I too am a queen  - "

   Gazing a final long moment from the balcony's rails toward Setith and Ati in the courtyard below, Areshen downed the rest of his beer, deciding he would handle the matter the way he preferred to handle all such matters.  He'd ignore it as long as he could.

   Dozens, hundreds of wives? Areshen shuddered.  He'd take Ati indeed did she say yes.  Setith, however, would never rest easily knowing that two other queens could boast of status superior to hers.

   For a month, Areshen had then pushed himself from his sleeping chamber every morning, making his way from one courtyard to the next across Shar Dulur in order to receive news of the latest financial disaster from old Meneturu.

   "We are completely bankrupt," Meneturu finally sighed.  "Tebro and the temple of Nippur follow our orders to the letter, a situation which pleases the chiefs along the frontiers.  The only war of consequence is Meshduri's with the Betusun.  The spoils, Meshduri writes, will be meager, perhaps little more than the cost of the war.  One or two other chiefs, however, are showing signs of belligerence.  Perhaps something a bit more profitable will turn up.  Meshduri has agents scouring both east and west."

   Areshen sighed, felt another moment's piercing twinge of envy toward Meshduri ranging freely along the frontiers, and then turned back to old Meneturu fondling the serving girl sitting in his lap.

   "A bit of good news," Meneturu continued.  "Setith has agreed to defer another half of a sixth from this month's payment for Shar Dulur, this in addition to the half of the sixth already deferred.  She has therefor agreed to defer  - " and Meneturu passed another moment fumbling with his fingers, turning in annoyance toward the object of his idle caress.

   "A entire sixth," the girl giggled for Meneturu's annoyance.  Another, Areshen chuckled, misplaced by Holy Order, a beautiful and intelligent creature who sits naked on the chamber's couch waiting to fetch anther pitcher of beer.      

   Actually, Areshen chuckled as he made his way toward Shar Dulur's kitchens in order to see if Bathesag had received any fresh stock of beer, Setith's gesture of indeed generous.  Reduced to near bankruptcy herself when Shubari and the temple of Ur had confiscated her possessions in the south, Setith had then gone deeply into debt in order to feed the tens of thousands of new residents now under her care as High Priestess of Bathul and Nippur.

   Several days later, Areshen stood along the banks of the canal a few hundred feet from Shar Dulur's walls working a fishing line, glancing from a corner of his eye toward an attractive woman walking by herself a short distance down the canal road.  A servant, perhaps, naked, escaping the fierce midsummer heat for a few minutes.  A quick second later, Areshen turned again, this time with an expression of amusement and wonder when he realized that it was Setith, no servants waving fans, no attendants carrying portable thrones, just Setith strolling without haste along the quiet, palm lined banks of the canal.

   "We are certainly in an adventurous mood today," Areshen chuckled as Setith climbed the banks of the canal.  "I thought you were presiding over Assembly this morning.  You are not  -  dressed for Assembly."

   "I asked Meneturu to have Ishbi, or whatever it is you call that awful little beer god of yours, conduct Assembly."

   Areshen broke into gentle laughter for a quick moment as he met his wife's eyes, settling into questioning quiet when he noticed the hint of concern in Setith's expression.

   "Setith?" Areshen asked, and watched a final moment's genuine happiness break into Setith's features.

   "Beloved, you see into my heart as easily now as you did when you first took a frightened young girl into your arms twenty years ago."

   Areshen grasped Setith's hand.  For another long moment he felt young as he squeezed in intimate embrace, watching another flash of radiant joy in Setith's smile.  She settled, however, into final, sighing resignation.

   "My advocates in Ur have written me," Setith began.  Areshen now grasped both of Setith's hands, holding with fierce, emotional strength when he heard the distraught, gasping cry in Setith's throat.  "I have been declared bankrupt in Ur.  All of my property there has been seized by the temple, including the house in which you and I first lay in each other's arms, beloved."

   "Setith, I'm sorry," Areshen began, his voice gentle sympathy, though he supposed he would never feel a great deal of emotion over property concerns.

   "The household in Ur," Setith continued, "has been removed to the temple, most to the cloth factories.  I have even lost your dear Etwabi, beloved husband.  They have taken everything  - "

   "Setith, Etwabi is a very intelligent young woman.  She will take care of herself.  Most of the household in Ur will be able to do so, at least for the time being.  But why do you let Shubari do this to you, Setith?  You are queen of Isin, now," Areshen continued, a hint of amusement returning to blatantly sensual eyes.  Setith, at the moment, was certainly dressed as a queen might, particularly one of the wilderness queens in the eastern mountains.  And Setith was Setith, whether dressed in the flowing magnificence of a High Priestess or not.

   "As queen of Isin," Areshen continued, "you would be well within your rights to summon the armies of Sumer and Akkad and march on Ur yourself.  Enlil seems to have slept soundly in his temple while I have twice sacked Nippur.  I am certain that Nan  -  Non  - whoever, will sleep as soundly in Ur.  Why don't you invite a few First Soldiers to accompany you to Ur?  It has been many years now since a queen has led Sumer in battle, and every First Soldier I know will be begging to stand at your side in the command chariot," and again Areshen found himself gazing with something a bit more than gentle affection toward the most beautiful woman in Sumer.  Every First Soldier who was not blind would be begging to stand with Setith in the command chariot.  Setith returned a momentary expression of shock for Areshen's suggestion, her features settling into entranced amusement, however, as she felt the piercing intensity of her husband's gaze.

   "I left Ur in dignity," Setith began.  "Now, husband, you would have me return like the ancients, better yet, like a Gutiu queen from the eastern mountains standing naked in her chariot, screaming with maniacal fury, her hair flying in disarray with the wind."

   Areshen stood transfixed in silent, pondering thought.  The image brought to mind by Setith's words was nothing less than arousing, particularly since Setith stood at the center of that image, a cultured beauty born of Ur's Sumerian nobility most would imagine in a palace theater listening to an orchestra of harp and pipe players.  Setith standing in a war chariot  -  naked of course  -  her hair flying in the breeze  -  soft, stunning features in maniacal fury  -  and again Areshen felt something a great deal more than gentle affection for Setith.

   "Areshen," Setith sighed, coy amusement in her own features for the wicked gleam in her husband's eyes, "you would be quite pleased to see me standing beside a barbarian campfire in the east, a bow across my shoulder, a sword on my hips."

   Again Setith broke into a mischievous smile, quite aware that her words, poetic descriptions of the warrior queens who had sacked Sumer a century ago, had once more impacted with erotic force.  Setith smiled again for the obvious arousal in Areshen's eyes, felt a very genuine satisfaction that it was there.

   "Husband," Setith chuckled as she grasped Areshen's arm, "come and swim with me," and she led him down the banks of the canal.  "I shall be your barbarian queen, frolicking without concern in a mountain stream."

   Areshen chuckled himself as he watched Setith lower herself into the water, then decided watching Setith swim would be far more pleasant than swimming himself.  For long minutes, Areshen lay along the banks of the canal, enraptured at the sight of his wife gliding gracefully through the water a short distance away.  Again, however, he felt a gentle, emotional concern for Setith, wincing for the blows she had endured over the past few months.  She had lost everything in the south, then without hesitation had expended everything else she had in order to care for her households in the north, had done so, most remarkably of all for Setith, in defiance of Sumer's gods, their wishes expressly stated by the High Priest Shubari in Ur.  Nor, Areshen supposed, would someone like Setith feel a great deal of consolation over the fact that she was now recognized as queen of Isin, thus temporal queen of the civilized world.  In Ur and the old southern culture of Sumer, since Urnammu's time the necessary home of anyone aspiring to any position of social or cultural importance, Setith was now an outcast.  Setith, a product of Ur's old Sumerian nobility, was now viewed by that old nobility as a queen only slightly more civilized than the Gutiu queens along the eastern frontiers who still, in fact, rode naked in chariots, bows and javelins in their hands.  More than a few matrons in Ur probably suspected that Setith now did so herself at least once or twice a day.

   And now, Areshen sighed in sympathy for Setith, Shubari had taken from her the one remaining shred of contact with her former life in Ur and the south, her house and her household, and again Areshen heard the soft cry of anguish in her throat, the first time Setith had allowed herself to yield to that sort of genuine, human emotion in many years.

   Still, as Areshen watched Setith push herself from the water back onto the grass covered banks of the canal, nothing in her features seemed to communicate anything resembling the total, emotional devastation he might previously have suspected her prone to.  On the contrary, she seemed to delight in her present circumstances, discarding the past as easily as she had discarded her bulky, flowing robes of state.  Areshen sat enraptured, watching a woman of small stature stroll toward him in careless, easy step.  The world's most beautiful woman beyond doubt, Areshen decided, her soft, delicate features radiating both a stunning, absolute physical perfection as well as that same shrewd intelligence which had made her the wealthiest private individual in Sumer, the gold and silver in her jewelry chests measured in tonnage.

   An instant later, however, Areshen saw a woman who for years having professed love for husband and servant had uniquely proven that profession true when circumstances had demanded that she do so.  Setith no longer had so much as a single brass earring left; she had sold everything in order to provide for her households in the north.  And she had had to do so, Areshen realized yet again, because she had refused Shubari's demand, a perfectly reasonably pronouncement from the gods according to Ur's nobility, that she rid herself of a husband who as king of Isin was only slightly more civilized than barbarians along the frontiers.

   "Perhaps I, as well, shall be a barbarian," Setith had scowled several days ago in Shar Dulur toward a delegation of creditors from Ur, the gold encrusted robes of state she wore all of value which she still possessed.  "No, stand as you are," Setith had commanded, and several dozen old men stood in awkward silence a few feet from the throne casting nervous glances toward the Assembly Hall's walls and the guards thrusting their hands to their weapons in order to be certain that a queen already beloved among their ranks was obeyed.

   Setith had then pushed herself from her throne to her feet, something which Areshen and old Meneturu hiding in a corner sipping beer could only call a wicked gleam of defiance in her eyes.  Without pause, she had then stepped from her gold encrusted robes, had without the assistance of a single servant torn every last shred of clothing from her body.  Shar Dulur's Assembly Hall, normally as noisy and as boisterous as any other, suddenly resounded with mausoleum like silence, several hundred pairs of eyes bulging in painful strain.  The serving girl in old Meneturu's lap found herself unceremoniously dumped onto the floor.

   Setith had then lifted her clothing for the throne platform and tossed it toward her creditors.

   "There," she pronounced.  You have it all," and grasping the short sword from a nearby soldiers hilt, she stood at the head of Shar Dulur's Assembly Hall in pose the martial ferocity of which was every poem written in the past hundred years.

   "This," Setith scowled toward her creditors, nodding toward the short sword in one hand, her other hand on hip in pose without caution or restraint, "is all that I have left to clothe myself with.  It is all, however, which a queen needs.  Tell Ur noble and fine, that this is how she shall see me when I return.  My husband a barbarian?  Tell Ur the queen of Isin is her husband's wife."

   Areshen, his beer forgotten, had felt an unspeakable wave of pride for Setith wash through his heart, astounded that he might ever before have thought Setith capable of succumbing to any sort of travail.  He had then felt a definite edge of amusement as he gazed toward several hundred statues scattered across the Assembly Hall, perhaps even a sharper twinge of pride when he realized again that the blinding vision at the head of Shar Dulur's Assembly Hall was his own wife, he alone possessed of a measure of immunity to the blinding effects of that vision.

   Again, however, Areshen lay on the banks of the canal, the woman who approached human indeed, the frailty of her appearance deceptive perhaps, but the love residing in the depths of her heart for husband and servant alike as genuine as any he could imagine.  Areshen pushed himself to his feet as he again felt emotion hammer into his own heart, then wrapped Setith into his arms, pressing the embrace with unrestrained, passionate strength.

   "Areshen," Setith began with a gentle smile of intrigue when she finally met his eyes.  "You are indeed pleased that I fancy myself a warrior queen who swims daily in the wilds of the mountains."

   "A great many in Ur and the south, beloved, indeed believe  - "

   "I know, beloved," a momentary touch of remorse in her features, erotic delight in her eyes a quick moment later.  "Perhaps I was meant to be a barbarian queen, my true kindred still in the eastern mountains.  Onto the grass with you," Setith commanded in a voice exuding barbarous vehemence as she pushed Areshen onto the ground and then lowered herself into his arms.

   "Beloved  - " Areshen whispered, kissing with gentle, emotional warmth for a long moment, then caressing in idle though intimate touch as he searched Setith's eyes.

   "Areshen, I am content," Setith answered, laying a gentle hand to Areshen's forehead.

   "No one in Sumer has ever proven themselves more honorable than you, Setith.  Sumer proclaims itself a land of law and justice," Areshen scoffed, "to protect the widow, to care for the orphan, these fanciful boasts inscribed on a hundred slabs of stone.  Would you care to be a widow or an orphan in Ur today, Setith, pleading in vain while Shubari counts his gold in the temple and Ibisien sits drunk in his palace?"

   "You will not rest, dear husband," Setith answered in easier humor, "until I stand indeed in a chariot approaching the walls of Ur."

   Areshen returned Setith's soft smile, wondering if that was in fact his intention.

   "Do you love me," Setith asked, gentler matters obviously on her mind, "as much as you love Etwabi or Ati or your tavern mistress  -  Heluth?"

   "Setith," Areshen answered, sudden emotional vehemence in his voice, "you have always been the love of my heart.  To you, only you, I give my life."

   Setith rested motionless in Areshen's arms, her hands clawing into embrace, moisture in her eyes.  A quick moment later she pressed for Areshen's lips, burying herself in the strength of passionate, searching caress.

   "I am happy, Areshen," Setith finally whispered.  "For the first time in so many years now I am happy."

   Again Areshen felt strange, all pervasive emotion pound through his heart as Setith lay her head to his chest.

   "Why Isin, Areshen?" she then asked, complacent quiet in her voice as she nodded toward Shar Dulur's walls.

   "Isin?" Areshen shrugged with a soft chuckle.  "No particular reason, I suppose.  I happened to pitch camp here eight years ago during the war.  I've never left.  They say the gods cannot easily find me in Isin."

   To Areshen's surprise, Setith passed this off with nothing more than a soft laugh, quiet solemnity in her voice when she continued.

   "It has been difficult for me, beloved.  I have turned my back on everything."

   "I know, beloved," Areshen answered, wrapping Setith again into close, emotional embrace.

   "Perhaps I shall build a theater in Shar Dulur.  I will invite dancers and musicians to perform here," and Setith again twisted her eyes toward the fortress.  "And something must be done with those walls.  They're bleak, barren, atrocious.  A palace must look like a palace, not a fortress."

   "As you wish, beloved," Areshen chuckled, pleased that Setith was indeed taking a genuine interest in her role as Isin's queen.  Setith, being Setith, it would probably not be long before than queen of Isin's throne was one as prestigious as the throne of any High Priestess in the south.  Setith was already reverenced in Isin and most other northern cities, many of which expected Shar Dulur to become that which Sargon the conqueror had made Agade several centuries ago.

   "But the walls might have to wait awhile," Areshen sighed.  "Meneturu says we're bankrupt at the moment, and Meshduri can find no wars promising of any great profit."

   "There are other ways to make money," Setith answered, resting in Areshen's eyes in gentle humor for another long moment, then for one quick instant in urging, sensual warmth.  One quick instant was enough.  After all, Areshen decided again, Setith was Setith.

   "Beloved," Areshen whispered, and pulled Setith finally into complete and passionate embrace.  Again he found the girl he had married twenty years ago as she wrapped herself into his arms, the concerns of the world forgotten.

   Or most of them, perhaps.

   "There are," Setith repeated as she lay back in contented quiet, though now something of the old, calculating, clockwork precision of her mind written on her brow, "many ways other than war to make money."

   Areshen just broke into a soft chuckle, doubting that Isin was going to remain bankrupt for any great length of time.

 

   Areshen walked hand in hand with Setith back into Shar Dulur, then grumbling in complaint into Shar Dulur's grand and ornate Assembly Hall, a cavernous chamber quite as spacious and lavish as Ibisien's Assembly Hall in the palace of Ur.  For another month, Areshen sat at Setith's side in restless boredom, gazing toward massive stone columns on either side of the Assembly Hall's central aisle, an aisle down which Sumer and Akkad now processed in order to discuss matters of trade and business with the king and queen of Isin.  Setith discussed matters of trade and business; Areshen squirmed in boredom at her side stealing covert glances toward his fishing line hidden a short distance from the throne platform.

   "The king, my beloved husband, would be pleased to accommodate you," Setith pronounced from the throne at the head of the Assembly Hall, and another merchant or factory manager or something or other bowed in appreciation toward the king of Isin who bowed in return when after a stolen glance toward the queen of Isin he suspected it might be appropriate to do so.

   Areshen squirmed and bowed for another month, generally without a great deal of interest or comprehension, as Setith discussed wagon loads of bricks and sacks of grain with Sumer and Akkad.  Areshen nodded when told to do so, waited until Setith's back was turned, his wife engrossed in further financial deliberation with another delegation of supplicants from somewhere or other, and then slid from the throne platform toward the small portal at the back of the Assembly Hall.  Snatching his fishing line along the way, Areshen then retreated toward a small chamber in which old Meneturu sat.

   "What is all that about?" Areshen asked, nodding back toward the Assembly Hall and Setith's voice as he grasped the cup of beer Meneturu's serving girl held forth.

   "I'm not certain myself," Meneturu chuckled, glancing toward tablets spread across the chamber's table, then back toward Areshen now lowering himself into the god's niche along the chamber's far wall.  "We are, however, no longer bankrupt.  Another month, perhaps two, and Shar Dulur will again be in a position to meet its financial obligations toward Setith, will be able to do so only because Setith now sits Shar Dulur's throne.  She has raised more revenue in the past few months than has been raised in the past ten years by our armies along the frontiers.  And she seems confident that the situation will only improve.  Shar Dulur's master of accounts has been informed that the deferral of a sixth part of the monthly payment due Setith will be discontinued beginning next month."

   "Setith," Areshen continued after a quick moment's chuckle, "still, however, wears nothing more than a queen's battle dress and simple, brass earrings, Meneturu, came to me the other night and asked if the copper she spent on those was an extravagance.  And she has two dresses left.  This morning she discovered another hole in one of them, tears in her eyes when she showed it to me.  Eight years ago when Ur was starving, the High Priest Shubari processed onto the temple every morning wearing robes ever more weighted with gold embroidery.  I never paid the slightest attention to any of it before, Meneturu.  There was always another war somewhere along the frontiers," and again Areshen passed a short moment listening with an expression of annoyance to the financial debate continuing in the Great Hall, sighing with restless frustration as he turned back to Meneturu.  "Are you certain there's not even a small war somewhere demanding my attention, Meneturu?"

   "Meshduri," Meneturu chuckled, "is scouring the frontiers east and west.  He promises to report the moment he finds something."

   Areshen listened to his wife's voice for another short moment, confusion in his features when he turned back to Meneturu.

   "I asked Setith this morning why she has only brass earrings and two dresses, one with holes in it.  Setith had warehouses full of dresses when she was High Priestess of every other temple across the south.  'I am no long High Priestess of every other temple across the south,' Setith answered.  'I am the queen of Isin, and I shall be a good queen for you, beloved husband.'  Six months ago in Ur when I walked Setith onto her boat bound for Bathul, Setith met my eyes and promised me that she would be a good High Priestess of Bathul.  That same evening I sat with your niece Etwabi, Meneturu.  She and every one of Setith's other servants in Ur, even those bound to Setith for life, prostrate themselves on the ground, trembling like frightened kittens whenever Setith walks by.  If Setith happens to be in an irritable mood, she is just as likely to stop and kick one or two of them, and Setith, despite her diminutive stature, is a very athletic woman, a kick like a mule.  An hour later I happen upon these same servants prostrate in front of their gods expressing gratitude that Setith is their mistress.  'Please,' they beg, 'protect the beloved mistress.  Let no harm come to her.  She is a kind and gentle mistress.'"

   Meneturu shrugged, an expression of amusement in his features for the confusion in Areshen's.

   "I too," Meneturu stated, "am just a soldier.  I would not want to be a servant in Setith's personal service either, not unless some god bigger and uglier than me held me down and poured a bucket of Holy Order down my throat.  Even then, it would have to be a very big and very intoxicating bucket of Holy Order.  If you will remember, however, we all told you a few months ago that you would find the girl you married once Setith escaped Ur and Shubari's influence.  And you seem to have done so, rather passionately," Meneturu concluded with a soft smile, noting the gentle light of adoration in Areshen's eyes at just the mention of Setith's name.  "I suspect the whole thing just has something to do with the fact that Setith, as everyone here in Shar Dulur now proclaims, is Setith.  I visited Ur once, you know, Areshen, gold benches of polished cedar in every courtyard, silver chalices full of wine everywhere you looked, gold pots, no less, in which more than a few High Priests pissed.  And then I turned around and saw people starving, others laying in alleys beneath the walls, women selling themselves for a copper, and that in Ur the wealth of which cannot, they say, be counted.  I drove up to Bathul a short time ago, the same mudhole it's always been.  But no one standing in front of their mud hovel was starving.  Fat little cherubs ran up to my chariot wherever I drove, beaming smiles on their faces as they proclaimed themselves children of the Lady Setith."

   Areshen nodded, understanding as much as he supposed a soldier would ever understand, and spent another long moment lost in the sweet ecstasy of Setith's arms.  He awoke just as quickly, however, to the shrill sound of Setith's voice from the Assembly Hall, raised in vehement debate over the value of seventy eight and two thirds chariots contracted from a private manufacturer bound for the frontiers.

   "Two thirds of a chariot?" Areshen asked.

   Again Meneturu shrugged, amusement in his features.

   "I don't think I can go back in there, Meneturu," Areshen sighed as he nodded toward Shar Dulur's Assembly Hall.  "There must be a small war somewhere.  Perhaps an Amuru chief's donkey has wandered across the western walls and shit into one of our irrigation ditches."

   Meneturu broke into easy laughter, shrugged his sympathy once again, and watched Areshen push himself from the wall niche.

   "Tomorrow," Meneturu's latest playmate crooned as she thrust herself between Areshen and the door, "I go to Isin and the temple, will, if I'm judged worthy, provide service on the Holy Couch in the Chamber of Sanctioned women.  King," a young woman almost as beautiful as Setith pled as she placed her arms to Areshen's shoulders, her body to his own in seductive, writhing dance, "could I not come to your chambers tonight, to your holiest of all Holy Couches?"

   "Alas," Areshen sighed, "my Holy Couch has been found to be infested with mice," and Areshen twisted himself from the girl's grasp, escaping an instant later through the door.  Perhaps, he sighed, Setith was right.  A bit more decorum in Shar Dulur might not be a bad idea, a bit less frolicking just as appropriate.

   Areshen stole through back chambers leading behind the Assembly Hall and made his way toward the kitchens in order to pester the old chief cook for a few minutes, his well intentioned resolutions forgotten the moment they no longer seemed needed.  Luculsag, however, glared only for an instant from the tabulation tablets spread across her table, not in the least amused as she snapped her fingers toward one of the assistant cooks.  Areshen nodded gratitude for his cup of beer, turning back toward Luculsag for one more try.

   "King, are you frolicking with me?  You know it is no longer allowed," old Luculsag pronounced, just the hint of amusement about the edges of her features as Areshen walked away in dejection and defeat.  Setith might overlook his absenting himself from Assembly without her leave.  An additional count of frolicking with the servants would be pushing matters, however, and with an expression of totally affected solemnity and dignity in his features, the king of Isin processed from the kitchens, wandered then into one of the courtyards looking for something, anything, to do.

   The orchestra of harpists and pipe players in the courtyard, another of Setith's innovations within the walls of Shar Dulur, lay their instruments aside and with elaborate gestures of posturing formality bowed from the waist toward Sumer's king, the ceremony yet another of Setith's innovations with the walls of Shar Dulur.  Areshen sloshed his cup in the air, glanced annoyance toward a half dozen older officials and military officers struggling to conceal their amusement, and then passed a few more idle minutes listening to the performance.  The music was beautiful indeed, Areshen decided; perhaps a touch of genteel civility in Shar Dulur wouldn't do any great harm.  And if it pleased Setith, that was all that really mattered.  It certainly seemed to please the household of Shar Dulur, a household passionately in love with its new mistress, much of that same household again pleading with Areshen for a place in the king's tomb, preferably of course, a place in the queen's chamber.

   Areshen lost himself in the quiet, gentle strains of the music for another long minute, a glimmer of understanding dawning at the fore of his consciousness as he realized how he would feel if he lost Setith now.  Setith's personality was a mystery the hidden depths of which he supposed he would never completely understand.  One aspect of Setith's personality, however, seemed to dominate all the others, a very basic and simple trait which Setith had always possessed.  She was honest, meticulously and scrupulously honest.

   "I will never forsake you," Setith had pledged twenty years ago when she had grasped Areshen's hand in marriage.  "I will remain your wife be it in wealth or in poverty."

   "I will care and provide for you," Setith had pledged to a multitude of others across Sumer and Akkad who with expressions of joy and pride in their features boasted that they were the mistress Setith's children for life.

   Had anyone ever kept promises so scrupulously before, Areshen asked himself?  Even young Teru in Ur, his "only god" a god Areshen still didn't understand, seemed genuinely to admire Setith.

   "You will find, military governor," Teru had stated the last time Areshen had visited the young scribe's school in Ur, "that if Setith must choose between the gods of Ur and the right according to the dictates of her conscience, Setith, when pressed, will choose the latter, even if doing so brings suffering on herself.  Setith is another, Areshen, who I genuinely believe will one day discover who and what the gods of Sumer really are, and she will rejoice for the choice she has made."

   Areshen glanced toward a few more of Shar Dulur's servants scattered about the courtyard listening to the orchestra, quite aware that he would never understand the depth of the feelings which had grown between them and Setith.  No free soldier could ever hope to do so.  But soldiers were the only private individuals in Sumer and Akkad who really were free.  Save for a few tavern mistresses, minor order priestesses such as the exotic Heluth in Ur's Shensulith Square entertaining customers in their tavern's back chamber in order to survive, everyone else in Sumer and Akkad was bound as dependant either to High Priest and temple, or to king and palace, commitments of service varying only in degree.  And without exception, Setith's servants, particularly those bound into her service for life, seemed to feel genuine affection for her.

   Setith, Areshen chuckled, broke only one promise she often made to her servants.  Those who attended her personally, as soon as they had gained any measure of emotional familiarity with her, pled for something a bit more than emotional familiarity.  Setith, with a gentle smile of amusement, would promise to summon them to her bed chambers for the evening whenever she had an evening free.  And Ur, being Ur, Setith's girl servants pled quite as passionately as any other, Setith a Lady, certainly a divinity in at least a few of her cities, someone who need not concern herself with standards of behavior considered proper conduct for lesser beings.  This was the one promise which Setith never kept, however, affairs of temple and business driving such trivial matters as physical sensuality completely from her mind over the course of the day.  Areshen had been the only person who ever received an invitation to Setith's sleeping chambers, and as often as not, at least up until a few months ago, he walked into Setith's sleeping chambers only to find her exhausted and sleeping, usually having forgotten to eat during the greater part of the day.  Areshen would pull Setith's head onto his shoulder, her features so sweet and gentle now that sleep had erased the perpetual scowl she wore during the day, and he would believe she was the same girl he had married twenty years ago.

   And indeed, Areshen chuckled with amusement and wonder, she was; she always had been.

   Areshen gazed a final moment about the courtyard, the orchestra engrossed in its music, palace officials and soldiers alike with expressions of ease and contentment enjoying Setith's cultural innovations.  Areshen met Ati's eyes for a long moment, exchanging a smile of close, emotional intimacy, Ati the one woman in Shar Dulur with whom Setith took the time for a genuine, emotional friendship.  Nor was the friendship between Setith and Ati somehow an expression of Holy Order, one woman looking toward another with reverential awe.  Ati, who hung dishrags from god's heads, was respectful toward Setith, but she was anything but reverent.  And Setith was quite aware that Ati was Areshen's one equal when it came to irreverent, outright blasphemous conduct.

   "Ati," Setith had repeated in mischievous amusement any number of times over the past several months, "would make you a perfect second wife, Areshen.  You and she are both absolute apostates.  And she is already a dear friend to me.  We are quite in love with each other.  We could be no closer were already lawful sisters."

   Areshen glanced another quick moment toward Ati, still very deeply in love with her himself.  But she had always said "no," could just not conceive of defying Holy Order's social order by marrying the king of Isin.

 

XI

 

   Areshen sighed for the thought, and wandered off to pester a few more officials sitting at table in various chambers throughout Shar Dulur.  An old, bearded official in one chamber might be dictating correspondence to a subordinate king or governor regarding some point of Sumerian or Akkadian protocol; another might be negotiating with a temple factory manager for a load of bricks.  The greater part of Shar Dulur's officialdom tolerated the nuisance of a visit from Isin's bored king with grace and genuine humor, a king who sloshed beer over the writing tablets spread across their tables, though a king who seldom expressed a great deal of concern regarding the content of those tablets unless they hinted at the possibility of a small and entertaining war somewhere.  Most of Shar Dulur's officials occasionally found themselves sharing their king's hope for that war, at least a small one, as they wiped the beer from their tablets, preferably a war along the frontiers a considerable distance from Isin, a war which would occupy a bored king for a considerable length of time.  For the past six months now, these same officials had hit upon a new tactic which had succeeded in driving the king from their chambers when he had made a nuisance of himself long enough.

   "The queen," officials across Shar Dulur with genuine expressions of affection and respect stated, "is due any moment to discuss a dozen tabulation tablets with me.  It shouldn't take more than two or three hours.  Perhaps, king, you might care to join us  - " by which time Areshen was already retreating through the chamber's door with unprecedented haste, dispensing entirely with any attempt toward affected solemnity and dignity.

   When Areshen had run out of officials to pester, he decided to spend the rest of the afternoon along the banks of the canal working a fishing line, standing in idle conversation with a half dozen First Soldiers doing the same, none of whom, however, had heard rumors of war, not even a small one.  Areshen sighed as he gathered his fish, dangled them over old Bathesag's table in exchange for another cup of beer, and then stumbled finally into Setith's chambers.

Setith and Ati sat together on the chamber's couch running combs through each other's long, dark hair, expressions of contentment and affection for each other in their features.  They do indeed, Areshen chuckled in idle amusement, look like sisters, glancing again toward Ati as he settled himself onto the chamber's floor cushions.  Ati, Areshen realized, despite a strand or two of gray in her hair, was still indeed an incredibly beautiful woman.

   "Are you angry with me, beloved?" Areshen asked as he lifted his cup, tentative, apologetic eyes toward Setith.

   "No, beloved," Setith sighed.  "You sat beside me for almost an hour in Assembly this morning, squirming uncontrollably only for the last two thirds of that hour."

   "You are too kind, beloved," Areshen chuckled, watching gentle amusement break across Setith's and Ati's features, quite aware that his present state of inebriation was the source of their amusement.  "Besides, you don't need me in Assembly anyway, beloved.  You have captured every heart in Shar Dulur."

   "Perhaps you are right, husband," though the same subtle hint of remorse, perhaps even a measure of fright, remained obvious about edges of Setith's features.

   "Setith, you were always a good High Priestess," Areshen tried, not quite certain that his words made a great deal of sense.  Again Setith and Ati broke into gentle expressions of amusement; apparently they did not.

   "But I am a queen now, beloved, a queen's office, like your own, primarily a military one.  And I fight some very real battles in Shar Dulur's Assembly.  Only a queen must do so; only a queen is expected and allowed to do so.  You are a soldier, beloved, have always been a soldier.  You may squirm in boredom on a king's throne, but you are perfectly comfortable sitting there if you must do so.  Despite certain erotic fantasies in which I stand naked, screaming with fury in a chariot as I drive into battle, I am not by nature or education a soldier, and it had been difficult, perhaps even a bit  -  frightening for me to adapt."

   "The advocates," Areshen answered, sloshing his beer in very direction toward the advocates which infested every corner of Shar Dulur, "have tried to explain the difference between temple and palace to me.  They have abandoned their efforts to do so in frustration.  Without exception, however, these same advocates tell me that you are a queen of unprecedented valor, Setith, as courageous as any First Soldier thirty years in the field."

   Setith gazed back in wonder, her eyes dissolving into emotion as she turned toward Ati.

   "You spoke only the truth to me, beloved Ati."

   "Yes, beloved mistress.  You are a good queen, adored, respected, and feared in every chamber throughout Isin and Shar Dulur.  First Soldiers thirty years in the field polish brass on their chariots, each hoping that his own will be the one in which you stand should you ever summon the armies of Sumer and Akkad."

   So that was why, Areshen chuckled.  Without exception, the command chariots of every Six Hundred he had inspected over the past six months had been in unusually good condition.  Most chariots assigned to Ibisien's garrisons in Ur stood on blocks, their wheels decrepit and useless, their owners in little better condition soaking in one of Ur's perfume baths.

   Setith, again with genuine, solemn emotion in her eyes, pressed her lips with obvious affection to Ati's cheek, then pushed herself from the chamber's couch toward the door, wandering in quiet, searching thought about the rails of the courtyard's balcony.

   "She is still very frightened," Ati began as she pushed herself from the couch onto the floor cushions, then into Areshen's arms.

   "Setith  - "

   "She is," Ati chuckled.  "She hides it with a soldier's expertise, of course.  By night, however, she has time to contemplate it all.  She pleads with me to stay with her for hours, sometimes for the entire evening.  She is terrified that she appears foolish sitting on a queen's throne.  You, however, Areshen, have made her very happy."

   "Because I opened my mouth without a great deal of awareness regarding what I was saying?"

   "Yes," Ati laughed.  "I tell Setith that she is the epitome of valor and courage on Isin's throne and she kisses me, thanks me for my kind words, and believes none of them.  These same words spoken by a soldier, however, particularly a soldier who would feel no reason to speak them were they not true, are something very different.  And yes, the fact that beer further blunts that soldier's senses will in this case only lend credibility to his words."

   Areshen broke into soft, easy laughter himself, gazing then in silence for another long moment toward the familiar features of an emotionally intimate friend.

   "You are looking well, Ati," Areshen continued, laying a caressing finger to her cheeks.  "Perhaps another wrinkle or two."

   "It is time for you to begin polishing the gray from your hair, old man," Ati answered, caressing Areshen's forehead.

   Again Areshen gazed toward Ati's gentle, radiant smile, his voice quiet emotion as he spoke.

   "I so wanted you to become my queen, Ati.  I suppose I did not know what I was asking.  I never realized how it would frighten even Setith."

   "It would have terrified me, Areshen."

   "They tell me, however," Areshen sighed, "that you can still become my wife, Ati," and Areshen grasped Ati's hand with urging strength, preparing himself, however, for Ati's latest rejection.  Just as well, he sighed again.  Ati still resided securely in the depths of his heart.  Over the past few months, however, he had again discovered the depth of his love for Setith.  Two loves of the heart would be a very confusing situation for a former pig farmer.

   "Yes, Areshen," Ati replied.

   Areshen gazed back in questioning, inebriated silence, attempting to comprehend that which at the moment seemed very incomprehensible.  Ati's "no" hadn't sounded in the least like all her past no's.

   "Yes, Areshen," Ati repeated.  "I will become your wife," and she settled into a soft smile of amusement as she waited for a measure of rational lucidity to return to Areshen's eyes, supposing it had when she felt his hand clasp down on her own with fierce, emotional strength.

   "Setith," Ati explained with a soft chuckle, "has pled with me to become your wife, and therefore her sister in law and in fact, someone to whom she can empty her heart without reserve.  A queen without sisters in Sumer faces terrors almost unimaginable.  Should you in fact be called to the frontiers, Areshen, intrigue at Shar Dulur and Isin could well become that which it is in Ur and everywhere else, and would be unbearable for Setith did she have to face it alone.  Ibisien's queen in Ur has dozens of sisters; Gipul's in Elam has hundreds.  Neither Gipul nor Ibisien rule the world, Areshen.  You do," and Ati lowered her eyes in searching thought for a quick moment, her voice the depth of emotion when she continued.  "And I do love you, Areshen  -  dearly.  And I adore Setith.  When she and I are alone, Setith is just  -  Setith, sweet, as gentle as a kitten.  She has already, in many instances, held me to her heart as a sister, defying Holy Order in order to do so.  She will now no longer have to defy Holy Order."

   "Setith," Areshen finally began, a measure of ease, and then emotional warmth settling into his features, "speaks of you with such love, Ati."

   Ati, to Areshen's amusement, glanced a long moment toward Setith idling at the balcony's rails; Areshen could no longer doubt that Ati's expressions of love for Setith were genuine.  Ati then settled back into his arms, and Areshen felt that same gentle calm he'd felt in a hundred quiet evenings with Ati at Shar Dulur, an emotional intimacy which had sustained him for years, the emotion quite as important to him as the easy, sensual warmth he felt holding Ati in his arms.  What now, however

   "Ati  - " Areshen tried, searching as he met her eyes, uncertainty in his own.  "You have lived your whole life in palace.  I, by birth, am a pig farmer."

   Ati broke into the easy laughter Areshen had fallen in love with, grasping his hand in gentle, familiar warmth.

   "Nothing changes for you, Areshen.  I will just be your wife according to the rites of Sumer instead of your consort wife.  I will call you beloved, and Setith will be my sister.  My role in life will change, however," and Areshen grasped Ati's hands with strength when he noticed the touch of fright in her eyes, the same fright which he'd seen in Setith's.  A quick moment later, however, he realized the full significance of Ati's words, and broke into a soft smile.

   "You shall no longer scrub Shar Dulur's floors, Ati?  You shall now sit at Setith's side on Isin's throne during Assembly?" And I shall fish to my heart's content along the banks of the canal.

   "Yes," Ati chuckled, guessing Areshen's unspoken thought with obvious ease.  "Setith, as I say, has pled with me to sit at here side as queen consort.  Were it anyone but Setith, I would never have dreamt of it.  But Setith and are already sisters of the heart.  I cannot refuse to be her sister in the eyes of the law as well."

   Again Areshen returned a momentary expression of slightly intoxicated confusion, settling when Ati just squeezed his hand in gentle warmth.

   "Only one thing is important, Areshen," Ati continued.  "I will be your wife.  I will declare my love for you in the future by using the word beloved, and I will call you beloved husband instead of consort husband."

   Areshen returned an easy smile of affection as he again wrapped his hand about Ati's, this time leaning forward and exchanging the same gentle kiss they'd shared a hundred times in the past.

   Areshen then sat with Ati in close, intimate silence as he returned his attention to his cup, again doubting himself capable of coping with two loves of the heart, possibly more when he considered Etwabi in Ur, Heluth in Shensulith Square, and who else, Areshen sighed, searching the corners of his mind.  After all, he had been raised in a small farm village where very few could afford more than one wife.  Perhaps Ati was right; nothing would really change, and Areshen glanced for another long moment toward Setith as she stood at the courtyard's rails lost in her own searching, contemplative thought.  In the end, Areshen suspected, he just did not understand Setith's fears over her new role in life as Isin's queen, no more than he understood the finer points of Sumer's society and culture in general.  He was a soldier who fought wars when told to do so.  For the past eight years he happened to be the soldier who decided if and when a war needed to be fought.  Anything beyond that, however, Areshen preferred to leave in the hands of Shar Dulur's advocates and scribes, palace and military officials such as old Meneturu, in Setith's hand for the past few months.  Shar Dulur's advocates and officials certainly seemed to prefer the situation as it now stood, most of them prostrate before their own gods in gratitude for Setith.

  Again Areshen raised his eyes as Setith turned from the balcony's rails and wandered back toward the chamber, determination and resolve, perhaps, once more in her features.

   "I must tell her," Ati said, laying her lips to Areshen's in quick, affectionate touch, and then pushing herself from the couch.  Areshen watched Setith and Ati greet each other at the chamber's door, Areshen at the moment starkly aware that the palace and its culture were a mystery he little understood.

   Ati took Setith into her arms and leaned forward, whispering in her ear.  Again Areshen felt a long moment's trepidation; a long pull from his cup didn't even help.  He then watched Setith raise her eyes to Ati's, both simply staring at each other, though Areshen was certain that Setith's eyes were now clouded with emotion, still not certain, however, what that emotion was.  Neither Ati nor Setith smiled, and Areshen again raised his cup, a definite tremble now in his hand.  It was Setith, however, who finally pulled Ati into embrace, an embrace the emotional strength of which was obvious, Setith rocking Ati back and forth with urging intimacy.  Areshen finally released a tentative sigh of relief; Setith seemed anything but displeased.

   Both Setith and Ati finally stepped back from their embrace, both now breaking into gentle smiles of affection as they grasped each other's hands.  Areshen's trepidation returned, he watched them exchange conspiratorial whispers as they walked across the chamber toward the floor cushions on which he lay, Setith lowering herself to his left side in intimate embrace, Ati to his right side in embrace quite as sensually intimate.

   Areshen shot a quick, nervous glance left and right, quite aware that Setith and Ati were directing intentional mischief toward someone who at the moment was very vulnerable to the effects of that mischief.  Areshen finally released another sigh, this time one of annoyance as he finished his beer.

   "We must now explain to the king our husband," Setith began as she met Ati's eyes in mischievous amusement, "how he is to comport himself tonight when we both  - "

   "Both  - " Areshen stammered.  "Ati and I have not yet exchanged  - "

   "Beloved," Setith pronounced, "this is Isin.  The vows and the propitiations are simply the formalization of that which has already occurred.  Ati is your wife.  She became your wife the instant she uttered the world 'yes.'  Tonight, beloved, you have duties to perform.  We shall  -  both expect a summons to your chambers when you have prepared yourself."

   Areshen gazed in gaping wonder toward Setith, toward his empty and useless up, then toward Ati who had broken into mirthful laughter.

   "Areshen, we are just being cruel to you," Ati laughed as she grasped Areshen's cup and pushed herself to her feet.  "I will find you some more beer."

   "Do, beloved sister," Setith chuckled with equal amusement.  "Both at the same time may indeed be perversity, but I am in a very perverse mood.  Our beloved husband may indeed require another cup before the night is over."

   In ever more raucous laughter, Ati walked from the chamber.

   "Beloved, I'm sorry," Setith finally relented with a gentle, emotional smile as she lay an affectionate hand to Areshen's.  "I am indeed being cruel to you.  I berate you constantly for frolicking with the household, yet Ati and I have been frolicking with you shamelessly.  It is just that I am so happy now, beloved."

   "Then I am happy, beloved," Areshen answered as he grasped Setith's hand, watching her expression dissolve into emotional solemnity.

   "I adore Ati," Setith continued.  "I'm deeply in love with her, Areshen.  There need be no affection whatsoever between a queen and her sisters.  In this case, however, the affection between Ati and me was there before you took her as your wife."

   "Then it's  - "

   "Yes, beloved," Setith chuckled, "it's true, both according to the rite's of Akkad and Sumer.  Ati is your wife; she became your wife when she said 'yes.'  Ati is already the sister of my heart, however, Areshen.  She has been for quite some time now.  She is a companion I cannot help but adore."

   "Ati, when you were standing on the balcony, Setith, used almost the same words to express her love for you," and Areshen watched Setith's features deepen into solemn, emotional warmth, her eyes distant for a quick moment, searching, Areshen suspected, for Ati.  Setith again, however, settled into gentle affection.