I am now reaching the point in “Redeemer” where updates will contain some spoilers. If you are a reader of “The Serpent’s Song” series and don’t want any spoilers, don’t read on. However, I will offer that I do not believe these spoilers to be particularly earth-shaking and I do enjoy feedback from my readers.
You have been warned – read on only if you want to learn some new things.
The Merchant Council
Nusiki didn’t like Adummatu. Then again, he didn’t like Abraq or Eridu, either. Really, he just wanted to be back in Nun-Ki. That was a city he understood. His city.
Eridu was too open and there was no safe place to hide. Abraq was populated by grim-faced people who conducted all their business indoors. And Adummatu was too opulent and rigid. If Nusiki ever had any qualms about the guards in Nun-Ki, they paled in comparison to what he saw in Adummatu. On every corner, patrolling every street, even on the flat rooftops and around the weird onion-shaped domes, were bare-chested guards with long-bladed spears. And there were so many rules. Magick was forbidden – even street performers. Begging was forbidden within the walls. Thievery was punishable by death, and not just any death, but a public disemboweling in the arena. If you were lucky, Haseen told him, you would simply be branded. It was still a death sentence, however, as it was a crime to associate with anyone so branded. Someone branded was considered without honor and either starved to death because nobody dared sell them food, or died of exposure in the deserts as they tried to travel on foot to a new city. The “lucky” ones, Haseen assured, would find a slaver and volunteer themselves into slavery.
Sure, the city was pretty. Beautiful, even. And bigger than Nun-Ki, of that he was certain. Odd, he thought, considering he had always been told Nun-Ki was the largest city in the world. But his eyes didn’t lie. The walls of Nun-Ki were massive, but not as tall as those bordering the Sapphire City. Nun-Ki’s walls were sloped, made of ukurum – baked mud bricks – and solid. Adummatu’s walls were vertical and glowed with a white sheen. Instead of one solid construction, the walls of Adummatu were two separate walls. In between them was a sort of covered road where the roof doubled as a walkway for the guards. Nun-Ki’s towers were boxy affairs. Adummatu sported slender, round spires crowned by blue, gold, and white onion domes.
The streets of Nun-Ki and Adummatu differed as well. Both had wide boulevards as their primary conveyances, but that was where the similarities ended. While Nun-Ki was a planned construction, it was built on the ruins of cities gone by. So, in spite of Urnamu the Builder’s best efforts, it was not symmetrical and some streets were wider than others, some were flat, some had hills. Adummatu, by contrast, was laid out in a circular fashion. The boulevard bisected the city, with other spokes coming to the center from other sections of the city. Nusiki couldn’t see any alleys or narrow streets. The buildings were of similar construction, the only differences between them being the decorations.
And many of those made no sense to the boy. One side street was covered in a series of elaborate stone arches, none of which seemed to serve any useful function.
The wide boulevard, the one that went out the south gate, left no doubt as to his destination. After delivering their feverish Bedda prisoner to the Temple of Baba, Nusiki, along with Mel’k, Bes, Haseen, Datena, and Sargon followed Naguod Nabunazir to the Mahj Egal in the center of the city. The Mahj Egal, much like the Great Temple of Nun-Ki, was visible from all points within Adummatu. It wasn’t as tall as the Great Temple, or even the Palace of Urnamu the Builder, but it was tall enough. The most obvious features were the three golden onion domes. The center dome was twice again as large as either of its siblings, and rested atop a large square structure. Leading up to the structure was a wide rectangular pool flanked by two wings of the Mahj Egal – both crowned with the other two domes.
Benches, covered with latticework and silks, lined the pool. Citizens and nobles of Adummatu sat on the benches and let their feet dangle in the waters to ward off the desert heat. Nusiki idly wondered where the water came from. There must be a river nearby – maybe it was channeled underground.
Along the wings and entryway of the palace smooth columns of marble or similar stone stood at regular intervals supporting the overhanging roof. People in gaily colored robes loitered in the shade they provided.
“Wow,” Nusiki said softly.
“Yes,” Sargon agreed. “This is quite impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”
“Babil has similar construction,” Mel’k offered, “but to see this truly perfected you would have to go to Harappa. I think that is where the style originally comes from.”
Naguod Nabunazir snorted softly.
“I think ya offended him.”
Nabunazir led them past the people lounging at the edge of the pool and up wide stairs to the main building. No doors stood to bar entry through the massive arched entrance, which was decorated with blue ceramic bricks. On the other side of the opening was a wide hall with a polished floor, smooth stone columns, and paneled with expensive dark wood from distant lands. Ten men in clothing similar to the what the naguods wore stood in the center of the open hall, flanked by guards.
“Royal Asipu Bes of Nun-Ki, Galkin Mel’k of the Igibarra, Galkin Sargon of the Kin, Lugal Haseen, I present the Enam Damgari, the Merchant Council, of Adummatu.”
Nusiki studied the men. All ten were old, at least as old as Bes – if Bes aged at all – with greying beards and skin wrinkled from the sun. The clothing they wore was similar to what Naguod Nabunazir sported, flowing pants and golden wraps around their heads. Each wore a jeweled necklace, each with a different jewel or sigil as the centerpiece. Translucent silk robes, open at the front, hung from their shoulders.
One of the men stepped forward.
“Asipu Bes, it has been some time since you stood in our hall. Please explain why you didn’t present yourself to us the moment you arrived. It has caused no small amount of embarrassment for all of us to know such an honored guest was sleeping outside the city.”
“Enam Damgar,” Bes bowed, his bent back twisting, “it was not our intention to cause any distress. We sought the Bedda raider Mardukai the Serpent and, upon our arrival, heard rumors he had been killed by magick. Naturally, I felt I should investigate as soon as possible. I assure you I intended to present my findings to the guard.”
“That may be so,” another of the men spoke, “but I cannot imagine you succeeded in your investigation without violating our prohibition of magick on the streets. We have always been lenient with you, Asipu, in recognition of your status. But it would have been courteous if you had asked our permission first.”
“I suspected time was of the essence, and my suspicions were correct. I do not know if I would have learned as much even hours later, let alone days or more.”
“Very well,” the first man spoke. “What did you learn?”
“Mardukai was indeed killed by magick. A very ancient, very dangerous magick. You may have heard the rumors that the Dread Goddess was involved.”
A collective sharp intake of breath echoed in the vast chamber.
“I cannot confirm these rumors, but I cannot dispel them, either. It is possible the Dread Goddess or, at the least, those who worship her in secret, were involved in this.”
“Is it also true that the woman who did this is a noblewoman or priestess from Nun-Ki?” Another of the ten asked.
Bes shook his head.
“No, the person who did this is just barely a woman, and neither of noble birth nor of temple training. She is a Ganz’ubi, a Firedancer, of unusual natural talent. I meant to make her my pupil but she was taken from me before I could truly begin to train her.”
“Taken? By whom? These rogue priestesses?”
“No, not that I believe. The person who kidnapped her was another magick user, I believe. She somehow escaped her bonds and fell in with these others. We believe they are now hiding in the Temple of Inanna.”
“There are many uncertainties in your words, Asipu.”
“I won’t know the truth until I can speak to her.”
“And you seek our permission to enter the Temple of Inanna?”
“Yes. I do not want to force entry, should priestesses who may be Dumusmah deny me.”
“There is also the matter of her escorts.” Naguod Nabunazir reminded.
One of the men frowned.
“Yes. We have heard she has bewitched and stolen some of our guards, including Naguod Siqma’al. While it is his choice to leave the guard, it is disturbing to think it may not have actually been his choice.”
“All the more reason for me to ascertain the truth, Enam Damgar.”
“Why should we send you instead of our own representatives and guards, Asipu?”
“To avoid confrontation, Enam Damgar. If the priestesses are in fact Daughters of the Serpent, they would probably assume you are coming to arrest the girl for her actions-”
“And we would be, regardless of the explanation.”
“However, if you send me and my fellows, we are neutral in the legal matters of Adummatu. What’s more, the girl knows and trusts us.”
The men turned and spoke to each other briefly.
“Even if we gave you such permission, Asipu, what happens if they deny you entry? Will you force it then?”
Bes shook his head.
“No. I do not wish confrontation, nor do I wish to put the girl in a position where she feels threatened. As we have seen, she can be dangerous under the right circumstances. Mardukai may have deserved to die, but not here and not at the hands of a frightened child.”
“Which is all the more reason we should send guards. In case there is a fight.”
“With all due respect, Enam Damgar,” Mel’k spoke for the first time. “Guards would be powerless against her should she turn on them.”
“I must agree with Galkin Mel’k,” Naguod Nabunazir said. “I saw what she did to Mardukai and heard first-hand the tales of the witnesses. Sending normal men, even trained guards, against her would be like sending a child to fight a soldier.”
“What makes you think you can control her?”
“It is not a matter of control. She is frightened and alone and in possession of a power she barely understands. She’s like a hyena backed into a corner. But we are her friends and her protectors.”
“It looks like she has new friends and protectors now, Asipu.”
Bes opened his mouth to respond.
“There is another reason, esteemed council members.” A shout echoed through the hall.
Nusiki turned to look at the intruder in the entryway. A man in ornate armor stood under the arch, flanked by a Kin on his right and an Adummatan guard on his left. Something about the armor triggered a memory. Nusiki knew he should recognize it.
“Guard!” Naguod Nabunazir yelled. “Remove this man immediately!”
The guard reached for the man’s arm. The Kin’s hand went to his sappara.
“No,” Sargon interrupted.
“Galkin? Is this man with you?” One of the Enam Damgar asked.
Bes squinted against the light and then smiled.
“Yes, he is. Enam Damgari of Adummatu, I have the honor to present Urukh mua Ubaru, Prince of Nun-Ki and heir to the throne of Urnamu.”
Nusiki swallowed hard.
“Highness,” the foremost Enam Damgar intoned. “Welcome. We are honored. The last member of your household to visit us was your father, and he was not much older than you are now.”
He looked at the other men. One turned and spoke.
“But, we must ask, what is this other reason?”
“The girl is in possession of property of Nun-Ki, an item stolen from the High Priest of An himself. It is my duty to retrieve and return this item.”
“May I ask what it is?”
Nusiki’s eyes darted to Bes. The dwarf’s eyebrows were furrowed.
“A decorative glove,” Urukh answered, striding purposefully across the polished floor. “A valuable piece of the Great Temple’s treasury.”
“And why would she have it?”
“I do not know that, Enam Damgar. I wish to know this myself. We know she was not the thief who stole it, nor does she have the resources to purchase it from a thief.”
Nusiki tried to make himself smaller at the mention of the thief.
The men again spoke to each other.
“Very well, Prince Urukh. In the interest of diplomacy, we will allow you and your father’s Royal Asipu to investigate the Temple of Inanna. We would warn, however, that should any violence occur, we would not be pleased.”
“Answers are all I seek, esteemed council members.”