The Plague Queen

“The people hate you.”

Adapa said these words while standing beside the lattice covered window that overlooked the royal gardens. Despite the shade of the room, the few rays of light that filtered through the lattice work burned his skin. A reminder that despite the greenery below the desert was not far away.

“What have I done to the people now?” Ku-aya snapped.

Unperturbed by her irritation he only shrugged his shoulders. He had advised her well from her earliest years when she been imprisoned and nearly killed during the wars of the great families. Most other of her family weren’t so lucky as she had been to survive.

“The plague, it’s killed hundreds already,” he said.

Ku-aya didn’t look away from her reflection in the mirror while she adjusted her necklace, feeling the familiar shapes of the amulets of moon crescents, lightning symbols and the solar discs beneath her fingers. There was no need for her to see beyond the windows as she already knew what would be found outside. Only the royal gardens and beyond them a people decimated by disease. It was a sickness that dried the victim’s skin so it more resembled brittle parchment that could easily be brushed away until only the bones underneath were left.

“I am of course to blame, at least according to my husband’s subjects. After all, hasn’t this happened through me before?” Ku-aya asked. Not expecting any answer she continued, “Its common knowledge that I have many ways to kill. I only wish I had such powers, it would make my life much easier if I could dispatch even more enemies than I already had to their next life.”

“Well you don’t possess those powers. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to consult one with powers in magic.”

Ku-aya only waved her hand in dismissal at his suggestion. Others used magical means, potions and fortune tellers, anything if it could help them. But not Ku-aya. She liked to believe she could rely on her own abilities and of course Adapa to get what she wanted. She would not be beholden to any save herself.

“The only time I consulted one dealing with magic was during the wars and all I did was pay an exorbitant sum for a potion that was to kill both myself and enemies. A small vial with ingredients that were mixed of the simple things of the elements. As far as I’m concerned, it was overpriced. Anyone could have taken the dirt from sacred ground and water from other shores but I didn’t have time to haggle then and I don’t have the time now,” Ku-aya said.

She never had need of it and so it was kept among her other bottles of perfumes and creams, forgotten most of the time. They were kept beside the gold cages that held the nightingale birds Ku-aya had always loved the sounds of.

“We need something else this time,” Adapa said. “Sennacherib has already had his brothers and male cousins murdered so none could challenge him. The new wife hasn’t yet conceived a child but when she does, she will have you killed, either by poison or an assassin. She already fears you.”

“There was a time once when Sennacherib wouldn’t have ever thought of taking another wife,” Ku-aya said.

Her tone sounded the closest to nostalgia that Adapa ever heard. She gazed into the mirror, her eyes not noticing her reflection.

He interrupted her reverie by saying, “That was before you managed to bore him only a daughter.”

“A crippled daughter with strange eyes,” Ku-aya added, turning from the mirror.

“Yes.”

Ku-aya named the daughter Inana, after the great goddess. Sennacherib’s people called the goddess Ishtar but Ku-aya chose the name that her own people knew the goddess by.

“Why does the new wife fear me?” Ku-aya asked.

“You are as ruthless as Sennacherib when it comes to keeping your power.”

Adapa never minced words, calling everyone for what they were. Despite her rising anger at the troubles, Adapa’s words needed to be heeded.

Ku-aya thought Adapa’s name an appropriate one. He was named for the legendary Adapa whose great wisdom had been granted him by the god Enki. While Ku-aya was certain no god ever came to her family’s advisor, he had plenty of his own wisdom.

“I’ll go pray to Ishtar, that should make the people happy that I stand at the shrine in all that water there and plead for the sickness to be lifted,” Ku-aya said.

Adapa bowed respectfully and was backing towards the door when Ku-aya stopped him.

“Adapa, if I should be killed by that child bride, what would become of my daughter?”

“Sold to any merchant who would pay the most for her. She isn’t what any of the royal households would want as a match and the new wife would rather see her far away, if so only that she wouldn’t be a threat to any children the new wife may have to the throne.”

“A child of my blood, who carries the blood of the most old and noble families to be reduced to such circumstances. If I should die, would you fight for my daughter as you did for me?”

He didn’t answer, only saying before he left, “No need to ask that at this time, for now just don’t stand too long in the waters praying, I can’t have you catching a cold along with everything else.”

###

Ku-aya stood on the water’s edge, facing the ocean where no ships could be seen on this day. She saw no ships for none would come to port in a city where the sickness permeated. She now stood in front of an alter to the goddess Ishtar in the early morning light, where the waters and land met. Glancing beyond the city to where the desert took over, the new light hurt her eyes as she compared the sand to shifting brown water that pushed against the shrine.

Sand already crumbled in her sandals, making her feet itch. The red jeweled pieces on the leather straps flashed from beneath the waters that overlapped her feet. She readjusted her necklace.

She stared straight ahead to the statue of the goddess who stood on an alter stone. Ishtar didn’t answer but she never did. None of the gods ever answered, no matter how many prayers she made, only the expected dull echo of nothingness ever responded back to her.

“Ishtar,” she called out, softly this time.

Without turning she felt all eyes upon her. By this time, she was so used to the stares of others she hardly noticed them anymore. Even when she was a young girl, renowned for her unusual beauty, she’d grown used to stares of men and even a few women. Yes, she was used to stares except those of her daughter Inana. Her daughter who she named for the most important female deity.

“Why stand here when no one listens,” her daughter asked.

Startled, Ku-aya turned to find Inana standing beside her. The girl’s eyes penetrated past Ku-aya’s collected exterior. Her daughter’s eyes were unlike anyone’s she had ever seen, the left sharply focused, cutting through whatever people believed they hid. They were the eyes of an old one. The other eye was lazy, moving from side to side with no resting point. When she was first born, the infant’s eyes had startled her. If that wasn’t unlucky enough for the girl she was a cripple, her left foot malformed.

“They want you dead,” Inana continued.

“What do you know?” Ku-aya snapped.

“Plenty. The people said you sold much to the gods to obtain the power you have and that it’s time to pay. Is this true?”

“If you know plenty, why do you ask?” Ku-aya said.

Inana only laughed softly, not at all perturbed by her mother’s words.

“I said I know plenty, not everything. So is it true?”

“I would have promised the gods anything when I was younger.”

When she was only a child she would have done so for only status. And later, when the wars broke out and she was captured, kept in one of the many prisons with little expectation of leaving free she’d have given anything then too.

“Why wait for a response from the gods, they never seen to tell you anything,” Inana said. “Ask Adapa instead.”

“I already did,” Ku-aya said.

“And what did he say?”

“Nothing.”

The two listened to the water lapping against the stones. Ku-aya’s frustration grew at the goddess’ silence. She had never spoken, never advised despite Ku-aya’s repeated prayers. Ku-aya started silently praying, not for the sickness to be lifted but for a way to protect her daughter. She willed for an answer, demanding one with a force she never used before. She’d done many things over the years to please Ishtar, even named her daughter after the goddess. Couldn’t the goddess at least this once give an answer, to save her daughter who was named for her if nothing else?

“You have to ask the question. Ask what it is you need the answer to most.”

The unfamiliar voice was an old women’s. It came from behind her. Ku-aya turned, only finding her daughter. Then she noticed that Inana’s eyes no longer mismatched. They were not  even the same color. The eyes were golden as no human’s ever was and they shone with a brilliance Ku-aya never seen. Then they changed to a translucence that appeared a light blue and Ku-aya thought she saw waves and water coursing through them. But before long the eyes changed to orange, radiating heat as flames fanned out, their colors turning from yellow to red depending how they shifted. They changed again, to a brown resembling the dirt settling on top of each other. Ku-aya found it fascinating to watch. Ku-aya didn’t ask who the voice belonged to, she knew with certainty Ishtar had finally decided to answer.

“I need … I need to learn what I must do to protect and ensure the continuance of those of my blood, most specifically my daughter Inana,” Ku-aya said.

“You’ve known all along the only way to protect Inana. You only didn’t want to admit it. That’s not the question here though,” the voice said, coming from her daughter.

“Then what is the question?” Ku-aya asked.

“The question is if you are ready to do what needs done?”

In her mind Ku-aya saw the plain vial she bought years before. Sensing this, the goddess Ishtar continued to speak and then with as little warning as she came departed, leaving her daughter with the strange eyes once again. Ku-aya took off walking.

“Where are you going?” Inana asked. The girl seemed oblivious to what happened.

“To my rooms.”

“Good, Adapa said standing here will just get you wet and probably sick.”

“Did he now?” Ku-aya asked.

“Yes, he said it’d be a shame for you to die of a cold after all the work he’d done in keeping you alive.”

###

Women with veils of light gauze covering their lower faces danced in the center of the room. Her husband Sennacherib lounged across from them. Ku-aya watched him, holding her cup filled with the liquid from the bottle. She swished the drink idly, watching her daughter walk to her seat. She moved with a slight limp that could be easily overlooked if one wasn’t expecting it. It had taken Inana long hours to be able to walk this close to normalcy. Inana’s eyes searched around the room, missing no one.

Despite  the sickness that was taking lives, this dinner was a part of a weeklong wedding feast for her husband’s new bride. A greater number of guards than ever were posted outside the gates to keep those with the sickness away from the feast. Sennacherib’s greatest fear now that he consolidated his power would be for the plague to touch him, striking him down as he was taken over by the disease. Ku-aya moved away from the wall towards Sennacherib. People parted for her, not only out of respect but also from a small fear they shared with the peasants that she brought this plague to the land. Ku-aya stopped in front of Sennacherib and his new wife. The girl looked demurely down.

“What is it?” he asked.

Ku-aya glanced down to her cup, remembering the goddess Ishtar’s words; that he’ll take it if you drink first.

Ku-aya raised the cup up in a gesture of offering while her daughter watched curiously.

“I’ve brought a drink in celebration,” Ku-aya said.

Her husband’s eyes narrowed.

“Give it to my taster first,” he said.

Ku-aya laughed, affecting the silver light sound it was recognized for.

“My king, it’s a drink of celebration to be shared by the three of us. Here, I will be your taster.”

At these words her daughter’s eyes narrowed. If it had been Inana in her father’s place she would force the taster to drink. But she wasn’t her father’s daughter in that regard.

Ku-aya drank a long draught, appreciating the sweetness of the drink. She remembered what else Ishtar had said.

“He’s killed every man and woman, boy and girl, any that were a relation, no matter how minor. There’s no one to contest Inana’s claim. Adapa will help her. But let’s face it, she can take care of herself better perhaps than even you.”

Ku-aya handed the cup to her husband who drank. When he offered it back to her, Ku-aya shook her head, gesturing to his new wife. The goddess never said a word about her but for all Ku-aya knew a child could already be growing in her belly. A child who would threaten Inana. The new wife drank from the offered cup. Inana reached for it but Ku-aya took the cup, turning fully towards her daughter. Placing the cup down, she unfastened her necklace and handed it to Inana. The gold amulets reflected off the light from the lamp’s oil. Inana studied both the necklace and her mother in confusion.

“The necklace is yours. You are too young, I’ll drink your share,” Ku-aya told her and picked up the cup.

She finished the last drop before turning to walk away from the final feast she, Sennacherib, and his new wife would enjoy. The nightingales should have been fed by now. When she returned to her rooms she would open their cage doors and let them free, listening to their songs on her last night.

 

[Kristin Roahrig’s poetry and short stories have appeared in various publications. She is also the author of several plays and lives in Indiana.]

 

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