Servants lit oil lamps as the evening sky darkened. Enheduanna sat at her desk, enchanted by the colors of the sunset. The unfinished clay tablet before her hardened. Resisting the urge to chew on the end of the stylus, she held it at a distance, her forearm propped up at an angle by her elbow. A handmaiden replaced the bowl of water next to the tablet. Enheduanna was shaken from her reverie.
“Thank you,” she said. “Oh, look, it’s happened again! Trying to write this hymn is a waste of time. The air is so dry, and I just don’t feel Nanna with me tonight.”
“Perhaps he is too close to your heart. When you feel as one, it can be hard to know he’s truly there. Trying too hard can seem like there are mountains between you, when it’s as close as a whisper in your ear. We all forget to listen sometimes.”
Her sister’s husky voice came from the shadows of the room. Standing in the doorway, Shalaya watched Enheduanna with an inscrutable expression. While the words offered some solace, Enheduanna knew the words held an edge. The contest about which sister was more intimate with the gods ran for as long as they could remember.
The backhanded consolation didn’t rattle Enheduanna. “I’m just tired. That’s all.” She placed the stylus into a holder made of woven reeds and folded a damp cloth over the tablet to moisten the clay.
Turning to face Shalaya, she hunched forward and rested her arms on her thighs. “It’s too hot—airless. I’d be fine if there was a breeze.”
Shalaya grinned. “Dark, dusty, airless. Like the realm of the dead.” She sauntered forward, running her finger along a table laden with finished tablets.
Enheduanna rolled her eyes and ran her hand across her sweaty forehead. “Home is where the heart is.”
Shalaya’s crooked grin lit up the mischief in her eyes. “I feel Nergal with me always. The lord of the setting sun enfolds me.”
“Speaking of which, are you ready for your journey to Kutha to dedicate the temple and serve as its high priestess?”
“All my life.”
Enheduanna sighed. Glancing over her shoulder at her desk, she wished for inspiration and solitude.
Shalaya examined the tablets on the table. As always, Enheduanna’s writing was perfect. So many gods and goddesses represented in these hymns. The tablets set aside in pairs, for the married ones. Anu and Ki, Enlil and Ninlil, Enki and Ninhursag, Inanna and Dumuzi. The hymn to the goddess Ningal only waited for Nanna to join her. The hymn to the moon god lay unfinished on the desk, but Shalaya knew it would be done by the time the full moon reached its apex later that night. Nanna’s visit was still to come.
“You need to prepare as well, my sister,” Shalaya said.
The handmaidens were already pouring the bath. Braided boughs of jasmine lined the edges of the bath. The fragrant scent suffused the air, along with the sandalwood oil added to the bath.
“The perfumes for the full moon are almost my favorite.”
Enheduanna smiled. “Almost.”
“I’d bathe every day in dragon’s blood.”
“Father will have to conquer the world to pay for our perfume.”
The heady fragrance from the bath lulled them both into a silent moment of anticipation.
Enheduanna unfurled her coal-black hair as the handmaidens helped her disrobe. Her nubile figure glistened in a sheen of sweat. In the light of the constellation of oil lamps in the chamber, her body glowed.
Bitten by jealousy, Shalaya calculated the time before it was her turn to be embraced by her god. Soon enough. The anticipation alone was worth it. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Enheduanna smiled. “Thank you. I’m writing a blessing for your journey.”
Shalaya touched the tablets once again. “I’ll send you my hymns from Kutha for your library once I settle in.” She nodded as the handmaidens approached to close the sacred chamber to visitors. They hastened their step, knowing their time to help Ur’s high priestess was limited, too. It was imperative that Enheduanna greet the moon god alone.
As she headed off to her quarters, Shalaya savored the still air at the top of the ziggurat. Soon, she would occupy a sacred chamber of her own.
Meanwhile, Enheduanna eased into the bath. Her hair fanned over the surface of the water. “Honored Apgallu,” she said, naming one of the mermen sages sent by Enki to enlighten mankind in the ways of the arts and civilization. “Let the waters reflect the moon’s rays and waken my senses.” The narrow window caught the moon’s light, but Nanna’s full face wasn’t visible yet. She closed her eyes and sank back into the water. Inspiration visited and she whispered the words.
“I wait for you in your house of Ur,
Your quay glows with abundant light,
Your ship, a solitary crescent, travels down the black river.
Your emanating light moves through the reed marshes,
Filling every heart and dream,
The foundation of your sacred shrine touches the fifty abzus and the seven seas,
Revealing the inner workings of the gods.
In all your phases, we wait
We fill your banquet hall with music
The drums beat and the hearts yearn
Tracking the passage of time.”
She repeated the words, committing them to memory, for when the stylus was in her hand once again. When she opened her eyes again, the moon’s visage peeked into the window above the bath. She got out of the bath and donned her robe.
Alone, she entered the main chamber of the ziggurat, where the bed awaited. The robe fell to the floor. She lay on her back and stretched, welcoming the full moon’s light. She welcomed the god with her soft, perfumed embrace. A sensual sacrament, performed with equal parts grace and abandon.
The full moon waned, and Enheduanna descended from the sacred chamber atop the ziggurat for the first time in several days. The palace offered soothing shade from the noonday sun. The family’s central hall was laid out for a leisurely meal of fruits, cheese flavored with mustard seeds, spiced lamb meatballs, and loaves of flat bread.
Sargon the Great reclined on a couch. His wife, Queen Naqia, lay opposite him. A small stone table stood between them. On it was a carved board bearing twenty squares. Five were decorated with stars, which Enheduanna always maintained looked like flowers. A smattering of flat stones sat on the squares, and a pile grew on each side of the board.
The king smiled as he rolled knuckle bone. “Eagle surpasses your storm bird.”
Naqia took up the bone and closed her palm around it. “That eagle will get an arrow through its heart.”
“Don’t be bitter, my love.” He kept his finger on the eagle stone.
Enheduanna sat down beside her father. “Yes, Mother. He wins at this game so rarely. Let him gloat.”
Sargon feigned shock. “Don’t be cruel to your father.”
“Is honesty cruel?” Enheduanna asked.
Sargon swiped the knuckle bone from the stone table once Naqia released it with an impatient roll, glaring at his wife’s smirk. “You’re too smart for your own good. I’m a king, a conqueror. I could be a cruel conqueror. I could send my own daughter to the dungeons, or make her a slave.”
“Then who will compose the hymns of a venerated king creating a great empire to protect its people from the enemies on the outskirts of civilization?”
The bone landed, bearing news of his impending victory. He hugged his daughter and kissed her on the head.
Naqia groaned when she saw the results. “You bring the words of the gods and luck to your father. It must be a special day.”
“The special day belongs to Shalaya,” Enheduanna said with a sharp tone.
Sargon kissed her temple again. “You’ll miss her.”
“I understand what she must do. After all, I wed Nanna and serve as his emissary to Ur. Her road is much the same.” Enheduanna pooled a handful of pomegranate seeds in her palm and picked through them for the most perfectly formed ones.
“She’ll be on her own in Kutha,” the queen said. “I worry about her.”
Enheduanna shook her head. “Nergal is with her. Ereshkigal dwells in her heart-soul. And we have an army to protect her. Shalaya will be one of the best high priestesses we’ve known. She practically lives in the realms of the gods and the spirits. One could say she’s rarely here. If she had it her way, she’d be in the land of ash right now.”
Queen Naqia scowled. “Hush, now. It brings ill luck to say such things.”
Sargon bit down on his smile, suppressing his admiration for Enheduanna’s assessment. “We can’t deny her connection to the Netherworld, my love. It’s a rare thing to have such insight into the land of ash. What she says is true. But with that power comes high risk. Not everyone will be pleased to be confronted with the realities of what can be seen from the Netherworld.”
“Kutha is so close to the northern border. I worry for her there. Invaders may want to dedicate it to a god they’re more at ease with,” said the queen.
Sargon’s jaw clenched and his eyes flared with a touch of his fiery temper. “No one will come that close to Akkad. It’s too close to the southwest of Kutha. My army guards our great House. By the time we escort Shalaya to Kutha and return to Akkad, we’ll have made a sweep of the entire land and you will see—no enemies wait at our borders. They cower and hope I do not come to them.”
“All portents are fortuitous,” Enheduanna said. “The moon’s journey, and the transition of the morning and evening star. This is one of the most important spiritual ceremonies we’ve done since the establishment of the empire.”
Sargon beamed at his daughter. “You see, Naqia, our wise daughter knows.”
Naqia’s smile was bittersweet. “To be so far away from both of them. Soon.”
Enheduanna sat beside her mother. “You’re never far when your daughters are oracles.”
The queen wiped a tear away and looked at the game board. “My turn?”
Sargon handed her the knuckle bone and kissed her hand. “For good luck.”
Naqia rolled the bone. A crooked grin crossed her face as she moved a stone forward on the board. “Finally, I can block you. Storm bird moves to the raven’s house. Safe house.”
The king arched an eyebrow. “We’ll see, my dear. We’ll see.”
Enheduanna looked on as the game continued, wistful of years past when she and her sister played 20 Squares for hours on end. They were too busy now. As priestesses, the spent most of their time divining the will of the gods. At times, she felt she spent more time in the world of spirits than in the world of the living. And sometimes, she wondered which one she preferred more.
The procession began at dusk. Braziers lined the streets and pathways of Ur. Throngs of people made their way to the shore of the Idigna River. Sargon proclaimed its new name Idiklat, but the original Sumerian inhabitants were slow to adopt the new name. On this night, political squabbles were forgotten as the most important festival of the year was upon them.
The black water shimmered with the light of the braziers. The tiers of the ziggurat were bright lines, reflected even at a distance at the river’s edge.
King Sargon’s military boats flanked the ceremonial barge laden with flowers. Censers burned with fragrant resin, a blend of frankincense and myrrh and other herbs and flowers, made by novices at the temple.
The king’s generals walked on either side of the royal family, with the counsel of elders following. Side by side, two palanquins were carried. Upon one was a throne of alabaster, and upon the other, a black throne. The pale orange moon lay low on the horizon.
The carriers placed the sisters’ palanquins on carved stone platforms by the shore. Each platform was covered in writing, detailing the stories of the gods. Enki’s voyage to the netherworld; the anzu bird’s theft of the tablet of destinies; the adventures of King Gilgamesh; and Dumuzi’s fateful dream, which he shared with his sister shortly before he was slain by the the enforcers of the Netherworld. Side by side, Enheduanna and Shalaya waited with graceful poise. Each carried a sceptre, each wore strands of lapis lazuli around their necks. Their hair cascaded neatly down their backs, their crowns of stars catching the fires lighting their paths.
Sargon ascended a platform by the dock. The crowd hushed as he raised his arms. “One born at the peak of the full moon, and one born at the peak of the dark moon. We are fortunate to be able to touch both of these realms. The journey of Inanna and her sister Ereshkigal’s marriage to Nergal provide balance—representing the very foundation of what this empire has to offer. Tonight my daughters embark on a pilgrimage north to Kutha—the same path taken by Inanna to the Netherworld, and to the palace where Ereshkigal married Nergal. The full moon graces us this evening, and by the time they reach Kutha, the dark moon will be upon them. The morning star will give way to the evening star, and the sisters will be bound to the gods as their emissaries in spirit for all time. The cycle will be complete, and High Priestess Enheduanna will return to her home in Ur while High Priestess Shalaya ascends to the sacred chamber of the ziggurat in Kutha. The gods truly watch over our empire. They bless each of our cities. I am honored to be able to strengthen our connection with the heavens. Here on the Sacred Mound, where Anu came to Ur, resides a power that will forever embrace us.”
The crowd murmured in assent in a prayer to Anu and his wife, Ki.
Sargon stepped aside and invited his daughters to proceed to the waiting barge. The alabaster throne was placed on a tall platform on the barge, with the black throne on a lower platform in front of it. The sisters took their places. Queen Naqia joined them, opening a box carried by one of her handmaidens. She removed two necklaces, identical, save for the order of the moon’s phases on each in a series of circles, made of alabaster and onyx. The central pendant on one was a full moon, for Enheduanna, and the other, the dark moon, for Shalaya. Naqia placed the necklaces on each of her daughters.
The thin torches on the barge flickered in the breeze, as though impatient to depart. Shipment coiled the lines as the workers on the dock pushed the barge away. From a distance, the peaked bow and stern looked like a crescent moon gliding along the black water dotted with constellations of lights from all the torches.
King Sargon and Queen Naqia boarded the boat that followed the ceremonial barge.
Enheduanna stood in front of her throne to recite her dedication for Shalaya’s journey to Kutha, the gate of the Netherworld.
“Let me walk with you on the road of no return
As you go toward the edge of the mountain
The day is ebbing,
The day is ebbing,
Toward the black mountain
The star of Inanna watches over the road that finishes the one who walks it.
The dark heart of the moon loves fiercely and infinitely
And will carry your soul with its blessing
To the residence of the anointed ones
Let the precious night flowers bloom
Let their perfume soothe and guide
Your heart to his, in an ashen land few
Have the courage to embrace
And may your eyes always reveal the truth.
Days passed on the river. Pestered by bugs and bored half to tears, Enheduanna clutched her fingers, entwining them until the knuckles paled. She bit her lip and stared at the bright blue sky. “I need to write.”
Shalaya smirked. “Reach into the river mud. Adequate enough for clay.”
Enheduanna cocked her head. “You may have something there. It’s not as impractical as you may think.”
Soon, Ur’s high priestess held a shell in her hand. Her face exuded serenity. The bitumen was blended into a thick paste, watered down to make ink. She carved a reed into a stylus with a rough knife handed to her by one of the guards. Satisfied with the clefted point, she dipped the reed into the clay pot.
The black paste stained her linen dress as she pressed the stylus into the fabric. She watched intently as the ink spread over it. Enheduanna waited. The liquid spread, but the symbol was not clouded on the fabric. Enheduanna smiled, dipped the reed into the clay pot again, and continued to write.
Hours passed, and the high priestess’s dress was covered in prayers to the gods. As the moon waned into a narrow amber crescent, Shalaya grew restless. “Almost time to switch seats.”
Enheduanna was equally restless. “I know.” Her eyes were fixed on the bright stars above. Each constellation told its story. “Will we make it in time?”
“Assuredly, yes,” said the guard behind the alabaster throne.
From a distance, the ziggurat of Kutha looked like it was made of dark clay. Storm clouds gathered over the city. Enheduanna looked to the sky. “We may miss the peak of the dark moon.”
“Clouds may come, but the phase of the moon will not change, neither will the passing of the morning star. And if Nergal is truly with me, the night sky will be clear on the night of the ceremony. We have plenty of time,” Shalaya said.
Enheduanna stood up from the alabaster throne as she watched the clouds clustered over the center of Kutha. “You’re being summoned, sister.”
“What’s the matter? You look worried.”
Enheduanna stepped off the throne and wiped her brow. She drew a finger across her lip with a wan smile. “I’m fine. It’s the humidity.”
Shalaya reached out with her arms and rolled her head in a circle to stretch her neck muscles. She smiled to herself. “Of course.” The sarcasm bled from her voice.
Enheduanna pouted, drawing her eyes to the side to give her sister a dismissive glance. “You gain energy as I lose it. Same as always.”
The sunset glowed like a fiery opal behind the encroaching storm. The gates of Kutha opened, and the delegation waited. Shalaya stepped away from the throne. Her hands flexed by her sides.
Enheduanna touched her shoulder. “Not yet, dear sister.”
“They’re here for me.”
“They’re here for both of us. And father.”
“Nergal calls to me.”
Enheduanna smirked. “He is known to be very impatient.”
“I’m to be high priestess here. Why do you get to lead the introduction?”
“Because father wills it.” A sigh accompanied her response.
“It’s not fair. This is to be my ritual, my city.”
Enheduanna shrugged and stepped off the barge. Shalaya followed, and joined her family as they approached the city gate.
The people of Kutha waited in large crowds on each side of the river. They carried flowers and statues laden with strings of lapis lazuli beads. Their prayers buzzed, infiltrated by gossip, as the procession moved forward. The council of elders stood in a half circle at the gate. A robed man in the center stepped forward. His beard was grey. Despite his tired expression, he spoke with a bright voice. “Greetings, honored King Sargon. We welcome your family and are delighted that you appointed one of your daughters as high priestess to Kutha. We are…eh…especially pleased Kutha will not see its patron deity…eh…displaced.”
Sargon nodded with a brief bow. “It would never be for me to decide such things. I honor the will of the gods.”
The elder council murmured its assent. Their shoulders dropped, releasing the tension of men who carried the city’s fate. While there had been no bloodshed on the battlefield, the territory was subsumed into the greater empire with threats about protection and trade agreements. What laws and administrators remained in place and which would change was anyone’s guess. Couriers and spies delivered varying reports from other cities in this new realm. Sargon’s will could be as mysterious as the gods’.
“I’m saddened to hear of the passing of your king,” Sargon said.
The councilman nodded. “We grieved his untimely death, and sorry you didn’t get a chance to meet him. While negotiating with him was difficult, I know, he came to greatly appreciate the treaty you extended, particularly when you offered such a generous profit from selling our goods in Akkad. Alas, he had been unwell for some time.”
“I looked forward to meeting him as well,” Sargon said. “May Nergal grant him a throne among the best kings in Kur.”
The elder council murmured its assent again. Sargon gestured to Enheduanna. She came to stand by his side, silently awaiting her introduction.
The senior councilman beamed. “Oh, this must be the most famous scribe in the land,” he said with a wink. “High Priestess Enheduanna, you bring the empire closer to the gods with your spectacular hymns. We are blessed to have you here as our guest.”
Enheduanna’s responding smile struck Shalaya as prim and insincere. “Thank you, dear councilman. I am honored to be here.”
Shalaya bit her lip and tapped her foot. She fought the urge to toy with her hair and appear childish. The chamber at the top of the ziggurat beckoned with the glow of an ember. He’s impatient too, but they can’t stop listening to themselves talk.
“I trust your journey went well?”
Enheduanna touched her father’s arm. “Most pleasant. Is there no better way to travel than under the loving eye of your father and king?”
“Of course, High Priestess. It is as traveling with Ea himself.”
Sargon smiled and held up his hand. “You’re too kind. It is with the utmost humility that I deliver the will of the gods, and I certainly don’t pretend to be anything more than I am—an emissary and king—not Ea himself.”
Shalaya stared at the ground and rolled her eyes.
The councilman swept his arms outward. “Come, let’s take you to the palace for the banquet and show you your quarters. You must look forward to resting.”
Shalaya took a step forward, shrugging off her mother’s attempt to hold her back. She stood by her father and sister, and opened her mouth to speak. The only acknowledgment she received was a brief smile from the elder councilman, and the group moved into the gate. Shalaya fumed at not being introduced.
Tired from the journey and full with a rich supper, Sargon’s family rested in the palace of Kutha. The last sliver of the moon glowed with a pale yellow light. The storm had faded, Nergal’s hand swiping away the clouds, making way for pure darkness. Once the dark of the moon passed, the morning star would be gone, and the evening star would emerge. The power of the Netherworld would be at its height. It influenced already.
The dream descended on one and all, each playing a role within it.
Sargon and Queen Naqia watched Enheduanna leave for the Netherworld to visit her sister. They sang the song in equal parts sadness and pride for her departure. Enheduanna knew her name was Inanna in this vision. With great strength she confronted her fears in the face of the most perilous of treks.
Inanna arrived at the first of seven gates. A dark grey wall of soot and bone surrounded the black gate. An elaborate lock was carved to appear as a scorpion turning in on itself, a circle of exoskeleton and pincers and legs, with its stinger poised over its head. It was realistic enough for her to fear touching it, as though it would come alive. A scuttling sound nearby startled her.
From the darkness of the massive wall came a tall figure. The shadow stretched before her, bearing a elongated shape with a wide torso.
Inanna gasped when the figure emerged from the dark. A scorpion-man ambled toward her, his broad, clawed arms clicking impatiently. Where the crown he wore ended and the flat, spider-like head began was a mystery.
“Who comes?” the creature hissed. “Who comes to Kur?”
“I do,” she responded with a tremulous voice. “Inanna, Queen of Heaven. I’m here to visit my sister, Queen Ereshkigal. And who are you?”
The scorpion-man reeled back in shock. “Who am I? Do you not know your sister’s realm well, Queen of Heaven?”
“I know that I am to be granted passage.”
“I am Neti, chief gatekeeper to Kur. I guide people down the road from which no traveler returns.” His pincers clicked as he circled her, gawking at her garments and jewelry. He paused and closed his eyes. After a moment, he stared at her again. “She bids you welcome, Queen of Heaven, but you must follow the protocol as Ereshkigal wills.” He held out one pincer, wide open. “Come, enter.”
She stepped through the first gate, and Neti removed her golden headdress of stars.
“Why?” Inanna asked.
Neti held the crown away and swooped in so their faces nearly touched. “Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the Netherworld are perfect, and may not be questioned.”
Inanna quailed at Neti’s appearance. Tufts of coarse hair spiked out from the armor of his exoskeleton, which was covered in hard bumps. His tail flicked upward, the stinger uncurling from its resting place. She remained silent.
Through each of the seven gates, Inanna sacrificed an item: her robe, her dress, her strings of lapis lazuli, her gold ring, all until she stood naked, stripped of her godly power as well, just beyond the doors of the throne room. Neti circled her again. “You are ready,” he said.
The vaulted ceiling of cavernous throne room was held up with the rib bones of dragons. The peak of the ceiling was lost in shadow. Inanna was certain the enforcers of the land of ash—the galla—watched from hidden depths, their fangs glistening and their claws sharpened, ready to devour her as they had her beloved husband, Dumuzi.
The stone dais rose hip-high above the floor. The stone was pale enough to resemble bone. The floor was a mosaic of the children of Tiamat—a clutch of dragons eager for battle.
The hushed hall of the dead unnerved her. Her sister, Queen Ereshkigal, sat on the throne, but didn’t watch her sister approach. When she received no acknowledgment, Inanna wanted to scream and stomp and yell. Her nudity shamed her. She had given up everything to be there.
“It’s a test,” she muttered to herself. “Another sacrifice. The attention of family.” A deep breath evened her temper.
She reached the dais. She wondered if the figure before her was alive. Then the fingers curled in a wave of movement. The spine rolled, lifting the head, and Enheduanna snapped out of Inanna’s consciousness in the dream as she faced her own sister.
Her burnished crown had blackened tips. The dress was fitted like armor, albeit with a sensual appearance. Shalaya’s skin was too pale. Her teeth seemed sharper. “Welcome to the Dark City, Land of Ash, sister.” She snapped her fingers, and the galla, fearsome dark creatures that looked like the children of Neti, surrounded Inanna.
“I come to you in good faith,” Inanna said.
“You come to me as a fool. You steal the sun and banish me.”
“This is your realm.”
“My realm?” Ereshkigal laughed, standing from her throne. “My realm? Should I be banished here? Should I not enjoy the same privileges as the other gods, and be able to dine and laugh with Enki and our family in the sphere above the world? What have I done, dear sister, to make this realm exclusively mine?”
“I never banished you. I have nothing to do with it.”
“You, goddess of love and war, have everything to do with it. You steal love and cause war, and say I’m to blame for the darkness in the world. Can’t taint your reputation now, can we?”
“I have always accounted for what I have done!” Inanna wrapped her arms around her body, which grew colder by the second.
“Stealing the light of the stars like they’re jewels? Regaling yourself in the banner of glory, and distancing yourself from the realities of the wars you cause? Sending the Bull of Heaven down to destroy the world when the warrior Gilgamesh wouldn’t lie in your bed? How tempestuous of you, sister. How many people died for that? They die, and their souls come here, and everyone mourns my dominion over the dead. So who really got blamed?”
Inanna had no words to defend herself from the accusation. There were none to offer, for they rang true.
The galla seethed in anticipation, eager to tear her flesh.
Ereshkigal flatted her hands by her sides. “Easy, my children. Your time will come.”
The galla reluctantly scurried back as Ereshkigal paced in a circle around her sister. “You, my dear, will know darkness and ash. I will keep you here with me.”
“I have a secret to share with you.” Ereshkigal’s sing-song whisper made the hair on the back of her neck stand. “Would you like to know what it is?”
Inanna shook, fixated on her sister’s sharp teeth, and her armor that looked like the exoskeleton of a scorpion. “Yes.”
“You will be the bringer of destruction. Our beloved father’s empire will fall because of the sons you bear. Your grandson’s most…unholy of actions will see Akkad buried so deep and so thoroughly that future generations of man will think the city is a myth. Your pride and arrogance will infuse them and drive them to utter destruction.”
“You lie! You lie!” Inanna screamed.
The voice in the darkness was too familiar. Enheduanna sat up in her bed, clutching her sweaty linens. “Shalaya?”
“You’re making enough noise to summon the army! All over a nightmare. Take some water and go to sleep.”
The hiss of her sister’s voice conjured the face of Neti and Enheduanna trembled. That was no dream. I must tell father before we go through with this.
It was a long and sleepless night.
“Mother, Shalaya is going to declare war on us,” Enheduanna said as she entered the chambers where her parents were quartered.
Queen Naqia gave her a bemused look. “Now what makes you say that?”
“I had a vision last night. It was the story of Inanna’s descent to the Netherworld, but it was us—our family, and she threatened me! Why…your expression. You know!”
“It’s to be expected. I had a similar dream, as did your father. As we said before, Kutha is a city that conjures dark truths. It’s not easy to be connected to the land of ash, but your sister has the strength to represent it as its high priestess.”
“She’s furious with me.”
Naqia’s sigh was that of a mother who had heard the same argument countless times. “And why shouldn’t she be? You could have taken the time to introduce her yesterday. After all, she’s their new high priestess.”
“But isn’t that father’s job?”
“He brought you forward as the first high priestess of the empire; you know this. It’s your role to manage the affairs of the religious administration, not his. He was disappointed you took all the attention for yourself.” Naqia straightened the central full moon pendant on Enheduanna’s necklace. “While it’s your job to induct her to the temple today, be mindful of how she is to be seen. These are her people now. You must acknowledge her as the high priestess, not your little sister. Or war will indeed come.” A smirk played on her upturned lips.
Enheduanna ground her teeth. “How about I stay in and write hymns instead?”
“Now, don’t pout so. Soon you’ll be back in Ur, and in your own temple.” Naqia kissed her on the forehead. “Now let’s prepare, shall we?”
The smell of bread baking and herbed lamb roasting wafted throughout the city. All of the residents enjoyed an open banquet, courtesy of the treasuries of Sargon and the elder council of Kutha. The day was spent gathered around the ziggurat, feasting and delighting in songs. Residents of all ages and stations came to pay tribute to Sargon the Great and welcome him. A gracious king, Sargon traded pleasantries with one and all. Enheduanna sang and presented Shalaya to her people with perfect grace.
With evening’s approach, the sky began to dim. Sky-watchers from the temple made the journey from the top levels of the ziggurat, eager to share the news. “It’s time,” they said.
Sargon stood like the proud father of a bride, holding Shalaya’s hand. “I thank you for your gracious and generous welcome to your city, and look forward to many prosperous years of building our trade across the empire. It is bittersweet for me to leave my daughters so far from home, but I am glad that they have been accepted with such love in their new cities. With Enheduanna, High Priestess of Nanna in Ur, and now Shalaya, High Priestess to Nergal here in Kutha, my family has been sundered, but for the best of reasons. The children’s laughter and play is but a memory for me, one I carry close to my heart forevermore. We have followed the same path as Inanna in her journey to the Netherworld, to Kur, Land of Ash and home of the Dark City. We followed the morning star, as she did, and emerged as the evening star. The cycle is complete. I am fortunate to have such daughters, once for the light of the moon, and one of the dark moon—a perfect complement for the morning star and evening star. We are truly blessed by the gods, and I am grateful to you for taking Shalaya into your home. And now, this being her ceremony, I bid her a fruitful marriage to Nergal. May she sing the hymns of Kutha for many long years.” He kissed his daughter’s hand, and she rose to leave her family.
The temple administrators came to escort her to the sacred chamber. The star-watchers followed behind. Shalaya gazed up at her new home with a sense of wonder. The slow ascent was accompanied by prayer, incense, and her own deep meditation. At the top of the ziggurat, she viewed her chambers for the first time. A series of wall hangings depicted Ereshkigal’s seduction of Nergal and their subsequent marriage. Over her bed was a wall hanging of them on their thrones. Shalaya fought the urge to rush to the bed and revel in its comfort. It had been a long day, and she was eager to begin her new life. But it was not yet time. Not until the star-watchers gave the signal.
Shalaya bathed in the divine fragrance of dragon’s blood. So many years of watching Eheduanna prepare for the sacred ritual, and finally it was her turn. Just as she donned the robe, one of the servants entered. She was thin with long straight black hair. She averted her eyes. “Do you have everything you need, High Priestess?”
“I do, thank you. Is it time?”
The girl with the black hair nodded. “We shall take our leave. The star-watchers say the evening star illuminates the shadow of the moon. May the gods bless your marriage.”
“Thank you—your name is?”
Shalaya grinned and held her hands. “Thank you, Kiru. I look forward to working alongside you in our temple.”
The girl’s eyes widened at the overly familiar gesture, and bit back a smile. She left the room without a word, glancing over her shoulder, no longer able to contain her joy.
I will rule differently, Shalaya thought. The Land of Ash takes all souls into her arms.
Finally alone, she went to the balcony overlooking the city. All of Kutha circled around the temple. Quadrants of districts were within the concentric rings, divided by spokes. The rings closest to the ziggurat were top temple officials and nobles, followed by merchants and laborers, all the way out to the guards who monitored the watchtowers along the walls of the city. Shalaya marveled at the uniform structure of so many city-states in the empire. With each ziggurat was a home for a different god in the pantheon.
The city was quiet. Each resident anticipated the visitation of their patron deity, but none so much as Shalaya. The breeze cooled her skin. She lost herself in the stars, finding shapes beyond the ones she was taught as a child. She stared at the glittering stars until the air itself shifted.
Before her stood Nergal. He was tall, his eyes like smoldering embers. His muscular form was covered by little in the way of vestments. Shalaya stood breathless.
“You look surprised to see me,” he said. His voice was gravelly, yet mellifluous.
“So many years I’ve waited for this; it’s hard to believe it’s actually happening.” She took a step back and turned to glance about the room. She thought of offering him something—water, beer, dates—but it seemed so trifling.
His smile was kind. “Young, beautiful mortals.” It was a wistful comment.
His finger traced the side of her face down over her jawline. “You resemble her.”
“Yes. Quite so. She’d have great appreciation for her representative on Earth.”
Shalaya looked to the floor, noticing the mosaic work. A trim of entwined dragons bordered the sacred chamber. “I have a question, if I may.”
His eyebrows arched and he opened his hands in silent consent.
“We had a dream last night of Inanna’s descent to Kur. I was Queen Ereshkigal. I told Inanna, who was my sister Enheduanna, that her grandson would destroy the empire. Is that true?”
His smile compressed into a thin line. “The most powerful of priestesses are the best oracles. I cannot say it is false, but that is no pillow talk for our nuptial ceremony, don’t you think?”
“I suppose not,” she said with a rueful grin.
“There are many paths and they can change, but not necessarily due to your influence. An oracle sees, but cannot control. Do not worry about the mistakes of future generations. Especially not on this night.”
His arms enfolded her and she didn’t remember being put on the bed. The sudden vulnerability dissipated in a passion that very few understood, and she embraced it with the darkness that accepted all.
Later the evening star hovered in the center of the open balcony, the first hymn to the city crept into her sleepy mind. With Nergal’s arm still around her, she lay against him and let the words flow over her, each one a leaf blowing in the gentle breeze.
“I will descend to the Netherworld,
after I have walked to the mountain.
I will claim my king
And he will claim me
In the realm we rule
Where the hearth has warmed us
Where the feasts are eternal
An oblivion that embraces all
And is the only place
My heart has ever known.”
[Christine Frost graduated from UMass Boston in 1994, and received a certificate in communications and publishing and a master’s degree in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. Having worked as a beer and mead brewer and an international sales assistant for a record label, she eventually found her career in the world of words, becoming a communications manager and editor, writer of historical fiction, and teaching assistant for college-level literature courses. She’s the author of three novels: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love, Dark Lady of Doona, and Whiskey and Rue; a novelette, Captured Possessions; and the short story “Moonfall” appears in the Shadows of a Fading World anthology. She’s happily ensconced in a place overcrowded with books in the Boston area with her husband. Her website is http://www.herravendomain.com/]
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