“Princess! Quick! Father!”
Tall’s voice echoed down the stone hallway. My tutor stopped mid-speech and glared down his nose at me.
“It would seem Father has summoned me,” I said.
I rose from my cushion on the stone floor, inelegant as my sandals tangled in my tunic, sending me pitching forward into my tutor’s arms. He thrust me back away from him, swift to move lest anyone see me in his embrace and came to the wrong conclusion. Tall’s voice retreated down the hallway as he passed our chamber.
“Tall,” I called after him. “I am here.”
He ran back to me.
“Quick!” He flapped his hands near his face to express the urgency of the summons. “Chaos! Uproar!”
“Come on then,” I said. “You can tell me on the way.”
“Father!” he said, trotting beside me as I strode down the hallway.
If he had any other name, Tall had long forgotten it. Most people regarded him as a simpleton and he was often the butt of jokes, but to me it seemed his mind was no less sharp than mine. He just didn’t have the ability to express his thoughts in anything more than single words. However, once I became accustomed to his manner of speaking, I found I could understand him perfectly well.
“Do you know why Father has summoned me?” I asked.
His hands flapped again, the thing he always did when he was anxious.
“Oh dear, is she injured?”
My older sister, Ishtar, was the perfect daughter. The beautiful one. The one who walked elegantly and sang sweetly and always had a witty comment ready. Our father thought she was practically the incarnation of the goddess Ishtar for whom she was named, she was so lovely. I, on the other hand, was clumsy and graceless, my face was plain, I couldn’t sing to save my life, and I was more interested in learning about history and politics than trading clever banter with potential suitors. I was a constant disappointment to our father who had hoped for two perfect daughters to marry off.
Although Ishtar was only fifteen years old, Father had already arranged a marriage for her. Tomorrow she would leave for Egypt, sailing away with a flotilla of ships bearing gifts for her intended husband. She was to marry Pharaoh and be his queen. Any excitement I might have felt for her was marred by my sadness at knowing I would never see her again.
As for me, our father had yet to negotiate a suitable marriage, even though I was only a year younger than Ishtar. It seemed no man wanted me for his wife, although I was a princess and daughter of the Great and Mighty Marduk-apla-iddina of Babylon.
We reached Father’s audience chamber and Tall stopped at the door, his hands flapping.
“Here!” he said.
“It is all right. You don’t have to come in with me.”
“Yes, yes, I will be perfectly safe.”
Sometimes Tall couldn’t find the right word to express himself. I doubted he thought I would be in danger within Father’s audience chamber, but perhaps he thought I would be afraid without him. Whatever had happened must be dire indeed.
“Wait here for me.” I patted his arm, checked my tunic hung neatly, and entered the chamber.
Even if Tall hadn’t warned me, I would have known something was wrong. There were fewer people in here than usual, just Father’s personal guards who surrounded his throne as always, his most favoured administrator, and a handful of servants. There were no other administrators or scribes, messenger boys or folk who had brought a case for Father’s adjudication.
Ishtar knelt in front of Father, her forehead pressed to the mosaic tiles. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. Father sat with his arms crossed and a look of distinct displeasure on his face. Even in his aggravation, he still sat with his back straight and his head high. His curly black beard was immaculately groomed as always. Anyone who saw him would know he was an important man, even if they didn’t recognise him as their king. Father’s gaze shot straight to me.
“Kassaya,” he said. “You took your time.”
“Father, I apologise if I kept you waiting. I was at a lesson with my tutor. I came as soon as Tall found me.”
I knelt and pressed my forehead to the floor like Ishtar. The tiles were cool and smooth, variegated shades of purple which spread out like a sun from Father’s throne.
“I sent twelve servants in search of you,” Father said. “Why is it always the idiot who is the only one able to locate you?”
I said nothing. I knew Father well enough to know the words were more observation than question. Beside me, Ishtar still sobbed quietly.
“Kassaya, you may rise,” Father said.
I held my tunic away from my sandals as I got to my feet. Father did not seem to be in a mood that would tolerate me tripping and sprawling in front of his throne. Ishtar stayed where she was, her forehead pressed to the floor. She would not dare to rise until Father bid her.
“As you know,” Father said, “your sister was supposed to depart for Egypt tomorrow.”
I glanced down at Ishtar’s shaking shoulders. Supposed to depart? Had Pharaoh changed his mind about taking a princess of Babylon as his queen? Had he died or fallen grievously ill?
“Your sister, it seems, had no intention of obeying my wishes,” Father said.
I blinked in surprise, but managed to keep my mouth shut. This was not the time for questions. Father would tell me what had happened, or he wouldn’t and I would get it out of Ishtar later.
“She has gone and gotten herself with child.” Father’s voice was cold.
Ishtar had a secret lover? Why would she risk the alliance with Egypt for a dalliance with a man she would never see again and who would likely forget her as soon as she sailed away? A chill washed over me as I realised the implication for myself.
Father could hardly send a pregnant bride to Pharaoh.
Nor would he risk offending Babylon’s most powerful ally by breaking an agreement already made.
If Ishtar could not go to Egypt, another daughter of Marduk-apla-iddina would be sent in her place.
Marduk-apla-iddina had five sons, but he had only one other daughter.
“You depart at dawn,” Father said. “Go prepare yourself. The maids who were intended to accompany your sister will go with you. My administrator will attend you in your bedchamber shortly to receive a list of anyone else you wish to take. All other arrangements remain unchanged. ”
Ishtar sobbed even harder. The loss of her favourite maids would be a bitter blow to her. She had personally selected each of the women who attended to her and sometimes I felt she loved them better than she loved me.
I swallowed down my dismay and bowed low, then left before any unwise words could escape my mouth. Father was not the sort of man one argued with. Once he had made a proclamation — whatever it was — obedience was the only option.
Tall was gone when I exited the audience chamber. Perhaps a guard found him lingering in the hallway and chased him away. I hurried to my bedchamber, seeing nothing of the long hallways lined with potted plants, their walls tastefully decorated with frescoes from the finest artists. I reached my chamber just in time to close the door before a tear rolled down my cheeks. I scrubbed it away and sniffled. I would not cry. Father hadn’t raised me to snivel. This was what he required of me and I would do my duty with my head held high. I, Kassaya, daughter of Marduk-apla-iddina, would sail to Egypt and marry Pharaoh. I would be his queen.
The door opened and my mother slipped inside.
“Kassaya,” she said and held out her arms to me.
My resolve not to cry crumbled and I flung myself into her arms. I would never see my mother again. Egypt was a long way from Babylon and even if Pharaoh took me with him when he travelled to war, it was unlikely I would ever come here. After all, my marriage was intended to prevent any possibility of war with the Egyptians. I was the payment to strengthen our alliance. The sacrifice of my happiness would be of little consequence in Father’s opinion.
As my tears abated, Mother brushed a hair from my cheek. She was as composed as ever. Always the perfect queen, Mother wouldn’t shed a tear of regret over one of Father’s rulings, even in private.
“I expected to lose a daughter tomorrow,” she said. “I suppose it hardly matters which one it is.”
My tears returned at her words.
“You must do your father proud, my child,” Mother said. “Show Pharaoh what the women of Babylon are made of. Do not cry or plead or disobey him. Give him as many sons as you can and do it with a smile on your face. Show Pharaoh that Babylon is a strong and worthy ally. And always remember, dear child, that one day a son of a princess of Babylon will be Pharaoh of Egypt.”
I could hardly ask what she knew about Ishtar’s pregnancy after such a speech. Surely Ishtar had not meant to disobey Father. Surely her pregnancy was an accident.
Mother patted my cheek and smiled at me.
“Farewell, Daughter,” she said.
She left quickly, but not before I saw her eyes fill with tears. So it seemed Mother did cry, even if she pretended to be unbothered by Father’s decision.
The door closed and my tears came again. I hastily wiped them away in case Mother came back. Show Pharaoh that Babylon is a strong and worthy ally, she had said. And I would be queen. That was something I never expected. It was always Ishtar who was supposed to be queen of somewhere. We both grew up knowing that as the oldest and prettiest daughter, she would make the most favourable marriage. But now she would stay here in Babylon and it was me who would travel over the seas to be a queen.
I went to the window and looked out at the view I would never again see. Dur-Kurigalzu — my father’s stronghold — sprawled before me. Beyond that lay Babylon. To my right, just visible at the edge of my window, stood the great temple, its stepped sides rising high into the sky, casting welcome shade over the buildings that crouched at its base. Over it all stretched an endless blue sky, the sun a fierce ball of flame that teased the horizon. A gentle breeze kissed my cheeks, drying the tears I hadn’t noticed were falling again. Babylon, city of my birth, and the place I had never thought to leave. A knock sounded on the door and I wiped my eyes.
“Enter,” I called.
The door opened and Father’s administrator came in, followed by two scribes. The administrator was a short, stocky man with a black beard that fell to halfway down his chest. He gave me a brief bow, then gestured for the scribes to set up their writing stations. The two men dropped to their knees and positioned their little wooden tables in front of them, on which they set reed styluses and fresh blocks of wet clay.
“Your Father instructs you to name those you wish to accompany you,” the administrator said.
He waited, clearly expecting me to have already decided. My mind whirled. This decision needed careful thought, but I couldn’t send the man back to Father without the list he expected.
“Tall,” I said. I was his only friend and without me, he would endure nothing but scorn and mockery. “Also Half.”
Half was so named because he stood barely half as high as a man. Folk in the palace were cruel to those who were different. Some called him Halfwit and joked they would need two of him to make a whole man, even though like Tall, Half’s mind was as sharp as anyones. I wondered sometimes what folk said of me behind my back, given my tendency to befriend those who were considered outcasts.
“Your tutor?” the administrator asked as the scribes pressed their reeds into the soft clay to make the necessary cuneiform symbols to record my words.
I hesitated. The man was a valuable source of information about politics, history and geography, but he was also scathing towards both Tall and Half. The people I took with me should be those who would be allies. Friends in a foreign land. I could not see my tutor becoming my friend.
“No,” I said. “But find me someone who speaks Egyptian and who is knowledgable in their history and customs. A woman if possible.”
Ishtar had been tutored in the Egyptian language far more extensively than I had. I supposed Father had long planned her grand marriage would be to Pharaoh. I could greet an Egyptian in their own speech and if they spoke slowly enough I could understand some of what they said. But if I was to be queen, I needed fluency in their language and I wanted to understand the people I would rule over. I would pass the weeks of the journey to Egypt by learning everything I could.
“Do you wish any of your maids to accompany you?” the administrator asked. “Your father suggests they transfer to your sister since hers will be travelling with you.”
From the way he worded it, I understood Father had already made the decision.
“That will be satisfactory,” I said.
I wouldn’t be sorry to leave behind those chattering gossips. I fled their intrusion as much as possible, dressing myself early before they arrived and pretending I had lessons even when I didn’t to give me a reason to escape them. Ishtar’s maids would be no better, but perhaps customs would be different in Egypt. Perhaps I would not be expected to tolerate a contingent of women who had nothing to do other than fix my face, arrange my hair, and gossip about everything they saw. Once I was queen, I wouldn’t have time for such things anyway.
The administrator waited, clearly expecting me to name others. What would Father do if I requested Ishtar to accompany me? Since it was supposed to be she who went, why shouldn’t I ask for her? She could be the one to teach me Egyptian. But antagonising Father now, just before I left forever, served no point.
Should I request guards? No, Father would send a squadron, at least, with me. He wouldn’t send his daughter all the way across the world without men to protect her.
“That will be sufficient,” I said.
The administrator barely concealed his surprise as he bowed and left. How many people had he expected me to name? Other than Tall and Half, there was nobody else I considered a friend. There were plenty of girls my age around the palace while I was growing up, but they were always too aware that I was a princess and they weren’t. I never had a chance to grow close to any of them and it never bothered me since I had Ishtar as both sister and friend. Only it seemed I didn’t know her as well as I thought.
Ishtar’s three maids arrived shortly afterwards, sent to help pack my things. They were of little use, too busy sobbing and seemingly gasping for air with the shock of being parted from their beloved mistress. I ignored their hysterics and packed those things I couldn’t bear to leave behind: a few favourite jewels, my hairbrush with the handle carved from the ivory of a beast I had been told was almost as big as the Great Temple, a delicate creamy coloured shell brought from Syria by my Father when I was a child, and a scarf embroidered for me by Ishtar. Her needlework was exquisite and far finer than mine. I tried, but my stitches were never straight and the fabric always sat unevenly.
That was everything which was precious to me. Everything that would cause me sorrow to be parted from. I supposed when I was queen whatever I needed would be provided for me, but these small treasures would remind me of where I came from.
Ishtar slipped into my chamber later that evening as I lay sleepless. She climbed into my bed and curled up against my back, just like she used to when we were children. Her body shook as she sobbed.
“Sister, I am sorry,” she said. “But I couldn’t bear to go.”
“Who is the father?” My voice was colder than I intended, but it was too late to take back the words. “Do you love him?”
“He was a means to an end.”
I pulled away and sat up so I could face her.
“You deliberately got yourself with child?”
Surely I had misunderstood. She was supposed to be queen. Most girls would give their left hand for such an opportunity. Not me, though. To me, it seemed a fate little worse than death.
Ishtar sobbed harder.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said when her tears abated. In the moonlight streaming through my open window, I could see her perfect face was swollen from crying. It hardly marred her beauty. “To leave Babylon and know I would never return? To leave everything and everyone I have ever known?”
“Your maids were to go with you.”
“But I would never see Mother again, or Father. Or you.”
Was I truly her last thought? We were sisters. I had always thought we loved each other. But she contrived a scheme to get herself released, knowing it was me who would have to go.
“And now it is I who will never return to Babylon,” I said. “And you will still never see me again.”
I didn’t try to hide the bitterness in my voice. She had done this deliberately. Trapped me in a life she knew I never wanted. I would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life in Father’s palace, married to whichever noble man he chose for me and passing my days here in Babylon, with access to the finest tutors and archives in the world and all the wisdom people had ever known. How much I could have learned with all the years that were ahead of me. Now I would be queen and would likely never have time to learn anything ever again.
Ishtar sobbed grievously at my displeasure and I was too angry to soothe her.
“You should return to your own chamber,” I said. “I need to sleep. I have a long journey tomorrow.”
As the door closed quietly behind her, I knew I would never see my sister again.
I was woken at dawn the next day when the administrator bustled into my chamber, followed by Ishtar’s three maids and a full dozen servants. While the maids made up my face and arranged my hair, the administrator inspected each item in my chamber and directed the servants as to what was to be taken to the ships.
I studied my chamber as the maids worked on me, trying to see it with the administrator’s eyes. Someone had opened the wooden shutters to let in the light and the air, which was still fresh in these early hours before the humidity set in. Fine tapestries on the walls and thick rugs for my feet. A low bed draped with netting to keep the insects off me at night. Several chests for my clothes, a stool to sit on while maids attended to me. The furniture was unchanged from my childhood and a little battered now, but it was well made.
Despite the the fineness of my furniture, there was little the administrator deemed worthy of being sent with me, not even most of my clothing. He did instruct the servants to take the small chest I had packed myself, although he frowned hard at me for asking. He finished far too soon to have fairly evaluated my possessions. The servants scurried after him as he left and I was finally alone with the three maids.
The women Ishtar chose to attend her all looked much alike and I could barely tell one from another. I didn’t know what any of their birth names were. It amused my sister, who was named for a goddess herself, to call her maids by the names of other goddesses. So every woman who served her was swiftly given a new name and forbidden from ever using her old name again.
They dressed me in an elaborate purple tunic I had never seen before. I presumed it had been made for Ishtar, probably worked on by a team of sewers for the last several months to have it ready for her departure. Made to Ishtar’s measurements, it was a little too big in the chest and too short at the hem. The maids clucked and tutted at that, but there was no time for any adjustments.
At last I was ready, with my face painted to their satisfaction and my hair pinned up on my head, threaded with silver bells and golden beads. It all took much longer than it should have since they frequently had to stop and compose themselves.
“Do you have any possessions of your own you wish to bring?” I asked them.
All three began sobbing again. At length, one of them managed to speak.
“We were permitted to take one chest each. Our things were already sent to the ships yesterday. Before we knew.”
She collapsed into tears again. One of the others wrapped her arms around her and they cried on each other’s shoulders. I barely managed to restrain my sigh. Please Marduk, don’t let them cry like this all the way to Egypt.
“I suppose it is time to leave then,” I said.
Too busy with their sobbing, none of the women even acknowledged me.
“That is enough,” I said. “Dry your tears. You are supposed to attend me and you cannot do that if you spend all day crying. Remember, you are women of Babylon. Subjects of the Great and Mighty Marduk-apla-iddina. It is time you acted like it.”
Two of the women gaped at me. Clearly Ishtar had never spoken so sternly to them. But the third dried her tears with her sleeve and straightened her shoulders.
“Of course, Princess.” Her voice wobbled, but at least she was trying. “If you are ready to leave, transport awaits you at the main entrance.”
“Let’s go then.”
With one last look around the chamber that had been mine ever since I was old enough to move out of the nursery, I left. My fingers touched the doorframe as I passed through it, lingering on the hip-height notch, a memory of childhood clumsiness. The three women followed me, two still sobbing.
“You heard her,” the same woman said. “Wipe away your tears. We are women of Babylon and the personal maids of the future queen of Egypt.”
I cast a glance at her over my shoulder.
“What is your name?” I asked.
Tiamat, at least, I should be able to tell apart from the others, or I could as long as she was the only one not crying. The other two still struggled to get their sobs under control. I shot them each a sharp look and they swiftly wiped away their tears. With my head held high, I made my way to the main entrance.
I heard the noise long before I reached the doors, even though they still stood closed. Shouting and cheering almost drowned out the lutes, pipes and drums.
“What in Marduk’s name is going on out there?” I spoke to myself and didn’t expect any of the women to have an answer.
“A parade, Princess,” Tiamat said. “In your honour. They are to escort you to the ships.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, preparing myself. I should have known my escort wouldn’t be merely a few guards and my newly acquired maids. As the doors opened, the noise deafened me.
Folk filled the entire street outside. Musicians and dancers performed for the crowd’s entertainment. Enterprising cooks had set up makeshift stalls along the side of the road and the aroma of roasting meats and fresh bread made my stomach growl. A great cry rose from the crowd as they spotted me standing at the doors. From behind me came Tiamat’s voice.
“Well, I suppose there is nothing to be done but to keep moving forward,” she said.
I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders. I was a princess of Babylon, and I would make my king proud.
I raised my hand in acknowledgement and the crowd roared. Did they know it was Ishtar who was supposed to depart today, or did one daughter of Marduk-apla-iddina look much like another to them? With another deep breath, I squared my shoulders, held up my tunic a little so I wouldn’t trip, and very carefully descended the steps. A pair of palanquin waited, each with a full dozen slaves to bear them. I supposed one was for me and the other for my maids. It was only when I reached the bottom that I saw my father.
His throne was set on a raised platform off to the side of the steps. I lowered myself to kneel before him, my tunic protected by the rug that had been placed there for precisely this purpose. I pressed my forehead to the ground and waited. The crowd quietened, although folk still shuffled their feet as they tried to secure a better view. Children whispered, a baby cried. Somewhere further away, a dog barked, a rooster crowed.
“Rise, Kassaya, Princess of Babylon.” My father’s voice was formal, giving no hint of how he felt at farewelling his youngest daughter.
I got up slowly, careful not to trip on my hem. Today, of all days, I would not embarrass myself.
“Today we farewell our daughter.” My father’s voice was pitched to carry and the crowd quietened as they strained to hear. “It gives us great pride to know our daughter will marry Pharaoh. We bid you to be an obedient wife and to give Pharaoh many sons. We instruct you to always advocate for the benefit of Babylon and to ensure our alliance with Egypt grows ever stronger. We send you to our best and most favoured ally, and we expect you to always be a shining example of a Babylonian woman.”
Beside Father’s dais, scribes recorded his words on their clay tablets. A copy of Father’s speech would be sent with me to be presented to Pharaoh. Other copies would be deposited in the archives, safeguarded for all prosperity so the generations who followed would know what Marduk-apla-iddina said as he sent his youngest daughter to Egypt.
I bowed low from my waist and touched my fingers to my lips as a sign of respect for my king. I didn’t speak. Marduk-apla-iddina expected no response from me. He expected only obedience.
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