The King of Kings was dying. This in itself was no great surprise, as dying was what old men generally did. And had the king been any other old man, his dying might have caused no great disturbance. But he was no ordinary old man. He was the Emperor of the World, Lord of the Four Zones; and rumors of his illness fueled a whispered panic throughout the palace complex.
“Twin sons,” Nura overheard some baron mutter from the other side of a topiary, as she slipped through one of the palace gardens.
The baron hadn’t the slightest idea she was there, and she paused for a moment to listen.
“None of us says the thing we all know is true,” the baron was saying. “He has twin sons. No chance of a clean succession. Whichever son he appoints, the other will challenge.”
“Fifty years of peace and profit, and now this,” another voice sighed. “We’ll have a grand old civil war, like in the old days.”
“Will you back us, then, when the time comes?” asked the first voice.
“What’s the offer?” said the other. “I assume we’re talking about a council post, at the very–” He paused. “Wait. Do you hear that?”
By the time they peered through the topiary, she was gone, strolling with calculated casualness next to the fish pond a good distance away. But that had been close.
Now she padded down a wide hallway, toward a doorway flanked by two stone statues of an ancient Sumerian God — or Gods? — with the stern bearded faces and torsos of men, but the tails and fins of fish. Strange old Gods, she thought. So utterly unlike the one true God, Ashur.
Two spearmen in full ironscale armor stood guard in front of the statues, on either side of the door. They nodded and tipped their spears aside to let her pass.
Through that arched doorway, down a narrower series of hallways, which led to the palace’s maze of inner chambers — which led, ultimately, to the king’s bedroom. She walked briskly under the glow of flickering torches, past intricate mosaics of polished stone, and painted bas-reliefs of the king plunging his holy spear down the throats of lions and foreigners and rebellious tribal chiefs.
As she turned a corner, she passed two men she barely knew — a minor lord of some sort, all coiffed curls and embroidered robes; and a plump bald-headed eunuch in a simple toga. The men were whispering intently, their faces cast in shadow by the torches. They went silent as they noticed her; eyed her carefully as she hurried by. As she slipped out of hearing range, she heard the nobleman say, “That one’s his latest favorite, isn’t she? We’ll have to–”
But she didn’t hear the rest, because now she’d turned down a narrower hallway, its walls adorned with natural scenes of birds and fishes among the reeds of some river. At the end of this hallway was a heavy locked wooden door.
Nura knocked twice, then three times, then once, then twice again.
The door opened. A slave-girl bowed and smiled as Nura passed through, then closed and bolted the thick door behind her.
The inner chambers smelled of sandalwood and attar, whose smoke drifted in lazy strands up from braziers in the corners, amid the soft light of oil lamps, so much smoother and steadier than that of the torches in the outer hallways. Here there were no sculptures of battle — only mosaics of flowers and trees, and wall-sized linen tapestries embroidered in gold thread. Some harpist in a nearby chamber plucked out a hymn to Ishtar, each ringing note as languid as the smoke and lamplight.
No minor barons haunting these cozier rooms, thank the Gods. A few eunuchs shuffling quietly by; high-born women and their retinues reclining on enormous cushions, plucking figs and grapes and baked delicacies from gold platters. Almond-skinned Egyptian ladies with black-traced eyelids; dark-haired Urartians; pale freckled Lydians; narrow-eyed Cimmerians tattooed in blue — princesses and chieftains’ daughters dragged from the farthest reaches of the world, like the fine Phrygian wine in the gold cups and the plump Arabian dates they nibbled — an empire in miniature, existing at the World-King’s whim and pleasure.
Nura passed through these chambers quietly, attracting little notice, aside from a few jealous stares from some women in the baths. She supposed she would’ve felt the same in their position. There they sat, naked in the wine-stained water, waiting for a call from the king, turning to watch her hurry to his quarters.
After the baths, Nura arrived in a large room where the royal children played on wood horses and dolls, or chased wildly after each other, or after balls and hoops and other toys, in games of their own invention. Nura dodged through the sport-field, then arrived at the outer foyer of the king’s inner chambers.
The room stood mostly bare, aside from two small Egyptian-style chairs near the great inner door, and great wall carvings of the King-as-High-Priest, offering incense and herbs to the God Ashur and the Goddess Ishtar. Two helmeted guards stood at attention to either side of the door, iron-tipped spears upraised.
Nura approached them and spoke a password. One of them asked her a question in response, to which she responded with the second password. Eyeing her carefully, though she knew he’d seen her before, the guard stood aside, and the two guards together unbolted and heaved open the heavy wooden door.
The King’s chambers dwarfed every other room in the palace complex, aside from the throne room itself. The floor was covered in embroidered rugs of the finest Egyptian linen, and the skins of lions and other great furry beasts. A vast table, long enough for a banquet, had been set with baked pheasants and sides of beef, and towers of exotic fruits and sweets; but most of it sat untouched, as did the great writing-desk with its stacks of scrolls and clay tablets. At the far end of the room — so far it almost looked small — sprawled the Great King’s bed, a mountain of wine-colored cushions and golden pillows, draped in soft ornate curtains from the carved cedar posts at its corners.
And on that bed, his head propped up by cushions and pillows, lay the king.
Now Nura bowed low, into her knees, forehead touching the rugs; but the King was already saying, “Stop that, Nura.”
“I beg your forgiveness, O Perfect One,” she whispered, approaching the bed without looking up.
“Nura,” he said, “If you don’t stop that this instant, I shall hurl this pillow at you.”
“Can you score a hit from that angle?” she asked, a smile spreading across her face.
“You dare question my aim?”
“I am too afraid to find out, My Lord,” she said, and now she plumped down beside him on the bed, setting off an avalanche of cushions and pillows, both of them laughing and pulling each other close and planting kisses on each others’ heads and necks.
The king’s face was wrinkled, and his vast curls of hair and beard were dyed black to hide the whiteness that crept up from their roots — but his dark eyes, so dark they were almost black, still gazed at her with a young man’s sharpness.
She’d heard tales of those sharp eyes from some of the old generals. Eyes that could stare right into the eyes of a rebellious chieftain and look inside of that man and see every detail of his plans, and stay locked right on that man’s eyes as the king commanded, Let this man and his people be flayed and crucified. Eyes that could gaze into the eyes of wild lions without wavering, so that the lions would flinch for a moment, and in that moment the king would plunge his spear straight down the lion’s throat.
Nura wasn’t sure how many of these stories she believed; but here, looking into those eyes for herself, she understood the feeling that must have inspired them — that sense that the king knew everything about you just by looking into your eyes, and through them. Maybe that was why he trusted her.
“You are frightened, my love,” said the King.
“Not of you,” she said.