Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

 

Against the Tide of Years

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>

 


Chapter 8

February, Year 9 AE

"The King comes! Eat dirt before shar kibrat 'arbaim, the King of the Four Quarters of the Earth! King of Sumer and Akkad, King of Kar-Duniash, King of Babylon, King of the Universe, Ensi of Marduk..."

The great audience hall of Ur was tense, dense-packed with robed clerks, priests in old-style wraps that left one shoulder bare, soldiers in scale corselets and crested helmets, their beards freshly oiled and curled. The hot still air smelled of that perfumed oil, of incense, sweat, metal, fear. Light from the small high windows stabbed into the gloom hot and bright, breaking off the colors of tapestries and murals that showed the King's ancestors at war, at the hunt, making sacrifice to the gods. Save for the ever-watchful Royal guard, all went down on their bellies as the King entered.

"... Shagarakti-Shuriash, son of Kudur-Enlil, son of Kadashman-Enlil, descendant of the Kings who were before the Kings, unto whom the Gods have given rule! La sanan, sa mahira la isu! The King who has no rival! O King, live forever!"

Shagarakti-Shuriash seated himself and made a sign. The crowd rose, standing with folded hands and downcast eyes as was seemly.

"Let the King's servant Kidin-Ninurta approach! Let the King's servant Arad-Samas approach!"

Kidin-Ninurta rose, casting a single burning glance at his rival as they prostrated themselves before the throne. When they rose, he found himself under the King's gaze.

Shagarakti-Shuriash was a man in his early middle years, with gray in his curled beard; he was perhaps a little lighter of skin and more hawkish of feature than his average subject, legacy of the Kassite hillmen and Mitannian princesses among his ancestors. His body was stocky and thick with the muscle of a hunter and warrior, beginning to grow at the waist but at ease in the gorgeous embroidered linen of his robe. Gray-streaked black hair was clubbed at the base of his head with gold wire, and confined around his brows with a circlet of gold shaped like a city wall.

"I have come a long way from Babylon," he said. This had better be worth my time, came unspoken afterwards.

The brown eyes were hard and weary; he had been on the throne for only three years in his own right, but much of the toil of kingship had been his during the long reigns of his father and grandfather, campaigning in the north and east.

"Let the King's overseer of trade with Dilmun and Meluhha speak. Let him speak of the new foreigners."

"Oh King, my lord, your servant Kidin-Ninurta prays that the Gods grant you long life and health! Your servant has met with the strangers from the south. Your servant has spoken with the strangers from the south. They approach from the south, in great ships; from the lands of Dilmun and Meluhha they approach. From the days of the Kings your fathers all such affairs have been the province of my office; so decreed the Kings who were before the King."

Arad-Samas was swelling like a frog with the need to speak. When the King granted permission he burst out:

"O King, my lord, may the Gods, the great Gods, the mighty Gods make your days many in the land! From the time of the Kings your fathers, diplomatic correspondence has gone through my office. Letters with the Kings your brothers of Assyria, of Hatti-land, of Egypt, of Elam, have passed through my office. It is my task for the King to --"

"The strangers appear from the south, in the direction of Dilmun and Meluhha! Precedent --"

"They are not of Dilmun! They are not of Meluhha! My office --"

"Silence!"

The bureaucrats bent their heads and folded hands; the king made a quick quirk of the hand toward his personal secretary. There was a swift juggling of tablets, and the man read:

"From the King's servant Arad-Samas to the King's servant Kidin-Ninurta; health, prosperity, life. You write once more of rumors of foreigners in great ships at Dilmun. What is this to me? The Assyrians have broken the Mitanni and prowl the northern borders like wolves about a sheep-pen; Egypt and Hatti-land have made a peace and speak not of Asshur's deeds. The Elamites are hungrier than the jackal and more cunning than the serpent. I have greater concerns than the ships of merchants in the Southern Sea..."

Kidin-Ninurta smiled within himself and bowed his head. Arad-Samas had been foolish to committ himself so irrevocably, saying that the tales of the southern foreigners were of no consequence.

There are some things that should not be written down on the clay, he thought. His father had taught him that. It made it so difficult to switch positions later. He thought fondly of the ingot of pure silver that rested in the strong room of his house, the gift of the strangers. The strangers who had come to the Land and shown that they were of consequence, as he had said and Arad-Samas had denied in writing...

"Let Kidin-Ninurta speak," the King went on. "Let others withdraw."

There was a rustle and clank as most of the crowd filed out the exits; except for the guard, of course, and some of the King's advisers and wisemen, and the King's heir from the House of Succession, his son Kashtiliash.

"O King, your servant speaks. For five years merchants returning from Dilmun have spoken of strange ships."

"How, strange?"

"Huge, O King. Larger than any ship seen before, larger than a dozen ships together, and laden with goods so fine that they might have been made by magic and the arts of demons. I thought these tales to be wild -- does not every sailor returning from Dilmun speak of wonders? Yet the tales are true; the truth is wilder than the tales!"

Shuriash nodded thoughtfully. He had seen some of those goods. Glass clearer than water, or in colors impossibly vivid; small mirrors better than burnished bronze or silver; most of all, knives and tools of the northern metal, iron. Better iron than any he had ever been able to get from his 'brother' Tudhaliyas in Hattusas; a knife of it was at his waist now, with the plain bone hilt replaced with gold wire. Small things, but beyond price.

"These foreigners -- do they speak our tongue?" he said; working through interpreters was always an annoyance.

"A few speak it. Also they have one of the King's subjects with them, who they have trained as an interpreter; a merchant, Shamash-nasir-kudduru by name, son of Sin-andul, of Ur. They desire an audience with the King's person."

The king stroked his beard. "They speak of trade?" Trade was a good field for a king to till.

"They speak of trade, and of alliance, if the King's servant understands them rightly; they bring the word of their king Yhred-Koff'in." The bureaucrat sounded out the uncouth foreign syllables with care. "And they send gifts, that the heart of the King my lord may be made glad."

Shuriash's eyebrows rose. He clapped his hands together. "Let the gifts be brought forth. Let us see if these foreigners do my house honor; let us see if they are worthy of speech with the king's person."

Kidin-Ninurta bowed, smiling behind a grave face. "The gifts await the attention of the King my lord," he said. "At the karum of Ur they wait; by the waterside they are readied for his view."

Shuriash snorted. "Can they not be brought here?" The bureaucrat bowed low. "O King, they are too many..."

Shuriash's brows rose again. "This the King will see."

@@@

Like something out of Kipling, Ian Arnstein thought. Well, some sort of mutant version of ol' Rudyard.

The honor guard of Marines from the Expeditionary Force were in warm-season uniform; khaki shorts, knee-socks, boots, shirts and floppy canvas hats and cotton-drill webbing harness. The flared helmets were strapped to their packs, bayonet and bowie at waist, flintlock rifles by their sides as they stood at parade rest. Their officers were in breastplate and helmet, katanas sloped back over their shoulders, sweating in the damp heat of Ur's riverside.

Karum, Ian reminded himself, which meant not only dockside but the association of merchants... Sometimes I think my head is going to explode with all the things I have to remember.

A huge chattering crowd was held at bay by royal guardsmen, their spears jabbing a little occasionally to remind the common folk to keep their distance. The people looked much like twentieth-century Iraqis. Shorter, of course -- nearly everyone was, in this century -- a Mediterranean folk, dark of hair and eye, skin a natural olive that turned a deep bronze when exposed to this pitiless sun. The men wore kilts, or knee-length tunics, or longer robes; hats were shaped like flowerpots, sometimes spangled with bright metals. Here and there a near-naked laborer in a loincloth crouched, mouth open in awe; women were less frequent, and dressed in long gowns and head-covering shawls, a few veiled. The crowd was dun-colored, mostly the soft natural browns and grays of undyed wool. Noblemen or rich merchants stood out in gorgeous relief, white and blue and purple and saffron-gold, with rings on their fingers and necklaces of worked metal around their throats, often with attendants holding parasols over their heads.

Beyond them rose the walls of Ur... but not Ur of the Chaldees, Ian thought. It was five hundred years before the people the Bible would call Chaldeans were to enter the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. They call themselves Men of Ur, here, or Men of Kar-Duniash, or just Akkadians --

Once this had been a Sumerian city, but that was a thousand years or more before. The city walls were sixty feet high, surfaced in reddish-gray fired brick, a brooding, looming presence. Bronze gleamed there, and more on the towers that studded the wall every fifty yards or so, or reared on either side of the city gates. But brighter still was the ziggurat that soared above those walls, reaching nearly three hundred feet of step-pyramid into heaven. That was not dun-colored; it gittered, it blazed under the fierce Mesopotamian sun, it reared itself in a skin of paint and colored brick like some fantastic serpent.

"Impressive," Doreen said. "Even more impressive if it didn't smell so bad."

Ian Arnstein wrenched his mind away from a historian's dream made flesh and nodded. The sewer reek was already pretty strong; Ghu alone knew what it would be like in high summer. He looked back at the gates. Those massive bronze-sheathed leaves were swinging open, with a squeal of hinges and a squealing thunder of trumpets -- ram's horn and brass -- a braying of kettledrums and a clash of cymbols. The royal party came in style, riding in chariots amid a blaze of spearheads, dressed in gold and purple and polished bronze, behind high-stepping horses that looked like miniature Arabians. The king's chariot was positively encrusted with precious metals and lapis lazuli, and the scales of his corselet were gilded; a crown of gold encircled his helmet. The crowd parted in a wave, kneeling and then going to their bellies in the dust.

I feel like a complete mountebank, Ian thought, stepping forward gravely.

In a way he welcomed the hideous embarassment; it distracted him from the numbing consciousness that he was actually here, about to talk with a man the history he'd learned recorded as dead three thousand years and more. He'd gotten over that feeling in the other places the Islanders touched. Those were wilderness, mainly; village-and-hut level at best, in Alba. This was the ancient world he'd spent all his adult life studying. This city had been inhabited since men first learned to write on clay tablets.

Concentrate on not tripping on this goddamned dress, you fool, he told himself. At least the locals are as gaudy as we were told they'd be.

He was dressed in what their research and local informants thought would be impressive to Babylonian sensibilities; an ankle-length kaftan of crimson silk embroidered with birds and beasts in gold and silver thread, a hat plumed with bird-of-paradise feathers, and in his left hand a staff of ivory and ebony, topped by a golden eagle. Doreen was only a degree less gorgeous; even her clip-board was of rare honey-colored wood from the forests in the kloofs of Table Mountain.

As the King of Kar-Duniash dismounted from his chariot Ian made a sign with his hand.

"'ten-hut!" Colonel Hollard's voice rang out. "Shoulder... arms! Present... arms!"

The Marine platoon snapped their heels together. Thirty feet slammed down as one, and the rifles came up with a single snap and slap of hands on wood and metal. The officer's swords swept down, then up into the salute with the hilt before lips. Some of the King's guards bristled at the sudden movement, but Shuriash checked only half a pace and came on with a regal nod. The handsome, hard-faced young man beside him clapped a wary hand to the hilt of his sword, then relaxed at a murmured word from his father.

"Greetings, O King," Ian said, halting and bowing from the waist.

The eyes that scanned him were as hard and cold as brown pebbles in a mountain stream; they flicked from him to Doreen, to the great ships at anchor in the river with the sun blazing on their gilt eagle figurheads, to Shamash-nasir-kudduru flat on his belly and kissing dirt at the King's feet.

"You do not make your obeisance to the King's person?" he asked; the voice was hard, and the guttural Akkadian tongue sounded menacing at the best of times.

But he's keeping it slow, Ian realized with relief.

"O King, live long and prosper," he said solemnly, holding up his right hand with the fingers spread in a V. I always wanted to say that, he thought.

There was a sharp pain in his ankle as Doreen kicked him; she hadn't believed he'd actually go through with it

"It is against our custom and the law of our God to bend the knee to any man," he went on with slow care; Shams had said his Akkadian was accented but understandable... but then, Shams had a disconcerting tendency to say what he thought would please.

Shuriash nodded, showing he understood. Ian sighed relief and continued: "I greet you as I would my own ruler, Jared Cofflin." He had tried it out on the Chief, who'd almost ruptured himself laughing. "I bring the word of my ruler to the great King, the King of Sumer and Akkad, the King of Kar-Duniash, of whose might and glory we have long heard."

Heard for several thousand years, but let's not get too complicated all at once.

He fought down giddiness. The man looking at him was absolute ruler of several million souls -- probably about as large a share of the world's population as the United States had had in the twentieth century -- and unless first impressions lied he was no fool at all. You could get yourself into very serious trouble very quickly by underestimating the locals; they had a smaller knowledge base, but there was no shortage of brains among them.

"Very well," Shuriash said. "I am glad to hear the word of my brother, Yhared-Koff'in. Does he send the son of his mother, the child of his wife, to greet me?"

Ian bowed again; by calling the Republic's ruler 'brother' the Babylonian monarch was making a considerable diplomatic concession, granting him equality with the other Great Kings of the ancient East. Besides Babylon, only the Hittites, Assyrians and Egyptians rated it.

"I have the honor to be Jared Cofflin's Councilor for Foreign Affairs," Ian said. "It grieves me to report that our ruler's sons are not yet of a man's age." And we'll leave the matter of elective government for a later date. "I bear his instructions; I speak with his voice." Oh, and I'm in contact with him by short-wave radio.

Shuriash grunted; ambassadors were common here. "And I am glad to receive his gifts," he went on, glancing pointedly at the tarpaulin-covered heaps. "I do not doubt that they will make my heart glad."

Ian made an imperious gesture with his staff and the Marines tasked to the job began to uncover the treasures; another gesture made the interpreter rise and follow them.

Shuriash did an excellent job of keeping his face impassive; only a step backward and a slight start at the man-high mirror that was revealed first. Several of the courtiers who followed gasped aloud as the king touched a thick finger to the surface of the glass and then to the carved rosewood that surrounded it. A grin of unselfconscious pleasure showed strong yellowed teeth as he examined the weapons that lay on the table beyond; a suit of silvered chain mail, an elaborately worked helmet with a tall quetzal plume, a steel longsword in a sheath of inlaid leather, with a hilt of ivory and a gold pommel set with gems.

He slid it free and tested the heft and balance, thick arms and muscular wrists handling the weapon with practiced ease; the sun broke blinding-bright off the honed edge, and he gave a hiss of respect as he tested it with a thumb.

"These stones shine brightly," he said, turning the weapon to catch the sunlight on its pommel. "How?"

"We call it faceting," Ian said; local jewellers just polished their gems. Doreen nudged him slightly; the Crown Prince Kashtiliash was even more delighted with the silver-hilted longsword the Island's artisans had made for him.

"Behold," Ian said, moving on. "Spices from the far eastern lands for the King's table." Nutmeg and cinnamon were known here, but rare and unbelievably expensive. "Silver and gold for the King's treasury."

Shuriash picked up a gold coin the size of a dime and squinted at it, holding it at arm's length.

"Hard to make such a thing, much less hundreds," he said. "Why not ingots?"

"We call them coins, O King," Ian said. "Each is of a standard weight and fineness, guaranteed by the inscription stamped upon them. Trade is eased by these coins, commerce is made more swift by them."

A small exclamation escaped the lips of a plump official in the King's train.

"Bahdi-Lim, my Wakil of the Karum," Shuriash said. "He tracks a scent of profit more eagerly than a lion upon the trail of an antelope."

Minister of Commerce, Ian thought, bowing slightly.

"Copper and tin, for the King's artisans."

The King's eyes lit up, imagining spearheads and arrowheads and swords.

"My brother Yhared-Koff'in is generous!" he said.

"Jewellery, for the King's wives and daughters," Ian said; Nantucket had a surplus of jewellers, but their products made good diplomatic gifts. "Ivory and rare woods, that the King may adorn his palace and the houses of the Gods his patrons."

This time the murmur reached as far as the crowd surrounding the landing-spot. The crisscross stack of ebony logs was taller than a man, and surrounded by three-score ivory tusks, all of them far larger than the rather dwarfish Middle Eastern elephant could produce.

"Strange beasts, to make merry the heart of the King!" Ian concluded, with a sweep of his arm.

Shuriash burst into delighted laughter, and for a moment his face was a child's. One of the cages held a chimp; another a baby giraffe; and the third a moa, three-quarters grown and staring around with blinking wonderment.

"The King's heart is made glad by the gifts of his brother; his heart is full of happiness to see them." Shuriash's voice changed in the middle of the double-barreled formal sentence; suddenly didn't seem quite as delighted as his words.

"Remember he has to return the favor, or lose face," Doreen whispered in Ian's ear. Kings here didn't do anything so declasse as trading; instead they exchanged Royal Gifts, which just happened to be of roughly equivalent value.

Meanwhile Shuriash was considering the honor guard spread out on either side of the flag party. "Your kingdom is not poor," he said meditatively. "Nor are your craftsmen lacking in skill. I am surprised that you cannot afford armor for all your troops." His gaze sharpened. "Are those eunuchs?"

"No, O King; know that some among us shave their chins, even as some of your priests shave their heads."

"Curious."

"In all lands custom is King," Ian said tactfully. "In every land the customs differ."

"And are those women?" That was Kashtiliash, blurting amazement. Even with cropped hair the light summer uniforms made that fairly obvious, once a local started looking for something strange.

"Yes, O son of Shagarakti-Shuriash," Ian said, bowing again. "Such is our custom."

The prince snorted; he kept silent under his father's eye, but the fierce young hawk-features showed what he thought of that custom. Shuriash went on:

"And I see they bear fine blades, but no spear nor shield, neither bow nor javelin nor sling. Only those curious maces of wood and northern metal."

Ian smiled. This ought to be interesting. "Would the King my lord wish a demonstration? I will call the officer who commands the troops my ruler Jared Cofflin has sent to guard this expedition; the officer will satisfy the King's mind. We call these weapons rifles; they are like a bow, like a sling, yet not like a bow or sling."

The King nodded eagerly; so did Prince Kashtiliash, and a number among the officers who followed behind. Colonel Hollard strode over and stopped before the Babylonian monarch, bowing his head and saluting.

"O King, may you live forever," he said; his Akkadian was nearly as good as Ian's, with perhaps a trifle less of an accent. "Does the king have an animal that may be killed?"

Shuriash nodded, intrigued. A moment's relaying of orders, and a donkey was led out and tethered to a stake a hundred yards downstream. Hollard pointed to a guardsman's bronze-faced shield of leather and wood, and took it when Shuriash nodded agreement. He hung it carefully from the donkey's harness so that it covered most of the little beast's side.

"First section, front and center at the double!" he snapped when he returned.

Eight Marines trotted up and stopped in unison; Ian could see Shuriash's eyes following that, as well. Close-order drill and standing to attention hadn't been invented here yet; the King's guards were alert, their eyes never still and their bodies breathing a coiled readiness, but there was little formality to their postures.

"Oshinsky, kill that donkey," the Republic's commander said. "And don't miss."

"Sir, yessir," the Marine replied; she was a brown-haired young woman, a native Islander with corporal's chevrons on her right sleeve... and a Sniper star.

"There will be a loud noise," the Islander commander said in Akkadian.

She went to one knee and thumbed back the hammer of her Westley-Richards. Ian could see her squinting thoughtfully as she brought the rifle to her shoulder, exhaled, squeezed...

Crack.

Forewarned, the King and his son only blinked. A few of his courtiers made covert signs with their fingers, or clenched their hands on small idols that hung from their belts. The grizzle-bearded officers clenched their hands as well, on the hilts of their swords, and screams came from the watching crowd. The sulfur-stinking cloud of dirty smoke hid the donkey from Ian for a moment; he felt a wordless prayer drifting up with it, to an atheist's God. The problem was that he knew that particular deity delighted in the perverse; otherwise he wouldn't be here in the thirteenth century BC...

The donkey gave an agonized bray, and blood shot out of its nose and mouth; seconds later it collapsed, going to its knees and then falling over sideways to kick a few times.

"By the brazen prick of Marduk," Shuriash said quietly, when a terrified guardsman ran back with the shield.

The men behind him were gabbling prayers under their breaths, clutching at amulets and small images of the gods that hung from their belts; a shaven-headed priest held his out towards the strangers, chanting an incantation. The king held the shield up and then wiggled a finger through the hole the .40 bullet had made through sheet bronze, tough bullhide and layered strips of poplar-wood.

"You can throw thunderbolts?" he went on; his face was set, but sweat gleamed on it. "You must be a nation of mighty sorcerors."

Ian nodded to Hollard. "O great King, the earth lies at your feet," the young colonel said soothingly. "Not a thunderbolt. Lead shot, like a sling."

He took Oshinsky's rifle and raised the lever. "See, O King, here is the shot." He held up a bullet in his other hand. "Behind it is a powder that burns very fast. That creates a --" Hollard hesitated; there was no word for gas in Akkadian "-- a hot swift wind, that pushes the lead shot out of the iron tube, too swiftly for the eye to see."

"Like a sling bullet," Shuriash said. "Only too swift to see... it can pierce armor? How far?"

"A thousand long paces, O King. Shall I demonstrate?"

The King nodded, a tight controlled gesture. This is a brave man, Ian thought. Several of the courtiers were pasty-faced and trembling; it spoke volumes of their fear of their monarch that none had run. Many of the crowd had, streaming back towards the city to spread Ghu-knew-what rumors.

Hollard pointed southward along the riverbank. The Islanders had planted stakes there, at fifty-yard intervals. Atop each was a local clay pot.

"Those are full of water," Hollard said. "But the bullets would strike through any armor a man could carry, split his heart, spill his blood and brains, send his spirit to the realm of Nergal." He switched to English: "Squad, independent fire. Make it count."

Corporal Oshinsky snapped: "You heard the colonel. Llaundaur, you first, then to the right."

The Sun People trooper licked his thumb, wetted the foresight of his weapon, and brought it up to his shoulder in a smooth movement that ended with another crack; there was a happy egotism to his wide white grin. The nearest clay jar shattered in a spectacular leaping jet of water. Colonel Hollard took out his binoculars and showed Shuriash how to adjust them; by the time the last pot broke the king was looking more at them than at the firearms. He turned and trained them on the ships, on the opposite bank of the river, on the city behind him. Ian could see wheels spinning in the Babylonian's mind, and gave himself a mental kick.

Hollard rescued the situation. "Let these tubes of far-seeing -- these binoculars -- be my humble gift to the King's majesty," he said.

@@@

"O Shamash, great lord, in the matter about which I enquire,
        answer me a firm assurance,
From this day, the third of the month of Ayyar,
        Will it be well with the kingdom if --

"Out! Out!" King Shuriash bellowed, interrupting the droning chant.

The priests bent over the sheep's liver, the baru-diviners, the mahhu-priests who foretold in frenzies of madness, backed out of the council room where the King of Kar-Duniash had met with the ambassadors, taking with them the smell of blood and incense. Their lord resumed his pacing.

"Fools, dolts, wit-rotted tablet-chewers!" he roared, with a lion's guttural menace in his voice. "They can interpret comets and tell me to wear the same shirt for a month, but I ask them a question -- I ask for an answer -- it should be there in the liver of the sheep, and I receive nothing. Nothing of use!"

His son nodded. Sincerely, he thought. The generals and bureaucrats nodded agreement with their lord, too. With them, who knew what their real thoughts were? Over the years he had come to suspect that the priests too shaded their omens according to what he wished to hear, as well; or worse, according to how their temples wished to bend his policy.

"'Great opportunity, but great danger'" Shuriash quoted. "I could have told them that, and saved the waste of a good sheep."

"The priests will eat the sheep," Kashtiliash pointed out.

"As I said, wasted," Shuriash replied.

There were smiles and a few shocked looks at the delicious blasphemy; only his son dared to laugh aloud.

"There are two questions here, O King," Kidin-Ninurta said. "First, what can the Nan-tu'kht-ar do for us; what is in their power to accomplish for our benefit? And second, what do they wish; what will be the price of their aid?"

The king nodded. "We know they are rich," he said.

Emphatic nods; the gifts they'd given the King amounted to about a year's taxes from Ur and its district.

"We know they are powerful, with their fire-weapons." Even more emphatic agreement; the rifles were bad enough, but the strangers had also demonstrated what their cannon could do against walls cored with mud brick.

"No army could stand against them in the open field, I think," Kashtiliash said. "Nor could a city or fortress stand against their cannon."

"O King, they are more powerful than that," Kidin-Ninurta said thoughtfully. "Consider their ships. Consider those." He pointed to the binoculars on the table. "Consider the arts they must have to make all these things."

"O King my father," Kashtiliash said. "Consider also the most excellent order of their warriors. In their every movement they anticipate commands; like the fingers of a man's hand, they obey." He paused. "Consider also that each one was equipped and dressed exactly like the others -- even to the shade of the cloth they wore."

Shuriash felt his heart glow with pride. I have bred me a lion that can think as well as fight, he thought. It was a good thought. The Nan-tu'kht-ar soldiers were like the marks of a cylinder-seal rolled many times onto wet clay. The implications of that were... interesting.

"This Yhared-Koff'in must be a ruler of great power; his people must fear him more than the demons," Shuriash said. "They must obey as if he were a god among them."

"Women," Kashtiliash said thoughtfully. "All other things to one side, how can they be useful as warriors when half the time their bellies bulge with children? And if they can stop soldiers from fornicating, they are not sorcerors, but rather gods."

"Prince of the House of Succession," Kidin-Ninurta said. "Of that I asked the merchant Shamash-nasir-kudduru; for a brief time I was able to speak with him. The Nan-tu'kht-ar have a way of preventing conception. One that actually works without fail."

"Strange, even so," the Prince said, tugging at his beard and disarranging the careful curls hot bronze rods and oil had put in it. "How can a people grow strong if their women do not bear many children?"

There were nods at that, and muttered invocations to Ishtar.

"That also I asked, O King my lord; diligently I enquired. Their medicines ensure that few children die -- less than one in ten, if what the merchant said can be believed. They can bind Lamashtu, the demoness of cradle-fever!"

That brought more exclamations, some skeptical, some wondering. "This merchant," Shuriash said. "He has dwelt among them for many months; for a great time. He knows their language; he knows their ways. Such a man would be very valuable to us."

Kidin-Ninurta spread his hands. "O King, your servant thought of this. But the Nan-tu'kht-ar guard him like a lioness with a single cub."

"That is wise," Shuriash said.

"Yet this Shamash-Nasir-Kudurru does not wish to dwell among them all his days?" Kashtiliash murmured.

"No, Prince of the House of Succession. That is not his wish; it is not the yearning of his liver. He wishes to dwell in the land of Kar-Duniash as a great man, as a man of wealth and power."

"For which he needs the favor of the King, as well as the silver of the Nantukhtar," Shuriash said. "Something might be made of that."

He paused and leaned two palms on the table, looking at the strange maps the Nantukhtar had given him on their even stranger papyrus. His own scribes made maps, on clay, and sometimes sketches of the layout of cities. This was fantasitcally detailed, and with the round glass on a metal holder -- the magnifying glass -- he could read the small legends printed out in Akkadian writing. What a tool of power! he thought, looking at his land laid out as a god might see it... and the neighboring lands as well. It wasn't perfect; the Euphrates was shown too far to the west. But that could be corrected, they said. His son went on: "With all their strengths, why do the Nantukhtar come here to speak of treaties, of agreements? Why do they not break down the walls of the cities, seize the wealth of the land for themselves?"

"Ah, my lord Prince," Kidin-Ninurta said. "I have thought on this; I have pondered it. I think that the Nantukhtar are few in numbers, very few. From what Shamash-Nasir-Kudurru let fall, their city of Nantukhtar is smaller than Ur, far smaller than Kar-Duniash -- rich and strong, but not large. Thither to that city and its lands they bring many of their subject-allies every year to bolster their own strength, to work and farm and fight."

"Perhaps that is why they use their women for many tasks," Kashtiliash said slowly. "Perhaps they have too few men."

"Perhaps we build a great ziggurat from a single brick," Shuriash said dryly. "Also we circle the heart of the matter like vultures around a dying donkey. These Nantukhtar have great powers, yes, but can they foretell the future so much better than our students of the stars, of birds, of entrails? So they claim; is this truth, or a boast?"

A long silence fell. "I pray to Marduk and Ishtar, to Shamash and Sin, the great gods of the land, that it is not so," Kashtiliash said. "What they said lies in our future..." He shuddered.

Shuriash nodded again, and his thick fingers traced over the surface of the map. He read softly from the Assyrian chronicle the strangers had brought; it had made grisly hearing:

I forced Kashtiliash, King of Kar-Duniash, to give battle; I brought about the defeat of his armies, his warriors I overthrew. In the midst of that battle my hand captured Kashtiliash, the Kassite king. His royal neck I trod on with my feet, like a galtappu stool. Stripped and bound, before Ashur my lord I brought him. Sumer and Akkad to its farthest border I brought under my sway. On the lower sea of the rising sun I established the frontier of my land.

"And the Elamites at the walls of Nippur," Shuriash said.

"Surely it is not possible!" Kashtiliash burst out.

"Long ago the Elamites burnt Uruk, when Uruk was as Babylon is now," Shuriash said. "My son, you are a great warrior and a crafty leader, but I fear it is all too possible."

He could see the younger man contemplating it, as if an abyss had opened before his feet. When he spoke, his voice was slow in thoughtful. "In the time of your father Shalmaneser of Assyria broke King Shattuara and the last remnant of Mitanni, of Hangilibat, of Hurri-land. That frees his son Tukulti-Ninurta to turn all his power southward."

Shuriash sighed. "So, son of my loins, son of my heart, you see that Kar-Duniash is between the hammer and the anvil. Against Assyria, we are strong; against Elam, we are strong. Against both together... and that is why I believe the Nantukhtar. What they say of the years to come agrees all too well with my fears; with fears that have haunted my nights."

Kashtiliash had hunted lions and armed men with a smile on his lips; now he turned gray beneath his olive tan, shivered in his embroidered robe, gulped thick date wine. Shuriash knew he was seeing the vision of himself brought bound and leashed like a dog before the altar of Ashur. Or of watching an Assyrian victory-feast as a severed head hanging from a pomegranite tree in the gardens of Tukulti-Ninurta's palace -- Assyrians were given to gestures like that. An uncouth breed, the ways of Sumer and Akkad laid over them like a thin layer of whitewash on a fortress wall, ruled by greed and cruelty. But fell fighters and grim, and their rulers crafty and war-wise.

"The Nantukhtar are too strange for my liver to feel easy at relying upon them. We might ally with the Hittites instead, or as well," the Prince said. "They know Asshur's eye lies hungrily on their holdings west of the Euphrates."

"We might, if they did not have this new foe on their far western border, the Ekwesh," Shuriash said. "Of them I have heard, a little; a very little. Now this rebel against the Nantukhtar king has risen to power there; he teaches the wild Ekwesh their arts; he gives them the secret of these fire weapons."

"So we will make alliance with the Nantukhtar, father and lord?"

"We will make alliance." His fingers traced the map again. "And then, once our enemies have been beaten, we will war against theirs -- this rebel, the Ekwesh -- if we can persuade the Hittites to it. With the trouble he's causing them, I don't think Great King Tudhilyas will refuse such an offer."

"As much as a man dying of thirst in the deserts of the Aramaeans will refuse a skin of water," Shuriash said, tugging at his beard again. "It comes to me -- perhaps a god whispers it in my ear -- that the strangers bring a new age with them; one in which those who learn their arts will prosper, and those who do not will be ground like grain between millstones, and blown about by the wind."

His seamed face split in a broad smile. The others looked at him in surprise.

"And Kar-Duniash," he went on, "is perfectly placed to benefit by this new age. Kastiliash, my son, my heir, for all my life I have fought so that I might leave to you a realm as strong and rich as that I inherited from my fathers, when my time comes to descend to the underworld. Now I see a chance to leave you a realm greater than I inherited; perhaps as great as Hammurabi's, greater than that of Gilgamesh. The Nantuckhtar will need interpreters... as part of our alliance, I will suggest to them that a hundred young scribes be set to learning their language and their writing; and those young men will learn much of their arts. That for a beginning."

He raised his winecup. "To the Nantuckhtar! With them to pull our chariot, we shall spurn the four quarters of the earth beneath the wheels!"

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"... and it's the perfect location as far as controlling technology-transfer goes," Ian said; a little smugly, Marian Alston thought.

The command-group of the expeditionary force were gathered in the cabin of the Chamberlain for a last conference before the fleet left for home, and Ian was highly pleased with how things had gone so far. So was she, but a contrarian impulse inclined her to look for the shadow side. Alston looked out the sloping stern-cabin windows of the Chamberlain. The sun was setting, and it highlighted the jagged crenelations of the walls of Ur, struck fire off the paint and stone and colored tile of the ziggurat and the gold-leaf covering of the shrine at its peak. Beyond was a mosaic of long narrow fields, canals, date-groves, gardens, cultivated almost up to the cleared zone around the city wall.

"How so, Ian?" Swindapa asked. "My birth-people in Alba started with less than these Akkadians, and they have learned a great deal of Eagle People lore already."

"Yes," Ian chuckled, rubbing his hands together. "But apart from the fact that we've encouraged that, they have iron ore, copper, tin, wood and coal for fuel. These Babylonians have nothing but water and mud."

"And petroleum," Alston pointed out. "Which we have to show them how to use, if we're going to get any benefit out of it."

"True," Ian said. "But they still can't do much in the way of metallurgy without ores or fuels."

"Probably can't," Doreen corrected. "We'll see."

"Expect the unexpected," Alston agreed.

Kenneth Hollard poured more beer from the jug into his tankard, then made a face as he tasted it. "Mebbe we can teach them to make something better than this gruel," he said.

"It's safer than the water," the chief medical officer of the expeditionary force said; Justin Clemens was a dark-haired man of about Hollard's age, round-faced and a little stout. "God, this place is a living farm of diseases."

"Whatever we do, we have to do it fairly quickly," Alston said. "I can't keep so many of the Republic's keels and cannon here on the other side of the world for long. Too much could go wrong back home."

"I'm a diplomat, not a --" Ian said, then hesitated. "Hey, it just hit me -- I am a diplomat now, not a history professor playing at diplomacy."

"Well, duh," Doreen said affectionately, poking him in the ribs. "It's only been going on a decade now."

Ian cleared his throat. "I'm a diplomat, not a magician. We'll have to see."

"Don't underestimate King Shuriash," Kenneth Hollard said. "He's one smart cookie, if I'm any judge."

"I agree," his sister Kathryn said. "So's his son." She grinned. "And Prince Kashtiliash is cute as a bug's ear, too."

"I suppose so," Hollard said dryly. "He doesn't do a thing for me, though."

"That's because you're narrow-minded, Colonel sir," she replied, to a general chuckle.

"Doesn't do much for me, either," Alston said.

"That's because you're narrow-minded, darling," Swindapa said. At Alston's mock-glower she went on: "Well, I promised to be monogamous, not blind."

"I," Doreen Arnstein said, laying a hand at the base of her throat and looking upward, "will say nothing at all."

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