Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dressed to the Nineveh

Samani cupped water in his palm at the river’s edge and dribbled it onto the clay tablet to keep it malleable for his stylus. He enjoyed the sights, the bustle, and the rich smells at the docks. True, the sailors and dockworkers had cast insults at him most of the day, but none actually had accosted him physically. They knew well that student scribes most often came from powerful families whom one offended at one’s peril. Samani no longer had such a family, but he saw no reason to alert anyone to the fact. The Tigris quays always were busy, and necessarily so. Were the flow of commodities to these docks to stop, Nineveh would go hungry and its workshops would falter in a matter of days.

Samani’s assignment was to count the vessels, list the types and quantities of goods offloaded in his presence, and then return with the record to the school at the Temple of Nabu, the god of writing. His record – how many ka of ale, parsiktu of barley, mina of copper, and so on – was not an official reckoning. Official records were the job of the royal scribes, who universally accepted bribes from boat captains to undercount the cargo and underpay the taxes. Samani’s accuracy, therefore, mattered less than his presentation; the record had to be well organized and legible enough to show that he, too, one day might be qualified to cheat the king of his revenues. Every entry had to be written twice: once in everyday Akkadian and then again in Sumerian, even though no had spoken Sumerian for centuries except for ceremonial purposes. “Tradition,” was the only explanation the old priest Yakmeni had given Samani when asked the purpose of bilingual records; then he cuffed Samani for having asked. Tradition was also the reason Yakmeni ordered the use of both the sexagesimal and ten-based number systems instead of just one or the other. Yakmeni no longer conducted day to day classes. He let the younger priests do that, but he assigned all the student fieldwork and he supervised the school overall.

Samani had additional tasks that were not ordered by any priest of Nabu. Samani had to copy his work onto the tablets belonging to two older and larger schoolmates, Uspir and Tuklat, who had been given assignments identical to Samani’s. Samani had agreed to this under the usual threats of violence. The extra tablets in their wooden frames weighed heavily in the bags slung over his shoulder; in making the copies, Samani changed some of the numbers and altered the style of his impressions so the work looked original. The older boys spent the day observing army drills south of the city walls. From where he stood, Samani could see little more of the drills than dust raised by war chariots. The troops soon would leave to reinforce units currently fighting the Kassites. Or was it the Medes? He shook his head. It was always somebody.

Samani knew that Assyria owed its greatness to its military. The Assyrian army was the world’s most feared fighting force, and not just for its proficiency in battle. It also was an instrument of terror. If an enemy town refused an Assyrian order to surrender and had to be taken by force, the adult male inhabitants would be slaughtered to a man and the women and children sold into slavery. Townspeople rarely allowed their leaders to refuse to surrender. Neither fighting nor brutality was in Samani’s nature, however, so he preferred to stay as far away from the army as possible. He felt lucky that his current educational path would keep him out of it – provided he wasn’t expelled.

Samani had expected expulsion (or worse) when his parents, his brother, and his sisters all disappeared a year earlier. Samani didn’t have a clear picture of what exactly had happened, but he gathered that his father had scribed for someone on the losing side of some palace intrigue with lethal consequences. Though it made him feel cowardly, Samani never had tried to learn the truth lest he alert the murderers that they had missed one member of the family. For all he knew, the king himself had ordered the deed. Old King Shamshi-Adad had spent the early years of his reign suppressing rebellions, including a big one led by his own brother, so he reacted fiercely to anything he interpreted as defiance. Samani either had been overlooked or someone in high places deliberately had spared him for some mysterious reason. Samani was inclined to disbelieve the latter. The matter of his tuition had not been raised with him either, though it was possible – even likely – his father had paid in advance for the entire multi-year course.

Samani noticed the sun lowering in the sky. Holding his tablet to his chest, he turned away from the river and walked back toward the city. His schoolmates had arranged to meet him outside the Mashki Gate, one of the 18 gates to the city. The sight of the walls of Nineveh impressed him as they always did. They were twelve times the height of a grown man and nearly as thick as they were high. Small tributaries of the Tigris flowed through the city walls providing water and drainage, but even these openings were protected against swimmers by iron bars. The walls were reinforced by towers every ten horse-lengths or so. Two especially massive and elaborately decorated towers flanked the Mashki Gate, a workaday gate used by merchants and herdsmen. It was large enough to allow two-way traffic of double-teamed oxen, but it was small compared to the two ceremonial gates. Samani couldn’t imagine the great city of Nineveh ever falling to a direct assault. Only a siege that cut off the city from the countryside stood any chance of starving it into submission. As he neared the gate an open-palmed hand hit hard against the back of his skull and pushed him forward. Samani tumbled over an outstretched foot, and his face connected with dirt. His chest impacted his tablet

“You clumsy idiot!” shouted Uspir, the owner of the foot. “If you broke my tablet, you’ll pay for it with your hide!”

Tuklat, the young man with the palm, chuckled. “I think he did it on purpose, Uspir,” said Tuklat. “I think he pretended to trip just so he could break our work.”

“It’s my work,” said Samani, still prone.

“Did we say you could talk?” Uspir roughly pulled two carry-bags off Samani’s shoulder. Samani heard his tunic tear. He hoped it wasn’t anything very visible. His needlework was atrocious and he couldn’t afford to pay a tailor, much less buy something new.

“The tablets look alright. Maybe we should throw him in the river anyway, just for being careless,” Uspir suggested.

 “No,” Tuklat warned, “we’ll be late if we do that. Looks like you got lucky, lummox. There better not be any mistakes on these, though.”

Uspir and Tuklat exchanged wisecracks as they walked off toward the city gate.

Samani sat up. His own tablet was in one piece and still readable even though it had flattened slightly. The wood frame around it had come apart, though. Samani got back on his feet and looked around. If his humiliation had been noticed by the merchants, herdsmen, and townspeople milling about, they avoided revealing it. He pushed the wood frame together as best he could and then proceeded to the Mashki Gate. He walked through the archway unchallenged by the guards.

“You are late!” Yakmeni chided as Samani entered the school. The old priest stood before him in one of his better robes. His long white beard was groomed and oiled. He held out a hand. Samani handed over the tablet. “What is this?” Yakmeni asked, referring to the frame and the flattening of the tablet. Well, have you nothing to say?”

“No, sir.”

Yakmeni cursorily looked over the figures and then peered steadily at Samani. He smacked Samani open-handed on the right ear. “Your clothes are dirty. Change. You really should bathe, but there is no time. Hurry. You are coming with me.”

“Where are we going?” Samani asked.

“The palace.”

“The palace?”

“Yes, the palace. Are you deaf? Be quick.”

“No sir. I mean, yes sir.”

Samani darted upstairs to his quarters, which he shared with Adad-nariri, the king’s one surviving legitimate son.

King Shamshi-Adad believed it important that a monarch be able to read messages and dispatches rather than be forced to rely on all-too corruptible scribes for information, so he had enrolled his son at the Nabu school. At the time, the king insisted that Adad-nariri be treated like any other student scribe. Yakmeni knew better than to obey this command to the letter. The first divergence was the assignment of sleeping quarters. Up until then, all 50 boys of all ages shared a large dormitory room, but there was an enclave under the roof used for storage. Yakmeni assigned it to the king’s son as his quarters, but, just barely to disguise the favoritism, ordered two cots installed in the room. He gave the prince Samani as a roommate. Samani was a boy the same age as the prince and also was the least troublesome of Yakmeni’s students. Yakmeni also refrained from giving Adad-nariri the same field assignments as the other boys. There was no sense exposing the boy to danger from agents of ambitious nobles or even from members of his own family. Unlike the Pharaohs of Egypt who pretended to be divine, Assyrian rulers hard-headedly accepted their mortality as “vassals of Asur,” Assyria’s patron god and the Empire’s true monarch. That was enough of a difference to grant nobles on the council – lesser vassals of Asur – an influence, especially in a time of succession. Any palace revolt was simplified if a presumptive heir suffered an unfortunate accident.

Samani rushed into the room and for the 60th time banged his head on a diagonal support truss that cut through the space. Adad-nariri looked up from his cot. A pile of tablets was on the floor next to him. They contained the epic Gilgamesh. It was his favorite literary work. The prince and Samani were not friends, but at least he didn’t torture Samani. The prince was polite and bookish. He had an undisguised taste for tall handsome muscular young men. Samani didn’t fit that description, so the prince never had broached the idea of anything intimate with him. Adad-nariri didn’t fit the description himself; yet, though he was only 14, he was far stronger and more robust than he looked. Samani was not so athletic, but he was of similar enough size and appearance that people sometimes mixed up the two of them at a distance or from the back. Close up, however, the resemblance ended. Besides, the prince always was better dressed.

“What is your hurry?” Adad-nariri asked.

“I’m going to the palace. Yakmeni told me to change.”

Samani picked his one other tunic off a wall peg. It was clean, but somewhat frayed.

“You can’t go in that,” the prince said. “Here, wear one of mine.” Adad-nariri opened a chest that took up much of the room’s floor space. He pulled out a linen-based outfit that was fringed and embroidered with a riot of other colorful fabrics.

“Oh I can’t take that Adad. They’ll think I’m trying to play the nobleman. It’s too much above my station.”

“Very well, take this one then,” he said as he pulled out another selection. It was the simplest of the prince’s woolen tunics, with alternating zigzag stripes of blue and purple.

It still was too much to Samani’s mind, but it was not wise to turn down a prince’s favors too often. “I don’t know what to say,” he said.

“Try thank you,” said Adad-nariri.

“Thank you.” Samani hurriedly donned the fine clothes and rushed back to Yakmeni.

Yakmeni eyed him for a long moment. Then he sighed, cuffed Samani yet again, and said, “No time for dawdling, boy! You need to record a marriage contract between two noble families.”

“I do? I’ve never written anything official before.”

“You have to start sometime. I’ll be there to supervise. Come, while there is still some daylight.”

The palace was one of the wonders of the city, and travelers came from far to see it along with the ziggurat temples to the New Year, Asur, and Ishtar. Samani had heard there were structures larger and more awe-inspiring than any of these in faraway Egypt, but he found that hard to believe. The entrance to the five story colonnaded palace was flanked by massive statues of winged lions. Reliefs and paintings covered every expanse of wall.

Yakmeni and Samani walked up the main steps. Yakmeni exchanged a few words with the ranking palace guardsman, and they were allowed to pass into the building. Yakmeni plainly knew his way around. He strode across the grand foyer past the huge primary staircase. Yakmeni took one hallway and then another until Samani lost his sense of direction. They entered a secondary foyer with a stairway almost as impressive as the ceremonial one in front.

“Is that my son?” called a voice from a balcony above.

Yakmeni shoved Samani roughly into a prostrate position and bowed his own head.

“No majesty,” Yakmeni answered loudly, “It is humble student scribe Samani. He rooms with Prince Adad-nariri.”

“Is that not my son’s tunic?”

“Answer Queen Semiramis,” said Yakmeni to Samani with a kick.

“Yes, majesty!” Samani called out. He lent it to me for the occasion!”

“I see.”

Hearing nothing more, Yakmeni braved a peek upward. Queen Semiramis had vanished

“Get up,” he said.

The two entered a conference room where the bride and groom and their parents awaited. They all sat around a large table made of some non-native wood that Samani didn’t recognize. Also in attendance was a priestess of Ishtar, one of the sacred prostitutes whose expected donation to Ishtar was more then Samani would be able to afford for many years to come. He was distracted by her beauty so much that he had to ask the parties to repeat their names as he recorded them in the tablet that already had been set out for him. The completed contract would be kept in the palace hall of records. Samani guessed the priestess was Cimmerian from the paleness of her blue eyes which contrasted so sharply with her silky dark hair.

The marriage contract was a simple one, and it had all the romance of two merchants agreeing to swap swine for mead. Once he was finished, Samani read the terms back aloud:

“Aminu, son of Ushpia and Tabuya, shall marry Masa, daughter of Ashurnal and Talia, and may not marry another woman. If within two years Masa does not provide Aminu with an offspring, she must purchase a slave woman for the purpose. Should Aminu choose to divorce Masa, he must pay five minas of silver to her and should Masa choose to divorce him, she must pay five minas of silver to him. Witnessed by Yakmeni priest of Nabu in the presence of Mylitta, sister of Ishtar.”

All the parties voiced their agreement. The father of the bride handed a pouch to Yakmeni. Samani never learned what the gratuity was. Yakmeni didn’t share it.

It was well past sundown by the time they returned to the school though a half moon helped light the streets. Much to Samani’s surprise, Yakmeni struck him with a stick only lightly for his shortcomings at the palace. Samani wondered if the old fellow was feeling alright.

At the top of the stairs, Tuklat grabbed Samani’s shoulder. “Why are you wearing those clothes?” he demanded.

“The Prince lent them to me. If you tear anything, he’ll be unhappy.”

“Do you think I’m afraid of him?”

“Perhaps not of him precisely,” Samani answered.

Tuklat understood the warning and released Samani. “I can wait to take care of you,” he said. “I can wait for many things,” he added cryptically

Samani decided he could wait, too. He entered his dorm room enclave, this time remembering to duck beneath the beam. Adad-nariri was there.

“So what was the big event at the Palace?” the prince asked.

“A marriage contract.”

“Oh? Whose?”

“Two nobles named Masa and Aminu.”

“Aminu? Ashurnal’s boy? Are you serious?”


“Ha ha. The sheep will see more of him than she will.”

“What?” Samani caught on. “Oh…How do you know?”

“We used to play together.”

“Ah.” Samani though it best not to comment further.

“Let’s go out to celebrate your first professional scribe job,” Adad-nariri said.

“I wasn’t paid for it.”

“Well, then, let’s celebrate Aminu and Mysha.”



“It is forbidden.”

“Samani, I’m a prince.”

He had a point, at least as far as his own antics went. Samani was not a prince, though, and he would be blamed and beaten if caught. On the other hand, the risk itself had a certain appeal.

“Alright.” Samani began to take off the fancy tunic.

“No, wear it. I’ll wear your torn one,” Adad-nariri said.


“It’s less likely that I’ll be recognized in it. Here.” He tossed a leather pouch to Samani. “There is some lead, copper, and a few grains of silver. You’ll make a more convincing petty noble brat if you buy your own drinks.”

“Don’t most people pay in barley?”

“Do you have any barley?”


“So then. Besides, it’s not so much. And here, oil your hair.”

The prince handed Samani a flask.

The two sneaked down the interior stairs and out through the kitchen, the time honored way of escape for students who could afford to bribe the kitchen staff.

They soon left the temple area of the city behind and entered a darker neighborhood filled with workshops and poorly built houses. The twisted streets smelled like an open sewer, which in many ways they were. At one point Samani pulled Adad-nariri aside as a bedpan was emptied out an upper floor window. Samani half suspected the urine and excrement had been aimed at them deliberately.

Muffled noise, a man relieving himself in the street, and a torch by a door indicated they had arrived at a tavern, one whose location apparently was previously familiar to Adad-nariri. No law prevented boys their age from entering a tavern, but few did for the simple reason that hardly any of them had the money. A vulture was painted on the door, which Samani gathered was the name of the establishment. Inside, the tavern was smoky, smelly, crowded and lively, with a mix of soldiers, craftsmen, and laborers of both sexes. The two boys drew attention as they entered, and most of it was focused on Samani in his clothes.

They walked up to the bar next to the only man in the place as well dressed as Samani. The fellow was clean-shaven, a rare choice in Nineveh. “Two tankards of ale,” Samani said.

“How do you intend to pay?” asked the toothless bar-keep, a middle-age woman like nearly all tavern owners.

Samani plunked some pieces of lead on the counter.

“Do you have nothing else?”

Samani took back the lead and withdrew two copper rings from the pouch. The barkeep snatched them and placed them on a scale, balancing the ring with pebbles. The weighing drew the interest of some customers, because it was illegal to charge less for metals than for the equivalent value of barley. They wanted to be sure they hadn’t been cheated.

Noticing the eyes on her, she said “That enough for four ales. No more.”

This seemed to satisfy the other patrons, but it struck Samani as a high price. Nevertheless, he answered “We’ll each have a refill when we’re done with our first.”

The barkeep nodded and poured.

A drunken soldier lurched into Samani. He was tall and muscular with a close-cropped beard. He reeked of beer and sweat. But then, so did everyone in the tavern.

“You spilled my drink,” he growled threateningly at Samani over whom he towered.

“Soldier, can’t you see he is some noble’s son?” said the well dressed man.

“What of it?” he barked back, though he fully understood what the man meant.

“Soldier! Let me offer you another round,” said Adad-nariri.

“You see, common folk have decency. One day we’ll drown all your kind in the river,” he said to Samani. The man’s breath smelled like a dead mule.

“Nakti!” warned one of soldier’s friends in back of him.


“That’s what I say. Bah!” said Adad-nariri holding up two tankards. “Tell, me about your campaigns, Nakti.”

Nakti took the ale and slapped Adad-nariri’s shoulder.

“Let’s go over there where it is quieter,” said Adad-nariri, pointing to some empty space against the wall by a door leading to the back. Nakti followed and soon was gesticulating, apparently recounting his prowess in battle.

“Thank you for your intervention,” Samani said to the well dressed man.

“Don’t mention it. They say we Babylonians are decadent, but to witness true drunkenness one has to observe an Assyrian soldier on leave. Their officers impose discipline on them so strict that they learn no self-discipline at all.”

“You’re from Babylon? I wondered about the accent – and other things.”

 “Is the boy in the torn tunic your personal assistant, young nobleman?” asked the Babylonian.

“He assists me, true enough. Wait, where did he go?”

“Be easy. He and the soldier went to the rooms in the back. I’m surprised you gave him enough money to rent a room. I’m sure it didn’t come out of the soldier’s pocket. You must be a very generous master.”

“‘Master’ is overstating the relationship. He is not entirely destitute. Maybe I should see if he’s alright, though” said Samani.

“If he isn’t your servant, I suggest you let them be unless you plan to join them. They’ll be done soon.”

“I see your point. No, I won’t be joining them. We don’t have the same tastes,” explained Samani.

“Oh? What are your tastes, young sir?”

Though Samani was getting annoyed that his youth kept being brought up to him, he looked around the room and focused on a young woman in a peasant’s dress bantering with soldiers at a table. She was red-faced from drink.

“That one, maybe.”

“Good taste, young noble. Cimmerian, I’d wager, with those pale blue eyes.”

Samani looked closer. It was priestess Mylitta in disguise. Sensing his eyes on her, she looked up. Alarm registered on her face, as well it should. It was a capital offense for a sister of a god to enter a tavern. “Excuse me, boys, I see a paying customer,” she said to the men at the table. They laughed.

She sidled over to Samani. She stood a head taller than he. She bent down and whispered in his ear, “Quiet, schoolboy, or your life is forfeit. I’ll say you brought me here and you’ll die, too.”

Samani had been in here only minutes and he’d already received two death threats.  “Neither of us were ever here,” he told her.

“Good,” she answered, this time above a whisper. “We should go. Everyone is expecting me to go to the back with you or leave with you.”

“I have to wait for my friend.”

Adad-nariri soon re-emerged from the back. Adjusting his tunic, he walked up to Samani. He merely glanced at Mylitta.

“Where’s the charming infantryman?” Samani asked.

“Passed out. It’s alright. He didn’t really need to be awake.”

“Young noble,” interjected the Babylonian, “I suggest you take yourself and your associate back to where you belong as the lady suggested. Soon some of the men here will start to discuss how much is in your purse and even in their drunken state will think to follow you.”

Samani looked at the prince. “Do you mind if we make an early night of it?”

Mylitta noted the direction of the question but made no comment.

Adad-nariri nodded assent.

“Barkeep,” said Samani, “give the fourth drink you still owe us to this gentleman.”

The Babylonian bowed slightly and said, “I’m a trader in fine goods. Perhaps we can do business someday.” His eyes shifted from Samani to Adad-nariri.

“Perhaps we can,” Samani said.

They were only a block away from the tavern when Mylitta let go of Samani’s arm and turned onto another street.

“Wait! Will you be all right?” he asked.

She laughed and called back, “I’ll be fine, schoolboy.”

As they approached the Temple of Nabu, Samani and the prince could see that something major was up. Palace guardsmen surrounded it.

“I think we’d better go in the front door,” said Samani, “even if it gets us in trouble.”

Two guardsmen seized them as soon as they reached the steps. The two boys were half-hauled to the top. Yakmeni stood at the top, apparently under arrest at the hands of the guard sergeant and one trooper.

“Are these the boys?” asked the sergeant.

“Yes. That’s both of them,” Yakmeni answered.

The sergeant turned to Samani and said, “Young prince, you are commanded to go to the palace. The young scribe Samani is ordered to accompany you. Is that the boy?”

“We’re the ones you want,” Adad-nariri answered without correcting the mistaken identities. “Why is Yakmeni being held?”

“This dog let the prince out of his sight.”

“Please let the dog go,” said Samani. “We deliberately evaded him.”

“He should not have allowed that, but as you wish. Back inside, schoolmaster, and be grateful for such kindness.” Yakmeni nodded and retreated into the temple.

The guards escorted the two boys to the palace which was lit up with hundreds of lamps and torches. They were rushed through the grand foyer and up the main stairway by four of the guards including the sergeant. They were deposited in a large room on the second floor with barred windows overlooking the central courtyard. The room was dimly lit with a single earthenware oil lamp. Even with the lamp, the room was darker than the courtyard in the moonlight.

“Stay here for your own protection,” ordered the guard sergeant. He and his men withdrew, closing a very solid looking door behind them. Samani presumed that at least one guard remained outside.

“Are the window bars to keep us in or others out?” asked Samani. Adad-nariri shrugged. He walked to the window and looked out at the courtyard below. Samani joined him at the window. There were bodies piled at one end of the yard. As they watched, two women and two young men were led into the courtyard by guardsmen. The prisoners were blindfolded and bound.

“Do you know who they are?” Samani asked.

“Yes. Two of my father’s concubines and their sons. My half-brothers."

Next to the other bodies, the guards dispatched each prisoner quickly and gruesomely with a slash across the throat to prevent calling out and then a stab to the chest.

“My father has died,” said Adad-nariri.

“How do you know?”

“This is either my mother’s work, in which case my rivals are being eliminated, or some other noble family has seized the throne, in which case we’ll soon be joining my half-brothers in the courtyard.”

“Care to wager a bet on which it is?”

“Sure. If we die you win, if we don’t I do. Name your sum.”

The sergeant opened the door. “Prince Adad-nariri, your mother wishes to see you.”

The prince breathed a sigh of relief and stepped forward.

“What is this?” asked the confused sergeant.

“That is Adad-nariri,” Samani answered. “For the prince’s safety we switched clothes.” It was a partial truth.

It seemed to make sense to the sergeant. Adad-nariri joined him in the hall, and the door closed on Samani yet again. Samani waited. The grim thought occurred to Samani that the sergeant might be lying and that the prince would meet his fate in the courtyard.

After what seemed an interminable time, an old man with a silken robe and an urbane air opened the door. No guard was outside.

“This way, please. There is much to do.”

Samani followed the fellow through the maze of passages and then past more guards. They entered a much smaller version of the huge throne room that occupied much of the first floor. Apparently this one was for more intimate interviews. The room was awash in the light of lamps. Queen Semiramis sat on the throne wearing a full array of colorful silks, linen, and shawls; she also was weighed down by an ornate headdress and masses of gold jewelry. She looked very much a queen, which was, Samani realized, the idea.

Samani and the elderly man assumed a prostrate pose.

“Leave us.” she said.” The old man stood, head still bowed, and backed out of the room.

“Get up. Samani is your name?”

Samani raised his head. “Yes, my queen.”

“I said, get up. There is no time for nonsense with you. Stand on your feet.”

Samani complied.

“Your irresponsible night on the town may have saved my son’s life, which is one of two reasons I’m sparing yours. On any other night I’d have had you slain for risking him like that.”

“Saved his life?”

“Yes. I have reason to believe a schoolmate of yours…Taklit?”


“I have reason to believe Tuklat was paid to assassinate my son upon the death of my husband. Adad-nariri wasn’t there thanks to you.”

“The king is dead, then. I grieve for your loss, majesty.”

“You do no such thing. You fear for your own life, which is as it should be. My son is now the king, or at least he soon will be. There are a few more things to do before sunrise when word spreads of what has happened. Adad-nariri needs the approval of the council, but I’ve eliminated or intimidated anyone inclined to object, so there will be no trouble with that. However, he is too young to rule, so I’ll be regent for the next few years. Keep that in mind.”

 “I shall. I am at your service.”

“My son prefers the young men to the ladies, doesn’t he?”

The change of subject befuddled Samani. “Yes, my queen.”

“After tonight that will do no harm. In fact, it will be an asset with the army. He may enjoy leading it someday and may add to the Empire. Yet, it is something of an issue at the moment.”

“How so?”

“He needs to be seen as fit to continue the royal line.”

“May I speak inappropriately, my queen?”

“If what you have to say is the truth, I insist on it.”

“I’m sure he can manage the task of continuing the royal line. If there is, well, a suitable man with him to stir things along, so to speak, he surely can fulfill his obligations to his bride, if you understand me” Samani suggested.

“I understand you. Are you such a suitable man?”

“No, my queen. I’m not his type.”

“I suspected as much. I’m sure you are right, as it happens, but tonight he will have no such assistance. Tomorrow he goes to the Temple of Asur to assume the crown, and I’m sure he will do just fine there, but tonight he must go to the Temple of Ishtar, patroness of Nineveh, and pay his respects to one of the sisters. It would be best if he succeeded at it. Rumors will spread otherwise. They always do.”

“I don’t see how I can help, my queen.”

“Of course you do. You can go in his place, which also will avoid further exposing him to any enemies on the street tonight. The guards already think you are he, except for that sergeant, and I’ll keep him busy elsewhere. Besides, it’s dark and no one can see you clearly. I take it that you are not yourself a worshipper at the Temple of Ishtar.”

“No. I can’t afford it,” said Samani truthfully.

“So then, there is no problem of you being recognized either.”

“I shall do whatever the queen asks.”

“One more thing. Your family was executed last year, as I’m sure you suspected. Do you want to know who ordered it and why?”

“No, my queen.”

“Very wise. You may need to deal with those responsible in the future and it’s best not to let your judgment be clouded by thoughts of vengeance. I may yet have more uses for you. Go talk to Prakti, the man who led you to this room. He is one of my most trusted advisors. He already knows what to do.”

Prakti took Samani to a tiled room and ordered him to disrobe. Samani then received the quickest bath of his life: he stood in an empty basin while Prakti poured two pails of water over his head. He gave Samani a cloth to wipe himself dry. Then he helped the boy speedily don the most amazing finery. Prakti led Samani down a stairway to a side palace exit where he turned him over to palace guards. None questioned his identity as the prince. The guards in turn hurried him through the dark streets to Ishtar’s ziggurat. Inside the main doorway of the Temple the old head priestess beckoned Samani to follow. As the guards waited behind, she led him to a room deep inside the Temple. Samani offered to her the present that Prakti had given him.

She accepted the gift and said, “Someone will attend to you shortly.”

The Cimmerian smiled when she entered Samani’s chamber. “Still pretending to be more than you are, young scribe? You grow more ambitious in your frauds with each meeting. I can’t wait to see how you next top this.”

Samani thought he had no more panic left in him this night, but a new reserve was rising now.

She raised a calming hand. “Don’t fear or explain. I think I understand. Well, we both have secrets now, don’t we? Come now, let’s give Ishtar her due. It’s for the Empire. Close your eyes and think of Assyria.”

“Actually, I’d like to keep them open.”

“Better yet.”

In Mylitta’s arms, Samani was never so happy provide a service for queen and country.

The next day, Adad-nariri performed his succession ceremonies at the Temple of Asur. Samani did not attend them. He walked out of the palace in his old street clothes, but with a purse of gold hidden within them. No one paid him the slightest attention. He proceeded to the Temple of Nabu.

Samani never learned what Yakmeni surmised about the whole affair, but Samani was allowed to keep the enclave dorm room entirely for himself, and the old man never beat him again.