Read the first 3 chapters


Prologue

Babylon, 570 BC

 My name is Nebuchadnezzar. Let the nations hear it!

I am ruler of Babylon, greatest empire on earth. Here in its capital city, I am like a god.

Tonight, as the sun falls to its death in the western desert, I walk along the balconies I have built, overlooking the city I have built, and know there is none like me.

I inhale the twilight air and catch the scent of a dozen sacrifices. Across the city, the smoke and flames lift from Etemenanki, the House of the Platform of Heaven and Earth. The priests sacrifice tonight in honor of Tiamat, for tomorrow she will be wed. Though I have questioned the wisdom of a marriage with the captive Judaeans, tomorrow will not be a day for questions. It will be a day of celebration, such as befits a princess.

Tiamat comes to me now on the balcony, those dark eyes wide with entreaty. “Please, Father.”

I encircle her shoulders in a warm embrace and turn her to the city.

“There, Tia. There is our glorious Babylon. Do you not wish to serve her?”

She leans her head against my chest, her voice thick. “Yes, of course. But I do not wish to marry.”

I pat her shoulder, kiss the top of her head. My sweet Tia. Who would have foretold that she would become such a part me?

“Have no fear, dear one. Nothing shall change. Husband or not, I shall always love you. Always protect you.”

She clutches me, a desperate grip around my waist.

I release her arms and look into her eyes. “Go now. Your mother will be searching for you. Tomorrow will be a grand day, for you are the daughter of the greatest king Babylon has ever seen.”

I use my thumb to rub a tear from her eye, give her a gentle push, and she is gone with a last look of grief that breaks my heart.

The greatest king Babylon has ever seen. The words echo like raindrops plunking on stones. I try to ignore a tickling at the back of my thoughts. Something Belteshazzar told me, many months ago. A dream.

I shake my head, willing my mind to be free of the memory. My longtime Jewish advisor, part of my kingdom since we were both youths, often troubles me with his advice. I keep him close because he has become a friend. I keep him close because he is too often right.

But I do not want to think of Belteshazzar. Tonight is for me alone. For my pleasure, as I gaze across all that I have built, all that I have accomplished. This great Babylon, this royal residence with its Gardens to rival those created by the gods. Built by my mighty power. For the glory of my majesty. I grip the balcony wall, inhale the smoky sweetness again, and smile. It is good.

I hear a voice and think perhaps Belteshazzar has found me after all, for the words sound like something he would say, and yet the voice . . . The voice is of another.

“There is a decree gone out for you, Nebuchadnezzar. Your kingship has been stripped from you.”

I turn to the traitorous words, but no one is there. And yet the voice continues, rumbling in my own chest, echoing in my head.

“You will be driven from men to dwell with beasts. You will eat the herbs of oxen and seven times will pass over you, until you know that the Most High is ruler in the kingdom of men. To whom He wills power, He gives power.”

The tickling is there again, in my mind. I roll my shoulders to ease the discomfort, but it grows. It grows to a scratching, a clawing at the inside of my head, until I fear I shall bleed within.

The fear swells in me and I am frantic now. I rub my eyes, swat my ears, and still the scratching and scraping goes on, digging away at my memories, at my sense of self, of who I am and what I have done, and I stare at the sky above and the stones below and bend my waist and fall upon the ground where it is better, better to be on the ground, and I want only to find food, food, food. And a two-legged one comes and makes noises with her mouth and clutches at me but I understand none of it and even this knowledge that I do not understand is slipping, slipping from me as the sun slips into the desert.

And in the darkness, I am no more.

 

Chapter 1

 Seven years later

 

The night her husband died, Tia ran with abandon.

The city wall, wide enough for chariots to race upon its baked bricks, absorbed the slap of her bare feet and cooled her skin. She flew past the Ishtar Gate as though chased by demons, knowing the night guard in his stone tower would be watching. Leering. Tia ignored his attention.

Tonight, this night, she wanted only to run.

A lone trickle of sweat chased down her backbone. The desert chill soaked into her bones and somewhere in the vast sands beyond the city walls, a jackal shrieked over its kill. Her exhalation clouded the air and the quiet huffs of her breath kept time with her feet.

Breathe, slap, slap, slap.

They would be waiting. Expecting her. A tremor disturbed her rhythm. Her tears for Shealtiel were long spent, stolen by the desert air before they fell.

Flames surged from the Tower and snagged her attention. Priests and their nightly sacrifices, promising to ensure the health of the city. For all of Babylon’s riches, the districts encircled by the double city walls smelled of poverty, disease, and hopelessness. But the palace was an oasis in a desert.

She would not run the entire three bêru around the city. Not tonight. Only to the Marduk Gate and back to the Southern Palace, where her mother would be glaring her displeasure at both her absence and her choice of pastime. Tia had spent long days at Shealtiel’s bedside, waiting for the end. Could her mother not wait an hour?

Too soon, the Marduk Gate loomed and Tia slowed. The guard leaned over the waist-high crenellation, thrust a torch above his head, and hailed the trespasser.

“Only Tiamat.” She panted and lifted a hand. “Running.”

He shrugged and shook his head, then turned back to his post, as though a princess running the city wall at night in the trousers of a Persian were a curiosity, nothing more. Perhaps he’d already seen her run. More likely, her reputation ran ahead of her. The night hid her flush of shame.

But she could delay no longer. The guilt had solidified, a stone in her belly she could not ignore.

She pivoted, sucked in a deep breath, and shot forward, legs and arms pounding for home.

Home. Do I still call it such? When all that was precious had been taken? Married at fourteen. A widow by twenty-one. And every year a lie.

“I shall always love you, always protect you.”

He had spoken the words on the night he had been lost to her. And where was love? Where was protection? Not with Shealtiel.

The night sky deepened above her head, and a crescent moon hung crooked against the blackness. Sataran and Aya rose in the east, overlapping in false union.

“The brightest light in your lifetime’s sky,” an elderly mage had said of the merged stars. The scholar’s lessons on the workings of the cosmos interested her, and she paid attention. As a princess already married for treaty, she was fortunate to retain tutors.

Ahead, the Ishtar Gate’s blue-glazed mosaics, splashed with yellow lions, surged against the purpling sky, and to its left, the false wooded mountain built atop the palace for her mother, Amytis, equaled its height. Tia chose the east wall of the gate for a focal point and ignored the Gardens. Tonight the palace had already seen death. She needn’t also dwell on madness.

Breathe, slap, slap, slap. Chest on fire, almost there.

She reached the palace’s northeast corner, where it nearly brushed the city wall, slowed to a stop, and bent at the waist. Hands braced against her knees, she sucked in cold air. Her heartbeat quieted.

When she turned back toward the palace, she saw what her mother had done.

A distance of one kanû separated the wide inner city wall from the lip of the palace roof, slightly lower. Tia kept a length of cedar wood there on the roof, a plank narrow enough to discourage most, and braced it across the chasm for her nightly runs. When she returned, she would pull it back to the roof, where anyone who might venture past the guards on the wall would not gain access. Only during her run did this plank bridge the gap, awaiting her return.

Amytis had removed it.

Something like heat lightning snapped across Tia’s vision and left a bitter, metallic taste in her mouth. Her mother thought to teach her a lesson. Punish her for her manifold breaches of etiquette by forcing her to take the long way down, humiliate herself to the sentinel guard.

She would not succeed.

With a practiced eye, Tia measured the distance from the ledge to the palace roof. She would have the advantage of going from a higher to a lower level. A controlled fall, really. Nothing more.

But she made the mistake of looking over, to the street level far below. Her senses spun and she gripped the wall.

She scrambled onto the ledge, wide enough to take the stance needed for a long jump, and bent into position, one leg extended behind. The palace rooftop garden held only a small temple in its center, lit with three torches. Nothing to break her fall, or her legs, when she hit. She counted, steadying mind and body.

The wind caught her hair, loosened during her run, and blew it across her eyes. She flicked her head to sweep it away, rocked twice on the balls of her feet, and leaped.

The night air whooshed against her ears, and her legs cycled through the void as though she ran on air itself. The flimsy trousers whipped against her skin, and for one exhilarating moment Tia flew like an egret wheeling above the city and knew sweet freedom.

This was how it should always be. My life. My choice. I alone control my destiny.

She hit the stone roof grinning like a trick monkey, and it took five running steps to capture her balance.

Glorious.

Across the rooftop, a whisper of white fluttered. A swish of silk and a pinched expression disappeared through the opening to the stairs. Amytis had been waiting to see her stranded on the city wall and Tia had soured her pleasure. The moment of victory faded, and Tia straightened her hair, smoothed her clothing.

“Your skill is improving.” The eerie voice drifted to Tia across the dark roof and she flinched. A chill rippled through her skin.

Shadir stood at the far end of the roof wall, where the platform ended and the palace wall rose higher to support the Gardens. His attention was pinned to the stars, and a scroll lay on the ledge before him, weighted with amulets.

“You startled me, Shadir. Lurking there in the shadows.”

The mage turned, slid his gaze the length of her in sharp appraisal. “It would seem I am not the only one who prefers the night.”

Long ago, Shadir had been one of her father’s chief advisors. Before—before the day of which they never spoke. Since that monstrous day, he held amorphous power over court and kingdom, power that few questioned and even fewer defied. His oiled hair hung in tight curls to his shoulders and the full beard and mustache concealed too much of his face, leaving hollow eyes that seemed to follow even when he did not turn his head.

Tia shifted on her feet and eyed the door. “It is cooler to run at night.”

The mage held himself unnaturally still. Did he even breathe?

As a child, Tia had believed Shadir could scan her thoughts like the night sky and read her secrets. Little relief had come with age. Another shudder ran its cold finger down her back.

Tia lowered her chin, all the obeisance she would give, and escaped the rooftop. Behind her, he spoke in a tone more hiss than speech. “The night holds many dangers.”

She shook off the unpleasant encounter. Better to ready herself for the unpleasantness she yet faced tonight.

Her husband’s family would have arrived by this time, but sweating like a soldier and dressed like a Persian, she was in no state to make an appearance in the death chamber. Instead, she went to her own rooms, where her two slave women, Omarsa and Gula, sat vigil as though they were the grieving widows. They both jumped when Tia entered and busied themselves with lighting more oil lamps and fetching bathwater.

In spite of her marriage to the eldest son of the captive Judaean king, Tia’s chambers were her own. She had gone to Shealtiel when it was required, and only then. The other nights she spent here among her own possessions—silk fabrics purchased from merchants who traveled east of Babylon, copper bowls hammered smooth by city jewelers, golden statues of the gods, rare carved woods from fertile lands in the west. A room of luxury. One that Shealtiel disdained and she adored. She was born a Babylonian princess. Let him have his austerity, his righteous self-denial. It had done him little good.

One of her women stripped her trousers, then unwound the damp sash that bound her lean upper body. Tia stood in the center of the bath chamber, its slight floor depression poked with drainage holes under her feet, and tried to be still as they doused her with tepid water and scrubbed with a scented paste of plant ash and animal fat until her skin stung.

When they had dressed her appropriately, her ladies escorted her through the palace corridors to the chamber where her husband of nearly seven years lay cold.

Seven years since she lost herself and her father on the same day. Neither of them had met death, but all the same, they were lost. Seven years of emptiness where shelter had been, of longing instead of love.

But much had ended today—Shealtiel’s long illness and Tia’s long imprisonment.

She paused outside the chamber door. Could she harden herself for the inevitable? The wails of women’s laments drifted under the door and wrapped around her heart, squeezing pity from her. A wave of sorrow, for the evil that took those who are loved, tightened her throat. But her grief was more for his family than herself. He had been harsh and unloving and narrow-minded, and now she was free. Tia would enter, give the family her respect, and escape to peace.

She nodded to one of her women, and Gula tapped the door twice and pushed it open.

Shealtiel’s body lay across a pallet, skin already graying. The chamber smelled of death and frankincense. Three women attended her husband—Shealtiel’s sister, his mother, and Tia’s own. His mother, Marta, sat in a chair close to the body. Her mourning clothes, donned over her large frame, were ashy and torn. She lifted her head briefly, saw that it was only Tia, and returned to her keening. Her shoulders rocked and her hands clutched at a knot of clothing, perhaps belonging to Shealtiel. His sister, Rachel, stood against the wall and gave her a shy smile, a smile that melded sorrow and admiration. She was younger than Tia by five years, still unmarried, a sweet girl.

“Good of you to join us, Tia.” Her mother’s eyes slitted and traveled the length of Tia’s robes. Tia expected some comment about her earlier dress, but Amytis held her tongue.

“I was . . . detained.” Their gazes clashed over Shealtiel’s body and Tia challenged her with a silent smile. The tension held for a moment, then Tia bent her head.

She was exquisite, Amytis. No amount of resentment on Tia’s part could blind her to this truth. Though Amytis had made it clear that Tia’s sisters held her affections, and though Tia had long ago given up calling her Mother in her heart, she could not deny that her charms still held sway in Babylon. From old men to children, Amytis was adored. Her lustrous hair fell to her waist, still black though she was nearly fifty, and her obsidian eyes over marble cheekbones were a favorite of the city’s best sculptors. Some said Tia favored her, but if she did, the likeness did nothing to stir a motherly affection.

Tia went to Shealtiel’s mother and whispered over her, “May the gods show kindness to you today, Marta. It is a difficult day for us all.” The woman’s grief broke Tia’s heart, and she placed a hand on Marta’s wide shoulder to share in it.

Marta sniffed and pulled away. “Do not call upon your false gods for me, girl.”

Amytis sucked in a breath, her lips taut.

Tia’s jaw tightened. “He was a good man, Marta. He will be missed.” Both of these statements Tia made without falsehood. Shealtiel was the most pious man she had ever known, fully committed to following the exacting requirements of his God.

Marta seemed to soften. She reached a plump hand to pat Tia’s own, still on her shoulder. “But how could the Holy One have taken him before he saw any children born?”

Tia stiffened and brought her hand to her side, forcing the fingers to relax. Marta rocked and moaned on, muttering about Tia’s inhospitable womb. Tia dared not point out that perhaps her son was to blame.

“But there is still a chance.” Marta looked to Amytis, then to Tia. “It is our way. When the husband dies without an heir, his brother—”

“No.”

The single word came from both her mother’s and her own lips as one. Marta blinked and looked between them.

“It is our way.” Marta glanced at Rachel against the wall, as though seeking an ally. “My second son Pedaiah is unmarried yet. Perhaps Tia could still bear a son for Shealtiel—”

“You have had your treaty marriage with Babylon.” Amytis drew herself up, accentuating her lean height. “There will not be another.”

Tia remained silent. Her mother and she, in agreement? Had Amytis watched her languish these seven years and regretted flinging her like day-old meat to the Judaean dogs? Did she also hope for a life with more purpose for Tia now that she had been released? Tia lifted a smile, ever hopeful that Amytis’s heart had somehow softened toward her youngest daughter.

“Jeconiah shall hear of your refusal!” Marta stood, her chin puckering.

Amytis huffed. “Take the news to your imprisoned husband, then. I shall not wait for his retribution.” She seemed to sense the unfairness of the moment and regret her calloused words. “Come, Tia. Let us leave these women to grieve.” She meant it kindly but it was yet another insult, the implication that Tia need not remain for any personal grief.

Tia followed Amytis from the chamber into the hall, her strong perfume trailing. Amytis spun on her, and her heavy red robe whirled and settled. Her nostrils flared and she spoke through clenched teeth.

“By all the gods, Tiamat! For how long will you make our family a mockery?”

 

Chapter 2

Tia choked down the first words that came to her at Amytis’s accusation—words that would slash at her hypocrisy—and instead lifted a verbal shield. “Mother, you presume attention I do not command.”

Amytis twirled and stalked down the corridor, requiring Tia to follow on her heels. The vermillion robe she wore over her white tunic flowed backward like a scarlet river. “Why can you not confine yourself to the chamber I built for you? For your activities?” Disdain poured over the final word. Amytis did not, could not understand the frustration that compelled Tia to run.

“You have built me nothing, Mother. You directed slaves to outfit a room, then called it a ‘gift,’ as though it were not designed to keep me hidden.” An extension of the rooms where through childhood you kept me trapped. “And I cannot run in a single chamber.”

Amytis thrust an arm into the air but did not turn. “It is the size of the throne room! Run in circles if you must! And those ridiculous trousers. You look like a traveling merchant.”

The palace halls held ears, so Tia held her tongue.

Amytis glanced back. “Why are you lingering back there? Come to my chambers. We have much to discuss.”

Weariness fell like a weight, but Tia followed Amytis through the hall of the harem. Curious eyes appeared above veiled faces. Amytis often swept through this corridor. To remind them all that she still reigned as queen?

Around a corner, past the Representative of the Harem who maintained his stoic post, and they reached Amytis’s personal chambers. At her approach a guard opened the door. Amytis entered, flung her outer robe across the overcushioned bed, and turned on Tia.

Tia remained at the threshold of her chamber, but the door closed against her back.

The room was Amytis personified. As though she had come into a naked chamber and simply lived until it had become an extension of her very self, everything sparkling in the firelight, from gold-tasseled bed cushions to embroidered tapestries hung from bedposts. Even after a lifetime, the room left Tia dazzled.

Amytis crossed the chamber and poured wine from an amphora into a jewel-encrusted cup. “We must talk of your future.” She sipped the wine, her glittering eyes studying Tia over the cup’s rim.

“But Shealtiel’s mourning days will not be finished until—”

Amytis waved away the words with a dismissive hand and lowered herself to a carved chair. “After that, after that. Of course his death was anticipated, so messages have been prepared for days and already dispatched.”

“Messages?” The repetition sounded dull in her ears, the question of an ignorant child. Tia’s lips and tongue felt thick, useless.

Amytis raised her eyes to the painted ceiling and sighed. “To my family, in Media, of course.”

“Why—?”

Amytis clunked the cup onto a cedarwood side table. “Did you think I would allow you to remain unmarried, to run around the city like a street urchin?”

“But you told Marta—”

Amytis relaxed against the back of her chair, crossed her legs, and smoothed the white silk over her thighs. “No more Jews. Of course not. That woman’s next son is a brooding beast of a man, and marriage to him would benefit only their family, not ours.” Her voice was as smooth as the silk, unruffled by the harsh prospect of Tia’s future. “No, I have someone far better in mind.”

Tia should have anticipated this, and yet the information flattened her against the door, her hands worrying the rough wood as though it could absorb her. Memories of years with Shealtiel fluttered like moths. Her throat convulsed against her words and they emerged half strangled. “So, once again, a commodity to be traded?”

Amytis lifted her chin and those hard, hard eyes under half-lowered lids were terrifying. “This time will be different. He is a Mede. An older cousin of mine and a prince.”

“I would not care if he were king of all the world! I do not wish to again be under a man’s thumb.” Within his embrace, perhaps, but no more.

“Do not be foolish, Tia. It is the way of all royalty. We do what we must.” She used her own thumb to rub the palm of her other hand with focused attention. “The gods know I have done what was necessary.”

She had been royalty herself, a Median princess, when her father brought her to Babylon for treaty and gave her to Tia’s father. Such marriages, like her own, were more political contract than loving relationship, with the wife fulfilling her duty of bearing children to link two nations, but little more.

Amytis brought her gaze back to Tia, but it was the vacant look of one who stared into the past. “And it does not have to be wretched.” Her voice had softened, and a stranger would have thought her tone consoling. Tia had learned the sound of manipulation.

“Look at me, Tia.” She spread her arms to the abundant luxuries of her chamber, then lifted a hand toward the ceiling, indicating all that lay above them—the king’s living, growing tribute of the Gardens. “You will find joy in it. The children will bring happiness.”

The words lit a flame in Tia’s belly. The same lies Amytis had spoken nearly seven years ago. Did she believe her own words? Clearly Tia did not bring her any happiness. But of course there were her sisters, married to Babylonian nobles and dutifully producing children.

“I will not marry again.” Her voice was tight.

Amytis laughed, that soft, musical laugh her father claimed was the first part of her he loved. “If all goes as planned, he will be here in less than two months. When your thirty days of mourning are finished, you will be given to Zagros.”

Amytis would say that all her life Tia had been rebellious. But they had been insignificant mutinies, small refusals to bow to silly customs. In this, as in all that mattered, she had always been controlled.

The flame in her gut was an ancient, slow burn with an abundant source of fuel. Would that it were a raging fire to purify my life. She crossed the vine-choked carpet and fell to her knees at Amytis’s chair, cursed tears stinging her eyes.

“It is not too late, Mother.” The white silk twisted between her pleading fingers. “If the messages have only just been sent, you can send another to overtake the first, retrieve the scrolls.” Her voice faltered, the whimper of a child begging for reprieve. “Please, Mother. Do not give me away again.”

She bent her head to Amytis’s knee, held the tenuous connection. Almost she dared to hope her mother would lay a pitying hand on her head. Stroke her hair. Whisper assurances of love. One touch, Mother. One touch.

Instead, when Amytis shifted, it was to reach for her wine.

Tia pulled away and went to the square-cut window. The chest-high opening looked south, and at this height there was no need for a safety grid, leaving the view unobstructed. She leaned her head against the opening, blinking away emotion.

“You are unreasonable, Tia.” Amytis joined her to look over the city. The fires of a thousand hearths glinted through the streets like watchful eyes. Amytis studied Tia’s face and lifted her cup. “And you are distraught. Take some wine.”

Tia wanted to grab the cup and toss it through the window but took it from Amytis’s hand and sipped obediently.

Amytis watched her through calculating eyes, then turned back to the city.

“You are a princess, Tia. You have a responsibility to your kingdom. Marriage treaties ensure its peace.” She jutted her chin toward the city, the fires. “If you will not fulfill your duty to them, then you might as well be a peasant yourself.” She leaned through the opening and peered into the darkness below. Her voice deepened. “And I wonder how you would fare in the streets of Babylon.”

Heat flooded from Tia’s toes to her hairline. Subtle, as always, and yet clear. Do as she was told, or she would be as a commoner, thrust from her home and her position, unburdened of her possessions and left with nothing.

“Is there not some other way to serve, Mother? Can I not find ways to help—?”

“This is the way, Tia. I will hear no more.”

The flush receded, leaving Tia chilled. She set the cup on the sill and left the chamber, silent, feeling Amytis’s hard stare against her back. There was only one place she wished to be, and Amytis would not approve of her destination.

* * *

The hour was late but typical for Tia’s secret errand.

She crossed three torch-lit courtyards to reach the wide stairs that led into the underbelly of the palace. Slaves tasked with second watch toiled on their knees to keep the flowers watered and mulched. Their listless eyes followed her steps, but what did she have to fear from slaves?

Once, years ago, a guard had caught her and dragged her to her mother’s feet. Amytis called for an explanation, then slapped Tia when she gave it. Since then, she had only gone at night.

The stairs plunged downward, turned once. Two lonely torches burned in wall sockets as she descended, and at the bottom twin tunnels diverged in shadows, their vaulted ceilings lost in darkness. Tia shot a glance in each direction and held her breath, listening for a scrape of sandal on stone or a sword unsheathed. Nothing.

The vast tunnels and passageways of the palace could hide a thousand villainies. Though it had always been her home, still she felt its treachery. Wherever power resides, there is always evil.

Seven barrel-vaulted chambers lay in succession, but she need only reach the third. Here, her preferred entrance, unused by anyone else, climbed upward. Within moments she regained the palace level, but here no doorway led to a courtyard. Instead, the stairs spiraled toward the sky—a narrow shaft, a tunnel turned vertical.

First tier. Second. Her hand trailed the cold stones to her right and she twisted upward, upward.

Five. Six.

Tia paused at the seventh and topmost tier of her father’s beloved Gardens, only lightly winded. All that running has done some good.

The door was locked, for she was always careful. What lay beyond must never escape. Her fingers fumbled at the leather-strung key at her throat and she fitted it to the socket. For one last breath she clung to the security of the landing. She had come many times but still held no illusion of safety. Heart thrumming, she nudged the door inward, a whisper of wood against the bricks.

Night air rushed through the open door, a cold greeting. Tia crossed the threshold and perched at the summit.

Viewed from the streets, the mountain built above the palace astounded citizen and traveler alike, a forest of trees and flowers, suspended above the city. Tonight, fronds of lofty palms scraped the dark sky and blotted out starlight. Sharp, jutted trunks bristled like angry soldiers standing guard over the Gardens. Tia darted to the first set of steps and descended one tier, moving with caution and a listening ear, her senses sparking with cold awareness.

A throaty growl reached her, the threatened sound of a beast with eyes on an interloper. Tia halted, hand extended to the blood-red petals of a rose. Glossy-green leaves shone black in the darkness, and the smell of earth and moss mingled with another smell, neither animal nor human but something frighteningly in between.

No need to call out. He understood nothing.

She lowered herself to the bottom step and waited. He would come.

The buzz of night insects kept her lonely company for some minutes. But then a shadow shifted, there came a scraping sound, nails dragged across stone, and he was there.

“Hello, Father,” Tia whispered, her voice as tremulous as an old woman’s. She held out a hand, palm downward, fingers forced to relax.

He inched toward her, feet and hands tapping the stones, then stopped. Stared from under bushy eyebrows and hair grown long and matted. His beard, too, had been uncut for nearly seven years and dragged over the ground. Tattered scraps of clothing, the last clinging vestige of humanity, hung from him in ribbons. His skin was caked with the mud of years. She had tried, those first few years, to make him comfortable, to care for his body, but the collapse of his mind prevented her ministrations.

What little light reached them here reflected in the whites of his eyes, and as always Tia fell into their empty depths, willing herself to see some flicker of awareness, some perception of who he was, of who she was to him.

There was nothing but the wet softness of animal eyes.

He scrabbled forward and sniffed her outstretched hand.

Tia lifted it to touch his cheek, but he jerked away and she grabbed her own hand. After all these years, his rejection still burned.

“Shealtiel is dead, Father.” She spoke as though he understood, her seven-year defense against her crushing despair of what he had become.

He skittered a few paces, to a clump of blooming lavender at the base of a fig tree, and settled. His gaze never left her face.

“I know you wanted me to marry Shealtiel, and I sorrow for his family, but I am not much grieved for my own loss. Is that wrong?” Tia drew her legs up in front of her chest and wrapped her arms around them to ward off the night chill. She confessed her guilt to the only one who would ever listen.

“Mother plans to give me again. To the Median prince from her home.”

At this last, he lifted himself from the dirt and paced the stones, a jackal waiting for prey. A chill breeze irritated the palms. Surely he was unhappy with the news? Her self-deception was all that kept her soul from shattering.

He had once been a magnificent man, her father. Regal in bearing, a superior mind. A gift for the long-range planning it took to build such a city, and a skilled politician. Tia had adored him, and he had loved her. Perhaps the only one who ever would.

Sweet memories intruded, thoughts of his laughter at her childish joys.

“Faster, Father, faster!” Twirling her in the palace courtyard, his head thrown back with delight, arms tight about her waist.

Had he given up on having sons, embracing instead this last daughter who loved to run and jump and sneak into the courtyard fountain on scorching days? He had indulged her and lavished her with his attention. “You are beautiful, Tia. Smart as a mage, strong enough to change the world.” And then he gave her away and left her fatherless. How had they come to this?

“I do not know what to do, Father. Mother will thrust me from the palace if I refuse to marry again, I know she will.” Tia plucked a rose leaf from its thorny branch and ripped it into green shreds. “I am not afraid of the city, but I do not wish to be a peasant, mucking in the dirt for a pitiful living. If I am not a princess, what am I?”

She waited for his answer. It was her way.

He still paced, like one of his caged panthers kept for the hunt. His blackened nails clicked against the stones. Around his mouth the gore of food crusted his beard.

Tia shuddered. A deep sadness welled up within her, sadness for how far her father had fallen and for how the loss of him had left her stranded. She swiped at hot tears with the back of her hand.

“When will you return to me, Father?”

She had always linked her marriage with her father’s exile. Would her change in status bring about another change, one for which she had prayed to the gods but dared not hope? Her words were a whisper, and he did not slow his tread.

A hard determination flowed into her veins.

She could not, would not marry the Median prince.

But neither could she leave the palace. Her position and her possessions defined her life.

And she could not leave her father.

“I will find another way,” she swore to the king and to the gods of the night if they listened, her voice dangerously loud.

“My destiny is my own.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Pedaiah laid aside the scroll he’d been studying these many hours, rubbed his burning eyes, and yawned.

A low laugh filtered across the lamp-lit courtyard from a reed chair beside the fountain. “Quitting so early, Pedaiah?”

Pedaiah turned to the beloved voice and squinted to make out the lean form. Daniel held his own scroll to the lamp beside him on a narrow stone column, and Pedaiah smiled. “I’ll not be looking for my bed before you, old man.”

Daniel laughed again but set aside his writings and stood. “Perhaps it is time for a break. For us both.” He looked to the wing of the courtyard, inclined his head to a young man who stood against the wall. The servant hurried forward, eyes on Daniel.

“Melchi, would you be so kind as to bring us some bread and cheese? A little wine, perhaps?” The boy bobbed his head and hurried from the courtyard.

Pedaiah stood and stretched his back, his neck, cramped from so many hours poring over the writings, and from the tension of waiting for news of his brother.

Daniel pointed to his scroll. “You are studying Jeremiah’s letters again?”

“Yes. I—I understand what the prophet tells us, but some of our brothers warp his encouragement to be content here, twist it into a defense of their flirtation with Babylon’s detestable idolatry. I desire to find a way to show them their error.”

A clearing of the throat near the front entrance of the courtyard turned their attention to the doorkeeper, a Jew even older than Daniel. He had been installed in his post since Pedaiah was a boy. “A visitor, Chief.”

Daniel waved a beckoning hand and the doorkeeper turned to invite the visitor to the inner courtyard. Pedaiah waited to see who came at this late hour, though it was a common occurrence for Daniel, still sought for his wisdom by the Jews, if not by the Babylonian rulers for years.

A middle-aged man, clearly Babylonian, entered a moment later, head bowed and fingers pressed together in respect. Pedaiah watched with narrowed eyes. He did not care for this type who sometimes came to Daniel at night, their oiled curls and beaded headbands signifying they were magi in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.

“Enlil, is it?” Daniel crossed the courtyard swiftly, hands outstretched in greeting. “Come in, sit. We were about to take some food. Please, join us.”

Enlil’s eyes darted to Pedaiah, and he seemed to sense his animosity. “I cannot stay. I—I have only a question for you.”

Daniel smiled and nodded once.

Pedaiah exhaled, his jaw tight. This is how it always begins. With questions.

“Some are saying, in the palace, I mean, I have heard—”

“Speak your question, Enlil. You have only friends here.”

With a look of doubt at Pedaiah, the man took a deep breath. “Do you still teach magi in the ways of the Judaean’s One God?”

Daniel’s answer was solemn, like an oath. “I do.”

“I would like—if I may—I would like to join you.”

The servant returned with food and wine, and Pedaiah thanked him, then busied himself at a small table, pouring two cups and tearing apart the bread. Even with his back to Daniel and the mage, he could feel the warmth of Daniel’s response.

“You may certainly join us, Enlil, if your heart is seeking truth and not simply the satisfaction of curiosity.”

“I want to know more of your One God. I—I have doubts—”

“Then you will come.”

Daniel gave the mage the day, the time of their meeting, and instructed him in secrecy.

Pedaiah tore a piece of bread with his teeth, the movement jerky and tense.

The mage fled moments later and Daniel joined him at the table. “You do not approve, son?”

Pedaiah thawed a bit at the term. With his own father in prison these many years, it always warmed him to hear Daniel call him son.

“I fear that one day you will welcome the wrong man, one bent on exposing your work, on bringing you to destruction.”

Daniel shrugged. “Perhaps I shall. But it is more than my safety that troubles you, eh?”

Pedaiah dropped to a reed chair, cup in hand. “You are a wonder, Daniel. We all see that. So many years in the king’s court and yet you have not compromised, not allowed yourself to become tainted by this place. But we do not all have your strength.” He set the cup down with a thud. “We must remain separate to remain pure. If we are to survive this chastising, this exile, and return to our land as followers of Yahweh still, we cannot comingle our lives with theirs!” Pedaiah reclined against the chair, a bit winded.

Daniel sipped from his cup and studied Pedaiah. When he spoke, the words were slow, deliberate. “I wish you had been there when they walked from that furnace.”

Pedaiah shook his head, smiling. The story had become legend among the Jews. Daniel’s brash young friends, defying the king’s edict. Thrown into one of the city’s many brick-making furnaces, then walking out unsinged. “How does that—?”

“I saw the king and more than one mage fall on his knees before our One God that day.”

“And one day all our enemies will bow the knee! But what is that to us? We are His people and must remain true to Him.”

Daniel’s brow furrowed. “And you believe Yahweh loves only the Jews?”

Pedaiah sighed. It was an old argument. One in which he was never the victor. “He loves all people. I know.”

“Loves them. Calls them to Himself. Gives us to them, even. As a lamp stand of truth.”

“And still they grovel before their wooden idols and commit every indecent act of which man is capable.”

“Yes.”

Pedaiah paced, fueled by agitation over his people’s casual attitude toward idolatry, even now. And by the inevitable sacrifice to Babylon that his family would soon make—his own brother. “Would you have me accept their ways, join myself to them?”

“As your brother has?”

“I do not wish to talk of Shealtiel.”

“I am still praying for his recovery.”

Pedaiah kicked a chair from the path of his pacing. “He will not recover. Someone has made certain of that.”

“And you believe Shealtiel’s marriage to the king’s daughter has brought this about?”

“Yes! What else?”

Daniel shrugged. “I have seen you on a few occasions with Tiamat. I would not think you found her so detestable—”

“Stop. Stop, Daniel.” Pedaiah fell into his chair, dropped his face to his hands. “How can you even say such things?”

Daniel edged forward, gripped Pedaiah’s shoulder. “You have acted with honor, Pedaiah. You have no cause for shame. I have watched you remove yourself from the palace, keep yourself distant even when speaking with her. You have hardened a cold shell around your heart, even as you sensed Shealtiel did not appreciate the gift he had been given.”

Pedaiah lifted his face, found it damp. “Shealtiel has been like a blind man all these years, Daniel. It is as though he cannot even see how strong she is, how beautiful and compassionate. How intelligent and driven.” He returned to his pacing. “But how could it be a gift? Marriage to one of these pagans?”

Another shuffling at the doorkeeper’s entry. They turned, but there was no need for him to speak. Beside him stood one of the palace messengers, oft employed by Pedaiah’s family in the palace to bring him news. The boy’s face was downcast, his shoulders slumped.

Pedaiah clutched Daniel’s arm but spoke to the messenger. “He is gone?”

The boy nodded.

My brother is dead.

The news shattered his heart and rocked his senses. It was more than the loss of his elder brother. They were sons of a king, he and Shealtiel. And now Pedaiah was next in the line of David. His father languished in a Babylonian prison and might not live long. When Jeconiah went to his fathers, Pedaiah would be the exiled, but rightful, king of Judah.

He reached for the neckline of his tunic, yanked until the fabric ripped.

Daniel whispered at his side, “Do you want me to accompany you?”

“No. No, I don’t want you to take risks in the palace. I will go.” They stood and Daniel embraced him, which was nearly Pedaiah’s undoing.

He reached the palace before an hour had passed, found the chamber that held his brother’s body, and breathed deeply at its door. Two terrible things he would see in this chamber—Shealtiel lying cold and Princess Tiamat with all her fiery warmth. Pedaiah strengthened his heart for both and pushed open the chamber door.

His mother and Rachel fell upon him immediately, their tears washing his neck. He wrapped an arm around each, and they wept together.

Tiamat was not present, thanks be to Yahweh. Pedaiah led his mother and sister to chairs, and they sat with hands clasped, speaking in low tones of Shealtiel, his life, his last days, and the preparations to come.

Behind all of this, a current of thought gushed like a swollen river through Pedaiah’s mind—sometimes cold, sometimes boiling.

Tiamat is now a widow. Tiamat is now free.

A hard shell, Daniel had called him. Well, he would let nothing penetrate that shell even now.

Nothing.

 

© Copyright Tracy L. Higley