Adabi laid down the maggoty bread at Bi’s feet. “Please, eat your fill. The earthen-beings behind will not suspect you, and those of air and light ahead will have other concerns.”
This is Part 2. You probably should read Part 1! Like a lot of my work, this will be available shortly as an edited, compiled, eReader-friendly PDF edition to my xenophiliac Patrons, whom you can join so I can continue to eat!
Bi crooked his head to look back toward the accumulating sounds of shouting earthen-beings as they tried to separate the two guards, fighting for their lives.
Rustling sounds, like someone rising from a bed, emerged, muted, from the curtains.
Adabi followed Bi’s eyes back toward their exit, then turned back to the curtain. She pursed her lips, then knelt on the floor. She unslung the russet cedar box from her shoulder and set it on the floor, its knots untying themselves at her touch. She reached to open the lid, hesitating for a heartbeat before lifting it.
Inside, from a nest of shredded reeds, rose ten fingers, each wearing a signet ring bearing a relief telling the story of the rise of the king whose finger it adorned. Adabi reached into the box and lifted out the crown from which they arose. Each finger was held in place by a gold cuff detailed a relief that told the story of the felling of the finger’s owner.
She turned it so she faced the front of the crown. “Crown of Fingers, memorial of the conquest of Bushab, of Gumash, of Emishat, of Akhod, of Kamaldu, of Lab, of Urat and Umat, of Tudur, and of Lashu, I stand here as you requested, at the threshold of the chamber of a great queen.”
Together, the signets turned on the fingers, revealing in their relief the words of the Crown of Fingers. “We will release you when this queen has become yours and your reign conquers cities of renown. Not before. Present yourself to her. Wear us in pride.”
Hesitating, Adabi raised the crown and placed it on her head. It rested there as though it had been wrought by its metalsmith to fit her head of thick plaits.
The echoing of the shouting stopped as the voices suddenly grew close, spilling into the antechamber with Adabi and Bi, who hid behind the priestess-headed urn.
Adabi stood and faced the interlopers. Before her stood a mixed, confused, mass of a half dozen acolytes with their hair askew, leading another temple guard. The guard’s face was swollen with the bruises she had received as she’d tried to separate Burdun and Urud. Blood spattered her skin and kilt and one arm hung, limp, from her side.
They all fell silent upon seeing Adabi and the crown. Impulsively, two novices, their braids only as long as the fingers that adorned Adabi’s head, prostrated themselves.
“This matter does not concern you,” said Adabi. “Leave our presence.”
One of the acolytes released a sob into the footworn floor of the antechamber. All lowered their heads and began to back out of the antechamber.
Behind Adabi came a voice. “No,” it said, mellifluous and calm, “Please stay.”
Adabi turned toward the voice to see before her the curved bill and golden eyes of Ashu, Healer of the Sun. Her head turned slightly to the side, she said, “My children, we would have you at our side, should the courtship of this king prove like that of others.”
The acolytes and the wounded soldier ceased their shuffling and looked at each other with fear in their eyes, unsure of what to do, which command to obey.
Adabi said, “I come to you to treat with you, not to court you; to trade your vision for my favor.”
Ashu looked Adabi up and down. Though she wore a crown, her hair was shot with grey, and but a few coins and beads adorned it. Her braids were beginning to fray with her long travel in the elements. She still wore the tattered, indigo tunic that had caught the remains of her dinner earlier. Her undyed trousers of linen were stained and threadbare. On her feet were sandals often repaired with mismatched materials. Her purse at her waist held little but the stylus and its companion ink block; only one coin-sized object rested at its bottom. And yet, though no signet wrapped her finger, ten rested on her head.
Could the bill of Ashu smile, it would have. “Little dealer-in-names, what have you stolen?”
Adabi did not hesitate. “I have stolen my own fate from one from whom none escape. Do not underestimate the sharp stylus of my tongue like he did and I will return to you that dignity.”
Ashu thought for a moment, then looked over Adabi’s shoulder to the cowering acolytes. “You may leave us. I am in no danger.” The acolytes departed quickly, but the guard hesitated.
“Gesh, I relieve you of your duty to me now. I am quite safe. Go to Bugam’s care and await my call.”
Gesh bowed asymmetrically, the dislocated shoulder making her wince. She departed.
“Now,” said the great, billed head of Ashu, a maternal look in her eye, “How may Ashu, Healer of the Sky, assist…what is your name?”
Adabi said, “You first.”
The great bird head said, “I am Umet, first priestess of the great name Ashu, Healer of the Sun of the Sky of the River Ashug.”
Adabi startled at the confidence of the priestess. The name suited her. It was true. “I am Neti,” said Adabi. “My teacher was Buj, who spoke to the clouds of the sky of the western desert. He was my first love, though like so many of our kind, he had to flee in the end. I often dream of him, so he may have entered the waters of the Underworld by now.”
Umet pulled open the embroidery-inscribed curtain behind her that pledged to defend Ashu with the will of the waters of the Underworld, with hail from the sky, with an army of acolytes and soldiers dedicating their life to safety or, failing that, to vengeance. “Would you sit with me?”
Neti swallowed hard, then entered the curtained chamber, lit with oil lamps to a warm glow. Umet turned and joined her. Before the curtain flap closed, Bi silently ran to follow them, the bird’s quiet entrance unnoticed by Umet.
The chamber was richly appointed. Its floor was tiled with the colors of the sky. Through channels around its perimeter ran water from which grew carefully tended reeds like those in the river. A brazier smoldered, releasing a perfumed smoke that smelled of ch’mo paste, bringing the room a warm comfort, though its air felt fresh. Cushions lay on the floor around a couch to which Umet moved. She gestured to the cushion and said, “Sit, please.”
Neti sat and looked up to the might before her, and past her, to the ceiling where, she now realized there was nothing. Above the chamber, the roof was open to the sky — but the way to it was obstructed by a finely-wrought net of gold, from it dangling strips of papyrus bearing the promise it made: that it would capture and hold Ashu in place.
“Ashu”, began Neti, but Umet held up her hand.
“Please, we can trust each other. You may call me Umet.”
“Ashu,” Neti pressed, “Is it your will that you remain here?”
Ashu’s eyes contorted with emotion. “Of course,” came the words from the arched bill, “I am devoted to Umet, and she to me.”
Umet said, “You see.” A note of tension — perhaps anger — had entered her voice. “Now, please, as we are now friends, please address me as Umet. What is it that brought you through such ordeal into this inner chamber?”
Neti took a deep breath before speaking. “I flee Dunam Gilu, Thresher of Limbs. It is he from whom I stole the Crown of Fingers and my own freedom, and for the assistance it brings me, it would that I treat with a queen to expand her kingdom, for it wishes nothing so much as to subdue the mighty. I wish to know how close is Dunam Gilu, for he leaves every village without grain, every town barren, and every city in obeisance or in ruin. He would have the Crown of Fingers on his head again. I sought to know how closely he pursued me and I had heard that Ashu could see far and knew the ways of earthen-beings.”
Umet sat upright. “You bring disaster to this town that I have preserved all these years?”
Neti said, “I seek freedom. And I would have it taken from none. Ashu, do you miss the sky and your subjects — your family — the flock of Ashag Tibu, who mourn for your departure to this day?”
A confusion of inner turmoil came over the massive bird’s head, and it stammered, “It is better that I stay here in safety. It is best that the flock of Ashag Tibu not enter the temple, for they have often distracted me from my duties. Umet brought me here and protects me that the strong right eye of the sky of the river Ashug will never again close, as it did when I was once negligent.”
Neti replied, “Ashu, why must you be imprisoned here if your wish is to make the sun rise and set?”
The tone that replied was that of Umet. “I speak for Ashu. Address me, alone, or find your welcome ended.”
Neti, who once fled her village to find the boy who had taught her, and, who, as the woman Adabi, had escaped the bonds of Dunam Gilu with the mightiest of his trophies in her hand, said with confidence borne of hopelessness,“Ashu, I would have you free to carry the strong right eye of the river Ashug as you, yourself, judge proper.”
Umet rose to her feet, her eyes’ amusement gone. “Waters of the Underworld, steal this Neti away from me to the depths.”
From the moat that slaked the thirst of reeds rose the water, first trickling across the floor, then gushing. Neti, unable to rise from her cushion before it touched her, felt its deep cold in her body, and she hunched in pain.
Leaping from his hiding place, Bi flew to her and perched on her bent shoulder. He cried, “Ashu! We, your family, the flock of Ashag Tibu, yearn for your company! Please return to us! Come away from this place of slingstones that kill us, nets that catch us, ceilings that cover the sky!”
Ashu’s great head turned to the side, startled to hear the voice.
Adabi, her skin turning grey with cold, fell into the rising water. Only by turning her head to the side could she gasp air, which she gulped like a fresh-landed fish. She tried to speak, perhaps to Ashu, perhaps to Umet, or perhaps to Bi. But she could not: the Crown of Fingers made her mighty, but it could only delay death, not grant life.
Ashu reached a hand toward the little bird, who stood upon Adabi’s back like a dog defending a farmer from raiders, prepared to die.
“Little Bi!” said Ashu, “How you’ve grown!”
Bi was undistracted. “Call back these waters! This earthen-being has protected me, has fed me, and wished only that I introduce her to you. She is here because I wish for your freedom! Do not draw her to the waters of the Underworld!”
Ashu looked around herself as though waking up. She placed her hands on either side of her great, billed head and gently removed the mask of her face: a mask of dark-stained wood, its bill graven of stark ebony, its eyes crafted of glittering gold and outlined with cinnabar, and its every wrinkle inlaid with ivory.
Beneath the mask was the face of a young woman. Her face was unadorned and her hair neatly cropped. Her eyes were wide full of fear. For as soon as her hands, out of her control, reached down to place the mask upon Neti’s face, she was no longer protected from the waters of the Underworld, and her skin blanched grey and one knee folded. She fell with a splash into the rising waters from whose shores all someday see.
Neti, now wearing the visage of Ashu, Healer of the Sky of the River Ashug, Queen of the Flock of Ashag Tibu — pulled herself upright with great effort. Bi leapt to the couch, not yet submerged.
The great bird head on Neti’s body said, “Waters, you have discharged your duty. Please return to your depths.”
The waters abruptly ceased their rise and began to drain into the reed-lush moat once more. Neti knelt lifted a small bottle from the floor that had once held oil for the lamps. It now held a thimbleful of the waters now receded. She quickly stoppered it and placed it in her purse.
In the center of the floor lay Umet, first priestess of the temple of Ashu. Her skin was as grey as the sky before the sunrise. Her eyes, though wide, did not move. Her cheeks were hollow and no breath stirred her breast.
“Bi,” said Neti, “It is time for us to depart this place.
She found herself unable to straighten her body, so severe had been the cold of the waters of the Underworld. With effort, she drew back the curtain that had vowed to protect Ashu, only to see the clustered faces of the acolytes who had before crowded into the antechamber, each eye wide in awe and fear.
“My children, you are free. This temple is a prison no longer.”
They stood, dumbstruck.
Adabi moved through them like a river boat parting reeds before its prow. Her every joint ached with cold that was only now subsiding. The warm evening seemed to warm only her skin, penetrating no deeper into her body, but its breeze ruffled the feathers at her throat.
Finally, she stood at the entrance of the temple. Before her lay the two bodies of Burdun and Urud, their bodies’ blood streaking the deep-worn marble floor. With the acolytes behind her, she knelt and removed from her purse her stylus and block of ink. She spat into the ink and stirred it with her finger, then dipped the pen and wrote in the Language of Names on the shaven head and face of Burdun,
I am Burdun, and I have died in defense of the Temple of Ashu, that the sun may rise and set.
Below it, she wrote, I, Ashu, queen of the tribe of Ashag Tibu, express my gratitude for the honorable comportment of Burdun for defending me with his life and granting me freedom. I hail you, who take this man into the depths, and ask you to take him to his mother in the waters of the Underworld, who will know him by his name and should feel great pride. He owes a debt to his companion, Urud, whose life he took, though for good reason.
She turned and, on Urud, wrote, I am Urud.
She paused, but could think of nothing else to add as an epithet.
I, Ashu, queen of the tribe of Ashag Tibu, hail you, who find this man and I request that you, who find him in the depths, help him find his way to Burdun, who owes him a debt for his killing, though Urud killed him, too.
Adabi rose, her joints creaking with cold. She whispered in the Language of Names, “Ashu, you are free to fly.”
Ashu responded, “May I stay with you?”
Adabi was nonplused. “Ashu, I flee Dunam Gilu, Thresher of Limbs. I would not have you, nor your flock, nor the earthen-beings of this town submit to him.”
“Please,” said Ashu, “Stay on my river and I will protect you. I will wear with you the Crown of Fingers. Dunam Gilu, Thresher of Limbs will find that he faces the might of the sun, itself.”
When Dunam Gilu arrived, he expected the city of Ku to submit easily.
It did not.