16

King Eridu pounded his fist on the table so hard the heavy wood shook under the impact. “What do you mean, they cannot come? How dare they refuse my summons!” A fleck of spittle driven by the force of his words hung unnoticed at the corner of his mouth.

Five men sat at Eridu’s council table, and not one of them lifted his eyes to meet the enraged king of Sumer. Razrek, in charge of the king’s soldiers, sat at Eridu’s left. Shulgi, Eridu’s son and second in command under Razrek, sat at his father’s right. The three remaining men represented cities in Sumeria: Hammurat, from Larsa; Kuara from Isin; and Emenne, from Lagash. The representatives from Nippur and Uruk had failed to arrive. Each sent a messenger pleading urgent business that kept them at home.

The sound of birds chirping came from the garden below, their cheerful notes enhanced by the silence that followed King Eridu’s rage. At last Kuara, chief advisor to Naxos, the king of Isin, lifted his eyes. “They did not come, King Eridu, because they will not support a second attack on Akkad’s border. They know the time is not yet right to start another war. As does my own King Naxos of Isin. Everyone knows the barbarian Eskkar keeps his promises. One more raid on his lands, and the war will come south. It will be the cities and villages and farmlands of Sumeria that will face devastation and destruction.”

“So Isin is afraid to fight,” sneered Eridu.

Kuara reached out with his right hand to lift his wine cup. He took a small sip before setting it back on the table. He possessed only a thumb and forefinger on that hand. The subtle gesture sent a message to Eridu. Kuara had once fought as a soldier for King Naxos, until an enemy sword stroke cut off his fingers. As men told the story, Kuara still managed to kill his opponent, despite the severity of his wound.

“Isin will fight when the time is suitable, when what we expect to gain outweighs the risks.”

Eridu snorted. “Now your warrior king is a merchant, weighing profit and loss?”

Kuara shook his head in resignation. “The land Akkad holds is needed by Isin even more than Sumer. We will fight to take that land, take what is ours. Many men in Isin are eager to wage war against Eskkar, and King Naxos will supply more than his share of fighting men when the time is right. But now is not that time.”

“That is the same concern of King Naran, which he wished to convey to you.” Hammurat of Larsa spoke with a hint of passion in his voice. Tall and spare, he had advised the king of Larsa for many years. “Larsa needs time to strengthen its walls and build up its defenses. If the barbarian comes south, Larsa will be the first to feel his fury.”

“Your King Naran was eager enough to cross the Sippar and seize the farmlands,” Eridu said. “And to take the largest share of what we captured. Now you want to hold back? While the Akkadians increase their strength?”

“Larsa took the larger share because we took the greatest risk, and many of our men died in the fighting.” Hammurat shook his head. “We will send our soldiers across the border when a victory can be assured. Perhaps in a year or two — ”

“King Naran and the others will send more men at once!” Eridu’s hand shook with anger. “The sooner we attack, the faster Akkad will be destroyed!”

“Neither Larsa, nor Isin will send more soldiers at this time,” Kuara said. “Nor will the other cities. This is the message King Naxos of Isin told me to bring to you. Eskkar’s forces are too strong to challenge again.”

Mentioning the name of Akkad’s ruler brought even more fury to Eridu’s already red face. Veins bulged on his forehead. “The other cities will obey me! They will provide me with men and gold, or I’ll have Razrek level their cities to the ground!”

Kuara turned his gaze toward the leader of Eridu’s soldiers. “What do you say, Razrek? Will you lead your men against our cities?”

“Razrek will do as I ask,” Eridu said, his fist clenching once again.

“Is the man who led the attacks on the border not allowed to speak for himself?” Kuara’s words remained soothing, intended to calm Eridu’s anger. “Is this a council of equals, or are we just summoned here to hear King Eridu’s pronouncements?”

Everyone’s eyes went to Razrek, who shifted uneasily in his chair. “I think it would be unwise to bring force against our allies,” Razrek said. “It’s one thing to call for war against a common enemy. But many of my soldiers are from these cities. They would likely desert rather than fight their own kin. The Akkadians are hated by all, but Larsa, Isin… all the Sumerian cities… the men would wonder why we went to war against our allies.”

The fingers on Eridu’s remaining hand trembled. “You are saying you cannot lead your own men? They… you will refuse my orders?”

“No, my king. My men and I will fight at your command. But I still think now is not the right time to resume the war on Akkad. Or to start a new fight against the other cities of Sumeria.”

“Nor do I,” Kuara said. “You’re consumed with rage and hatred for Eskkar. You want to attack him and punish him for what he did to you, and you want to do it now.”

“He will suffer. I swear Eskkar’s head will hang over Sumer’s gate. As will yours, Kuara, and all of you, if you do not obey my orders.”

Kuara leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “The people of Isin are not yet your slaves, King Eridu. And if any harm should come to me — to any of us — Sumer will find itself at war with the other cities. King Naxos knows the ways of war quite well.” Kuara glanced at Hammurat and Emenne, who nodded agreement. Clearly, Kuara spoke for all of them.

“You have less than half the number of men you had when you crossed the border,” Kuara went on, “and many of these are replacements, raw recruits fresh from the farm. Even worse, any mention of attacks against Lord Eskkar convinces more and more of your experienced men to desert. They believe he cannot be beaten in battle, and they do not want to face his Akkadian archers again.”

“He can be beaten!” Eridu shouted, half-rising from his chair. “He’s an ignorant barbarian and he will be killed, his army destroyed!”

“How?”

The single word hung in the air. Eridu’s mouth opened, but nothing came out.

“I ask again.” Kuara kept all emotion from his voice. “How will you defeat him? By marching north? By walking into Akkadian arrows again? By attacking the man who defeated the Alur Meriki in three battles, and who killed the Egyptian and all his men who tried to capture Akkad? By challenging the man who just destroyed half your army and cut off your hand?”

At the mention of his lost hand, Eridu’s fury increased until the large vein on his forehead bulged and threatened to burst and cover the table in blood.

“We’ll raise more men,” Eridu said. “We can raise three, four times as many soldiers as Akkad.”

Kuara shook his head. “Ask Razrek. Ask your son, Shulgi. Will numbers guarantee success against the barbarian? You yourself had him outnumbered by four to one, yet your men were defeated, and he scarcely lost a man. King Naxos and I spoke to some of the survivors. They saw how few casualties the Akkadians took. Eskkar could have killed his prisoners or kept them as slaves, but he was cunning enough to let the defeated soldiers live, let them go free so that they would tell everyone in Sumeria what they faced. Eskkar spoke with all of them, and warned them of their fate if he ever captured them again. He knows how to bend even his enemies to his will. Our soldiers said his men treated him almost like a god. They were in awe of him.”

“We were caught by surprise.” Eridu’s voice sounded hoarse, and he could barely get the words out without choking. “We should have beaten them… a few more moments and Eskkar’s men would have been destroyed.”

“Perhaps it is as you say, King Eridu. Like you, I believe any man can be beaten. But what is done is done. Raising another army is not a plan that guarantees success, not against a trained and experienced warrior.” He glanced at his companions again. “So tell us, King Eridu, how you will defeat him this time?”

“Razrek and I will come up with a new plan. We’ll find a way to lure him south and crush him.”

Kuara tactfully didn’t bother to mention that that plan had already been tried and failed.

“Eridu, all of us wish to see Akkad’s ruler killed and the city destroyed. We all wish to take our share of the lands north of the border. But our men will not follow you down that path again. You’ve fought Eskkar. He offered you a sword to fight him, man to man, and when you refused, he cut off your hand. Even if the soldiers obey your orders, they will march into battle knowing that you dared not face him yourself, knowing that their cause is lost, that victory always sides with the barbarian. They will fight poorly, and run as soon as the first Akkadian arrow flies over their heads.”

“Your insolence will be remembered,” Eridu said. “You, all of you will — ”

“My king,” Razrek cut in, before Eridu did even worse damage to his cause. “We must be patient. We have suffered a serious defeat, and it takes time for soldiers to lick their wounds and forget their shame and embarrassment. Give me a few months, and they will burn with thoughts of revenge against Eskkar. They will remember how he attacked them by surprise. Meanwhile, we need time to raise and train many more soldiers. And Kuara speaks the truth. We need to find a new plan to destroy Akkad. When we have that, the men will take heart and fight with all their strength once again.”

Eridu wasn’t ready to give up yet. He turned to his son. “Shulgi, you can take command of Razrek’s men. You can lead the men north.”

“No, Father. Razrek is right,” Shulgi said. The son possessed his father’s height, but broad muscles covered his chest, and thick arms showed the effects of years of training. He had only eighteen seasons, but he spoke with the voice of one much older. “Our soldiers believe that Eskkar is either blessed by the gods or protected by demons. They believe… they know, he will win if it comes to a battle. We must remove such thoughts from their memories. We can prepare for a future battle, but it will be many months, perhaps years before we are ready to fight again.”

“Listen to your son, to Shulgi,” Kuara said, his voice now soft and persuasive. “He grows in wisdom with every passing day. When the time is ready, the cities of Sumeria will provide men to defeat Akkad. But we must not move too soon.”

Eridu pushed himself to his feet, his hand flat on the table for support. “Get out! Get out, all of you! You’re nothing but cowards! I’ll lead the men myself. Then I’ll settle with each of you.”

Kuara shrugged in resignation. He rose, as did his companions. He bowed graciously to Eridu, but left the chamber without a word, the other two representatives trailing behind.

Razrek started to speak, but Eridu cut him off. “You get out, too. You and your cowards left me alone to face the Akkadians. With all your horsemen, you failed even to get a warning to us.”

Razrek started to answer the charge, but he caught Shulgi’s eye and saw the shake of his head. “Yes, my king.” Razrek bowed and left the room.

Father and son watched the soldier depart. Shulgi waited until the door closed. “Should I leave, too, Father?”

Eridu reached across the table to drag the pitcher of wine toward him, and he poured himself a cup. His left hand still didn’t equal the right, and wine spilled across the surface, angering him further.

“How dare you not support your own father? You should have challenged Razrek. You keep telling me you’re ready to lead the soldiers, but you’re as weak as the others. You fear even to avenge your father. Go. Go back to your men and pretend to be a soldier. And send my steward to me.”

“Yes, Father.” Shulgi rose and left the chamber, as silently as the others.

Outside the gloomy chamber, Shulgi found Petrah, his father’s steward, waiting in the corridor in case he was needed. The old man had served Eridu faithfully for more than twenty years, and in that time Petrah had developed an uncanny sense of knowing when he would be wanted.

“He asked for you, Petrah. Be aware, he’s in a foul mood.”

“Thank you.” Petrah never bothered to waste words. He brushed past Shulgi and closed the door behind him.

Shulgi stared at the closed door for a moment, his lips tight. He turned away, went down a flight of stairs, and stepped out into the sun-filled courtyard. He walked past the private well and continued until he reached the rear of Eridu’s quarters. A small but separate dwelling stood against the wall, one that contained only three rooms, the province of his half-sister, Kushanna. Flowers and shrubs grew along the side of the house, softening for a few paces the hard lines of the Compound. The king cared little for anything green.

Kushanna waited for him just inside her doorway. Like Petrah, she also seemed to know when she would be needed.

“I saw the others leave,” she said, stepping aside to let her brother enter. “They had smiles on their faces. Did it go as you expected?”

Shulgi could restrain himself no longer. “No, it went the way you said it would, damn you!”

“Come inside,” Kushanna said, ignoring the harsh words. “Tell me all about it.”

He followed her through the main chamber and into one of the inner rooms, not her bedchamber but a small windowless alcove where her companion slave slept at night. Shulgi had never been invited into Kushanna’s bedroom. Even she wasn’t that bold.

Kushanna sat on a small chest, while Shulgi sat on the edge of the slave’s bed and stared at his sister. The entrance to her quarters could be seen from here, but no one could hear their words, as long as they kept their voices low. And no one could see inside the alcove without being seen.

Shulgi took a deep breath to calm himself. “I told him… we told him what needed to be done, that he had to be patient, that he had to stop wasting his gold on weapons and men who can’t be trusted. Marduk take him! It’s my gold he’s spending, Shanna. My birthright. Even your dowry. Soon there will be nothing left for us, and Sumer will be weaker than before. Already the other cities no longer fear us.”

Kushanna smiled at him. She did not permit many to call her by her childhood name.

Nearly as tall as her half-brother, she had two more seasons than his eighteen. Graceful and willowy, with light brown hair that reached nearly to her waist, she attracted every man’s eyes. Her white gown of the softest linen clung to the full lines of her body. A gold ring adorned each of her forefingers, and a pendant of the finest lapis lazuli dangled between her breasts.

“So, what will you do now, my brother?”

“I’m surprised you’re not reminding me about Father. You warned me he would not see reason.”

“I could have been wrong,” Kushanna said, picking at a thread on her dress. “He might have listened to your advice.”

“He still thinks of me as a child,” Shulgi said. “I get more respect from my men — even from Razrek — than our father the king.”

“I know Razrek wanted you to accompany the soldiers when they went north. Perhaps if you had been there, our soldiers might not have been defeated.”

“Father did not want to share his glory with me,” Shulgi said, unable to conceal the bitterness he still felt. “That’s why the fool ordered me to stay behind, supposedly to protect his city and his gold. Not that I had managed to do even that much. His loyal steward Petrah made all the decisions, in father’s name, of course.”

“He’s been our father’s trusted servant for many years,” Kushanna said. “Such loyalty deserves to be rewarded.”

“Yes, it does,” Shulgi said, his voice hardening as he envisioned a suitable reward for his father’s retainer. “Petrah will obey our father’s every wish, even if it means destroying Sumer in the process.”

“Petrah gathered the gold as soon as he received the message from Akkad. He paid the ransom in less than a day,” Kushanna said. “He was very concerned for our father’s welfare.”

Her calm words fed the flames of Shulgi’s rage, not that he cared any more. “Eight hundred coins, wasted, for nothing! Eskkar will use it to strengthen his army. And now father wants to spend what little gold remains on another foolish attack on Akkad. He will ruin Sumer to gain his revenge on Eskkar.”

“One day, when you rule here in Sumer and over the other cities, things will be different.”

He lifted his eyes and met her gaze. For once he paid no attention to the lush body sitting before him. “I think that day has come, Shanna. My father’s mind is consumed with hatred. He will destroy all of us. What we talked about… it must be done. Will you stand beside me?”

Kushanna met his gaze for a long moment, studying his face, as if measuring the depth of his anger and resolve. Satisfied, she rose from the chair and sat next to him on the narrow bed.

Shulgi felt the heat from her thigh through the thin garment as it touched his own.

“You know I will, Shulgi. You are the only man I have ever loved.” She took his hand in both of hers and pressed it to her bosom, letting him feel the softness.

A rush of desire swept over him. His eyes closed for a moment. When he opened them, her mouth was close to his own. Shulgi kissed the soft lips that reached up for him. They had kissed many times before, stolen moments when their father was absent or the servants occupied, and each time his passion for her grew stronger.

This time, however, Shulgi sensed something more than a casual dalliance. He let his hand slip from her grasp, and used his fingers to push the dress off her shoulder, until her right breast swelled from the garment’s confines. For once she didn’t push him away. Instead her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath, her nipple firm and hard. The warmth from her skin seemed to burn his hand as he brushed his fingers over her, and the scent of her body roused him even more than the sight of her naked breast, perfect in its beauty. He cupped the heavy globe of soft flesh, squeezing gently.

Shanna leaned against him, her body reacting to his touch. Then she opened her eyes and held his gaze while she nudged the dress down from her other shoulder, then let herself fall back on the bed. She reached up and traced her finger along his cheek, enjoying the look on his face as he drank in the sight of her bare breasts. Shanna had never let him go so far. Then she placed both her hands behind his neck and pulled him toward her.

Shulgi leaned over and kissed her breasts, first one, then the other. Shanna moaned softly at his caress, and arched her back against him, while her hand reached over to brush against the rock-hard manhood straining beneath his tunic.

“When will you make me yours, my beloved?” Her voice, husky now with passion, inflamed him even more, and the touch of her hand made his already fierce erection even harder.

He moved his mouth to her lips, and kissed them, gently at first, then with growing passion. “Tonight, my Shanna… tonight. Before our father decides to send me off on yet another wasted journey to recruit men.” He ran his hand over her breast, teasing the nipple until it swelled and hardened. “Besides, I can’t bear to wait another day for you.”

“The time for waiting is past,” Shanna agreed. “Tonight you will make me yours.” She returned his kiss one more time, then slipped from his grasp and sat up, smiling at him as she rearranged her dress. “But first we must talk about what needs to be done. We must plan with care, so that nothing can go wrong. Only when we are ready can we act.”

Shulgi forced the sight of her bare breasts from his thoughts. His erection still throbbed, but after all these years, he could wait one more day. “Then let us talk.”

The rest of the day passed soon enough, as Kushanna and Shulgi made their preparations. He felt no surprise at learning that she had already considered every detail, every step. And only when she declared herself satisfied with his role did she agree. One last kiss, and he returned to the soldiers’ camp just outside the city, where Razrek had settled his men and horses.

New recruits — those too stupid or too desperate to find another trade — milled about, waiting for the day to end. Kuara had spoken the truth in the council, Shulgi knew. These men would make poor fighters. It would take many months before even half of them reached the level of training achieved by the men Eridu had led north to their deaths.

Shulgi didn’t care. His own detachment of men — its survivors numbering less than thirty since the battle with Eskkar’s forces — were as good as any of Razrek’s core group of veterans. More important, they were loyal to Shulgi, not Razrek, not even Eridu. They were commanded by Vanar, formerly one of two of Shulgi’s leaders of twenty. The other had died by an Akkadian arrow, and Vanar had taken charge of those that remained.

Shulgi found Vanar stretched out on the grass beneath one of the few trees large enough to provide shade.

“Taking your ease, I see.”

Vanar opened his eyes, but didn’t bother to get up. “We’ve finished training for the day, commander. The men are washing down the horses in the river.”

“Make sure they give themselves a good cleaning as well. My father has complained about the horse stink of the guards at the house. When you’re satisfied with them, I want you and ten men at the house at sundown. Our men will take the evening shift at the Compound, from supper to midnight.”

That news prompted Vanar to pull himself to his feet. “Tonight, commander? Can’t we start tomorrow?”

“If you’re not there before sundown, I’ll be finding a new sub-commander. So unless you’d rather be taking orders than giving them…”

“Yes, commander. We’ll be there. But why so many men?”

“My father grows even more nervous about assassins from Akkad. So just get the men there.” Shulgi turned and made a circuit of the camp, making sure all was well. The sun had touched the western horizon before he walked back toward Sumer’s gate, ignoring everyone he encountered, many of whom gazed curiously at him as he passed by, wrapped in his private thoughts.

Shulgi had set the first part of the plan in motion. With Vanar and his men to back him, there would be no problem with the household servants or guards.

Meanwhile, Shanna would see to everything else inside the household. As they went over what they needed to do, Shulgi realized she had prepared for this day months ago, waiting until he came to his senses and saw what needed to be done. Shanna understood what it would take to rule Sumer, to turn the city into the mightiest in the land. She wanted that power, the same way Shulgi did. Together they could achieve it. If he had listened to her when she first proposed taking action, Shulgi would have been the one leading the soldiers north into Akkad’s territory. Unlike his father, Shulgi knew he would have returned with a victory. The men trusted him, believed in him. They would have fought bravely. Instead, they had run at the first sign of attack, as did Eridu.

Too late to worry about that now, Shulgi decided. In a way, this might even be a better time to act. Where once Shanna had tried to coerce her brother to act, now she merely had to encourage him. They both understood the grim future that awaited them if Eridu continued to rule. No, this was best. And even better, she would help Shulgi rule a new southern empire, even as she pleasured him in bed.

A sense of calm settled over him, and he wasted no more time worrying about what might happen tonight. Instead, he let his mind recall Shanna’s body. He’d wanted Shanna for years, dreaming about her, lusting for her, and now the time had come.

Long after Shanna reached the age for childbearing, her father had kept her at his side, little more than an intimate servant. Then, less than two years ago, Eridu offered Kushanna for marriage to unite a troublesome village with Sumer. Shulgi had sulked in silent fury for days afterwards. Less than a month later, he joined the fighters defending the western borders of Sumer. Even killing his first man in combat soon afterwards hadn’t helped lessen the despair Shulgi felt at the thought of another man enjoying Shanna’s body, ordering her about, commanding her to kneel before him, to please him with her mouth and hands. Those visions had tortured him for months, and hardened his heart against his father, who had sold his daughter to a common merchant for a mere fistful of gold.

The marriage indeed worked well enough. Her husband, no doubt with prompting from Kushanna, had joined with Sumer and supplied both men and gold for Eridu’s growing military.

Thankfully, the gods had answered Shulgi’s prayers, and her foolish husband — an old man scarcely able to walk without a cane — had died little more than a year after the marriage. Since Shanna had produced no child, her husband’s family welcomed the opportunity to send back the unfruitful wife to her father’s house, even if they had to return part of the dowry. Eridu had been pleased to take her back under his roof, especially since she brought a fair share of gold with her.

None of that mattered to Shulgi now. For years Shanna had teased him, aroused him with her touch and caresses. Shanna had done almost everything to him, spilled his seed with her hands, everything but let him take her. Tonight would see the end of that game. Tonight she would be his, in his bed, his property. After tonight, there would be no more games, only an empire to build.

A little before sunset, Kushanna sat beside her father, at his right side, during the evening meal. Like her half-brother, she felt no qualms or doubts. She’d prepared for this night for years. Unlike Shulgi, her wedding caused her no anguish. She much preferred an old man for a husband, one who could be easily manipulated. Plenty of wine and more lovemaking than he could handle soon produced the desired death. Her constant antagonizing of his existing wives and family ensured her speedy return to her father.

Now Eridu in his blind rage had fallen prey to another kind of manipulation, subtly encouraged by her solicitous advice and suggestions. Tonight King Eridu, still angry at the council’s decision, had decided to dine alone. Only his steward, Petrah, joined father and daughter at the table, sitting opposite his master.

Shanna had worked with the cooks to make sure the evening meal was one of Eridu’s favorites, a roast leg of lamb, covered with rosemary and seared to a golden brown, the meat tender and juicy within. Knowing of her father’s foul mood, she had ordered the servants to serve the king’s finest wine, and she mixed the wine and water for her father herself, adding a bit more of the strong wine than he normally preferred.

She also cut the lamb for him, taking care to slice the steaming meat to just the right size. Since his return from Akkad, Shanna had filled the role of diligent daughter, helping her father overcome the lack of his right hand. He scarcely noticed, and treated Shanna like a servant, complaining about the slightest oversight. No matter how unfair, she never protested.

Tonight Eridu’s mood was as dark as the wine Shanna poured for him. Several times she tried to start a conversation, but the king had little interest in talking, and certainly not with Shanna.

“Where is Shulgi?” The meal was well under way before he uttered the first words spoken since they sat down.

“He said he would sup at the camp, with his men,” Shanna said. “He will join us later.”

“His men.” Eridu snorted as he stuffed another piece of lamb into his mouth, chewing loudly. “Cowards, all of them. And Razrek is the worst of the lot.”

“You’re right about Razrek, Father,” Shanna agreed. “You should get rid of him. Shulgi can lead the men as well as anyone.”

“I should get rid of both of them. Find someone with the will to fight. What do you say, Petrah?”

“Razrek is experienced in warfare, my king, and he leads the men well enough. He may still be of some use to you.”

“He’d fight just as hard for Akkad, if I didn’t pay him so much gold. He’s bleeding me dry.”

“Soldiers are expensive to maintain,” Petrah said, deftly avoiding Eridu’s comment.

“Give Shulgi more authority over the men, Father,” Shanna said. “At least you can be certain of his loyalty.” She refilled her father’s wine cup, adding only a splash of water.

“When he’s older,” grunted Eridu. “He’s too young yet for such responsibility.”

They ate the rest of the meal in silence. When Eridu put down his knife with a loud belch, Shanna rose.

“I’ll fetch the sweet cakes, Father.” She left the chamber, but returned within a few moments, carrying the cakes and dates herself, covered with a piece of linen to ward off the flies. Shanna settled the platter down on the table. Eridu’s wine cup was empty, and she started to refill it.

“No more wine,” he ordered. “Are the slaves ready to attend me?”

Shanna stopped pouring, but the cup was already half full, and Eridu reached for it. He’d chosen two women for his evening’s pleasure, new slaves whose fear and trembling would act as an aphrodisiac to their jaded master. He liked them very young, and to take them two at a time. And if one failed to please him, a good beating would encourage the other to try harder.

“They’re waiting downstairs, Father. I’ll summon them when you’re ready.”

The door opened, and Shulgi entered, closing it behind him. He still wore his leather vest and sword, as if he’d just come from the soldiers’ camp, though in fact he’d waited in the courtyard for Shanna’s signal, a wave from the upper window when she went to fetch the sweet cakes.

Shulgi moved to the foot of the table, to stand opposite his father, placing himself almost directly behind Petrah.

“Now what?” Eridu demanded, a hint of petulance in his hoarse voice. He rose, wiping his face on a cloth and tossing it down on the table. Petrah stood also, prepared to utter his thanks for his master’s generosity and depart.

“It’s the men, Father, they’re demanding more gold again.”

Shanna returned to her place beside her father, though she did not sit down. The knife she’d carved the lamb with rested on the table. With a smooth motion, she picked it up, grasping it firmly as Shulgi had instructed her, then Shanna turned and drove it into the right side of Eridu’s chest, thrusting the blade upward so that it would penetrate the ribs, not glance off the bone.

She struck with such speed and smoothness that Eridu scarcely gasped, even as he looked down to see the knife protruding from his body.

The steward, slow to react and shocked by Shanna’s attack, never had a chance. As Shanna delivered her thrust, Shulgi jerked out his sword, twisted the steward around, gripped him by the throat, and drove the blade into Petrah’s chest, forcing him backwards onto the floor.

Eridu, his eyes wide with fear and astonishment, tried to call out. But Shanna clapped her hand on his mouth. With his only hand, he struggled to push her away, but by then Shulgi had reached his father’s side.

He drew a knife from his belt and plunged it into Eridu’s heart, driving the blade deep with a brutal thrust. “I’ve waited long enough for this, Father.”

Eridu’s eyes flickered from son to daughter one last time before his knees gave way. He was dead before he reached the floor.

“Quick! Move Petrah’s body closer.” Shanna kept her voice low. She knew Shulgi would have ordered the guard away, but anybody might be outside the chamber, and the door might open at any time.

Shulgi returned to the other side of the table, and dragged Petrah closer to Eridu’s body. The knife Shulgi used for the fatal thrust belonged to Petrah, taken from his quarters only moments before. Using both hands, Shanna jerked the blade she’d used from the king’s body, and thrust it deep into the remains of the lamb. Any trace of Eridu’s blood vanished. She turned to Shulgi.

“Are you ready?”

Shulgi had withdrawn the knife from his father’s body and placed it in Petrah’s hand. “Yes, hurry.”

Shanna touched his arm for the briefest moment, and took a deep breath. Then she screamed, a loud piercing sound that carried through the upper chambers and through the open window to the courtyard below.

At the same moment, Shulgi picked up the wine pitcher and hurled it to the floor, where it burst into a dozen pieces, the red wine mixing with the blood and staining the floor. Shanna, using all her strength, tipped the table up as high as she could, before letting it drop back to the floor with a loud thud. Food, cups, and the remains of the meal clattered to the floor.

Shanna screamed again, then ran for the door. “Help! Help! Petrah stabbed the king!”

Before she reached the door, servants flung it open and rushed into the room, followed a moment later by the stunned guard. His face turned white with fear when he saw the king’s body, and blood spattered everywhere.

“Send for Razrek!” Shulgi ordered. “I want him at once. And send my guards to me.”

“Is the king… is he dead?” The guard could scarcely get the words out.

“Yes, damn you!” Shulgi snapped. “Murdered by Petrah! Now get moving!”

The guard opened his mouth as if to speak, but then changed his mind and darted off, anxious to do Shulgi’s bidding. His voice echoed down the corridor, shouting the news of Eridu’s death.

The rest of the night was full of turmoil and confusion. Shanna pulled at her hair, hard enough to bring tears to her eyes, and left it in disarray over her face. She told the story again and again, in a halting voice that paused every few moments to sob. Her father and Petrah had quarreled over the cost of the soldiers. Eridu had slapped his steward, and Petrah had retaliated by stabbing his master with his knife. Shulgi had then killed Petrah.

Shanna kept crying, her body shaking with emotion as she shouted again and again for her beloved father. She repeated the story to every new arrival. Soon servants and soldiers filled the room, everyone jostling each other to catch a glimpse of the dead king, still lying where’d he fallen in the midst of the remains of the evening’s meal. Razrek arrived in haste, pushing his way through the crowded chamber, his meal interrupted, his eyes going wide at what he saw.

As Shulgi repeated what had happened, Razrek’s eyes narrowed. “Petrah?”

Razrek’s face mirrored his confusion, and Shanna moved quickly to stifle any questions. Razrek was, after all, the only one strong enough to challenge their story.

“This is your fault,” Shanna shouted, standing before Razrek, her face now contorted with rage. “It was your guard who failed to protect the king, your guard who let Petrah bring his knife into the room. He should be put to death at once. At once!” Her voice broke down, and she began to sob again, her whole body shaking from her sorrow.

Shulgi caught Razrek’s arm and pulled him aside. “Best to do as she says. Otherwise, she’ll start claiming you put Petrah up to this.”

“Are you sure Petrah…?” His voice trailed off. Something in Shulgi’s eyes told him not to ask any questions.

“Do it now,” Shulgi went on, his voice low. “With my father dead, I’ll take charge of the city and the army. You’ll be getting paid by me from now on. Is that clear enough?”

Razrek recovered his wits in a few heartbeats. Suddenly, he remembered that Shulgi’s men stood in the corridor outside the chamber, and in the courtyard below. “Yes… my king. I’ll take care of the guard, and send my men to guard the Compound.”

“No need,” Shulgi said. “I have some of my men here already. The rest will soon arrive. Now go get rid of the guard. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”

Shulgi turned to see Shanna seated in a chair, her face covered by her hands as she rocked back and forth. Servants attended her, holding her hands, offering water, wine and cloths to dry her tears. Every part of her body showed her grief, as dutiful as any daughter. Razrek shook his head and departed, glad to have had no part in the night’s turmoil.

It took most of the evening before everyone calmed down, the bodies removed, and the room cleaned. In front of the household, Shulgi ordered Shanna to sleep in her father’s bed tonight, for her safety. And to ensure that, Shulgi ordered his own bed brought into the dining chamber. Two of his men stood guard outside the chamber when he finally dropped the wooden bar across the doorway.

Crossing the room Shulgi entered what had been his father’s bedroom, but was now his. A single candle still burned, and Shanna sat on the bed, combing her hair. She wore a clean garment. She’d ordered the other one, stained with her father’s blood, to be burned. Shanna rose and walked toward him. Before he could reach out to touch her, she bowed low, as humble as any servant.

“My king, is there anything I may do for you tonight?”

“Oh, yes.” He heard the hoarseness in his voice. But it didn’t matter any more. With Shanna, there would be no need to pretend or hide his emotions. “You can take off that dress before I rip it off.”

She straightened, and the smile was back on her face. “Yes, my king. We wouldn’t want the servants to see a torn garment in the morning.” Shanna pulled the dress over her head and stepped back.

His eyes drank in the sight of the lush body. A quick breath extinguished the candle before he picked her up and dropped her down on the bed, as excited as the day he had taken his first woman. His father was out of the way, Shanna lay naked in his bed, and Sumer belonged to him. Soon all of Sumeria, then Akkad and the northern cities would follow.

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