24

Ten days after the messenger from Akkad departed, two men stopped before the entrance to the Kestrel. Late in the afternoon, Tammuz and En-hedu had just finished enjoying the shade outside the tavern’s door. The Kestrel had been open for business for more than a month, and a steady routine had established itself. The mornings kept them busy, serving bread and ale to anyone who stopped by or who had slept over. That meant rising with the dawn, to keep an eye on the customers still sleeping on the floor, or those who might have availed themselves of Irkalla and Anu. The ale had to be watched, of course, at all times, and it wasn’t unheard of for customers to rob those still sleeping, then depart.

When the last of the patrons left the inn, preparations began for another day’s activity. The common room had to be cleaned each morning. A man who’d drunk too much ale seldom bothered to step out into the lane to relieve himself in the middle of the night, even assuming he could get Rimaud to open the door.

While the clean-up went on, ale and provisions needed to be purchased. But most of the day’s preparation ended well before midday. At noon Tammuz and En-hedu often carried a bench outside the Kestrel. They took time to relax and watch the people passing by in the lane, while they shared a loaf of bread and a cup of weak ale. Afterwards, they would take turns getting some sleep.

Late in the afternoon found Tammuz seated on his stool behind the ale table. He took one look at the two men standing before the entrance and frowned. One was a bodyguard, complete with sword and a sack he carried over one shoulder. The other wore the sash that proclaimed him a member of King Shulgi’s officials.

“This is the new tavern, the… Kestrel?”

A stupid question, since an image of the bird was directly behind Tammuz’s head, not to mention the one outside, next to the door. He rose from the bench. “Yes, master. Do you need a place to stay?”

The man snorted in annoyance. “I wouldn’t waste my time in a filthy place such as this. I am King Shulgi’s collector of taxes. Fetch the owner.”

That was unfair, Tammuz thought. They kept the Kestrel cleaner than most taverns in Sumer.

“I am the owner… my wife and I.”

En-hedu stepped from their bedroom, but the tax man didn’t bother to acknowledge her presence. “Your tax is due. Three silver coins. If you can’t pay, your tavern will be closed and your goods confiscated.”

“Merchant Gemama told us that the tax would be two silver coins,” En-hedu said, moving beside her husband.

“The tax for a tavern used to be two silvers… now it’s three.”

“We’ll pay two,” Tammuz said. The tax collector could easily be trying to take advantage of them, collecting three coins and turning in only two. “That’s what Merchant Gemama told us we had to pay.”

The tax collector tightened his lips. “King Shulgi announced the new tax ten days ago, when he spoke in the marketplace.”

A small crowd of the always curious had gathered just outside the door, to watch the little drama. One of the bystanders called out. “It’s true! The tax was raised to three silvers.”

Tammuz turned to En-hedu, dismay on his face. “That will take more than we’ve earned.”

She shrugged. “What can we do? We’ll have to pay it.”

“The king doesn’t care about your profits, innkeeper. Now pay up, or the tavern is closed.”

“I’ll fetch it.” En-hedu went inside, and a few moments later, returned.

The taxman held out his hand.

En-hedu held her fist to her chest. “I want a stone first, to show that we’ve paid.”

A small clay shard, marked with the king’s sign, a different one starting with each new moon, provided proof that the tax had been paid.

“Not very trusting, are you?” The man’s sarcasm was wasted on her. “All right.” He dug into the bodyguard’s pouch and handed over the red-baked clay marker. En-hedu examined it, then handed him the tax.

Without a word, the man turned and left the tavern. Tammuz and En-hedu followed him to the door, and watched him walk down the lane, heading to the next place of business. With nothing to see, the crowd dissolved, and Tammuz and En-hedu stepped back inside the Kestrel.

“Wait!”

Another man followed them in. Tammuz recognized Melchior, Gemama’s clerk. He muttered another oath under his breath.

“Merchant Gemama’s fee is due today. One silver coin. Do you have it?” Melchior’s voice grated in Tammuz’s ears. Gemama’s clerk spoke as if he expected them to plead some excuse or ask for a delay.

“Yes, I have it.” He nodded to En-hedu once again. She handed over the coin. “Make sure your master gets it,” Tammuz warned. “We won’t be paying twice.”

After a quick inspection to make sure the coin was sound, Melchior placed the coin in his pouch and let it slip inside his tunic. He, too, left without another word.

“There go our profits for the month,” En-hedu said. She lowered her voice. “If we had to earn that from the Kestrel, we’d starve.”

“No, we’d dilute the wine and ale, serve bad food, and steal from our customers, like every other innkeeper in Sumer.”

“Still, we’re going to need more copper coming into the inn,” she said. “Who knows, perhaps the tax will be raised again in a month or two. Maybe it is time to start using Zenobia’s teachings.”

The owner of Akkad’s finest pleasure house had taught En-hedu the secret skill of massage, the hidden pressure points on a body that would respond favorably to a knowing touch. En-hedu had mastered the teaching, learning quickly, and with her strong hands and powerful arms, she could push and prod and knead as well as any man.

Tammuz didn’t care for this part of the plan at all. He didn’t like the idea of En-hedu touching other women, not to mention men. There would always be requests for more intimate services from both sexes.

She saw his frown. “Don’t worry, husband. I’ll take care, I promise.”

He took a deep breath and put his arm around her. “I know. But I still…”

Another man entered the tavern. This one glanced around, and seemed happy to find the inn still empty.

“What do you want?” Bad tidings always arrived in threes. Tammuz knew the man was no customer. He looked too well fed, and the long knife in his belt didn’t go well with the run-down clothing.

“I want to talk to the owner. Is that you… Tammuz?”

“Yes, I’m Tammuz. And this is my wife, En-hedu. We own the Kestrel. Who are you?”

The man smiled, then sat at the nearest table, and motioned for them to join him.

Tammuz eased himself down onto the bench facing the man, while En-hedu stood just behind him.

“I spoke to guardsman Jarud. He says you can be trusted.”

Tammuz said nothing, still waiting for the man to give his name.

He took the hint. “My name is Enar.” He paused, as if he had just imparted a great secret. “Jarud says that many of your customers are river men, some of them from up north.”

“The Kestrel is close to the docks,” Tammuz said. “Who else but boatmen would come here?”

“Can your wife be trusted to keep her mouth shut?”

“My wife speaks only when she’s told to,” Tammuz said.

“Mmm, a good woman. Then she may be useful, too. An innkeeper and his wife hear many things from their customers, especially when the customers have drunk too much ale. When you hear such things that may be of interest, I would like to know them. You would, of course, be paid for what you tell me, provided it is useful.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Oh, anything of importance. Things that might be of some use to Sumer’s rulers. Any talk about unrest, people complaining about the king’s rule, gossip about Akkad, even information about trade and cargoes, boats, caravans. Anything of interest.”

Tammuz and En-hedu had heard rumors that the new queen, Kushanna, wanted as much information as possible about the six cities in Sumeria, as well as the far north. Enar would be one of her informers, seeking such information from any source he could find.

He glanced at his wife, who nodded. “How much would you pay?”

“At least a copper coin for anything of value. More, if it is especially useful. Much more if what you hear is of real importance, such as anyone plotting against the king.”

“The Kestrel is a good tavern,” Tammuz said, “but not good enough for most ship captains or boat masters. All that come here are the crewmen, the rowers, and some guards.”

“I know who patronizes this place. I’ve been here before. You must not remember me.”

Tammuz didn’t, which annoyed him. He should be alert enough to recognize a Sumerian spy.

“How would I get such information to you?”

“I stay at the White Gull. If I’m not there, you can leave a message with the owner.”

Tammuz nodded. “I’ll keep my ears open. If I hear anything…”

“Another thing… you might want to encourage some of your more interesting customers to talk. Slip them a little extra ale, if need be. Your wife… your whores… the more you can get your patrons to talk about home — especially those from Akkad and upriver — the better.”

“We can do that,” En-hedu said, joining the conversation for the first time. “As long as you pay each time.”

A brief frown crossed Enar’s face at her impertinence. Women should speak only when spoken to. “I’ll pay when you tell me something useful.” He returned his eyes to Tammuz. “Best if you didn’t say anything about this to anyone else. Nor to Jarud. Even those who live here in Sumer might need to be reported, should they say anything against King Shulgi’s interest. That includes members of the city’s guard.”

“I understand.”

“Well, then, I’ll be on my way. Your first customers should be arriving soon.” Enar stood, nodded approvingly, and left the tavern.

En-hedu sat down beside Tammuz. “At least he didn’t demand a silver coin from us.”

“Who knows, but we may be able to make a few extra coins this way.”

“It does only seem fair, with what we’re paying in taxes and fees, to get something back.”

They laughed at the idea of spying for Sumer.

T he next day, En-hedu gave massages to Irkalla and Anu. Both women worked hard, and En-hedu knew they would appreciate a little attention. Mother and daughter kept the kitchen, common room, and their own chamber clean. They started working early in the day before the first customer arrived, and then sometimes labored until Tammuz fastened the door, and even after. Some customers wanted servicing long into the night, and again in the morning. As the Kestrel grew more and more popular, the number of customers increased, and Irkalla and Anu rushed back and forth carrying food and ale, in addition to occasionally disappearing into their chamber with a patron for a time, usually as brief an interval as the girls could manage.

Giving the mother and daughter a massage helped En-hedu, who needed the practice. Aside from Tammuz, she hadn’t given anyone a massage since they left Akkad. She started with Irkalla, who had never received a massage before. This early in the day, there were no customers in the Kestrel. Anu covered a table in the common room with a folded blanket, and En-hedu told Irkalla to remove her dress, and lie face down on the blanket. With Anu watching, En-hedu began working the woman’s neck and shoulder muscles. A few drops of oil helped warm Irkalla’s skin, and soon En-hedu moved down to the lower back. By then, Irkalla sighed with pleasure as the stiffness in her body faded, and the muscles stretched without straining.

By the time En-hedu had finished, Anu, showing more excitement on her face than En-hedu had ever seen, pleaded for a similar rubdown, hopping up and down in her eagerness.

“Please, mistress,” Anu said. “My back has been hurting for days.”

En-hedu smiled at the girl. “Give me a few moments to rest.”

While Irkalla dressed, Anu removed her garment and moved up onto the table. As En-hedu began, she saw that the girl’s back really did need work. The muscles in her right shoulder were knotted. Now that she noticed it, En-hedu realized why the girl sometimes had trouble standing up straight.

“You are very stiff, Anu. We shall have to do this every day for awhile, until your back is straight.”

Shadows blocked the door, and En-hedu glanced up to see Tammuz and Rimaud returning. The guard carried a wineskin under each arm, and Tammuz had a third one slung over his shoulder. Tammuz’s mouth opened in surprise at finding his wife working on a naked Anu, who moaned and sighed at each touch of En-hedu hands. She smiled at her husband, who stood there, fascinated. En-hedu saw his eyes fasten their gaze on Anu’s body, and a moment later, she caught sight of his erection pushing up against his tunic.

“Almost finished,” she said to Tammuz. “Then you can take Anu’s place. It’s time we took care of you.”

Tammuz blushed, which made Irkalla laugh. En-hedu moved her hands lower down on Anu’s back, and began squeezing the globes of her buttocks. En-hedu slipped her hand between the girl’s legs, and found her secret place wet and aroused. Anu moaned again at the touch, and opened her legs wider in invitation.

“Enough for today,” En-hedu said, giving the girl a friendly slap on the buttocks. “Now it’s your turn, Tammuz. I think the three of us should be able to satisfy you.”

Before her still-blushing husband could protest, she took his hand and guided him to the table. En-hedu helped him remove his tunic, and then she undid his undergarment, letting it drop to the floor. With Irkalla’s assistance, she eased Tammuz onto the table, on his back.

His unfettered erection throbbed in the air.

“So big,” Irkalla said, brushing the member with her fingers. “He must give you much pleasure.”

“Oh, yes. It feels so good inside me.”

“Shall I relieve him for you?” Irkalla asked. “Or Anu?”

“No, his rod is mine alone,” En-hedu said. “But you can use your mouth to satisfy him, while Anu and I will keep his hands and lips busy.

She slid her tunic down off her shoulders, and moved up onto the table, letting her breast brush against Tammuz’s mouth. In a moment, Anu moved to the other side and did the same. At the same time, Irkalla knelt on the blanket between his legs, and took his staff into her mouth.

Tammuz’s hands went to the women’s breasts, and he cupped and squeezed them even as Anu shifted her body so that her left breast brushed his face.

Except for the training with Te-ara before they left Akkad, Tammuz had never had such an experience. Soon he was groaning and writhing in pleasure, as Irkalla’s skilled mouth, tongue, and hands brought him to a massive explosion of seed into her mouth. She gagged a little as he came, but she never stopped moving her head up and down, draining every drop from his rod, while he clutched at Anu’s breasts in his passion.

En-hedu reached down and kissed him. “I hope you enjoyed yourself, husband. Next time, we’ll spend more time pleasuring you.”

Dazed, Tammuz struggled to sit up. All the women had smiles on their faces. His penis might have emptied itself, but it remained hard. En-hedu knew it wouldn’t take much effort to arouse him again.

She realized that Rimaud had watched the whole thing. He still stood there, his mouth gaping open, as his eyes went from one to the other.

“I think you should put your dress back on, Anu,” En-hedu said. “The customers will be arriving soon. We wouldn’t want them to think they should get the same service, would we?”

T he next morning, En-hedu gave Rimaud a long and vigorous massage that left the big man gasping for breath and scarcely able to stand. But the day after that, the pain in his leg lessened, and he pleaded with En-hedu for another, even offering to pay her. After speaking with Tammuz, she decided to give him one every other day, with no charge. That would help relieve his pain, and by not charging him for the service, it would make him even more loyal.

The cook became En-hedu’s next patient. Like many other women who performed hard labor all day long, she had lived with back trouble for years, and the massages brought the first relief she had ever known. The woman’s gratitude was even more embarrassing than Rimaud’s. She soon spread the word throughout the neighborhood, telling everyone at the market and along the river, where the women went to wash their garments, of En-hedu’s wonderful talent.

Word of En-hedu’s skill with her hands soon spread. Except for the wealthy, nearly everyone worked long hours, and many earned their bread and a place to stay by carrying heavy loads on their backs. Women, who lifted more than their share of bales and bundles, soon began appearing at the Kestrel, seeking to speak with En-hedu, and asking, in halting words and nervous voices, if they could have a massage.

En-hedu charged each one a copper coin, but most women could not afford to pay for such a luxury. Instead, they bartered their services or other goods to pay for each massage. Soon En-hedu had chickens, rabbits, bread, fruit, cloth, garments, and dozens of other items being traded for her skill. En-hedu and Tammuz’s sandals, worn down from the long walk from Ubaid, were repaired for free.

The local carpenter across from the Kestrel and the leather worker down the lane started spending time on En-hedu’s table, and paying for the service by doing work around the inn. The carpenter made her a narrow table to facilitate the massage, as well as some new tables and benches for the inn, and the tanner provided straps to repair the sagging bed and replace the door hinges. Another customer provided cloth and rope to create some privacy for a corner of the common room, so that the women could remove their garments without worrying about the customers gawking. At first a few grinning patrons tried to peek behind the curtain nonetheless, but Rimaud took care of that problem by tossing them out into the lane.

All this work took time away from running the Kestrel, but thankfully a normal routine had settled in. En-hedu and Tammuz gave Irkalla more responsibility, and increased her wage to compensate. The inn now filled up almost every night, so they added another one of the cook’s daughters to help prepare meals beside the basic stew. Almost every night meat was served, depending on what En-hedu’s customers brought in barter that day.

Two months after En-hedu gave her first massage, she found herself working almost full time, doing five or six people a day. Some of the customers who stopped in after a hard day’s labor decided they would rather have a massage than two cups of ale. More customers flocked to the Kestrel, to take advantage of her expertise. Many, of course, wanted extra servicing afterwards, but Irkalla and Anu took care of that part of the business. A few quick strokes from their strong hands soon satisfied the relaxed customer.

As word of her success spread through the city, some of the other taverns began offering the same service, but these were generally mere serving girls who specialized in a more personal massage. They lacked En-hedu’s special skills, and those in pain or suffering stiffness continued to patronize the Kestrel.

En-hedu came to enjoy the work. With practice, her arms and hands had grown stronger, and she no longer exhausted herself by a long day’s work. She’d also learned to examine each back, and vary her efforts. Those who really had knotted muscles received the full massage, but those who merely wanted to relax or loosen up their backs were easily satisfied with a different routine that required less effort.

Tammuz changed his mind about her work. He saw the gratitude in the eyes of those she helped. Besides, everyone praised his wife’s skill, which helped improve his own standing in the neighborhood. Best of all, and despite all the extra customers, the Kestrel operated so smoothly that it required less work on their part. By now they often forgot the real purpose of their being there.

One day, just before mid-morning, two men entered the Kestrel. One was dressed in a clean garment, fine sandals, and wore an intricately stitched belt around his waist. The other had the size and weight of a bodyguard, and carried a sword hanging from his belt.

“Is this the Kestrel tavern? Is there a woman name En-hedu working here?”

Tammuz had grown so accustomed to the first question that he no longer bothered to point out the painted bird next to the inn’s door, which in his trusting way, he’d thought even a fool of a city dweller should be able to recognize. “Yes, En-hedu is my wife.”

“My mistress has need of her services.”

“And you are…?”

The man seemed insulted that Tammuz didn’t recognize him. “I am Joratta, steward to the House of Puzur-Amurri. My mistress, Ninlil, is his second wife. She desires that the woman En-hedu attend to her right away.”

Tammuz glanced at En-hedu, who entered the common room from their private quarters, wiping her hands on her dress. He’d heard of Puzur-Amurri, one of the richest traders in Sumer, rumored even more wealthy than Gemama, but had never seen him or any of his wives, and knew even less about them.

“My wife’s services cost one copper coin.”

“That is for my mistress Ninlil to decide, after the massage.”

“Well, where is she?” Tammuz knew the answer to that question before he asked it. “Tell her to come in.”

The servant looked shocked at the suggestion that his mistress would enter a common alehouse. “The servant En-hedu is to come to Puzur-Amurri’s house, and right now.”

“That’s a long walk from here, all the way across Sumer. My wife has work enough to keep her busy right here. I’d have to charge you two coppers, and you would have to escort her back here.”

That much was true enough. Though he trusted En-hedu’s ability to take care of herself, he didn’t want her walking around unescorted in a strange part of Sumer, where she might not be as well known. Lone women could be easily assaulted, or even taken away. It had happened before.

“My mistress will decide that,” Joratta repeated.

“She can’t go right now,” Tammuz said. “There’s work to be done here. Maybe later in the morning.”

“My mistress is… needs her services at once. Right away.” Joratta glanced at the bodyguard.

The man stepped forward, moving past Joratta until he was right in Tammuz’s face. “She’s to come with us now, cripple. Or do you want your good arm broken?” He leaned closer and reached out to poke Tammuz in the chest.

Tammuz caught the man’s wrist in his right hand and jerked him forward. In the same motion, he shifted to the side and extended his leg. The bodyguard went crashing to the floor, and before he could react, Tammuz had his knee on his chest and his knife at his throat.

“Touch me again… call me a cripple again, and I’ll kill you.” He emphasized his meaning by jabbing the tip of the knife into the guard’s neck. A trickle of blood appeared and the man’s eyes widened in fear.

A sword rasped from a sheath, and Joratta, still in shock at the sudden movement, turned to see Rimaud limping toward him, the short blade carried menacingly in his hand.

“Wait! Stop!” Joratta raised his hands. He couldn’t conceal the fear in his voice. “Don’t do anything foolish. There’s no need for violence.”

Tammuz regained his feet in a smooth motion and slipped the knife back in his belt. “Next time keep your bodyguard out in the lane where he belongs.”

Joratta pulled the shaken bodyguard to his feet, and pushed him out the door.

“Husband, I can go now with Joratta.” En-hedu’s voice was properly subservient, a dutiful wife trying to mollify a gruff husband. “My other client can wait until I return.”

Tammuz frowned at her for a moment, as if making up his mind.

“Well, then go. Remember to come back with two copper coins.”

“I’ll get my oils,” En-hedu said, bowing to Joratta.

Tammuz followed her back into their quarters, and gave her a quick hug. “Good luck to you, and take care around Joratta and the guard. They’ll be angry enough.”

“You did well, husband. I’ll try and soothe Joratta’s feelings on the way, and the guard’s.”

She left the chamber and the inn. Tammuz followed her to the doorway and watched the three of them disappear up the lane. This was what Lady Trella had hoped for, planned for — a chance to move into the inner circle of Sumer’s elite. Now he just had to hope he hadn’t played his role too strongly.

Contents