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Authors: Nicholas Guild

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The Assyrian (52 page)

BOOK: The Assyrian
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“Of course, my prince, it would never occur
to me, who knows you so well, to doubt your words, but—you must
understand—my king. . . I hesitate to speak of proof. . .”

“What proof could you require beyond the fact
that I am here, and alive?” My grin widened just a shade, and then
collapsed. “If more is required, go look at the fresh graves by the
Bohtan River. Go send emissaries to the Scythians, who now camp on
the western shores of the Shaking Sea. Do not speak to me of proof,
my lord.”

“On the western shores?” The Lord Lutipri
actually rose a handspan or two out of his chair. “But that is
Urartian land!”

“I have ceded it to them—they must go
somewhere, my lord. Or perhaps you thought I would undertake to
massacre them all when all I pledged was to drive them back from
the Bohtan River—”

“You had no right!”

“I had the right of necessity. And besides,
it was my pleasure.”

King Argistis’ servant had by then regained
his seat and his composure, and merely shrugged his shoulders once
more—a sign that he was too wise to rail against an accomplished
fact.

“And now, my lord,” I continued, “there is
the matter of twenty mina of gold.”

. . . . .

That evening all unpleasantness was
forgotten. My soldiers were quartered within the palace compound
and provided with food, wine, and women, and I was the king’s guest
at a banquet in my honor. This meant nothing more than that the
Urartians wished to move cautiously; they needed more time to
consider the altered situation and think of some way to evade
paying their debt.

I was just as pleased, however, since it gave
me the best of opportunities to study Argistis and his court at
close quarters. I sat beside him, at his right hand, this king
whose father my grandfather had driven to take his own life, and
heard myself called his friend, his partner in the works of glory,
but the sight of him made me shudder with an inward dread. He was,
like most of his race, tall and almost womanly slender. He was not
many years older than I, but already his beard was notched with
patches of silver and his eyes had a haunted look, as if the burden
of his office weighed heavily upon him.

What did the coming years hold for him, I
wondered. His nation was hedged about with enemies, and his
nobles—or so it was said—intrigued against him. Would his mind
crack under some great calamity so that he followed his father’s
example and searched his own breast with a sword, or would some one
of his great men save him the trouble? In either case there was
that about him, a kind of aura, which suggested he would not die
quietly.

But for however long he would live he seemed
determined to live in splendor. Even the Lord Sennacherib might
have envied him the opulence of this banquet, at which the least
among his courtiers were appareled in tunics of the costliest
embroidery, and many, including the king himself, wore robes heavy
with gold and silver. The hall in which we dined was walled with
smooth green stone, almost like glass, and the tables were of sweet
smelling cedar. We were entertained by musicians brought from Lydia
and Egypt, and by fair skinned courtesans who danced with uncanny
skill, rolling their breasts and bellies as they kept time to the
rhythm of the flutes. Several of the most beautiful sat beside the
guests at the king’s own table, speaking in many tongues and
tempting their patrons with sugared dates and wine and the charms
of their own persons; the sound of their laughter was itself a kind
of music. My own had hair the color of polished leather and eyes as
green as summer figs. Her body smelled of honey and oil and she
kept reaching stealthily under the hem of my tunic to caress my
manhood, which I must own was as stiff as a dagger blade.

King Argistis seemed to find this amusing. At
last he laid his hand upon my arm and, leaning toward me, murmured,
“She is a rare one, is she not? My father bought her for my harem
while she was still a sucking babe, and she has lived all her life
for my pleasure only. I will have her sent around to your room
later—a small token of the love I bear you, Prince.”

I smiled and nodded—what else was I to do,
since one does not spurn the tokens of kings?—but I could not help
but wonder if this fool imagined I would value a night in any
harlot’s arms at twenty mina of gold.

“I am grateful for your favor to me, Lord—to
me, and to my soldiers. Saving only that of the king our master, we
serve no will but your own.”

And then it was Argistis’ turn to smile and
nod. He was not such a fool as to fail to understand my precise
meaning.

“And yet the Scythians are still within my
borders, Prince—how does that come to be?”

“For your own safety, Lord,” I replied,
perhaps just a shade too quickly, as if it were an answer I had
rehearsed. “Unless you garrison the western shore—and perhaps even
if you do, for they do not fight like women—you will have one or
another of these tribes there forever. Better you should have the
Scythians for neighbors than some others, for they have tasted the
might of Ashur, and their headman, Tabiti, son of Argimpasa, has
called me his brother and sworn a blood oath of loyalty. As long as
the king in Nineveh and the king in Tushpa are friends, you will
have no cause for complaint from the Scythians.”

The threat may have been wrapped in a
promise, but this king saw it clearly enough. He smiled yet once
more and turned the conversation to other things.

By even the standards of kings, however, his
table talk was empty, boastful, insipid. He talked about the
exploits of his generals as if they were his own—which all kings
glory to do—but Argistis was alone in his apparent powerlessness to
distinguish between himself and his servants, whom he seemed to
regard as mere extensions of his own will. He did not even have the
cunning to be jealous. He appeared to regard himself as alone in
his kingdom, surrounded by mere blocks of wood instead of men.

“I was wise to treat with you for aid,” he
said casually, “although I little expected such a swift victory.
The Scythian barbarians will know now to fear the might of
Urartia.”

Had he forgotten the Lord Lutipri’s
existence? Or my own? And one might imagine the Scythians drawing
quite a different moral.

The king my father, I knew, wished for no
more conquests, but the king my brother, when his turn came, might
turn his ambitious eyes to the north. What an easy victory, I
thought, what a joke would it be for Esarhaddon to pull the
feathers from this peacock’s tail.

Having learned long ago the folly of reveling
with fools and scoundrels, that night I drank but little of the
strong Urartian wine. However, that man was not alone who, having
grown drunk enough to attempt mounting one of the courtesans, found
himself too drunk to accomplish the act, so, when at last the king
withdrew and the rest of us were then free to stay or go, there
were not many who could stagger to their rooms without assistance.
But I required no help. When I rose from the table, I made my
solitary way to a balcony and there breathed in the cold, clear
air—a reminder, if I needed one, that the winter snows would not
hold off forever—until the fumes were gone from my head and I was
as fresh as a spring lamb.

But it is not always a blessing to be sober.
I did not feel lonely or low spirited, only. . . I did not quite
know how I felt, except that my soul was empty.

What was I now, when my king’s enemies were
conquered and my soldiers safe in their beds? What had I of my own?
Was there even life left in my body?

But these were no more than the thoughts of a
man who has been awake too long and has the taste of stale wine in
his mouth. I would go to bed, and tomorrow the world would seem a
friendlier place.

King Argistis had lent me quarters not far
from his own apartments—the better, no doubt, to keep me under his
wakeful, haunted eyes. When I entered these rooms I was glad to see
the brazier still red with living coals. I had already undressed
and was washing my face in a basin

of cold water when I noticed the girl
watching me from my sleeping mat. In truth, I had forgotten all
about her. Half light and shadow lend a charm to all things, and
she appeared even more beautiful as she lay there, leaning back on
her arms, her breasts, as they rose and fell with their breathing,
seeming to possess my eyes. She smiled at me, as if she knew all
about me, as if my heart were open to her. Her smile made me think
of a cat with a cornered mouse—this will be an easy kill, it seemed
to say.

“My lord is weary,” she said, in a voice as
smooth as linen. “Come. Let me touch my lord’s brow with my cool
hands.”

Yes, the smile said, I understand the
weaknesses of men. It took me no more than that instant to
understand that I did not want to feel the touch of those cool
hands.

“I have drunk too much wine,” I said. “I fear
we would both be wasting our time.”

Her smooth shoulders moved in a tiny gesture
of dismissal. What was her time for, she might have asked, except
to be wasted on such as me?

I had sat down on a little wooden stool, and
I watched her in silence. And when at last it was obvious even to
her that I was merely waiting for her to leave, she rose from the
sleeping mat and came near me. She crouched beside me, touching my
arm with her hands, and her lips brushed against my skin as if by
accident.

Was I not a man? Could I feel nothing, not
even desire? Yes. I felt that. I took her by the shoulders and
looked at her in the dim light. I looked at her as I might have
looked at a map of some unknown country. I pushed her from
me—roughly, so that she fell hard against the smooth floor. I did
this and buried my face in my hands.

“Leave me,” I said, in a choked voice. “I
have no wish to hurt you, but. . . Leave me.”

I could hear the sound of her naked feet
against the floor, and then the sound of a door closing, and then
nothing.

“. . . I hope your love is a curse to you,”
she had said. “I hope it haunts you until you die. . .”

The dawn had almost come before I closed my
eyes.

. . . . .

The next morning, I received no summons from
the king. He was no doubt closeted with his ministers and servants,
listening attentively while they settled among themselves what he
should decide to do. Thus, after I had visited the barracks where
my soldiers were quartered, I felt myself at perfect liberty and
decided to walk alone through the great city of Tushpa and see this
miracle of beauty with the eyes of an anonymous stranger.

All that day I wandered through her streets,
lost in wonder. The temple of the god Khaldi, patron of the
Urartians, was built of massive stones raised in alternating layers
of black and yellow, its gates framed in red granite. On the inside
the walls were painted in the brightest colors to depict the
rituals of his worship, along with demons such as made the blood
run cold, and scenes of hunting and farming. These people were
masters of the art of carving stone—their friezes, executed after
the manner of Nineveh, were astonishing enough, but, beyond this,
they had found the true pattern of shaping images in the round. The
idol of that terrible deity was so lifelike that I half expected to
see it move, to blink its eyes in the smoke of its burned offerings
and to bare its savage teeth. The temples of the lesser gods, the
palaces of the king and his nobles, and armories and garrisons,
even the humblest shops and houses were exquisite in their
decorations and their perfection of line. If the mighty gods should
ever decide to build a city and dwell on earth like men, even they
could not hope to surpass the marvel that was Tushpa.

I returned to King Argistis’ palace in a
state of elation, that curious happiness that comes to us when, for
a few hours, we have been taken out of ourselves, have almost
forgotten our own existence. A man playing with his children feels
it, as does—so I am told—the artist in the practice of his art. As
does the patron of that artist. As does the simplest farmer looking
at a sunset. This Tushpa gave me, freely, unconscious even that
there was something to give, and not for a moment only but for the
whole day. And from that day I always loved the city and felt it a
great misfortune that she was ruled by a foolish weakling.

The Lord Lutipri was waiting for me in my
rooms.

“You sent the woman away last night,” he
said, after we had taken our seats and had wine poured for us. “The
king was surprised and—I must say it—offended.”

“Was the king offended because I was not in
the mood for rutting, or because he must now pay me twenty mina of
gold whether I spend my seed in his harlots or do not?”

Lutipri found this such a diverting remark
that he was forced to cover a smile with his hand. This, I think,
was his diplomatic way of telling me I should not speak rudely of
his master.

“My lord prince must realize there is not
such a sum in the whole city of Tushpa. What would you have us do?
Melt the idols of our gods?”

“Tushpa is rich—your king is rich. Have I not
seen every demonstration of this?” I shrugged my shoulders.
“However, the rest of my army will arrive tomorrow, or perhaps the
day after, and the first snows of winter will not be far behind
them. If the Lord Argistis does not object to quartering a foreign
army of some seven hundred men until the spring thaw, then I shall
be happy to stay in Tushpa. I could not in conscience leave until I
have fulfilled the bargain we both made in the names of our royal
masters. How could I? How would I explain myself to Ashur’s mighty
king?”

“You said seven hundred men?”

“Yes. With horses and gear. Did you imagine I
conquered the Scythians by myself?”

The Lord Lutipri set his wine cup back down
on the table, puckering his mouth slightly as if the taste no
longer appealed to him.

BOOK: The Assyrian
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ads

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