"Has anyone seen Kalliste?" Chelsea Winters asked as came through the door of the Women's Co-op. "I need her help with something." She was a thin blonde woman with short hair juggling an oversized purse and an umbrella.
"Here," Kalliste said from beneath the loom. She was tightening something with a wrench. She crawled out, a slender woman with dark hair, bright eyes, a small, up-turned nose and a generous mouth. "What is it that you need, Chelsea?"
Chelsea finished shaking out her umbrella and shed her raincoat and boots. "It's my sister. She sent me these pictures, and wants to know if I can get them translated. She pulled a large envelope from her purse and waved it around.
Kalliste got to her feet and began knocking the dust from her jeans. "What are they?"
"Laura didn't say." Chelsea opened the envelope and spread a dozen pictures across the table. "She's working at some archaeological dig in Turkey. She said the girl who translates what they found ran off with a German grad student. She sent these by e-mail and wanted me ask you if you could translate these for her."
"She asked for me?" Kalliste seemed amused by this. She picked up the first picture and studied it.
"Well, she said you're one of the experts in the field. Gosh, Kalli, can you really read this stuff? You never said you could read cuneiform. I thought you were studying Greek - "
"These are in Akkadian," Kalliste said, interrupting her. She looked at the next two pictures. "Yes, Akkadian. I can read it, but I'm not what you'd call an expert in the field. For that you want Dr. Hill at Chicago University."
"But - "
"But Richard is not available right now. I believe he is attending a conference in Berlin." She sighed and picked up another picture. The blood drained from her face, and her hand shook. She closed her eyes and put the picture down. After several seconds she turned away from the table.
"Is something wrong?" Chelsea asked. "You look... I don't know. You don't look well."
"It's nothing," Kalliste said. "It's just... that tablet brought back a... that tablet..." She took a deep breath, looking down at the floor. "Where is your sister's dig?"
"Some town in southwestern Turkey named Kirqas," Chelsea said. "She said it's a fresh site that's never been worked, and..." Her voice trailed off as Kalliste waved her hand.
"I've heard of it," Kalliste said. "I saw the notice in the Turkish press. A brand new site, a whole city that was sacked in 860 BC and they just started digging last year."
Chelsea took Kalliste's hands. "You're ice-cold! What's wrong?"
"I just... it's..." She looked up, her eyes distant. "I had a very bad experience once, and this reminded me of it."
"Would it help to talk about it?"
Kalliste looked around. The Co-op was quiet. It was the start of the summer term at Northwestern University and a lot of the women who filled the place during the day were gone.
"Let's go somewhere else," Kalliste said. "Yes, I want to talk about this, but I don't feel like telling this one in public." She looked at the pictures. "Bring these, too."
Kalliste was silent until they were ensconced in the back booth of a bar just down the street. She had been in here before, so the bartender knew her tastes. He put a bottle of óuzo in front of her. At his inquiring look Chelsea blurted out an order for a beer. She had never seen Kalliste acting like this.
Kalliste tossed off two glasses of óuzo. At the third she stopped, studying the glass. "I don't want you repeating this to anyone," she said. "Understand?"
Numbly, Chelsea nodded.
"The first two pictures are just lists of who has dedicated what to the local temple as an offering to the Gods. The third..." She sighed. "How well can you read Akkadian?"
"I... I can sort of... well, not really. I mean I took a class in it, and - "
"What does it say down here at the bottom?" Kalliste took the picture of the tablet out of the envelope and placed it in front of Chelsea.
"Um, it says... uh, I think it says 'A Keftim slave named Ke-le-st-e, daughter of Em-pa-ah. She is a young woman with fine features, light skin, dark hair, bright eyes, a small upturned nose and a large mouth. She is the property of Ha-mu-ra the Hittite, who was questioned about her, but could not produce her. Report her arrest to High Priest Basripal of the Temple of Holy Marduk in Nineveh.'"
"Close enough," Kalliste said. "It adds that there is a reward for this slave, a most generous reward."
She drained her glass and refilled it. "All right. I was living..."
I was living in the city of Kirqas. I imagine you never heard of that city until today. Years before I had found the only safety from the Assyrians lay in becoming one of them. And so I, Kalliste, daughter of M'pha, last of the Sea-King's Children, consecrated through all the years of my life to Her as one of Her priestesses, found safety in being a priestess to Ishtar.
This was not an easy choice, but as a woman in Nineveh my choices were few. I could not travel and I could not hide in the multitudes living in Nineveh. I needed a protector from Basripal, and the only ones who could stand up to the priests of Marduk were the priestesses of Ishtar.
There were aspects of Ishtar's worship that seemed familiar - many of the rituals were the same as I had learned in K'Nos on K'ftiu. I learned the essentials quickly, and with one thing and another I was soon anointed as a servant of Ishtar and assigned to a small frontier city named Kirqas. As I was a comely woman I drew a duty I had not foreseen - it was my sacred duty to lie with any man who came to the temple to thank Ishtar for some blessing. And many did. Though it was a small city, we were on a trade route rife with banditry. Many were the men who thanked Ishtar for their safety by lying with me. Though few things concerning Them amused me, this was one - many men were much more religious than they would otherwise have been.
A child followed - I scarcely knew her, she was dedicated to Ishtar from the day of her birth. When she was weaned she was sent with other children of the temple to be raised elsewhere. It was bitter loss - another girl child I had borne that I would never see grow to womanhood. It reminded me all too much of my Ariadne, but it was the price I paid for my safety, and though it was a heavy one, I bore it like I did so many other things.
I was great with my second child conceived in this service when Basripal found me. Priestess or not, under Her protection or not, I was seized and taken to a compound next to the temple of Marduk in the center of Kirqas. And there I was confined while they applied torture under the direct supervision of High Priest Basripal. For this particular priest of Marduk there was only one way to the truth, and that was through the pain of others. He thought people were prone to falsehood unless needles, pincers and flame were used.
For more time than I could track I was confined in that building next to the temple. By day the hot irons and the pincers and the bone crushers were applied. Then, through the night my body would draw upon Her grace and heal itself. The morning would bring new tortures to extract the "secret" of my health. Basripal did not admit to the existence of any of Them save Marduk, not even Ishtar, and so my explanations only brought more torture to find the "truth" he wanted to hear.
Early on I lost the child. It could not bear to be borne into this existence. I never learned if it was boy or girl, but soon envied its passing and wished my own would follow. I had thought no pain was greater than childbirth. After losing that baby I learned otherwise. For when the traditional tortures did not produce what he wanted to hear, Basripal sent to Nineveh for new torments. The horrors that were visited on countless others were first tried on me. I prayed, but I found no solace in it. I could see no rescue for this last child of the Sea-King.
After a time Basripal ordered me separated from the other prisoners. He thought, perhaps, to break me by denying me contact with anyone but him and his torturers. I was taken to a house elsewhere in the city. For a brief hour I saw sunlight and blue sky. For an all too brief moment I heard the chatter of people in the market and smelled warm foods, dust, animals, people, things I had been denied in the pits below Marduk's temple. But this contact was only too brief, and it made my despair that much greater. Truly I felt cut off from Them and all I had been brought up to believe. One is never so alone as when They seem to have abandoned you.
One day - could it be day? I wondered, for my wretched body had not yet healed itself. What could have wakened me? Perhaps Basripal had decided to torture me day and night? I felt a surge of joyous anticipation at that thought. Surely he would overwhelm that which She had given me, that power that stubbornly healed me, even after his worst ministrations. I longed for it, because then I would be reunited at long last with my Ariadne and with my beloved P'sero.
I heard muffled exclamations beyond my cell. It did not occur to me that this might be rescue, for who would come for one such as I, a woman of no family? What the future held for me was more of what I had already received. I longed for the pain to end, for the smell of my own burning flesh to end, for the questions asked by a mad old priest to finally be laid away. In the distance I heard the sound of feet shuffling in the corridor, the sound of voices echoing in the halls beyond my cell. I looked at the guards who stood watch over me. Their job was to make sure I did not escape through some witchery. The clamor in the hallway was suddenly stilled, save for the steps of one person. I took a deep breath and commended my spirit to Her, accepting whatever fresh torment lay in store for me, and hoping it would bring the peace of death.
Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a flicker of bright colors and movement as whoever it was entered my cell. Not Basripal, then. I turned my head and saw - it was a woman, but what a woman. She was dressed in next to nothing, and yet regal in some way I could not describe. When she walked, everything moved. No, she did not walk so much as undulate, and every man in sight had eyes only for her. That is not all they had for her, to my sudden amusement I recognized a very male reaction jutting from them as stiff as the spears they carried. Even I, a woman who has never had the desire to lie with a woman, even I felt a stirring of desire in my much abused flesh. The guards were so smitten they forgot their duties in Her presence. Not for nothing had I served these last few years in Her temple. This was Ishtar Herself.
My first thought was surprise that She had come here. I thought this place must be consecrated to Marduk. And if it was, for Her to be in this place of His was no small thing. Balances were upset by far lesser incursions than this. It must be serious indeed for Her to be here. And the consequences for Them beyond measure.
Her eyes were drawn to mine as if She heard my every thought. She nodded once, then Her gaze swept over the rest of me and the mess I had become - hair burned and torn, bloody patches on my sides and legs, bones at odd angles, crusted sores covering my body, dried blood streaking my legs. If Her presence here was no small thing, what then of mine, Her servant, and treated so?
She turned to the nearest guard and spoke quietly, almost in conversation. "Release her."
"I cannot," the guard said.
She reached out, touched him, and he crumpled. She turned to the next guard, who seemed curiously unable to defend himself from Her advance. "Release her," She repeated
This guard was little wiser than his dead comrade. He thought to be clever. "I do not have the means," he said. She just looked at him. The guard slowly drew his dagger and laid it against his breast. I could see him fighting a great compulsion. She raised Her finger. When she lowered it he thrust his own knife into his heart. She spared his death not even a glance. She turned to the next guard, and repeated Her order.
She watched him closely as he cut me down. She raised Her hand to him and approached slowly. He suppressed a flinch, standing straight to meet his fate.
"Assur has need for men as brave as you," She said, sketching a sign before him. "Know that you have earned my favor, and it is no small thing. Now go. Be gone from this wretched place, be gone from this wretched city before I destroy it. Take the other guards with you. They are yours to command. Be gone and do not even think to return."
She turned back to me and helped me to my feet. I had been chained so I was spread naked across an upright table. The pain that shot through me was intense, and I cried from it as my muscles and joints were not used to my weight. But I was free. The pain would go away, I was free. I would heal, and that healing would hurt, but I was free. Free! I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry at the same time. Free! Just that one word echoing in my thoughts made the pain bearable. Then even the pain went away as She laid Her hand on me.