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Authors: Nicholas Guild

Tags: #'assyria, #egypt, #sicily'

The Blood Star

BOOK: The Blood Star
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The Blood Star

 

 

Nicholas Guild

 

Smashwords Edition
Copyright 2011

 

 

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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THE BLOOD STAR

 

The western lands—the pale sun which warms my
face, the soft blue sky, the wind and the shining water, these are
the gifts of their openhanded, childlike gods. It is a place of
vines and fruit trees, of stone farmhouses and earth that turns
black under the plow’s iron blade. It is a place a man might love
if he did not chance to dream of his distant home. If he were not a
sojourner in the midst of another’s garden.

I am such a one. As a boy I did not know the
taste of olives or the murmur of the wine-dark sea. Yet, although I
was not born here, it seems certain here I will finally die. And
that time is not far distant, for I have grown old in this place of
strangers—I, the son and grandson of kings, rulers of the wide
world. Yet that grandeur is past. The story I tell is of my own
life, which even now the god cradles in his hand.

Ashur, god of my fathers, he who is called by
many names, who is lord of heaven, the master of this world and the
next, he whose will is fate has chosen this path for me, and I take
up my pen again that his glory may be known, that his purposes may
be seen and understood by men. I am Tiglath Ashur, the god’s
servant, whose name was yoked with his in the hour of my birth, who
survives perhaps as the last to honor him.

Though she be but a shadow in my own brain, a
poor dream of memory, once more my eyes fill with the sight of
mighty Nineveh, envy of the world, queen of cities. I am five and
twenty. What have I not known already of glory, wealth and power?
What have I not known of emptiness, of despair, of jealousy, of the
bitterness of lost love? My brother, who is king now in our
father’s place, turns his face from me. Esarhaddon, who was once my
friend, has pronounced my sentence of banishment, that I will be
forced to wander in the distant places of the earth, forever a
stranger, forbidden to return lest I die for it. Nineveh, which
once held all that I loved, now I must flee from you like a slave
guilty in his master’s sight.

“Let him pass forever out of the Land of
Ashur, and all the lands where the might of Ashur’s king is felt.”
So spoke my brother, the mighty king, lord of the earth’s four
corners. “Let him hide himself in the dark lands beyond the sun.
Let him be taken from my sight!”

The guards escorted me away. I did not resist
them. They took me by the arms and led me stumbling from the king’s
presence, for I hardly had wit enough left to walk by my own will.
My mind was dark. It seemed to me that I had already died.

They took me to a room in my father’s
palace—my brother’s now, as now were all things under the bright
sun—and servants stripped me of the silver robes which were marks
of my princely rank and I was given a plain soldier’s tunic. I put
it on, hardly knowing what I did. I sat down. Someone brought me a
cup of wine, but I did not drink from it. Does a corpse drink the
wine offerings meant to quiet his restless soul? I had no taste for
wine, no more than if I were dead and the clay had stopped my
mouth. At last the soldiers returned and led me away again.

Where would they take me? I knew not. I was
no longer one of the Lord Sennacherib’s royal sons—I was a stranger
here now, and his heir and successor hated me. Perhaps they took me
to my death. It hardly seemed to matter.

But it was not death which awaited me.
Instead, I found myself in the palace gardens, where I could hear
the sound of the swift-flowing Tigris, mother of rivers, where I
had so often seen my father, grown old, resting upon a stone bench
as he fed bread crumbs to his birds.

The soldiers departed, without speaking. I
was alone. It did not oppress me—I had spent many days alone, in an
iron cage in the dungeons of my brother’s palace. What weighed upon
my heart were the memories stirred within me by the sight of this
place.

My father, the king, struck down by an
assassin as he knelt to pray before the Lord Ashur. We had avenged
that, my brother Esarhaddon and I, and then we had turned one
against the other—or, at least, he had turned against me. And only
because my father loved me and would have had me succeed him as
king, even in defiance of the god’s will. Yet I would not put
myself up against the god and my brother both. I made my submission
to Esarhaddon—let him have the glory of a king’s crown, I
thought—and for this he could not forgive me.

For this, and for other things.

It was the month of Nisan, when winter begins
slowly to die and the world is reborn. Still, it was a bleak world.
The flower petals had long since been swept away, but snow still
hid in the shadow of the wall. There was no moon, no stars
overhead, only the dull black of a cold, cloudy night sky. One
needed only to look about to believe that the world had stopped
forever.

I sat down on the bench, merely because I had
grown weary of standing. I cannot claim that I was waiting for
anything—or expecting anything. The future had been annihilated for
me.

The past, however, would not allow itself to
be pushed aside. It kept rising before my mind’s eye, unbidden, of
its own will, or perhaps because I seemed to belong to it so
completely.

My father, sitting on this very stone, old
and defeated, knowing that all his hopes for me had come to
nothing. How he had hated Esarhaddon, and for no sin of his own.
Old men make mischief when their hearts are dark.

And love. Esharhamat, my brother’s wife. I
could see her face, the tears in her eyes, and hear her voice. .
.


Have you not made my heart a
widow?”


I would be king for your sake,”
I had
told her once, while we still knew hope.
“For your sake, and to
change the world.”
And she had answered,
“Would you, my
love? But the world will not allow itself to be changed.”

And other voices. . .


You will be great in the Land of
Ashur,”
my mother had told me, since the first days of my
youth.


Do not think that happiness and glory
await you here, Prince, for the god reserves you to another
way.”
The counsel of one wiser than my mother.

Words—words that filled my mind and made it
ache like a wound in cold weather. I had seen so much, heard so
much, and I had been made blind and deaf.

But perhaps not so blind at last.

Gradually, as happens sometimes with a memory
that forces its way into the center of one’s brain, I became aware
that I no longer had the garden entirely to myself. I shared it
with another visitor, someone as out of place there as I had become
myself. I glanced about, wondering who this intruder could
be—perhaps, finally, an assassin sent by my brother to ease his
mind by slipping a dagger in under my rib cage?—I was almost
disappointed to see merely a small boy in a soiled loincloth, his
hands clasped behind his back as he watched me through large,
intelligent, untrusting eyes.

He stood beside an arbor covered with dead
and withered vines—it struck me that the boy must be cold, but if
he was he gave no sign of it. He was perhaps six or seven years of
age, one of the army of raw little urchins who hung about the
docksides and the wine shops of the city, turned loose by parents
who could not afford to keep them. It was a life that doubtless
taught many hard but useful lessons. I was not offended that the
child regarded me with such suspicion.

“What do you want?” I asked him—presumptuous
of me perhaps, but I had difficulty believing that this ragged boy
had merely blundered into the sacred precincts of the king’s
palace.

“Are you the Lord Tiglath Ashur?” he inquired
in his turn, as if the idea seemed unlikely enough to him, “he
whose palm is crossed with the blood star?”

“I was until a few hours ago.”

“Show me.”

I opened my hand, holding it out to him. Even
in the dim light of a moonless evening the birthmark was visible,
dark red and lurid, as if it were a glowing coal—the god’s
indelible brand upon me.

“Then this is for you.”

He stepped forward and at arm’s length held
out to me a strip of leather, rolled tightly and tied with a
thread. I undid it and spread the strip out across my knee,
squinting at it in the darkness. I was not even surprised. The
message it contained was written in hasty, slanting Greek, in a
hand with which I had long since become familiar.

“Dread Master, your guards have been bribed
to bring you here. Be pleased to follow where this child leads and
it is possible we may both find deliverance from the king your
brother’s wrath.”

My former slave Kephalos, a fat,
luxury-loving rogue, a thief and a coward, a scoundrel upon whose
word neither man nor woman could rely. And yet, for all this, my
friend, the one soul in all the winding labyrinth of Nineveh in
whose love I had any confidence.

I rose from the stone bench, my knees stiff
with the night cold I had not until then even noticed, and wrapped
my cloak about me.

“Then you shall be my guide, boy,” I said,
attempting to smile but no doubt making a bad job of it—the little
urchin stared at me with cynical astonishment, as if he thought
perhaps my wits had gone rancid. “Come, let us depart. There is
little enough to hold me here.”

A door stood in the garden wall, concealed
behind a vine arbor. I had never noticed it before, nor had my
father ever mentioned such a contrivance, but perhaps, since even
kings must have secrets to keep, it had served some purpose he did
not care to have known. In any case, the boy knew of it, and now so
did I.

He pushed the door open and we entered into a
tiny courtyard that had the look of having been long since
forgotten. We stole across it as silently as thieves, and then
through a warren of little alleyways filled with trash and broken
oil jars until, quite suddenly, we were somewhere down by the
water.

The place was deserted and dark. The pale
moon had drifted behind a bank of clouds. I heard no murmur of
voices, only the whisper of the swift-flowing Tigris, and there
were no lamps throwing pools of yellow light onto the brick street.
These were the docks, at night as quiet and empty as any mountain
waste.

And then, all at once, not ten paces from
where I stood, there was the scrape of flint against iron and then
the crackling sound of a pitch torch coming to life. As it burned
brighter it revealed the shape and at last the face of the worthy
Kephalos.

My former slave was one of those who seemed
to acquire riches the way other men do bad habits. His wealth would
have done credit to the king himself. He kept gold and silver with
the merchants of distant cities. He probably owned the very docks
upon which we stood. And yet now he was dressed in the faded,
dust-stained green-and-white tunic of an Amorite caravan driver,
and his great brown beard, usually combed and perfumed like a
harlot’s nether hair, was a greasy tangle. His broad face was
creased with dirt and worry. He had the eyes of a man who had not
slept for many nights.

He looked at me, somewhat mournfully I
thought, and then turned his attention to the boy, whom he motioned
toward him. The boy extended his hand and Kephalos dropped five
copper shekels into it, slowly, one after the other, and then, at
last, when the boy did not move but still held out his open hand to
him, he grunted, as if he expected no better from the wanton world,
and added a sixth. Instantly the hand closed into a fist and the
boy disappeared into the darkness on naked feet.

“Come, Master, we must leave at once,”
Kephalos murmured. “There is no honor among outcasts, and that lad,
if he is half as wicked and clever as he looks, is this very moment
on his way to sell our lives to the king’s watch. We cannot be gone
too quickly.”

With a suddenness of which I would not have
imagined him capable, he was on his feet, and before I knew what
was happening he had his arm through mine and was leading me,
almost dragging me, along the quay.

“I have chosen a boat for us to steal,” he
whispered tensely, almost through his teeth, as we hurried along.
“It is a poor thing and thus the crime is less likely to prey upon
your conscience.”

BOOK: The Blood Star
8.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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