Though you were holy, spiritual, living the eternal life, you have defiled yourselves with the blood of women, and have begotten children with the blood of flesh, and, as the children of men, you have lusted after flesh and blood like those who die and are killed.... Say to them therefore: “You have no peace.”
--1 Enoch 15:4, 16:3-4
If the coming together of the beast and his woman seemed tame to you, then I must assure you that it wasn’t; unfortunately, Ninsun is shy even when she’s pretending to be crude. She thinks that our perversions are not universal, and that our confessing them here will make us seem even more unsympathetic than your average enemy of Heaven. But if I let a few things slip over the course of this chapter, I imagine she’ll forgive me.
We were wedded the following day. When the Queen asks for something to be done, it is done quickly. She was brought a golden dress, I a solid gold necklace and pants of the finest leather. Those generals who were close came to see us take vows before our Maker and the kingdom: we would never deny this union, never love another, that we would support one another through each trial of life, and should we ever wish to part ways, that we would do so knowing we were turning our back on vows made before the eyes of our Father. I have no doubt that the angels designed this ceremony, considering its stiffness, but I meant my words; I know too that Ninsun was just as true.
When it was done, Lord Semes the advisor placed a gold crown on my head. It was uncomfortably heavy as I stood and regarded the audience: thousands, it seemed, gathered in the palace courtyard to witness our marriage. I have never been stage shy, but for a moment then, I was. Becoming king was an afterthought at best, for Ninsun had been my goal, not nobility. Yet when she took my hand then, the crown felt far less oppressive. Its weight made me hers. Therefore, I would bear it with pride.
I took off her crown and I kissed her. The crowd cheered. I kissed her harder. I would have fucked her right there, had Semes not tapped my shoulder to break my concentration, and Ninsun not been hurried away to greet guests. I cursed; Semes smiled.
“A shame you have to share her with an empire,” he mused.
“Funny, I said the same to Aya about you,” I snipped. Requited love was new to me, but I was learning that I was grumpy when denied gratification.
“Wounded by the king himself,” Semes chuckled. “At least your wit is more than show.”
Was it wit? Really I was just an ass, but I liked that term well enough. I learned more about myself all the time.
Our first few months were spent getting to know one another, in a manner of speaking. I learned that she liked to be tied up and have her slit licked as thoroughly as a man might lick it. She learned that I liked to feed her until her belly bloats and then fuck her on her hands and knees like a dog in spring. Oh sorry, was that me saying too much?
Marital pleasures aside, it was in her arms that I came into my own. She allowed me to be different than I was in Kulaba, in the guard, or even on stage. Even when she made me guard captain, replacing her general Tammuz, I didn’t take on my mentor’s grim temperament as I had feared. Neither did being in charge of others make me cruel, like Michael. It became merely a role I had to fill, just a time in the day when I had to be more strict and keep my mind from wandering, until I could return to her again. When I was with her, I could say every ridiculous thing that came into my mind. I could smirk, and tease. I could be as lustful as Semes or bothersome as Ningishzida. When she accidentally allowed her sleeves to slip from her shoulders, arousing me with the sight of her flesh, I could grab her ass and make her mine in whatever sick way my instincts deigned--and she loved it.
It wasn’t long before Semes confirmed that she was pregnant. Apparently he still spoke to the Father, and still had a sense about people, but I imagined that really he had just seen so many women flushed with the early stages of gestation that he could pick it out of a crowd at a glance. He told me after he had told her. At once I rushed to her chambers, a stupid grin on my face when I found her leaning against the window, hands pressed to her belly with quiet pride. She blushed red when she saw me, but didn’t drop her hands.
“Well,” she said.
“Well,” I replied.
I scooped her up and kissed her deep, biting her lip, tasting the roof of her mouth. I smelled her arousal and so I lifted her skirt, my fingers finding her folds even as I held her weight with my other arm. She moaned into my mouth; I smirked with triumph.
“I love you,” she whispered, words I could never hear enough.
“As I love you.”
This was the dream I had had, as a beast. Holding her, caressing her, desiring her, knowing that she desired me. I thanked Father every night as I watched her sleep, unable to believe that this life was real. I did not think I could love her more, when the baby started to grow. Her large breasts grew larger, her belly swelled like she had swallowed an apple, and then a melon. Semes told us she was having a son; I was so twisted up with feelings I could hardly function. The very sight of her aroused me, my pride confused with my lust--she became Goddess to me, as she already was to her people.
I liked to be beneath her, after she grew heavy enough that her distended belly caressed my abdomen each time she thrust tighter around my shaft. I could watch her bosom tremble and bounce, my mouth watering for milk that had yet to engorge those beautiful mounds, one hand stroking her clit as the other gripped her cheeks and pushed her into me. If it’s perverse that I worshipped my queen’s pregnant form, the changes brought forth by my love of her, a miracle of creation happening before my eyes, then ordinary men are dull indeed.
We knew from the beginning that peace would not last long. Now that there was an heir, the empire’s future was no longer in question. There was stability. And with stability, there comes forces to tear it down.
The first signs of unrest came from Tammuz, the general I had displaced. He had been relegated to training young recruits for Uruk’s army, a position far removed from the one he had had in the march against Light, where he had been given the hefty responsibility of maintaining communication between the generals. As guard-captain, I occasionally interfaced with him when a guard needed to be replaced. I would see his recruits train, choose the strongest youth, then take him to the palace. Tammuz never said much to me, aside from the expected “your highness.” However, once as we watched the recruits spar, he caught me by surprise.
“Have you heard news of the border cities?” he said.
I recognized Tamaiel of the war by his voice--all the generals have some trait they bring with them between lives, no matter how their appearance or personalities may differ. He had a voice that made you listen to him, a low tone that reminded us of Father, reassuring and wise regardless of the words he actually spoke. Whether he was Dumuzi, Tamaiel, or Tammuz, that voice was ever the same.
“What of them?” I asked. None of the recruits looked promising, so I was willing to indulge a distraction.
“They speak of a new god descended from above, who seeks to ‘displace the false gods of Uruk.’ Whispers of a name like Yahweh, who punishes those who do not renounce their wickedness.”
I hadn’t thought it possible for my human hair to bristle, nor a growl to suddenly catch itself in my throat. It was like being struck by Michael again, though his whip was nowhere to be found, and I was no longer in any position to fear it.
“Humans invent gods for themselves all the time,” I said at last. “This one will take its place among the rest. Just another story to keep their children afraid.”
“You of all people should know the power of a story,” he replied.
His scent then should have told me something. I regret now that I let myself cling so tightly to my temporary happiness that I did not want to acknowledge what my beast’s senses told me of that whiskered smile: that this was deceit. I told myself then that his envy of my station made him smile when he would have preferred to scowl. That was excuse enough to do nothing.
It wasn’t long after that a letter came from the far reaches of the empire, delivered by a soldier who could not remember how he had come by it. Only angels knew how to read and write, officially, making it all the more unnerving that this one was not signed by any general. It was written by a “Priest of the Most Holy,” and said the following:
False Goddess, Servant of Darkness:
You choose to propagate your filth and bring corruption to the world. The abomination growing within you is fit for neither Heaven nor earth. Destroy it, or Heaven shall.
If this warning is not heeded, there will be such destruction wrought upon your house that all who see you shall be brought to woe. If you value your existence and the existence of the monsters your brothers have already sown, you will do what must be done.
So decrees Michael, Most Holy Messenger of Heaven.
I told her not to worry over it. I didn’t want her to endure any stress she didn’t have to, especially as our son became a strain on her body. But I couldn’t stop worrying. I poured over that letter for days when she wasn’t looking; I paced, gnashed my teeth at nothing, thought of tearing it up in lieu of its sender before I regained my judgment. I needed to make this go away, shaken to my core as I realized that I couldn’t. All I could do was endure it, resigned to the fact that we would never again be as carefree as we had been.
Your suffering will never end, so long as you’re together.
That had been Semes’ prophecy. As it unfolded, old wounds opened, my guilt flowing free. I know that’s how Rig found his way in.
Most believe that dreams are safe, a world of their own tucked away inside the mind. They are wrong. To dream is to open your soul to the realm between Heaven and Earth, the intangible realm, known as the veil. The veil is the realm of lost souls, made up of all their broken memories, some of which find homes inside the living by way of dreams. For most, it holds no horror. Danger comes only when something is looking for you on the other side of the veil, and you choose to dream regardless.
I was holding Ninsun as I closed my eyes that night, fighting a tingling headache I wasn’t accustomed to, hoping that sleep would help it to fade. As the sensation of her warmth grew distant, I found myself in a wasteland. My throat was parched, my body heavy. I lifted my head to see a vulture perched on a lightning-twisted tree, his great talons clutching a gnarled branch as his sights settled on me.
Ajeshah, he greeted, and I knew his voice. You think you remain unseen, but I see you. Terrible Beast, who I bathed nightly of blood and gristle, who I fed scraps of human flesh to sate your monstrous palette--you could not hide from me for long.
I trembled with fear, with rage. Although my body was still human here, my response to him graveled like the beast, had his tongue ever been capable of speech.
“You have no power here, Rig,” I said.
My name is Gabriel, and you will address me as such.
My stomach churned, my anger mounting.
“I will never call you by her name.”
It is my name and none will ever know she had it. For I am still beloved of our Father, and she has turned from Him with scorn. No heavenly name befits her now.
“You have no right to speak of her,” I snarled. “Why do you torment us? We want only to live in peace, yet Heaven seeks to make that a crime. What’s so wrong about our having a child?”
The vulture sneered, feathers ruffled, head stretching forward and back with hunger.
You are not truly an angel. You are a monster, the sins of man made flesh, therefore no child you sire can be anything but monstrous. The fact that she, the great traitor of Heaven is the one who bears it, is all the more proof that the child you protect will be a fiend.
“You know nothing of us,” I growled, feeling fangs sprout from my jaw, claws from my fingers.
We know that you lie to her. You conceal the truth of yourself because you know that if she were to know what you are, she would cut that child from her very womb. What sort of angel lies, Ajeshah?
“I don’t lie!”
I roared this, even as I my body changed from the strain of my own delusion. My horns spurt forth, too sharp for me to touch, to force them back into my scalp. I bellowed with pain.
We will tell her. Be it by rumor, or sensation, or a slip of a stranger’s tongue, we will ensure she understands what she allowed to breed her. Her humiliation will be complete, your final punishment enacted. Even now, you remain Michael’s greatest weapon.
I pounced, breaking the tree to grab the vulture in my teeth, breaking its neck in my jaw before I grabbed it in clawed hands, tearing its wings from its great body one at a time. I made blood run from it in every way man or beast could design. I was left standing in a pile of organs, my skin coated red, its entrails still caught in my fangs. When Rig’s sniveling laughter suddenly echoed in my ears, I felt sick. I tried to move, but I was anchored there, sinking deeper into the filth. I saw myself reflected in the bird’s dead eyes, saw the horned devil they would make of me.
When Ninsun shook me awake, I denied the nightmare, despite the cold sweat on my brow. I could not let her know what I had seen, then. Yet Rig had achieved his goal: my welling unrest was now a panic. My fear of being discovered as the beast Ajeshah now outweighed my fear for my son. Formerly steadfast devotion to my wife was shaken by selfishness I had never experienced before. She could not know. That was all I thought, night and day.
Fear drove me to my breaking point. I was beside myself, the simplicity of my purpose corrupted by Heaven’s threat. I’m ashamed to admit that, for a moment, I considered running away. Better that my son live not knowing me than to risk my beloved turning from me in horror, begging Semes to murder my cursed offspring. Those were the thoughts on my mind when Ninsun found me in the armory, holed up there long after the other guards were either discharged for the night or already at their posts. I paced, like a thing chained, helpless.
“Talk to me, Lugal,” she said.
I hadn’t noticed her until she spoke. To see her standing there in all her glory, her hair long and loose, her cheeks flushed, stomach impossibly large now as the child ripened for its birth, I was crippled by guilt. What kind of man was I, who would imagine leaving her as she was? I wanted to fall and beg her forgiveness, only I was too proud to let myself be so weak in her presence.
“Talk about what?” I asked.
“Just talk," she demanded--I knew her well enough by then to hear her anger, though she stifled it as well as she could. “You’re not like you, anymore.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re not yourself,” she said. “And don’t you dare say everything is fine, because it’s not, because I know when you’re not fine. You don’t play your lute, except when I ask you to. You don’t come to bed until I’m asleep. You look at me like you’re doing right now, like I’m a sheep marked for slaughter and you’re not sure if this time is going to be the last time you see me go by.”
I stilled, feeling caught. I couldn’t stand the disappointment in her eyes.
“I have a lot on my mind,” I managed.
“I have a lot of time on my hands,” she said.
Ninsun took a chair from beside the rack of spears, lowering herself to sit. She stared at me, waiting. I stared back, feeling less like a monster and more like a sniveling dog, runt of the litter, knowing it should die but selfishly hiding itself away in hopes to outlive the neglect.
Either I confessed to her now, suffering her revulsion and ending my charade, or I continued hiding and let Heaven reveal me not only as a fraud, but a coward. I couldn’t survive the latter. But, perhaps, I could somehow rebuild after enduring the former. After losing my son, a moment Heaven would celebrate and thereby spare Ninsun’s kingdom, perhaps I could still be permitted to shovel shit in the stables of the palace, away from her eyes. Where I might occasionally glimpse her from a distance, remembering all the happiness that had been.
“There’s something I’ve been keeping from you,” I said at last.
She tensed with trepidation, I recognized it in her shoulders, the flicker of her eyes.
“What is it?” she asked.
My throat tightened as my gaze fell to her belly, remembering how the baby kicked at my side in the middle of the night when she clung to me, smiling weakly at the memory of his heartbeat, stronger each time I had pressed close to listen. I loved him so much. Because I loved him, I couldn’t let him be a coward’s son.
“You knew me before the war,” I said.
“In Heaven?” she pressed, though surely she knew that wasn’t the truth.
I pushed back my hair, feeling where horns had once sprung from my forehead. I flexed my nails into my palm at my side, feeling now how short I kept them, the claws that had once been my weapons.
“You made a key for me to escape my chains,” I said, slowly. “I came to visit you in Eden. You stroked my fur, and spoke to me of your loneliness. Once, I made you cry, so I curled up around you and let you sob against my chest, until you fell asleep. Having you there was the happiest I had been in all my life.”
As I spoke, her expression shifted from doubt to denial, then to something else. Her hands rose to her mouth, pressing tight as she stared into me. I couldn’t hear her breathe. She began to shake, tears leaking down her cheeks. I was motionless, waiting for all I feared to unfold. Yet, the words she sputtered weren’t scorn.
“Saraquel,” she whispered. “Beast...my beast...”
She pressed her hands over her eyes, crying in a way I hadn’t yet seen. A sort of gasping, silent sob that was beyond sadness, tears filling up her hands until they spilled over down her wrists. I was brought to my knees before her, too afraid to touch her, unable to know if my comfort would be permitted any longer. She startled me when she stumbled out of the chair to join me on the ground, throwing her arms around my neck as she had done to that monster. She buried her face in my chest, as she had once lost herself in my mane. Her fingers tangled in my hair. I know she would have drawn herself closer, had there not been a child between us, squeezed gently between her body and mine.
“You could have told me,” she managed.
“I couldn’t,” I said.
“That’s why you wanted to marry me.”
She gasped, holding me tighter.
“I knew you were more than they let you be,” she stammered, choking through the words. “I knew the moment I met you...”
At this, I felt tears of my own well. They were hot, blurring my vision. Was I allowed to cry? I had done so before Father, but not here, never here. It seemed right for Ninsun to cry, but I had to be her strength, her foundation. That was why she clung to me. Yet even as I smiled, those hot tears leaked out in spite of me.
I gripped her tight, burying my face in her hair in hopes to hide it. This backfired. Feeling dampness, she pulled back to see my tear streaked face, her own in quite a state. She blushed, and smiled, reaching up to touch my cheek.
“See? Monsters don’t cry,” she teased.
I gave a short, startled laugh. I pressed my nose into her palm, kissing it, my love for her renewed.
“Monsters don’t cry,” I whispered.
I wiped her cheeks with my sleeve, kissing her forehead, her neck, her engorged breasts, and finally her belly. She leaned back against the seat of the chair as I pushed up her dress, so I could rest my ear against her skin, listening again. She stroked my dark hair, while I indulged in the gentle patter of a heartbeat, strong as I remembered. I know the empire would never imagine us like this, Queen Enmerker and King Lugalbanda on the floor of an abandoned armory, our hearts mush over a tiny boy we had yet to meet.
“Have you decided on a name?” I asked, soft.
“You’ll laugh,” she said.
I felt the child press against my cheek, and I smiled. Consoled, Ninsun confessed it quietly, as if afraid others of the palace might hear and judge.