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To Break Bread with Strangers

By Teresa McLaughlin All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi


To add later

Prologue: Banquet at Uruk

She felt a cascade of changing memories; like double vision, as if one eye were damaged and the other clear; different images of the same event vibrating against each other. She felt dissonance. Standing alone in the cathedral, looking from the nave towards the crossing, she felt it. She thought she would feel it before her third mission, her fifth trip across millennia.

She came to St. John the Devine to meet with Karl Echols about the job. His offices were in the crypt below, in the rehearsal space. She almost tripped over a stone sarcophagus, recently uncovered by stone masons; the corner now above ground a few inches. But, she got the job. She would be the only woman touring with the Ensemble for Ancient Music. She was responsible for making sure props, sets, and costumes arrived in the right building, at the right city, on time. She would travel with the singers. She would travel with Dennis.

She was curious to take a look at the church above, still under construction after more than a century. While looking at the altar in the distance, she felt it, a dissonant vibration of a memory altered. The timeline had changed. The memory was of a trip; a voyage she had taken with the Sekhem court at 3800 BCE. She sat down on a pew to remember.

In the memory, she was standing at an open window with Amun, looking southwards. From the second floor, they had a view of the river they had taken to get here. The journey from Sekhem, across the Wadi and around Arabia, had taken six months. They arrived at the city gates in the middle of the night, and were directed to wait at a temple until permission came from the palace. No one was alerted of their arrival. No one greeted them. While awaiting entry, her court publicly gave thanks to Ishtar for a safe journey.

This was the memory, waiting at the gate. But, there was another; a memory in stark contrast, now fading; a memory of the court welcoming them. Dissolving images were of Queen Inanna and her court all there at the river’s edge. Tents and feasts of welcome were prepared. Musicians and acrobats entertained the people. But, this was the memory fading as the other memory grew sharper. No one was there to greet them.

Sekhem and Uruk, protected by the same Goddess; were sister cities. The temple was near the city gates, at a tall statue of Ishtar standing on the backs of lions; the Sumerian countenance of Sekhmet, the Patroness of the capital of Sumer.

It would take two days before they finally met with Inanna. In her memory, standing at the window, she and Amun watched the waters of the Euphrates flow southwards, away from the palace, widening into irrigated fields. Following its course eastwards between low hills, they saw it spread into Lake Apsu; its smooth surface dotted with round boats bringing sheep, dates and grain. Miles beyond, the river would narrow and flow swiftly towards the Tigris. The two rivers finally coming together as one, at the plains of Eden, where the land was dark and fertile. Date palms and fruit trees grew there in abundance. During their voyage, they saw lands on each side of the sacred river teaming with farms and merchants; donkeys pulling carts, workers carrying grain. They saw shepherds, goatherds, farmers trading produce, artisans selling mats, tools, and statues of Gods.

The Matriarch brought them here to teach the benefits of trade and of establishing trade routes. The merchants of Sekhem would make connections with trading partners.

Sailing up the river on their journey, they passed the cities of Ur and Larsam, whose inhabitants thronged at the river’s edge to marvel at the beauty of their vessels; the bright colors and metal adornments; sails of silken fabrics, of gold and yellow dyes. She wondered that the people here were poor, but the land dark and rich. The men coming to the river’s edge were hairy. Their heads shaved, but not their bodies. They were uncivilized, poor and dirty. What a sight the Sekhem court must have seemed, their clothing fine and colorful; their skin oiled and golden; bracelets glistening in sunlight. It was the first time she had traveled such a long distance over land. But, here again, another memory faded. She also remembered, the people coming to see them at the river’s edge were prosperous, clean, and shaven from head to toe. This memory dissolved into the other.

Batresh’s court had brought a contingent of nobles; the Vizier and his attendants, Raia and her priestesses. At least 20 merchants accompanied them. The caravan of camels carrying supplies and dismantled boats, stretched far behind them.

In fading memories, banquets were held every evening. The Queen begged them to lengthen their stay. But, in new memories, other images supplanting older ones. There was only one banquet. Messages from Queen Inanna, were cryptic. She was not like other Tayamni. She was more reserved, desirous of maintaining an elevated status among her people. In communications, Batresh saw Queen Inanna as imperious and vain. She maintained a cool distance between herself and humans. Rather than calling her servants by name, she called them all, Adamu.

She remembered hearing footsteps at the stairway, Batresh turned back towards the cool, darkened room. Amun remained focused on the river. Two male servants entered the hall ahead of their Queen. Their heavy eyeliner and chalky face powder marked them as palace servants. Queen Inanna, the Matriarch of the Tayamni mission at Sumer, was dressed splendidly. Unlike her subjects, she and her entourage of Tayamni officers were clean, perfumed, and elegantly dressed. Inanna wore an elaborate crown. Shaped like the antlers of a hart, golden spears circling around and above her head. Light of a hundred sconces glistened on jewels. Golden serving platters reflected oval shapes onto blue-glazed walls in the banquet hall.

The Queen glided to a center position on the opposite side of the dining table from them. She looked at Batresh expectantly, as if she waited for something. Thinking quickly, Batresh nodded, dipping into a deep, submissive curtsy. “Rumors of your beauty fall short. We are blessed by your countenance,” she added. The Queen seemed happy to hear these words. More courtesans and nobles entered the banquet hall from an entrance at the other end of the open space. Batresh felt Inanna’s emotions. The Queen was fearful, insecure, competitive. Inanna looked expectantly towards Amun, who finally turned around to face her. Then, Batresh felt it. A tingling, even in the new memory, a shiver on the back of her neck; a feeling as if something changed. Amun felt it too. He looked at his wife with concern, then back towards Inanna. Batresh could tell he blocked Inanna from reading his thoughts. He simply nodded and smiled falsely. Five other Tayamni were with Inanna’s party. They too exhibited insecurity. Batresh could feel that Inanna and her court were threatened by her, by her presence here.

Coming from within Queen Inanna’s train of courtiers and servants, was Batresh’s Matriarch, the Vizier and Raia. The Matriarch seemed cool and aloof. She was taller and thinner than Batresh remembered. She cast a glance towards Batresh and Amun, sending them a guarded telepathic message, “Do nothing, do not challenge them.” A servant struck a deep, rounded drum from the other side of the hall, and they all sat.

Queen Inanna clapped her hands, and humans began to leave the hall. As they walked towards the exits, Batresh looked around with confusion. The Matriarch’s face was still expressionless, unreadable. She blocked all who attempted to read her thoughts and feelings.

The humans they brought from Sekhem remained and took their seats at the table. Queen Inanna could see from Batresh’s face that she was confused by the Sumerians’ exit. “We have an ancient proscription against dining with foreigners,” she stated flatly.

Not knowing how to respond, Batresh simply raised her eyebrows.

Inanna continued, “Since you are unknown to the Adamu, you are unclean.”

Amun sent Batresh a telepathic message, “Careful, my love. They are not Tayamni.”

Batresh felt her chest tighten. She watched as servants brought platters and goblets to the table. She looked at the Queen and ventured, “May our court remain and dine with us? We have no such proscription.”

The Queen looked at Batresh as if she were a disobedient child who must be disciplined, “Of course. The unclean,” she began, looking around the table. She raised her voice to be sure that everyone could hear, and stood. “The unclean have no such traditions.” She swallowed, then looked around the table and began again, “The court of Ishtar is immune to corruption. We may mingle with the unclean and remain unblemished.” At that moment, platters of meats, bread and fruit were brought to the table. Servants carrying elaborately ornamented amphorae, poured wine into goblets.

Amun sent another message to Batresh, “Tread carefully, my wife. The timeline has changed. The Potacas are here.”

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