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Book 3: To Break Bread with Strangers

By Teresa McLaughlin All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

Blurb

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Prologue: Banquet at Uruk

A cascade of changing memories, like double vision, as if one eye was blurred but the other clear; different images of the same event vibrated against each other, the dissonance making her dizzy. Standing alone in the cathedral, looking from the nave towards the crossing, she felt it. She should have felt it earlier, before this mission, her fifth trip across millennia.

She came to St. John the Devine to meet with Karl Echols about a job. Walking to his offices in the crypt below, she tripped over a stone sarcophagus, recently discovered, the corner now above ground.

He hired her on the spot. Of course, subtle telepathic messages might have swayed him. She would be the only woman working with the Ensemble for Ancient Music, responsible for making sure props, sets, and costumes arrived in the right building, at the right time. She would be on-tour. She would travel with Denny.

In the cathedral above, under construction for more than a century, the heels of her shoes clicked on polished marble. Looking eastwards, focusing on the altar, she felt it, the vibration of memories altered. The timeline changed. A memory of a voyage she took with the court at 3800 BCE. She sat down to remember.

It was at the time of the inundation, when crops could be neither planted nor harvested, a time given over to idleness. Canals overflowed, waves lapped against palace walls and the people grew restless. It was now that Amun taught the ancestors of builders yet to come, those who would produce the great pyramids, to construct temples, granaries, and government buildings. Namazu volunteered for her fifth mission. And, the matriarch made an announcement. It was time to teach the small settlement of humans about the larger world, to establish trade with the only other Tayamni settlement on the planet, the city of Uruk at Sumer.

She had been in communication with Inanna, the Matriarch of Sumer. On the journey across the Wadi Hammamat, they would organize tribes and establish a port city. They would sail down the Reed Sea, around the tip of Arabia, and up to the mouths of the legendary rivers, The Tigris and Euphrates.

In the memory, she stood at an open window with Amun. From the second floor, they had a view of the river they took 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 dead of 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 waiting, her court publicly gave thanks to Ishtar for a safe journey.

The new memory, became clearer while another memory, in contrast, faded, a memory of the court welcoming them. She saw blurring images of Queen Inanna and her court all there at the river’s edge. Tents and feasts of welcome prepared. Musicians and acrobats performed. But, this was the old memory fading as the new memory grew sharper.

Sekhem and Uruk, protected by the same Goddess, Sekhmet the Lioness, 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 be 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 away from the palace, widening into irrigated fields. 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 run swiftly towards the Tigris. The two rivers coming together as one, at the plains of Eden, where date palms and fruit trees grew 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 statuettes of Gods.

The Matriarch brought merchants to teach the benefits of establishing trade.

Sailing up the river on their journey, they passed the cities of Ur and Larsam, whose inhabitants thronged at the river’s edge. Their ships with copper adornments, sails of silken fabrics, of gold and yellow dyes, glistened. 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 poor and dirty. What a sight the Sekhem court must have seemed, their clothing sparkling, their skin oiled and golden, bracelets flashing in sunlight.

It was the first time she had traveled such a long distance over land.

A memory fading, almost through a fog, she saw people coming to the river’s edge as prosperous, clean, and shaven from head to toe. The images became less and less clear.

The Sekhem court brought nobles, the Vizier and his attendants, Raia and her priestesses, at least 20 merchants. Their caravan of camels carrying supplies and dismantled boats stretching far behind.

Fading memories of banquets held every evening, the Queen begging them to lengthen their stay contrasted with new memories of only one banquet. Messages from the Queen were cryptic, not like other Tayamni. Inanna was more reserved, maintaining an elevated status, imperious and vain. She kept humans at a cool distance. Rather than calling her servants by name, she called them all, Adamu.

Standing at the window with Amun, Batresh heard footsteps at the stairway, she turned back towards the cool, darkened room. Amun remained focused on the river. Two male servants entered the hall ahead of their Queen. 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 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 her jewels. Golden serving platters reflected oval shapes onto blue-glazed walls.

The Queen glided to a center position on the opposite side of the table. She looked at Batresh expectantly, as if she waited for something. Batresh nodded, dipping into a deep, submissive curtsy. “Rumors of your beauty fall short,” she added.

More courtesans and nobles entered the banquet hall from an entrance at the other end of the open space. Batresh felt Inanna’s emotions. She was fearful, insecure, competitive. Inanna looked expectantly towards Amun, who 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 the Queen. They too exhibited insecurity. Batresh could feel Inanna and her court were threatened by her.

Following behind Queen Inanna’s train of courtiers and servants, was Batresh’s Matriarch, the Vizier and Raia. The Matriarch, uncharacteristically cool and aloof, 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 rounded drum from across the room, 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 expressionless, unreadable, continued to block every attempt to read her thoughts.

The humans they brought from Sekhem remained and took their seats at the table.

Queen Inanna saw from Batresh’s face that she was confused by the Sumerians’ exit. “We have an ancient proscription against dining with foreigners,” she stated flatly. “We do not break bread with strangers.”

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,” 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 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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