Mu-Ta-Lu

3115 BC — Kesh, Sumeria

It is only a few days now until the festival of Se-Kin-Ku and the air outside the orphanage is cold. Even so, the boy is grateful for any change in the routine of threshing and winnowing barley that has left his hands blistered and his arms aching. Now that the moon is nearing full, the harvest tasks have been lengthened well into the night, but they are woken again as early as ever. It’s all that the boy can do not to yawn, although he knows he will be beaten if he succumbs.

This morning they have all been called out early into the threshing square, but told to stand all in a line in the sunlight along the west wall rather than taking up their flails. The overseers prodded the boys to space out until they were standing nearly a reed apart, each from each. The whole while, a wealthy man stood looking on from the center of the square, speaking in soft tones to the head overseer.

Now the boy steals glances at the rich man, moving only his eyes, and then only briefly before gazing straight ahead again. The man’s robes are of richly dyed linen and cloth-of-gold, his shade hat generously hung with overlapping discs of hammered copper and lapis lazuli.

The boy stands perfectly still as the rich man looks them all over. He wonders why a man with such fine robes should ever look so worried. What could a rich man ever have to worry about? But the boy stands still, wishing only that the unusual inspection might take as long as possible.

Sometimes, waking up in the early morning a few minutes before the overseers come to beat the boys out of their cots, the boy looks into the darkness and imagines what it would be like to escape the orphanage. He imagines setting out on foot, traveling by night. In a week or two he could come to the cities of Ashur, then Niniveh, and finally strike out for the broad cold lands of the north.

Suddenly, the rich man and head overseer are both standing in front of him.

Boy,” the rich man says. “What city is this?”

“Kesh, my lord,” the boy answers quickly, fearing the overseer’s blow.

“Who is our king?” the man asks.

“Our king is the great Il-Taa-Sa-Dum,” the boy answers again, “upon whom be peace, my lord.”

“And who is goddess over our city?” the man asks.

“Holy Nin-Tud, my lord. Blessed be her name.”

The man nods, his dark eyes narrowing slightly.

“Good, good,” he says. “Now, if you have ten sheaves, but I take from you three, how many sheaves then remain to you?”

The boy can’t help blinking, confused by the question. What does this man care for sheaves?

“Answer!” the overseer growls.

“Seven!” the boy answers instantly. “Seven sheaves, my lord.”

“Good,” the rich man nods again, frowning, then comes to a decision. “Into the wagon!”

When the boy hesitates, not understanding that the rich man means that he is to get into the wagon, the overseer swiftly clarifies the situation using his whip handle.

~

Even at this hour of the day the streets of Kesh are crowded, with everyone trying to take advantage of the coolness to bring in supplies for the festival, or take goods to the markets. The boards of the wagon walls are set with gaps of a finger’s breadth between them for air, and the boy uses the gaps to watch avidly the sights of the streets that he has not seen since the death of his parents in the sickness now three years past.

The driver curses and stops the wagon as a group of herdsmen move cattle through the street ahead, but soon the herd has passed and the wagon jerks and is under way again.

There are four other boys in the wagon, all but one of whom fell immediately asleep as soon as the overseer closed the door, locking them in. When they have gotten well under way again, the wakeful one leans forward to speak.

“Do you think we are sold?” the other boy asks. “We will not be going back?”

The boy blinks once. “Yes,” he answers. “I think we are sold.”

But until that moment he had not thought of it. Maybe it is not the same as his dreams of walking to the north, but they have indeed been sold. Whatever else may come, they will not be threshing the orphanage’s grain again. At least that much has changed.

Thinking of it, the boy smiles.

~

If he thought that the wagon’s owner was a rich man, then the household that they see upon climbing out of the wagon must belong to a king or even a minor god. Even seen from the back, the house is magnificent: three stories high, and the bottom two stories faced with stone. There are inlaid mosaics of Nin-Tud and En-Ki on either side of the wide cargo door, each with one hand raised in greeting or warning. And the house has its own grounds, larger than the orphanage! There are pathways that curve among ornamental grasses and well-tended beds of blue squill and lavender, pools of shade from squat date palms, and behind all a high wall of fine baked brick.

As the boys gawk, the rich man steps in front of them and speaks quietly but urgently.

“Listen now,” he says. “This is the house of the great priest Mu-Ta-Lu.” The boy wonders at the outlandish name. The man must be a foreigner, yet he is a priest? How can that be?

“Do not speak unless you are spoken to, but answer any question which he may ask. We will wait as long as we must, and you will stand quiet and still until I release you, or take the worst beating of your lives! Now come!”

~

The boy has never seen such wealth. The great room they are standing in is two stories high and as large as the entire orphanage. It has stone-tiled floors and the walls as well are stone to the height of half a reed, yet the great room is meant for nothing more than storage! Against the far wall the boy sees oil amphorae and even bales of fabric stacked!

At length, richly made doors at the end of the room open, and two Assurian guards walk in, heavily armored in bronze and leather. They hold open the doors, and through them walks the tallest, strangest-looking man that the boy has ever seen. This can only be the priest Mu-Ta-Lu.

Not only does the priest overtop his powerful guards by a head, the man’s hair is white, his skin pale. In contrast to the wealth of his surroundings, the man wears plain linen robes, white and tan.

The pale priest walks down the line slowly, as if he has all the time in the world. He is only looking straight ahead, as though uninterested in the line of new prospects. But when he comes opposite the boy he stops and slowly turns. Looking up, the boy meets the tall man’s eyes, as pale gray as the sea. They look like they have all the sorrow of the world in them, and all the secrets.

“What is your name, boy?” the tall man asks.

With the man’s eyes on him, the boy cannot look away. Cannot even blink.

“I am called Te-Nen, my lord,” the boy answers.

The priest’s gaze remains on the boy another moment, then the man nods.

“This one will do,” he says calmly.

The tall priest turns away, and the guards immediately reopen the ornate doors for him.

“An excellent choice, your mightiness!” the slave merchant calls to the tall man’s receding back. “And so intelligent! This one will serve your excellency diligently! It is my greatest pleasure to seek out suitable servants for so noble a household, no matter the effort and time spent! And to give your holiness first choice always, regardless of the entreaties of my other clients!”

The tall priest leaves the room, ignoring the merchant as if he were a barking dog. The guards boom the doors closed behind him.

“What will I do in his household, my lord?” Te-Nen asks in a small voice.

Quick as a snake, the merchant raises his hand to strike the boy for the impudence of asking a question, but then thinks better of it. The rings on his fingers would open gashes on the young boy’s cheeks. Instead he takes hold of the boy’s matted hair and pulls his head back.

“What do I care what he will have you do?” the merchant snarls angrily. “He can feed you to his dogs for all I care! But see that you please him, because if you are returned to me I will certainly feed you to my dogs!”

The man releases his painful hold and hurries away toward the guards to inquire about his payment. The other boys immediately start fidgeting or whispering to each other. Their new owner will shortly offer them to other wealthy houses, telling each one that they have first choice. Only in the case of this customer, is it true. This is the one that the bejeweled merchant does not dare lie to.

Te-Nen looks at the room’s high walls, sunlight streaming down across them from finely-made gratings near the ceiling, and wonders what fate has brought him to such a place.

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