They Laid Down The Law

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FIRST: When Situations Degenerate

When kingship from heaven was granted, that kingship was in Eridu. Then Eridu fell, and kingship was taken to Bad-Tibira. Then from Bad-Tibira to Larag, from Larag to Zimbir, from Zimbir to Shuruppag; and then the flood swept over. And when the floodwaters receded, the kingship was in Kish, and Jushur reigned for a hundred dozen years.

Jushur was a mighty king, a great ruler, one-third of him was a god. He sowed the first barley, he brewed the first beer, he baked the first brick. His palace reached the clouds and stretched its walls from Idigna to Buranuna, both rivers were its moats, the sky was its roof. He blended copper and tin into bronze, and from the stones of the earth he was the first to smelt gold.

The armies of Akkad were at the walls. The young king, Sarrukin, had already conquered three cities no less mighty than Kish, and it was a matter of hours, not days, before he added it to his expanding empire. The clash of spears and the dying screams of soldiers echoed across the rooftops as Ur-Bish hurried down a narrow alley; his father, Bishgigir, lay dead on the plain outside, slaughtered by Sarrukin's army as he tried to flee. The day of inheritance had come, and he was not ready.

His destination was ahead, a grand house of baked bricks that rose a man's height and a half above its neighbors. The house of Gudnamesh—or, if the curse upon their families was not merely a legend, now the house of Gudnisub. Ur-Bish ran through the open doorway into the courtyard, and found his suspicions confirmed. Gudnamesh lay dead upon the dirt, and above him stood Gudnisub, his eyes red from weeping.

"It is time, then," said Gudnisub, looking up from his father's corpse. "I did not think it would come so soon. Your father ran, I take it?"

Ur-Bish grunted his assent. "Cut down by a soldier. Did not make it a hundred cubits before he was slain. Are you ready? We do not have much time."

"Yes. As soon as he fell, I prepared myself." He threw a thick cloak over his shoulders, and grabbed a spear from its place on the wall. "To the palace, then."

Gold was the downfall of the first king. Jushur saw it, and hunger filled his heart. Gold filled his storehouses, it adorned his body and the bodies of his wives and sons, and the more he owned the more he wanted. His lungs drew no air, his stomach was emptied, his liver withered to nothing. He became nothing but skin, and inside his skin was only a hole in the shape of a god.

Only two men knew the king's hunger. Bish-Ka was one, the king's stablemaster, the lord of his caravans. Gudibir was another, the leader of the king's armies, the master of his troops. Bish-Ka and Gudibir saw the hole in the king, they spoke of it to each other, they made a plan. In the ninth year of the ninth decade of the eleventh century of Jushur's rule, they made this plan.

The palace was nearby, beside the great ziggurat of En-Lil. The red-brown bricks of its walls were covered in plaster, inlaid with rare stones and bas-reliefs depicting the victories of the king and his ancestors all the way back to Jushur, he who first held the kingship when the floodwaters rose. It did not, of course, depict Jushur's final days. Those reliefs were kept elsewhere—their final destination. The main gates of the palace were still guarded, despite the battle raging outside; it would not do for the king and his household to go unprotected.

The two burly eunuchs who stood in the archway looked like they could hold their post against the whole Akkadian army, once it made its way through the walls. And Ur-Bish and Gudnisub had no illusions that it would break through; Kish would fall, and they would find some way to profit from the chaos. As long as the next few hours went to plan, that is. If something went wrong here, their families would not survive the night.

The eunuchs crossed their spears over the gate as the men approached. Gudnisub stepped forward, and spoke. "I am Gudnisub, son of Gudnamesh. This is Ur-Bish, son of Bishgigir. Our fathers have died, and we are here for the prince."

The spears rose, and the two men hastened inside.

The two men gave lies to the king. They spoke of a cavern on the banks of the Buranuna, they said this cavern was filled with gold, they told the king he should inspect it so it could be added to his storehouses. Jushur believed their story. He went to the cavern and found it empty of gold. And when he turned to slay Bish-Ka and Gudibir for their lies, they bound him.

They bound first him in hempen ropes, but his skin had the heat of a furnace, and the ropes burnt away. They bound him next in shackles of bronze, but his limbs were thin with hunger, and the shackles fell to the ground. They bound him last in a chain of gold, and he could not cast off the chain, because his lust for gold overcame his desire for freedom. And so Jushur was bound.

They found the king and his family in the throne room. Ur-Zababa was speaking with the high priest of En-Lil, clearly concerned; his three wives were seated on various benches along the walls, shepherding his younger children. His two adults sons were arguing about something over in one corner, although they kept their speech to a whisper despite their clear agitation. When the king saw Ur-Bish and Gudnisub, he fell silent, and gestured for them to approach. They did not prostrate themselves, as was customary; their families had always had certain privileges.

"My lord," said Gudnisub, "our fathers have perished. Bishgigir fled the city, and was cut down. My own father's breath fled him just after. It is time."

Ur-Zababa nodded. "Yes, I suppose it is," he said with a sigh. "Well. I knew this day would come eventually. But I had hoped it would be under more pleasant circumstances. Boys! Come here."

The king's sons hurried over, their argument cut short. They bowed to their father, and glared at the visitors, their disdain clear on their faces. Enshaku, the older of the two, spoke first. "Father, why are there merchants in the throne room? Do we not have a war to fight?"

His brother, Dum-Sharri, followed before the king or his guests could reply. "And, for that matter, why are we here, and not out on the plain defending the city? You are making cowards of us all, father."

"Enough." The king's tone was firm, with a hint of exasperation; this was clearly not the first time he had heard this complaint. "You might not like to hear it, but these merchants are why our family has ruled this city since the great flood. And since their fathers have died, it is time for their succession. Enshaku, go with them. Do whatever they say. And do not argue with me."

The prince had clearly been about to do just that, but his father's expression silenced him. He nodded, and followed the merchants out of the palace, and down towards the river.

Gudibir took up his spear, and pierced the king through his heart. But he would not die, and from the wound came hunger. It spread out around Jushur's body, it moved in and out of his body's portals, it used the king's own throat to speak. To its captors, it spoke; many things did it offer them, and they heard its words.

The hunger offered them gold, enough to overflow the banks of the two rivers, and they refused it. It offered them rulership of all the lands of the world, from the mountains in the east to the sea in the west, and they refused it. It offered them the most beautiful women of the world to be their wives, and again they refused it. For the two men were as greedy as their king, and they knew that whatever one accepted, he would need to share it with the other.

It was a long while before the prince dared speak. They were hurrying along the riverbank, keeping low in case the enemy had penetrated the walls; in a few minutes, the would reach their destination. Unlike his father, Enshaku was no warrior, and the speed at which they were moving was clearly taking a toll; he wheezed slightly as he asked, "How much longer must we go?"

Gudnisub grunted out an answer, his eyes firmly forward. "Not far."

"And what," the prince asked, "are we doing? What did my father mean by your succession?"

This time, it was Ur-Bish who answered. "You'll see. Soon."

He seemed displeased by these answers, but could tell that no more were forthcoming. The cave entrance appeared on their left, a tunnel in the earth reinforced by cedar beams; into these beams were carved spells and incantations, invoking certain gods and spirits whose names were never spoken within the temples and ziggurats above. It was not a welcoming place, to say the least, and Enshaku halted outside, unwilling to follow his companions inside.

"No. You have brought me this far, but I go no further." The prince held his head high, looking down his nose at Ur-Bish. "I am your king's son, and you will explain yourselves to me. What is this place, and why have you brought me here?"

Ur-Bish sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "It is a sacred ritual, which was first performed by your exalted ancestor, Jushur. I cannot explain it outside the sacred ground within the cave, for fear of angering the gods." He met the prince's eyes, and saw the fear within. Enshaku knew that there was something wrong—perhaps he had heard of his uncle's mysterious disappearance, or perhaps he had figured something out from the merchants' attitude. Whatever the reason for his reticence, it had to be overcome.

"I can promise you, my prince, it will give you great power," Gudnisub said, trying another tactic. "If you would just—" He stopped. There was no point in trying to convince the prince, not any more. The thick shaft of a javelin pierced Enshaku's chest. He slowly collapsed, breathing his final breath as his heart's blood spilled onto the dust.

The hunger saw the reluctance of its captors. It understood their greed. It found an opportunity, and it offered them one more gift. "Destroy me," it said, "and you will have nothing. Your seed will fall upon barren soil, your bright gold will become black stone, in your mouths bread and beer will turn to mud and saltwater. But preserve me, and give me the offerings I need, and you will have what you both truly desire. You will have wealth beyond your dreams, and you will care not for gold. You will not be kings, but all the world's kings will seek you out. Your wives will bear you many sons, and to those sons I will promise the same."

This promise, Bish-Ka and Gudibir could not resist. For in truth, they cared not for rulership, or for gold; in their hearts, what they wanted was simply power, power that could not be destroyed simply by an invading army or a hidden assassin. And if they could have this power, subtle and never-ending power, they would be willing to share it. They agreed to the hunger's terms, they wrote the compact upon a tablet, and each signed it with his cylinder-seal. And in return, the hunger told them how to truly bind it.

The man that stood on the hillside above the cave, another javelin held loosely in his right hand, was familiar to Ur-Bish and Gudnisub. They had been boys together, the sons of the king's hangers-on; he was the chief gardener's son, a cupbearer to Ur-Zababa, and they had often played together in the back rooms of the palace. And now, he returned to the city of his birth, as the great conqueror Sarrukin, Lord of Akkad and Uruk.

"Hello, my friends!" Sarrukin seemed genuinely happy to see them, and he handed off his javelin to a retainer as he stepped down to the riverbank where they stood. "It has been too long! How has your health been? And… Well, I would ask about your fathers, but if you were bringing this—" He gave the cooling corpse of Enshaku a nudge with his foot. "To your secret shrine, then I suppose they are not doing too well."

Gudnisub bowed deeply, and after a moment Ur-Bish did the same. "My lord," Gudnisub said as he straightened back up, "to what do we owe this pleasure?"

Sarrukin reached out for Gudnisub's hand, and clasped it tightly. "Well! If I am to rule over Kish, then I must rule over every part of it—even the little god you have hidden away in your cave. I cannot trust that the son of the old king would not rebel against me, and so…" He gestured at his retainers, and they pushed forward a young man, maybe sixteen years of age. "I have brought an offering of my own!"

Ur-Bish winced, and said, "My lord… You know that not any man is an appropriate offering, yes? I do not know where you have heard our secrets from, but I assure you, they must be—"

"A descendant of Jushur?" Sarrukin laughed. "Of course! Boy, tell these men who you are."

The boy's voice cracked slightly as he spoke. "My lords, I am Zimudar, son of La-Bashum, son of Lugalama, son of Puzur-Suen, whose son Ur-Zababa reigns… Ah, reigned in Kish until very recently." He bowed.

Sarrukin patted him on the back hard enough to make him cough. "Ha! A bastard's bastard's bastard, but the blood of Jushur flows in his veins nonetheless. And," he said, holding up his hand to forestall Ur-Bish's question, "I have had this confirmed by the haruspices and astrologers. It is certain."

Ur-Bish shrugged. "Good enough, I suppose. We have no other choice—I assume you slew the king's entire family? Right." He sighed, and gave Sarrukin a weary gaze. "Does he have brothers? I would not have my own future sons be devoured by the beast just because you were a bit bloodthirsty."

Sarrukin's retainers were horrified, but the king gave a great guffaw. "Ah! Just like I remember. Don't worry, I have that taken care of. Well, boy? What are you waiting for? Go with them. I shall see you two later—we are having a feast in the palace, and I expect to see you there!" He walked off, as the merchants and their charge entered the sacred cave.

Bish-Ka and Gudibir took up long bronze knives, sharpened on the river-rocks outside the cave. They brought polished golden bowls from the palace, rare ointments and aromatics, pigments and fine stones. In their king's flesh, they carved the words of the compact. They made incisions where the hunger instructed; they removed the king's eyes, his tongue, his heart and lungs, his liver and kindeys, his testicles and his brain. And the whole time, the heart beat, the eyes saw, the lungs breathed; and when the hunger was not speaking with his voice, the king screamed.

When the sun rose, their work was done. The king was dead, leaving only the hunger that wore his flesh. The hunger swore that, as long as it was bound within a son of Jushur, it would give its servants knowledge; and its servants swore that as long as there was a descendant of Jushur who could be sacrificed to the hunger, they would perform that sacrifice once each generation. And so it has been, since that first sacrifice so many centuries past.

Bloodstained and exhausted, Ur-Bish and Gudnisub emerged from the cave into a purple twilight. They leaned on each other for support as they made their way up from the riverbed, and said not a word as they shuffled back through the city to the palace. Sarrukin's troops had been gentle; there were no fires, and only the richest houses had been looted. Their own houses, they knew, were safe—if the new king had not ordered them to be left untouched, the guardian demons would have ensured their safety.

The palace was well-lit, with torches and braziers burning atop the walls and in every window. Sarrukin had not been lying about the feast, it seemed. They were met at the gate by a richly-dressed eunuch, who took their bloody cloaks and led them through the servants' hallways to the baths. Heated basins awaited them there, along with perfumed oils and fine clothes that looked to have been taken straight from the old king's closet. They bathed, anointed themselves, and dressed, and made their way to the banquet hall.

"Ah! My money-hungry friends!" Sarrukin's voice boomed across the room, cutting easily through the noise of the feast. "Come, come! There is a seat for each of you at my table."

There were, indeed, empty places at the king's table; the seats to Sarrukin's right and left, where Enshaku and Dum-Sharri had once sat, were empty, awaiting the exhausted merchants. They sat, and helped themselves to the roast meat and soft bread that was laid before them, any sense of decorum worn away by the stress of the long ritual.

The king let them eat for some time, speaking to the priests and generals who shared their table; when they were sated and their plates had been cleared, he turned his attention their way. "So! I assume it went well? The old man is sated for a generation?"

Gudnisub simply nodded, still too tired to speak.

"And," Sarrukin said, a hungry glint in his eye, "What secret wisdom did he share? Where is profit to be found?"

Ur-Bish cleared his throat, and spoke. "Nippur. There will be a famine there this coming summer. Perfect for selling grain—or, more to your majesty's interest, for conquest."

Sarrukin gave him an approving smile, and went back to planning his next move with his generals. He would do for now, Ur-Bish thought; he was an excellent conqueror, and if his empire held, the trade routes would be safer than ever before. But eventually, he would fail, and the the Houses of Bish-Ka and Gudibir would move on to the next opportunity, led as always by the Dark.

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