They had sailed back into the port of Eridu together, she and he, triumphant from thrusting back one of the nomadic tribes that had begun to infringe upon their land. The crowds that greeted them had thundered as they disembarked and began the climb back up the long stair into the city. Those nearest him had shrieked with adulation and stretched out their hands to brush even their fingertips against the skirts of their king, and she, walking only one step behind, had smiled as he spread out his arms to accept their adoration.
He was at his best like this, soaking in the worship of his subjects and radiating it back out to them amplified—elevating them, if only in that very moment, to something like his own divine status. They would return to their homes with renewed reverence and loyalty for their king, their war leader, who defended their city and ensured their safety. Their labors in the following days would redouble, prospering Eridu yet further above the other cities of the land between the rivers.
As the king reached the head of the stairs, the clamor of the multitude increased sixty-fold, and she saw that the twisting streets between them and the king’s house had also filled with welcoming and exhilarated citizens. The king paused to throw up his arms once more in greeting, and while the assembled masses roared back their joy at his homecoming, she turned to gaze out across the bay.
The waters shimmered white with the reflected light of the morning sun, casting a pale glow on the houses that lined the banks, and on the small craft that were beginning to fill the long inlet again now that the king had landed. Watching them cast off from the rows of docks spread out along the length of the bay, she allowed herself a moment of satisfaction at her foresight in building up this part of the city’s infrastructure. Had she heeded the doubts of the merchant class about the necessity for expanded access to the river, the fishermen would now find themselves perpetually deadlocked, wasting precious working hours arguing over who should next be allowed to embark or disembark.
With another small smile, she turned back to the king, who cast a glance over his shoulder at her and grinned before beginning his procession toward the palace. The king’s own guards stepped forward to clear a way for them, but the admiring throng, undaunted, closed in behind them and swept them onward with ever-increasing exuberance.
Nonetheless, the nearer they drew to the gates of the royal residence, the greater grew the disquiet in her mind, from a vague, half-perceived sense of unease to a certainty of menace. She slowed her steps, lagging behind the king as she scanned the crowd for the source of her dread. Below the din of their cheering and admiration, she could now detect an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, of anger, of hostility—of rage. She raised herself up onto her toes and gazed out over the heads of the masses, scanning each street and byway she passed for any possible source of the discordant note, but each alley flicked past too quickly, and one screaming face looked much like another. With only a few streets left between herself and the gates of the house, she strained her eyes to peer into the darkest corners and most remote edges of the crowd, but she saw nothing until she had nearly passed into the king’s courtyard. Then, with her foot upon the very threshold, she caught a brief, exasperating glimpse of what she sought.