Three streets away, past the wall that surrounded the king’s house, clustered a small group of men, but their faces were turning away from hers even as she spotted them. With the king disappearing into his own gates, they were withdrawing from the edge of the crowd, but they did not depart back down the street to where they might dwell. Instead, they vanished one-by-one into the alley that bordered the palace, each casting a glance of furtive caution over his shoulder before disappearing into the shadows.
At once, she turned aside from entering the courtyard and began to fight her way through the adoring crowd, who now thronged the gate as it closed upon their king. With bodies pressing in on her from three directions at once, she ducked her head down and thrust forward with her elbows extended, forcing her way through the teeming masses as their cries deafened her ears. Gradually they began to part before her, and she gathered speed as she reached the street beyond. She burst through into the open space beyond with a gasp of relief.
Turning toward the alley that held her suspects, she found it now filled only with the echoes of the crowd’s jubilation, but she stepped into its narrow embrace without hesitation and soon found herself at the far end, looking down an adjoining lane. It stretched away to the right and to the left, but in neither direction did anyone or anything manifest itself. Nothing betrayed the presence of those she pursued; they might have disappeared into the very dust at her feet.
Cursing the impediments that had prevented her from following more quickly, she turned back in the way she had come, but a small flash of red on the wall of the house adjacent caught her eye.
Looking up, she saw that someone had painted, scarcely more than a hand’s breadth across, a small pictographic symbol: a rough triangle with a tail extending from its left side like the shaft and feathers of an arrow, and inside it, three small semi-circles.
“Gemé,” she said under her breath, and turned up the alley once more.
When she had returned to the palace, she went at once to her counting room, calling out to the scribes with mischief in her voice, “Very well, you’ve had your time to sleep over the tablets while I’ve been gone, but it’s back to work now, and if I find even one—”
She rounded the corner into the room and saw them already standing in respectful poses, heads down in an attitude of deference she rarely saw and never required. She was just opening her mouth to question their unexpected reverence when she saw that a stranger stood by the table at which she performed most of her calculations and tabulations.
Round-bellied and bearing a self-satisfied but amiable smile on his broad face, he wore a skirt of luxurious blue with ornate, petal-shaped fringe at the hem, and his sun-bleached shawl bore a similar fringe. He stepped forward as she entered, and he bowed from the waist before speaking.
“Lady, allow me to congratulate you on another successful campaign,” he said. “The people of Eridu rejoice to know that our king ventures forth with such a counselor by his side, who will ensure his triumph and safe return.”
“I thank you,” she said, “Your praise is very generous.”
“My name is Melem,” continued the man. “I have been awaiting your homecoming with considerable anticipation. Might I have the honor of a private audience?”