He glanced at the three scribes standing on the other side of the room, and she nodded, sending them hastening from the room. When she had shut the door behind them, she gestured to a stool that stood at the near side of the table.
“Won’t you sit down?” she said, before crossing to the other side of the table and taking her own seat. “What can I do for you?” she asked when both had settled themselves.
Melem lowered his voice. “I represent certain interests in the city,” he said, “men with wealth and influence, who have contributed greatly to our prosperity. It is no secret among those in the know that it is your genius for administration, and your wisdom in governance, that have kept Eridu on a steady course to becoming the true power in the land between the rivers. Our king is a great warrior and a fine man, but I and those for whom I speak know that he would be but a tribal chieftain without your guidance and sound counsel.”
He paused, as if waiting for her to indicate awe or flattery, but when her face remained immobile, he continued undismayed. “Nonetheless, not all has been well with us of late. Since you—that is, the king—placed the responsibility for administering the buying and selling of all produce, whether of the field or of the river, in the hands of the merchants, much discontentment has arisen among the peasant classes. They don’t understand the complexities of our trade, and they blame us for this temporary decrease in their prosperity.”
Again he paused, and she said, “It is a great responsibility.”
“Exactly,” said Melem, smiling his broad smile again. “But as a result of our new regulations, we have seen an increase in theft at the docks, when goods are brought in, and some of our warehouses have even been plundered. Malcontents have been gathering in the streets outside our counting houses, and sometimes even our homes, rioting and threatening our safety. Moreover, it is clear that many of our suppliers are flouting the law, circumventing the legal markets, which are in place for their own safety. Our profits have fallen dramatically, and many formerly prosperous merchants are in danger of bankruptcy.”
“What is it they dislike about your system?” she asked, fixing him with her eyes.
“It is claimed,” said Melem, rather deliberately, “that we have placed our sale prices too high, much higher than the prices at which we purchase from the farmers and fishermen, and that they could make more money by selling directly to the buyers themselves. Of course, you and I know that we can’t allow that, for the safety of all concerned, to guard against dishonest dealings.”
“We wouldn’t want dishonesty to flourish,” she said.
“Exactly!” said Melem again. “If only everyone understood the matter as clearly as you do.”
She smiled and repeated, “So, what can I do for you, then?”
He shifted in his seat, leaning forward and lowering his voice once more. “My partners and I have tried everything we know to make peace with the peasants,” he said. “But things have only gotten worse. The king, meanwhile, has done little to keep the troublesome element in line, despite your good advice, I am sure.”
She waited, saying nothing, and he continued. “We are tired of waiting for things to improve. Those who have still some wealth remaining fear to lose it, and some have precious little left at all. While we can afford it, we will seek another place in the land, farther up the river, to found a new city—a new kind of society, where good sense and good trade will be the foundational principles.”