Content Warning: Discussion of slavery
Her mouth fell open at this, and he hastened to reassure her. “We mean no ill to the people of Eridu. We will not go with violence, and we will not cause unrest, but we will go, and we want you to lead us out from here.”
“What could you think would entice me to do such a thing?”
Melem sat up straight again, his smile returning. “You must tire at times of increasing another’s fame and prosperity at the expense of your own,” he said. “You have built our city up from nothing, but who outside of the elite few has ever heard your name? But if you partner with us, you can build something new of your own. You may not be a king—for we will be a free city, a society of equals—but you will have the highest esteem, and your wisdom will be valued most of all, because of your great experience and success.”
“A society of equals,” she repeated. “So you will take with you no slaves?”
“Well,” said Melem, spreading out his hands in an appeal to her common sense, “the free will be equals.”
She nodded, lips pursed in silent thought, and Melem held his tongue as she considered his words. At last, she said, “Please give me three days to consider your proposal. It may be, too, that in that time matters will improve, and you will not feel compelled to leave Eridu.”
“Oh, that is doubtful,” said Melem, rising. “I have seen no sign that the king understands our predicament.”
Bowing again, he turned and left the room, and she heard his footsteps fading into echoes outside.
She found the king lying in the inner courtyard of his house, a lush garden sheltered from the heat of the sun by the branches of a tall tree planted in its center. Beneath it, on a low couch, lay the king, eyes closed in rapt attention as a lyrist played upon his instrument nearby.
“Your people grow restless,” she said as she approached, and he sat up, opening his eyes.
The annoyance melted from his face when he recognized her, and he sank back upon the pillow again. “Have you not rested? How often must I beg you to take your ease from time to time?”
“Much was neglected in my absence,” she said. “including the upheaval in our city’s marketplaces. The merchants are fearful; there have been riots, and theft from their storerooms, as the farmers and the fisherman grow desperate.”
“This will all make itself right eventually,” said the king, his eyes still closed. “For Marduk’s sake, come and sit down. Close your eyes and listen to this fellow—he’s extraordinary.”
He patted the edge of the couch near his leg, and she obeyed, seating herself next to his knees with all the relaxation of a spear in a warrior’s hand.
“Ever since we gave the merchants control over trade, discontentment has grown,” she said, and the king groaned. She continued, undeterred, “Those who produce—who grow crops and fish the river and husband livestock—their return for their labor has diminished. The merchants are prospering at their expense, and—”
“The merchants know best how to govern trade; it’s what they do,” said the king, sitting up again. “Instead of consulting with them constantly about it, it’s better if they have a free hand, to do what is most advantageous for the city.”
“Most advantageous for them,” she replied, and he waved his hand in dismissal.