Content Warning: Violence, oppression, law enforcement brutality
On the first day after the king had ordered the new restrictions and increased oversight, she had accompanied a patrol to one of the merchants’ warehouses. She had given them explicit instructions to arrest any loiterers or suspicious persons, then turned to make her way back to the palace. Almost at once, though, she had caught sight of the small arrow-shaped symbol she had seen the previous day, this time painted above the door of an small tavern. Entering, she had thrust her way past the landlord, ignoring his protestation of her womanhood, and marched toward a door at the back of the large public room. Upon opening it, she had found a gathering of five men who stank of fish and froze on her entrance, guilt etched across every one of their faces.
She had turned at once and summoned three guards from her nearby patrol to arrest everyone present. One of the men had escaped, but the other four now occupied a crowded cell together. More importantly, she had found the same symbol scratched, painted, or scrawled in the dust outside countless other buildings dotted around Eridu, and over the past three days had effected many arrests simply by setting a watch over them.
Another bellow of pain from below pulled her thoughts back to the present, and she looked down to see another fisherman being caught and beaten. As the guard who had apprehended him exhausted his frustration and began to haul the unfortunate laborer back through the morass of fish toward the prison, she took a deep breath, then gagged as her lungs filled with the stench of the rotting fish.
“Madam,” said a voice behind her, and she turned to see one of her scribes waiting by the stairs that led up to the roof.
“What is it, Ishu?”
“The man who came to see you three days ago has returned,” said Ishu. “He asks to speak with you alone, as before.”
“Send him up to me here,” she said, and Ishu departed with an expression of relief.
She turned back to the scene of the protest below, wondering if she could ever expunge the smell of fish from her nostrils. The deliveries of rotting fish corpses were beginning to slow, leaving her guards less confused and more able to apprehend the culprits. She watched as two more unfortunate fishermen slithered over their own catches toward the cells, then called over her shoulder, “Come and join me, Melem.”
The spokesman for the would-be emigrants approached slowly, holding the edge of his shawl over his nose and mouth. “Could we not have met inside?” he croaked. “Surely you do not enjoy the stink of rotting fish?”
“I like to watch my own handiwork,” she said. “Don’t you?”
“I… I wouldn’t know, Lady,” he said, gagging a little over his words.
“You must be pleased with the outcome of the past few days, at least,” she said, turning to smile down at him. “We have made many arrests, and ensured that goods will only be sold as you have decreed.”
“But look what follows,” said Melem, gesturing with his free hand out at the silver streets. “Valuable goods left to rot, or worse, used to disrupt trade even further. Not to speak of the shortage of food. Can you not put a stop to the illegal trade going on outside the walls? The farmers must bring their produce into the city to sell.”
He shook his head, as if to dispel a nagging fly. “It matters not. Soon we will depart, and leave the unfortunate people of Eridu in the hands of the king. And you—you will go with us? You must see how futile your efforts have become. Join us, I beg you, and we can build a new, better city of our own.”
She looked out across the city, casting her gaze beyond the streets full of fish to the Euphrates where it flowed past the mouth of the port. The sun sparkled on its waters as they danced away toward the south, and she followed the course of the river with her eyes to where it joined the horizon in a haze of blue. Tearing her eyes away from its beckoning shimmer, she turned her attention back to the scene below, and the streets seemed to contract by contrast with the wideness of the world outside.
“Tell your people to gather provisions and supplies,” she said to Melem, and his countenance brightened behind his makeshift veil. “The journey will be hard, even by ship—and we must have ships, enough to transport every man, woman, and child who will go, along with all the stores.”
“All is nearly ready,” he said, with eager pride in his voice. “We have been preparing against this day for some time.”
“Then do whatever you must to turn ‘nearly ready’ into ‘ready,’” she said. “Assemble everything into a location near the port, so when the time comes we can quickly transport all our goods to the boats.”