Babylon, the jewel of Mesopotamia which lay alongside the Euphrates river, was a-bustle with many visitors and traders from distant lands, browsing the massive bazaars of the city, which offered goods, both mundane and exotic, from all over the civilized world. Ships continuously left and entered the busy harbor, while workers labored extensively to enlarge the ever expanding city, for Babylon was home to massive wonders and impressive architecture.
But this was all very far from the mind one person, who had been stalking around near the Ishtar gate. The girl pulled the hood over her head when she passed a number of guards, hoping to pass unnoticed. The roof and doors of the gate were of cedar and through the gate ran the Processional Way which was lined with walls covered in lions on glazed bricks. With all the caravans going in and out, it usually very easy to slip in and out of the city unnoticed..
Unfortunately for her, a shrill female voice sounded in the distance : "There she is! Stop her!"
The girl grinned at the armor-clad female for a moment, before throwing off her cloak. Her long red hair now flowing in the light summer breeze, the girl shot the older woman a 'catch me if you can!'-expression and belted into the narrow streets of the bazaar right inside the city.
"After her!" shouted the woman.
The girl was fleet of feet and nimbly avoided the many shoppers. She sped up and slipped right in between two guards who were in front of her. The girl didn't look back, but heard the satisfying clonk of armor hitting armor, mixing with the colorful profanity of the angry older woman who collided into them.
"Cut her off at the KaDingirra high-street!" shouted the woman.
'Thanks for telling me what you're planning', the girl giggled slightly and decided to play along. She ran into the KaDingirra passageway, which was cut off at the very end by a steep wall. But, as usual, the girl was one step ahead of the guards: just as they rounded about the corner, the girl jumped up a stack of crates and grabbed hold of a rope hanging from one of the balconies. She scurried up and jumped to a nearby rooftop, past the inner walling. She stopped a moment to wink at the guards before running along.
"Back, you idiots! Back," the woman shouted, knowing that they now had to backtrack alongside the inner walling and had to pass through another gate. They had a serious chance to lose the girl.
The girl, in the meantime, made her way through a residential quarter of Babylon, jumping from one flat rooftop to another without ever losing speed. She had to give the guards credit for keeping up, though: two storeys below, in the narrow streets, she could hear the telltale clanking of armor on stone of the guards attempting to keep track of her.
"There she is!" shouted one of the guards. "Hey, look out!"
The girl snickered when she realized the guardsmen were so busy looking a her that they had failed to spot a donkey-cart filled to the brim with offal and crashed right into it. 'Well, that's four guards that'll be headed for the bath house later on.'
She rounded about towards the bazaar plaza in the Kullab Quarter and jumped right into the open, grabbing hold of a chain used for loading the storehouses surrounding the plaza, like she had done so many times before. Head first, she slid down until she was right above her target: kind Asha's stand. Already, she could smell the many sugary sweets and the spicey lamb roasting on a brazier. The girl regretted not being able to stay long enough to stay for a pita-bread filled with the spicey meat, but instead smiled at the kindly old woman and took a bag of dates from her stand.
"Hi, Asha," the girl greeted, while hanging upside down. "Bye, Asha," the girl replied when the guards entered the plaza and ran straight towards her.
"Be well, dear child," Asha smiled while the girl dropped a dinar in her palm.
The girl grinned and climbed up the chain until she was about halfway up. Using her slight weight, the girl started to swing until the chain was moving fast enough so she could jump off, grabbing hold of another hanging chain and jumping off that one until she landed on a large awning which she used trampoline herself onto the rooftops once again. Already, she could hear the groans of the gathered guards.
"Faster, you lazy dogs!" sounded the angry woman again. "Move faster, I say!"
The girl's fiery red hair made it seem as if she was blazing a trail through the sky. The guards were far below now, while she balanced alongside a wooden beam to cover the distance between two buildings that were too far to jump across. She saw the temple complex and headed straight towards the Royal Palace beyond it.
From the rooftop, the girl jumped into one of the upper windows of the temple, landing with her feet on the head of the statue of Marduk, the divine protector of Babylon. "Whups," the girl blushed slightly and quickly jumped down before one of the priests noticed. "Uh, sorry about that, Lord Marduk," the girl apologized reverently to the visage of her god. "But it was for a good cause," she said, holding up the bag of dates.
With the guards in hot pursuit, the girl ran up the stairways, up and up until she came to the very top of the temple. Without stopping, the girl ran towards the largest window to the east, facing the royal palace. She showed not fear or hesitation as she jumped out of the window, her momentum adding to the power her jump. Below her, the people were like ants in the streets, but she did not care... the girl soared towards the palace and passed through a large open window, landing squarely on her feet. She dusted off her tunic for a moment and held up her prize in victory.
The girl had entered the lavishly decorated preparation-chamber of King Iblis. A large door, beyond which lay the throneroom, was the focal point of the room, while expensive furniture, soft pillows and many plants served to ease the king's mind before receiving visitors in the throneroom. Right now, king Iblis was sitting on one such pillow, adjusting his royal turban.
"Willow," the king greeted calmly, not all surprised that she had entered through the window instead of the door.
"Hello, Father," the girl greeted in return and sat down next to him. "Date?" she asked, offering him some of the sweet fruit.
"Help me with my turban, will you?" the king asked while he took a date and popped it in his mouth. Willow did so.
"You should trim your beard a little," Willow said. "You're starting to look a bit scruffy. That's bad, you know? The lords and ladies of the court might not take you seriously anymore."
"As if they ever did," Iblis chuckled. "Don't worry, they'll fall back in line when I run one of them through with my sword right in the throneroom," he paused.
"You can't do that, Father," Willow replied.
"Hey, a man can dream. Willow, I did send Mahasti to find you. You know I don't like playing Justicar without you at my side."
"Went out to get some dates," Willow shrugged and popped another few in her mouth.
"We have dates here in the palace," Iblis challenged.
Willow rolled her eyes. "Those aren't nearly as tasty as Asha's. When I eat dates, I really wanna be sugared up by them. I would have been back in time, Father."
"Asha's stand isn't outside the city, Willow," Iblis crossed his arms.
Willow bit her lip, knowing she had been busted. "I, uh, well..."
"Willow, you know I don't like you leaving the city," Iblis said. "At least not unescorted or unarmed."
Willow patted her satchel. "I, uh, found some plants in the Tigris riverbeds that have never been before. They were near the Niveneh bends and..."
"Niveneh be..." Iblis sputtered. "That's crocodile country! Are you insane?"
"But Father, all plant and wildlife around Babylon needs to be catalogued and studied," Willow said. "A taxonomy of the local flora and fauna could be great value to the future people of Babylon."
Iblis sighed. "I should confine you to the palace for the next thirty years, but you'd probably find a way to escape." Iblis held out his arms and allowed his daughter to flow into his embrace. "I can never stay angry with you, you know that."
At that moment, four very tired looking (and smelly) guards and a fuming Mahasti stormed into the room, but immediately saluted when they noticed the king was also there.
"Mahasti," Iblis nodded to his captain of the guard. "Your guards are... smelly," he turned to Willow. "Do you know anything about this, Willow?"
"I didn't send the dung cart their way, if that is what you mean, Father," Willow grinned.
Mahasti sighed heavily. "The princess gave us a merry chase across the entire city," she said, glaring daggers at Willow, who simply stuck out her tongue in reply.
Mahasti could barely contain her fury. "I assume you will punish the girl."
"Why?" Iblis said while snacking on a date.
"W-why?" Mahasti sputtered. "Isn't it... obvious, my lord? She... she disrespected you, ignored protocol and embarrassed the law of the city."
"She is back in the palace and in time for Justicar duty, which is why I asked you bring her back in the first place," the king smiled gently at his only child. "And the guards look like they could use some excersize. Willow, my precious, will you go to the throneroom and prepare the staff to receive the people? I'll be along shortly."
"Certainly, Father," Willow took her bag of dates and passed Mahasti, to the large door.
Mahasti watched Willow stride through the large double doors and bid her guards to leave. She faced the king and crossed her arms.
"You give the girl too much freedom," she stated.
"She is a princess," the king stated matter-of-factly.
"Exactly!" challenged Mahasti. "She is a princess of the Babylonian dynasty and she should act like it! Princess Willow flaunts the rules of protocol. She walks among the commoners of the city, she openly expresses her disdain for the members of the royal court."
"That's because they're all pissants," Iblis snorted.
"That is besides the point!" Mahasti narrowed her eyes. "She fraternizes with the kitchen-staff, and you have her train with the warriors."
"I want my little girl to be able to handle herself in a scrape," the king returned.
"She spends her time with frivolous texts from the Hellenistic states to the west," Mahasti all but snarled. "And the princess regularly frolics around with the girls of the harem."
"Hah," the king snorted. "I'm glad at least somebody makes use of the harem. Do you realize how much the upkeep of a harem is? I have no idea what those girls are doing with all that gold. If Willow finds pleasure in the arms of the harem girls, it's not just a money pit."
Mahasti sighed heavily. "Please, my king. Realize that princess Willow is 17, of marrying age. Her main concern should be finding a husband and producing an heir to the throne! I cannot believe that she, as descendant of the great Nebuchadnezzar, should be allowed..."
"WATCH YOURSELF! Your are overstepping your bounds, Mahasti!" the king roared as he stood up. "This city, with all these people... All my conquests, all the wonders... Believe me, I love Babylon and its people! But I don't love Babylon half as much as I love Willow. She is my greatest treasure! And I want her to be happy, I want her to be loved and I want her to be free of all worries!"
Mahasti nodded, acknowledging her defeat in this issue. "My king," she spoke softly. "Willow's mother has been dead for 17 years now. Isn't it time to let go? Perhaps you should find a new wife. Someone who could produce a new heir, so that your wishes for both Willow and your dynasty can be fulfilled?"
Iblis crossed his arms. "Would you know of a potential candidate, then?"
Mahasti bowed her head. "I live to serve, my lord."
The king adjusted his turban again. "I'm late for Justicar duty. I assume you'll let yourself out, Mahasti."
When King Iblis entered the throneroom, he already found several litigants standing in line behind a row of guards. He counted... one... two... three... four... five... groaned inwardly as he realized he'd be stuck with Justicar duty for the rest of the day, but took solace in the fact that Willow would be right beside him to fill in the blanks where needed.
The throneroom was a lavishly decorated high-ceilinged room with statues of Marduk on all sides of the room, while the painted walls told the epic story of Gilgamesh. The throne itself was located on a dias, several meters high, but Willow had suggested that he'd sit on a smaller throne at the base of the dias for these kinds of proceedings, in order to seem more approachable to the people. Since Willow was usually right about these things, he had agreed.
The king rested his already weary bones on top of the small seat while Willow lounged next to him on a bed of red pillows. The cases he was about to be presented with, were all cases that had tied up the courts long enough and had been shuffled over to the king for a solution. Already, he wanted to be somewhere else: he was a warrior, dammit. A conqueror, a general, a commander... sitting around all day listening to people whine about stuff he couldn't care less about was not his favorite activity.
Next to her Willow had already prepared her quill and notebook and was ready and eager to get to work. Her father noted that Willow looked simply stunning in her regal jade-colored kaftan. On her head she wore a royal golden tiara signifying her rank. She normally preferred simpler clothes, but enjoyed wearing this regal outfit during official occasions.
The chamberlain slammed his staff on the ground. "Court is now in session," he spoke. "The king will hear the litigants."
A woman and a lavishly dressed man stepped forward. "My king," the man stated. "I seek to evict this woman from the home she rented from me. I have not seen a single dinar in months!"
"My king," the woman protested. "I refuse to pay rent until he fixes the roof. There's been all kinds of problems with that house since the day I moved in."
"The contract clearly states that the tenant, not the landlord, is responsible for the upkeep of the house," the man continued. "She knew this when she moved into the house and agreed to it!"
While the two litigants bickered endlessly, the king found his mind wondering. His thoughts moved away from rental disputes to battles of yesteryear, conquests of old, epic battles with powerful warriors, friends lost in battle. By lord Marduk, the battle of Gulmus pass. Persian marmalukes to the left, Akkadian raiders to the east and my small battlegroup in the middle. And yet we prevailed. He was mentally back on the battlefield, twenty years younger and hacking away at the raiders with his sword until the desert sands were red with blood. A warrior-king, he was... but now Babylon was safe and protected, the powerful city state in the region.
Pity the warrior who slays all his enemies, Iblis thought sadly.
"My lord," the king started when the chamberlain slammed his staff on the ground. "What be your verdict?"
King Iblis blinked and looked out he window, noticing that the sun was somewhat lower in the sky now, and realized he had not heard a single word that the litigants had spoken. "Uhm, alright... Off with their heads!"
Some worried murmurs among the gathered people sounded.
"Uh, my king, this is a simple rental dispute," the chamberlain gulped. "Are you certain you wish to take this drastic course of action?"
Fortunately, Willow came to the rescue. His precious girl leaned in and whispered the verdict he should give in his ear. Unlike Iblis, Willow had been paying attention, and had been asking both litigants all manner of questions about the case.
"First of all," the king spoke with a regal voice. "It is the judgment of this court, that the landlord is a poop-head," the king continued, drawing some laughter from the crowd. Willow leaned in to whisper again. "It is our royal degree that the tenant will pay her back-owed rent in full, as soon as the landlord has fixed the doors, the roof and the north wall to the tenant's satisfaction. This is my judgement under the watchful eyes of our Lord Marduk. Case closed."
Both litigants seemed to agree with the decision and stepped down. The king groaned when two more stepped onto the platform to present their case, and saw that there were at least twelve more cases today. Glancing to her side, he saw that Willow was enjoying herself tremendously.
"Proceed with the next case," he sighed heavily. To his relief, he saw the new litigants were directing their grievances to Willow directly, so he could drop the facade and dream away quietly, to spend time with his memories of old battles.
Together, Iblis and Willow unofficially ruled the kingdom as a single monarch. The king set policy, but his daughter usually took care of the details. Willow was the brains to his brawn. This suited him more than fine.
"In this case," droned the litigant in a low monotonous voice, "there is precedent in the form a case that took place three hundred years ago under the rule of Assad the Wise, who ruled that..."
Just before Iblis dozed off, he really hoped he did not snore too loudly.
After a long day of Justicar duty, and a lovely dinner with her father, Willow had withdrawn to her personal chambers. First she had decided to train. In the training room set up with her, there were plenty of hand and footholds in the wall, aside from several chains and bars hanging from the ceiling. Though many the set-ups in the training room were no longer challenging for Willow, she enjoyed climbing and swinging from chain to chain. Willow climbed up to the highest bar and clamped on to it, hanging from it upside down by locking her knees around it. And so she hung, arms outstretched. She felt beads of sweat forming on her brow as gravity started to take her toll... but she was determined to break her personal record. She gritted her teeth as she counted and counted. Satisfied with herself, she wiped the sweat from her hands and reached to the bar to start her climb down.
After the excersize, Willow headed towards the royal bathhouse. Two servants disrobed her and helped her into the bath that was already waiting for her. After a long day, Willow loved to relax by enjoying a warm milk bath. Only the freshest donkey milk was used, scented with lavender and honey. She closed her eyes and laid her head on the soft pillow on the side of the bath that the servant quickly put down. The other servant offered her a drink of mango-juice while she relaxed.
Finally, Willow left the bath. The sun had almost set completely, so it was time for Willow to retire to her chambers after a long day... but not before visiting the harem to chose a companion to join her for the evening.
Willow had her own personal tower, looking over the city. The room was filled to the brim with books and scrolls about all manner of subjects: from stories of legend, to Hellenistic philosophy, ancient history, science and even magical knowledge. Almost all works had notes written in the margins in Willow's delicate calligraphy. In between the books were exotic plants and luxurious furniture, as well as toys her father had given her during her younger years. Her collection of scarcely clothed female figurines, a collection that had a combined cost equal to that of a large mansion, was displayed on a large shelf above her writing desk, and above the door hung the portrait of the mother she had never known.
In the center of the room, a large round bed was built into the floor. Among the silken sheets and pillows lay Willow with her lover of the eve, Inaya. Inaya was a girl born in Babylon, three years older than she was and quite skilled at massage. The black-haired beauty slept quietly, while the smell of massage-oil still hung around the bed.
Willow's eyes fluttered open and took a look at the sky beyond the window. She smiled, slowly disentangled herself from Inaya and slipped out of bed, shoved the almost impossibly thin silken sheets surrounding her bed aside and donned a robe. The desert air was still warm at night as she stepped on the large balcony next to her room. On the balcony were her two most beloved possessions. The first was a clockwork nightingale she'd been given by her father when she was five. The nightingale was of delicate design and could play seven songs. She selected one and turned the key before replacing it on its socket.
The second was a telescope, created by master craftsmen of Damascus. Many a time had she spent watching the stars at night. In fact, she had added a line-up of several lenses in front of the ocular, greatly enhancing the telescope's performance. Willow took a notebook and a chart from the table and started stargazing.
"Princess?" she heard the sleepy voice of Inaya behind her a few moments later. "Princess, why are you awake? Did you not enjoy my company tonight?"
Willow smiled at her. "Oh, I did," she told Inaya. "It was wow. It was stupendously wow, but... it's just a lovely night out, and it seemed like a shame to waste it sleeping. Just look at those stars!"
Though Willow regularly invited one of the harem girls to join her for the evening, Willow had been with Inaya several times and had found out they had shared many of the same interests. In fact, Inaya was one of the few girls that would actually still be in her bed when she'd wake up the morning after. Though they enjoyed each other's company, there was no romance between them. Or with any of the harem girls for that manner. Though Inaya and the others were artists at making love, it was missing a certain spark... That spark she had only read about in hundreds of stories, but she had never experienced it. Because Willow had never been in love.
But, Willow was not overly mournful over this. She figured she was young and it would come along eventually. She simply didn't have time for romance with the busy life she led. Besides, even without a spark, spending the eve in somebody's arms was still great fun.
"It is lovely out here," the buxom raven-haired girl stated.
"I've ordered more lenses for my telescope," Willow replied.
"Wow," Inaya spoke. "Maybe you'll actually be able to see the holes in the sky!"
Willow nodded. "I don't think so," Willow replied. "With these lenses I already should have seen them by now," she said, referring to the belief that the stars were merely holes in the night-sky, through which the sunlight poured in. "I've been thinking, Inaya. If there aren't any holes in the night-sky, maybe the cosmology we take for reality isn't so real at all."
"But if the stars aren't holes in the night-sky, what are they?" Inaya asked.
"Think about it," Willow grinned while scribbling some notes in her stargazing journal. "Many the stars... What if they're suns! Just a lot farther away than our own sun. It's just a wild theory, I know, but what if it's true? I guess we'll find out when I get my new lenses. My telescope will be so powerful I might even be able to see Marduk's sky-palace!"
"Princess," Inaya smiled. "I think you're... um... Not to be disrespectful, but..."
"Uh, blasphemous was what I was thinking," Inaya smirked. "But crazy will do fine."
"Thanks," Willow grinned. "So, what's the latest gossip in the harem? You gals seem to know anything about everyone before it even happens."
"Well, there's the usual stuff about the guardsmen and the temple 'virgins'," Inaya said. "And then there's the rumor about the chamberlain and your father's horse. But the big scuttlebutt is that Mahasti has made an interesting proposal to your father," Inaya started. "She offered to become a mother for a second child and possible heir to the throne of Babylon. The king turned her down, it seems. Very harshly."
Willow snorted while closing one eye and peering through the telescope. "Mahasti... self appointed guardian of our dynasty... She's been trying to wile her way into my father's bed and failing for the last 10 years. She hates me."
"Mahasti hates everybody," Inaya replied.
"Maybe that's why Father appointed her as head of the elite guard," Willow shrugged. "Only people with no heart and no soul need bother to apply to that position."
"Princess," Inaya started. "About... you..."
"What about me?"
"The night is still young, princess," Inaya looked at her intently and motioned towards the bed. "And I am not overly tired."
"Thank you," Willow looked back at the telescope. "But the sky is clear. This night's perfect to work on my astronomical star chart. And, though I would really like to lay in your arms again, you just know it's gonna be cloudy for the next two weeks and I'll be hitting myself in the head because I couldn't control myself and dove into bed with a beautiful woman rather than working on my star chart. And it'd be staring me in the face all day, because my chart'll be hanging from the wall with a big blank spot in the middle, mocking my fall to temptation. And then I'll be all sulky and moody and nobody'd want to have me around. Plus, if I finish my work now, I'll be able to make love without feeling guilty for the next two cloudy weeks."
"Uhh, if you say so," Inaya blinked as she tried to follow Willow's leap of logic. "If you'll permit me, I will return to the bed and sleep for the rest of the night."
"That's okay, Inaya," Willow smiled and resumed stargazing. For some time, she made notes and calculations to add to her chart. It was then that she noticed some odd activities in the courtyard far below. The large palace gardens were usually only patrolled by guards at this time of night, but at the moment there seemed to be a small caravan of strange people walking down the path towards the palace. It was too far down to make out any details, so the curious Willow removed some of the lenses in front of her telescope and aimed it downwards into the courtyard.
"Who are you?" Willow said to herself when she noticed a group of six armored bodyguards. They bore the colors of a city-state, but Willow did not recognize them. She took note of it and promised herself to look into it tomorrow. More interesting however, was the man they were guarding. In between them stood a thin man all dressed in black. On his head he wore a purple turban. The man looked gaunt and had a pale skin. He coughed often and made a generally sickly impression.
Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks and looked up, staring directly at Willow through the telescope.
Startled, Willow withdrew from the telescope and took a few steps back. 'What the... How could he see me? I'm too high up!'
Willow took a few deep breaths and after a few minutes, looked through the telescope for a second time. She found the man still standing there, and still staring up at her through the telescope. His expression was neutral, yet she could feel a chill going down her spine. It was as if this sickly looking man was staring right into her soul.
She quickly dove away from the telescope and sat with her back against the balcony wall. For a moment, she considered looking through the telescope for a third time, but she quickly decided against it.
Willow decided it was time to go inside. She grabbed her star chart and promised herself to get to the bottom of this the first thing tomorrow.