Pu-abi, eresh of Ur, sat back upon her heels, breathing as shallowly as she could. The coughing had lasted longer this time and she felt as weak as a reed carried along the Great River. Gurun, her handmaid, gently took the linen cloth she had held to her mouth.
"Drink a little water, great lady," she said, and pressed a beaker of thin-beaten gold into Pu-abi's hand. She held the used cloth behind her back, as if Pu-abi were a child to be shielded from the knowledge.
"Thank you," Pu-abi said, her voice faint and hoarse. The water laced with bitter healing herbs stung her throat horribly and she put the cup on the floor by her side. The expression on Gurun's face made her pick it up again and sip it as if nothing were wrong. Now that she was ready for the pain it was but a little thing to ignore it. "The healing priests," she said, "they will be here soon."
Gurun thinned her lips, keeping her thoughts within her heart. Pu-abi felt she agreed; all the spells and prayers over the months had done nothing, and her servant was not spared the task of attempting to hide scarlet-soaked cloths. It was beneath Pu-abi's dignity to notice either the kindness or the disrespect of one who had been her slave for so long, so she kept her silence as Gurun carefully wiped her mouth and helped her to stand ready to wear the gold and lapis that an eresh should wear in the sight of all but their closest servants.
Besides, it hurt too much to speak.
The council business was never-ending, the heads of the great families looking at her in avaricious interest, as if they were already fighting over who would sit in the eresh's seat. Avarice and barely-hidden contempt lay in the face of Zalmu-esag, greatest of the men of name, who had hated her husband Abarage whilst he was alive, and hated her now. Abarage had kept Ur as much at peace as he could; Zalmu-esag had always longed for war. He thought she did not know how he whispered to the other lords that the city was become womanish and cowardly with Abarage's Akkadian wife as its ruler, that they were not men if they did not vote for war. Pu-abi let her gaze roam across the men's faces, then fixed her eyes upon the countenance of Enannar-agrig, the steward of the temple lands of Nanna. If she concentrated hard enough it seemed as if she truly listened. The healing priests had made her drink the syrup of poppies, which had as usual done more than all the prayers with which she and they could deafen the ears of the gods. A slight movement to one side drew her wandering attention and she found Enkiaganna watching her. She had never liked the woman, and knew her dislike returned in full, for the en of Nanna had made it clear what her opinion was on the raising up of an eresh from a family of Akkad. Let her glare, Pu-abi thought. The gods choose whom they choose, though they will never reveal what Nanna was thinking when he chose her as his en. She carefully looked away, for such blasphemy was not good to think, even in the quiet of her heart, and Enkiaganna had a way of discerning thoughts best left unspoken. Pu-abi found her eyes beginning to drift shut and, before she could succumb to the dreams the syrup brought, she abruptly stood up from upon the ivory-inlaid seat. The men stopped talking and all stood up from where they crouched, to bow down once more to the floor, their faces full of false respect.
"The council will meet again tomorrow," she said.
"Of course, great lady," Zalmu-esag said, rising from his bow. "If it is your wish that we could spare you the tiresome business –"
Pu-abi nodded to Gurun and walked away before he could finish. Her anger and the priests' syrup took her from their sight before she staggered against Gurun and had to be held up as her knees gave way.
"Great lady, great lady –" Gurun said in distress as she began to cough again, the blood seeping from between the fingers of the hand she pressed against her mouth, more by far than when the illness had taken her before. "I have a cloth –"
"Get me to my chambers," Pu-abi gasped, her heart filled with shame as all the servants of the house stopped their work and watched her death step closer.
"This is a much stronger tincture," the priest said, holding out a cup. "You must drink it now and sleep."
Pu-abi shook her head and motioned to Gurun to help her stand once more. It was no time to lie on her mat like a calf waiting in the stall for slaughter.
"Girl, help the great lady drink," the priest said. "Or if she cannot, soak a cloth in it and drip it in her mouth."
Pu-abi motioned with her eyes to Gurun, who clamped her lips shut upon what she had been about to say about young priests and their arrogance, and turned to him. "My mistress says, no, she will not sleep," she said, with great finality. She paused as Pu-abi moistened her lips with water and whispered in her ear. "My mistress says –" Gurun closed her eyes. "The great lady Pu-abi says, How long?"
The priest met her eyes, as if he were used to telling people of their death. Pu-abi wondered at that – he seemed barely old enough to shave his chin, and already he was as accomplished a doctor at losing patients as any other of her healers. "Only the gods can know the day and the hour," he said, "but not long. Some days, only. And you will not be conscious towards the end." His gaze softened, and he held out the cup once more. "You should drink, great lady, it will go easier with you."
"Leave it," she rasped. "I will drink it later."
"Do not try to speak," Gurun whispered as Pu-abi waved the priest away.
"Hush, what does he know?" Pu-abi said. "He is a mere child – there were more marks of the razor upon his scalp than his face." She took a breath at the pain of speaking, and took a sip of the cup the priest had left. It was strong, sweetened only with as much wine as would make it palatable. She grimaced and put it aside, feeling a little stronger. Do not joke, she told herself, do not laugh. You must be able to speak. "Mix that with an equal amount of wine," she whispered. "I will not make myself insensible before that fate is sent me by the gods." She watched Gurun pour half the liquid into her favourite golden beaker and add a generous amount of wine from the jar that stood upon her table. She took the diluted syrup back and sipped it carefully, letting it numb her throat. It was still stronger by far than the dose she had been given at dawn, and she signalled Gurun to add more wine to the mixture. "I will open my heart to you," she said as Gurun turned back, the wine beaker outheld. "My day is not far off, and it is in my heart to send you from my service whilst I may still be obeyed."
Gurun dropped Pu-abi's tall golden beaker and stood there in a spreading pool of date wine and poppy-syrup. "How have I displeased you, how have I lost favour in your eyes?" she said. "Have I not been with you since the days of our childhood, when first I was captive?"
Pu-abi looked away, for she had not expected to wish to join in Gurun's tears. "You are a good and faithful servant," she whispered. "And I would spare you what they –"
"Who will bring you your wine at dawn?" Gurun said. "Who will do your hair?"
Pu-abi shook her head. "Will not my hair be unbound where I am going?"
"I will not leave you," Gurun said. "You will need me there as you do here." She looked about herself and seized up one of the cloths Pu-abi used to muffle the coughs, busying herself in mopping up the wine. "You must not speak of it. You will tire yourself," she said towards the floor, then glanced up all at once, her face fierce. "If you send me away I will cast myself down from the city walls, that I might go ahead to greet you."
"Such disrespect," Pu-abi said, with no force. "Should not a servant obey her mistress and live?"
"If I am not your servant I will obey my heart," Gurun said. She picked up the beaker and wiped it, pouring in what remained of the wine and poppy syrup mix before filling it to the brim with wine. "Drink, lady."
"Ah, well. There will be more peace with me than in all of Ur's days to come," Pu-abi said, taking it; she sipped a little. "Zalmu-esag will drag the city down to dust with his desire for the glories of war."
"We shall not see it," Gurun said consolingly.
"He thinks the sting of death lets him defeat me," Pu-abi said. "He is wrong. Go quietly and with your own voice bid the steward of the lord Nanna's lands to attend me." She waved Gurun away and waited long, long minutes to be sure she was alone. Then she poured out some of the wine and syrup and added pure water to what was left, draining the cup to the dregs. She would not give in to the dreams the syrup brought, she thought, and the pain would be quietened long enough for what she had to do.
"Great lady," Enannar-agrig said politely, "I am here as you bid."
Pu-abi looked up and sat a little straighter upon her mat. The diadem felt tight upon her head, and she was suddenly glad that soon she would never have to wear it again. "Steward of Nanna," she said, "sit." He folded his legs beneath him and sat opposite her, watching her curiously. "You were my husband's friend," she said, "you have guarded the wealth of the temple well all the days of my reign and will not doubt continue when I go to my fate."
"Let not the great lady speak of such unlucky things," Enannar-agrig said and sat back at her impatient gesture.
"We have no time for such courtesies; we must speak of the days to come. It is in my heart –" The door opened once more and Enkiaganna walked in, a frown upon her face. Pu-abi stared at her in surprise like a fish drawn up from the Great River gaping at the dry land. "Lady of Nanna," she said, "I did not ask you to come."
"No," Enkiaganna said. "You asked for the steward of the lord Nanna's lands. If you wish to spend my divine husband's wealth, it is surely polite to ask my opinion. You, set the stool there," she said to the servant who followed her, then waved him back out the door before she settled herself down, arranging her skirts perfectly about her knees.
Pu-abi watched her in a mix of irritation and amusement. Ah, she thought, I have a royal seat when I sit with the council, but the gods will eternally keep an en's royal arse from sitting on the ground. "I do not conspire, lady of Nanna," she said, and hid her grimace at the tremor in her voice. Gurun was by her side at once, a cup of wine outheld. The poppy syrup was weaker in this cup, Pu-abi thought, drinking a little.
"I think you do conspire," Enkiaganna said, and primly put her hands upon her knees. "All your life you have hated one of the great lords of the city, and been hated in return, and now he sees victory approaching. Never since I have known you have you ceded victory to another, and it is in my heart that the gods have aided you. This is a day when the lord Nanna still stands in the sky when his son and daughter shine out to greet him. It is surely auspicious - let us conspire together, eresh of Ur."
She used my title, surely a wonder from the gods, Pu-abi thought, and put the cup aside, annoyed at how the syrup put distracting thoughts in her heart. She composed herself a moment, then began. "I am dying," she said without preamble. "All the council knows it, as they know I have no child to take the throne. There will be a scramble for power and unless I stop him, that son of a donkey Zalmu-esag will win and be acclaimed lugal."
"The lord Nanna will not endorse him," Enkiaganna said.
"What will the lord Nanna say when you are locked in your chambers without food or drink, your women violated?"
"Zalmu-esag has enemies on the council," Enannar-agrig said, before they could start the argument in earnest. "The other lords will not accept him."
"He has a son old enough to lead armies, yet young enough to be influenced," Pu-abi said. "He has an unmarried daughter, an excellent candidate for en."
"There is no certainty in the gods' choice," Enkiaganna said. "And I am no older than you, and in better health."
"Do you think he will stop at violating your women?" Pu-abi said. "When you are defiled, will he not give you a copper dagger with his own hands to wipe away your shame?" She could see the truth of what she said acknowledged in the other woman's face as the en sat quietly, her lips set in a thin line.
"If I had a child," Pu-abi said, "the council would be content. As it is, we will be dragged into war we can ill afford. Zalmu-esag thinks he can capture the other cities' lands - he sees glory not in a summer campaign, but in eternal conquest. He must be stopped." She glanced down at the cup by her side and did not drink. All the children she had borne to Abarage, she thought, and only two had lived, both daughters, both sent when they first bled to the city of Sippar, to be naditu-women to the lord Nanna's son, the lord Utu, praying eternally for their parents before the gods. They were as far from her reach as if they were dead.
"Who on the council should we choose?" She looked at the war of ambition and dread in the face of Enannar-agrig and shook her head even as Enkiaganna shook hers. "Friend of my husband," she said, "my friend, they would see you adding the throne to your stewardship and would join against you. The spirits of you and your family would stand in the court of the Queen of the Vast Land before the month was out. It cannot be you. I need you to be my voice on the council after I am gone. Come now, who on the council will listen to your voice?"
"Meskalamdug," Enannar-agrig said, and his voice was somewhat relieved, as if he had thought he should attempt the throne though his heart urged otherwise. "He is a man of sense, and not as mad for war as Zalmu-esag."
"Offer your support," Pu-abi said, "it may be that his heart will move him to our views."
"This business of conspiracy is slow-moving and uncertain," Enkiaganna said.
"Lady of Nanna, you cannot wish us simply to use daggers to achieve this," he said, bowing his head to her.
"Can I not? What does Pu-abi say? Does she wish to die without seeing her conspiracy come to fruition?"
Pu-abi looked at her. Enkiaganna's gaze was direct, but for once not unfriendly as if she had decided it was gracious to be polite to the dying. Appease her, she thought, though it set her teeth on edge, she will live many years and can keep the city safe.
"There is a dagger I would use, lady of Nanna," she said, and beckoned Gurun close. "Come, Gurun, you will have a part in this, poor recompense for your loyalty. Let me open my heart to you all."
She picked up the cup and swirled it, mixing the syrup back into the wine. Another mouthful would do no harm and would allow her to say what she needed to. She swallowed, and set it down again, and began.
The council meeting the next morning was exhausting, and Pu-abi was glad she had said little. The men spoke on and on, accounts of the wealth of the city, its fame and glory. They thought they pleased her, she thought, telling her of how many chariots Ur could afford, how much blood its men would spill. She smiled calmly at Zalmu-esag, cursing his influence in her heart. You fool, and son of a fool, she thought. Do you think your name will go down through the years? Enough.
"Lords of Ur," she said, and the rasp in her voice was hardly there. "Let us say what must be said. Soon I will go the way of all flesh, and the royal seat will stand empty." She waited while they cried out that such a day was far off, may the gods spare her.
"I have taken omens," she said, when they finally stopped, "I have spoken with the lady of Nanna." They all looked to Enkiaganna who sat, silent and veiled, as if she were already in mourning. "The signs are clear," Pu-abi said. "Zalmu-esag, great honour comes to your family, for your son and your daughter." Yes, she thought as an expression of deep satisfaction came into his face. You would be happy to rule through them, if you cannot take the throne for yourself. Your son for lugal, your daughter for lady of Nanna. Fool.
"The great lady is very wise," Zalmu-esag said. "The duty the gods have laid up for them, they will gladly perform. I swear it."
"That is good to hear," Pu-abi said, and let herself lean against the ivory back of the throne. "I am moved to hear of the piety of these young people, and so, I name them my personal servants, to be counted amongst the closest of my maidservants and guards. They shall not leave my side, through all the ages."
She watched the smile slowly drop from his face. See, she thought, see, lords of Ur, how he underestimates a threat, how his family is decreased. Does he look so good a candidate now?
"No," Zalmu-esag said. "No, you cannot do this."
"Zalmu-esag, you have already handed them over with a good heart," she said. "Let us continue the business of state. As to who should wear the diadem, the omens indicate Meskal-"
"No!" Zalmu-esag yelled, as Meskalamdug looked swiftly about the room, gauging support. "You will not do this, Pu-abi!"
Pu-abi was on her feet, light-headed with fury, before he finished speaking. "Are we friends?" she cried, though it tore at her throat, "Will you use my name? Hear now the words of the eresh of Ur!"
The other lords cried out in alarm and jumped to their feet, looking from the throne to the side of the council chamber, and Pu-abi knew that Enkiaganna had done as they agreed and had risen and torn her veil in two, standing bare-faced and angry before them all.
"Hear now the words of the lord Nanna!" Enkiaganna's voice rang out.
"Hear the omens of the lord Nanna, of the lord Utu and the lady Inanna of the storehouses, of the great gods and of all the hosts of heaven," they said in unison. "Meskalamdug shall be lugal of Ur."
"Akkadian bitch!" Zalmu-esag cried and leapt forwards.
Enkiaganna stepped in his way. "Strike me," she said, "and die."
He did not have the nerve for it, not in the face of the lords of the council, Pu-abi saw with satisfaction. A lugal needed a compliant en, and all the lords of Ur had witnessed Enkiaganna's acclamation of Meskalamdug. "Bow down," she said to him. "Do not raise your face to the lady of Nanna or to me." She looked over at Meskalamdug who quickly clapped his hands in summons.
"Send word that soldiers are to bring the son and daughter of lord Zalmu-esag to the eresh's house," he said to the servant that hurried in. "They are to be guarded." He bowed his head, the other lords looking about them and following suit.
"Bow down," Pu-abi said, her voice beginning to fade.
Zalmu-esag slowly knelt, the loss of his children etched on his face. Pu-abi did not pity him or them, she thought. She was the mother of the city; she would sacrifice his children gladly to keep the city safe.
"The council is concluded," she said, and stepped forwards. She faltered as Enkiaganna bowed low to her, a thing unprecedented, and all the lords who were brave enough to have kept their gaze up looked down to the floor in consternation. She nodded to the lady of Nanna, then walked from the council chamber for the last time, Gurun by her side.
"Look," she said, when they were outside, "this too is an auspicious day." She smiled up at the sight of the white disc still high in the early morning sky while the blinding light of the sun began to illuminate the land and the morning star was a bright point in the heavens. "The lords Sin and Shamash and the lady Ishtar smile upon us," she said in the speech of her youth, and patted Gurun's arm companionably. "Zalmu-esag's children are of a good family," she said. "When the time comes, they must have a place of honour at the funeral banquet."
"I will see to it, great lady," Gurun said.
"And you must not fail me," Pu-abi said quietly, leaning into her.
Gurun put her mouth against her ear. "I will not fail you, Pu-abi," she said. "When the time comes I will hold the poison to their lips myself."
Pu-abi felt as light as a child, as if she would never cough again. "We will stand before the Great Queen together," she said. "Come, Gurun, take me to my chambers, I feel it is time for me to sleep."