627 BC, Babylon
Nabopolassar’s hands were crimson with the blood of his enemies when the news reached him. He pierced the earth with his battle axe and turned to face the messenger fully. “Speak one more time, boy. Tell me again.”
The boy of about thirteen smiled, his weather-beaten skin stretching with the action. “You have a son, governor.”
Nabopolassar shouted to the sky. “Yes! YES. Ha-ha.” He snatched the captive soldier before him in a tight embrace, the very one he was about to slaughter only moments ago. Releasing him, Nabopolassar surveyed the gathering of captured enemy soldiers. “Fate has smiled upon you this day. I give you the gift of your lives.” His booming voice carried over the living, dying, and dead.
The captives numbered about five thousand. He and his men had ploughed through half a thousand when the good news came.
“Bow, beasts!” Ea-Nasir, his second in command, clanged a sword against his polished iron shield as he wove through the gathering of kneeling enemy soldiers. “Thank your governor. Kiss the floor.”
All obeyed, kissing the floor four times as they bowed. Nabopolassar turned from the sight. It wasn’t pleasing enough to top the joy coursing through his veins, forcing renewed energy into his very bones.
I sired a son. My first blood.
His eyes swept over the lush planes of Susa, taking in the low valleys and rising hills. Their city burned in the distance, black fumes darkening the early evening sky. He had conquered and now his men plundered, amassing wealth for Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria. He cursed, hating the fact that Chaldea, the region he governed, was under the oppressive thumb of the old goat. The thought threatened to sour his mood but he spat it out immediately. Today was a day of joy, gladness, and triumph.
“You must come with me.” He gestured to Ea-Nasir and swung an arm over his shoulders, pulling the equally large man along. They both stank of blood and sweat, a testament to their hard-won victory.
Their battle horses neighed and dragged hoofed feet across the rocky ground as both men approached. “We do not stop riding until we reach the West camp,” Nabopolassar said as he snatched his reins and mounted the stead.
It was night when they reached Nabopolassar’s tent. Dirt clung to his skin, his fingers were stiff with dried blood, and his eyes dry and grainy from the assault of the wind while they rode. Once he dismounted and stood before the tent, the weariness evaporated like dew in the sun.
The cry of the babe welcomed him even before he flipped the tent flap aside and strolled in with all the swagger of a victorious warrior and father.
An oil lamp hung from a three-corded raffia rope stretching from the centre of the tent, its light bathing the place in a pleasant amber glow.
And then there was Tiamat.
Her dark hair was damp and lay in loose ringlets around her face; the wan state of her complexion caused that red patch around her left eye to stand out. She wore the birthmark with dignity, always choosing to pull her hair aside and show the work of imperfection Nabopolassar had grown to love.
A proud smile made an appearance on his lips.
Warrior. She followed him to battle on some occasion. He did her no honour, succumbing to her insistence that he take her along this time even when pregnant.
You know I hate the city; the walls choke me. I would die if you leave me here with this large stomach. Look! It wouldn’t stop growing. Take me with you, lest I die from this appendage you put in me!
He rushed to her side, staring down at the wailing bundle in the crook of her arm. Nabopolassar looked from the red-faced crying babe to her tired smiling eyes. Awe stole words from his lips.
“He is so angry.” She sniffed then chuckled. Shifting to a semi-sitting position, she lifted the baby. “Carry him.”
As Nabopolassar received the bundle, he marvelled at how light and tiny it appeared. “Forgive me for bringing you here, Tiamat. This is no fitting place for my first child to be born. I did you a great wrong. I do not know the ways of—”
“Shhh. I insisted. Remember? I wanted to be here. It is good he was born so close to battle. He must be strong.” Her eyes lingered on the babe’s face. “It is time to bless him. Go on.”
His hands shook as he did her bidding, a part of him finding it difficult to believe he had come this far. A governor with a mighty army at his command and now a father about to give his blessing. Looking from the baby’s face to hers, he managed a quick shaky smile. Emotions of varying degrees roiled within him. Tiamat had given him a beautiful son and he was certain to the very blood in his bones that the child will be a thousand times fiercer than he could ever be.
“Bring the knife.”
A servant appeared with one, placing the short blade in Tiamat’s open palm. Its wooden handle was lined with carvings of Nabu and Marduk, the high gods of Chaldea. With it, she cut a lock of her dark hair and placed it in a small earthen bowl the servant also provided. Taking the knife to his beard, she cut the tip of a ringlet and placed the strands in the bowl.
With a small silver tong, Aisha took a chunk of burning coal from the incense burner presented and placed it in the bowl. The thick smell of burnt hair mixed with saffron rose to Nabopolassar’s nose.
The child wailed harder, his face wrinkling with the force of his tears, and fists flailing about.
Once the coal was removed, Tiamat poured olive oil over the ashes, and with two fingers Nabopolassar mixed the oil and ash then brought it to the forehead of his son.
“The first of my blood. Son of my strength.” He swiped the mixture over the soft skin of the child’s forehead. “Blood of my blood. Strength of my strength. No enemy shall triumph over you.” The child grew quiet, his fist finding its way to his mouth, and he sucked upon it as he stared upon the face of his father.
There was a bursting in Nabopolassar’s chest, pride mixed with a new kind of love he had never felt. “You shall never fear death, my boy.” He raised the child, kissing him on his anointed head. “Your mother never fears death. She made me a conqueror. Look at her. She brought you to this world.” He turned the baby to face Tiamat. Swiping at the tears running down her cheek, she kissed their son on his forehead just like he did.
“What shall we name him?”
As Nabopolassar settled next to her, he gathered his thoughts. The name a person bore marked his path, creating him to a large extent.
“He will be greater than I am. He has to be greater than I am.” Tiamat rested her head on his shoulder as she looked down at their baby.
Even though Nabopolassar’s bones creaked with fatigue, it was the type of pain he gloried in. “I see his future,” he said. “He will conquer and expand the boundaries of our lands.”
“That would mean more enemies,” Tiamat mumbled, voice low and drowsy. “He may die young.”
“Then I pray for his protection too. May Nabu protect my first son.” Gripping Tiamat’s hand, Nabopolassar raised it to his lips and pressed a kiss against the soft skin. “His name is Nebuchadnezzar.”
The owl observed it all with enhanced sight from its spot on a short branch of a nearby Acacia tree. Seeming satisfied with the information it gathered, it spread its wing and—
A black smoking arrow pierced through its chest, cutting its flight short and sending it hurtling down. A shriek. Wings flailing and leathery feet twitching from the burn of the phantom weapon.
Abaddon, the one who shot the arrow, appeared next to the bird of prey at the same moment it hit the earth.
“Look at what you did?” Ziba, a being with skin the exact shade of azure and eyes bearing the same colour as the sun picked the bird with gentle clawed hands.
“You shouldn’t touch that,” Abaddon said in a dry bored tone, “it reeks of Marduk’s essence.” The obsidian black bow in his grip transformed into a simple iron staff and floated before him.
Ziba ignored his warning and swept a finger over the feathered head of the animal. “Marduk sent you, yes? He took your eyes.” The owl gave off a pained chirp. “We know. Sorry. Abaddon had to keep you from telling Marduk what you saw.” At her words, the bird grew stiff then went feral with such madness Ziba had to let it go. It held on, claws digging into Ziba’s palm and curved beak tearing the skin of her finger. She felt nothing even though dark blue blood leaked from the wounds.
“Enough of this,” Abaddon muttered.
Before Ziba could react, the bird burst in a cloud of black ash and charred feathers.
Ziba blinked in shock then glared at Abaddon. “I had it under control. You did not have to kill it.”
Abaddon waved a hand, shifting her from his path like a dried leaf in the wind.
“That thing was infected. We do not cuddle viruses.” He began walking in the direction of the governor’s tent. The babe was no longer crying.
Ziba jogged after Abaddon. “I would have gotten information—”
“The right information will come to us later.” Abaddon nodded ahead of them. “Now, we face the first assignment.” He continued his unhurried pace, long legs covering a greater distance than hers.
“Well, we could have saved the bird. We could have—”
Abaddon paused and shifted his depthless black gaze upon her.
Ziba grimaced; it was like she was staring at a different—much worse—kind of death whenever he looked at her that way.
“Your random acts of goodness are futile. Saving a bird would do nothing to get you up the heavenly ranks.” He frowned as though puzzled. “Why do you find it difficult to accept this truth?”
Ziba tore her gaze away and tugged at the thin gold chain attached to one of her long curved horns. “You do not have to be so… flat about it. I understand the realities of our existence.”
She felt rather than heard him resume his trek. “I doubt you do.”
The rest of their trek was silent. Abaddon loved to do things this way. Walk instead of simply appearing at a destination, go through the motions of rigorous activities when he had so much power he could blink and it would be done. There was an itch in her, for centuries she had wanted—
No! Giving her head a quick hard shake, she forced herself to focus on their assignment instead.
When they reached the tent, the babe and its mother were fast asleep. The governor on the other hand was wide awake, staring at his son as he mumbled prayers to Nabu and Marduk.
“Influence the father,” Abaddon said with both hands still clasped behind him. “I would attend to the child.”
Rolling her eyes at his commanding tone, Ziba stepped forward and stretched her right hand. A thin dark blue cord extended from the tip of her middle finger, travelled to the governor and latched on to his right temple.
She planted a single thought: Treason.
The governor’s eyes widened as though coming to a sudden realisation.
“Yes, governor,” Ziba smiled, “the kingdom is yours. Build Babylon.”
When she turned, she found that Abaddon had marked the child already. One small diagonal line on the forehead then two equally small circles at the opposite ends of the line. A spiritual marking of frightening proportions.
Ziba blinked, tearing her eyes from the sleeping child. “There. We are all done.” She flashed a bright smile. “Happy now?”
Abaddon observed her with his usual level gaze before turning and making it out of the place. Not one word in response.
“I forgot,” Ziba mumbled as she followed after him, “you are never happy.”
Before she vanished after Abaddon, she spared a final glance at the sleeping child, reading what the mark said—a clear sign of ownership.
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