by Matthew Sideman
“Ok, I called you here,” I said, carefully looking into my brothers’ eyes, “because, quite frankly, I don’t want to die. His Royal Highness, King Meskiaggasher III, Dad, is dying and I don’t want the tradition of princely fratricide to continue.”
“What’s the matter Diaper Pail?” said my eldest brother, Enmerkar, to me. “You want to break tradition?” “Diaper Pail” was my nickname. Enmerkar’s nickname was “Crater Face.”
I looked at his eyes. What did they say? Were they calm, meaning that he might not oppose my plans to become King? Were his eyebrows pressing down on his eyes, showing definite opposition to my idea? Oh he hadn’t heard that I wanted to be King yet, but my brothers can smell a plot miles away and days in the future. If the eyebrows were down he might stand against me and I might have to fight him. Were the eyes blinking excessively? A sign of stress, at least for him. A fight or flight response meaning that he had a dagger hidden in his cloak and that I would have to fight him right now. Were they shifty? Trying to make contact with his troops to order them to stick a spear in me? Please be calm! Please be calm.
They were calm. Thank the Gods! I sighed and hoped my brothers didn’t notice. I would live for an another second at least.
“Of course the little pseudo priest wants to break tradition Crater Face,” said my middle brother Lugalbanda. Lugalbanda’s nickname was “Stud Service.”
“He never went out and battled,” Stud Service said.
Crater Face got his nickname for obvious reasons. Stud Service got his nickname, well just go to his harem and you will see why. Or stand by the door at night and you will hear the orgasmic cries of his concubines.
I put my hands in front of my eyes to rub a “sleepy” out of them. Of course, in reality, I was just holding up my hands so I could quickly look between my fingers into Stud Service’s eyes. Carefully. I couldn’t show a sign of weakness. I think Crater Face saw me staring at him. Worrying that your brother was going to kill you could be seen as a sign of weakness. Future Kings should not be weak. And though the youngest Prince, I was going to be King.
“Little brother never went into battle,” said Stud Service, repeating himself.
“Only verbally with you guys,” I said. That’s right, joke with your potential adversaries. Show them that you are not afraid. Because if they know you’re afraid, it’s daggers through the heart time. Yeah, look at me, its Prince Meskalamdug. The Prince Without Fear.
“Real men let their swords talk, not their priestly mouths,” said my youngest brother Dumuzi. Dumuzi’s nickname was “Jagged Knife.” The families of his victims gave him that nickname.
“I am sorry we can’t all be as enthusiastic as you are,” I said.
“Priestly mouth?” What the hell did that mean? Did he see me as a priest and therefore weak? Priests were not known to be fighters. Hey guys, I might not drool at the sight of blood, but I can fight too. I can hold my own. Not that I want to fight them, the blood and guts boys, and all their troops. I needed that like I needed a hole in my head. And if I stood in their way of being King, or they thought I was in their way, or the right mood hit them, they weren’t afraid to give me one.
“You know damn well no one allowed me to go to war, Jagged Knife,” I said. “My last son, my baby, should be safe,” Dad always said.
“He said that when you were 12,” said Jagged Knife. “You should have ignored him and gone out anyway.”
“We don’t all posses your initiative.” I said to Jagged Knife.
“Initiative?” said Crater Face. “He slaughtered her!”
“Yeah, why did you kill your nanny anyway?” said Stud Service.
“Well she wouldn’t let me ride the chariot,” said Jagged Knife.
“Waste of a good nanny,” said Stud Service.
“Hey, not all our nanny’s are Nubian goddesses. Not to mention still fertile,” said Jagged Knife.
“Hey watch what you say about the mother of my child,” said Stud Service.
They were joking about sex. A good sign. I hoped. You only joke about sex with your buddies. And your buddies won’t try and kill you if you say something they don’t like. And your youngest brother, the baby of the family, two decades younger in the case of me and Crater Face, well we were still buddies. Right? Hope to the Gods.
“Gentlemen, let’s get to the point.” I said. “I want to be King.”
“Diaper Pail wants to be King?” said my brothers, their eyes meeting. Damn. Damn. Damn.
“Hey no conspiracies!” I said.
“Would we plot to kill you?” said Jagged Knife.
“You sir, would plot to kill, well, anything,” I said.
“Well you wouldn’t plot to kill anybody,” said Jagged Knife. “ You have absolutely no military experience. And the King really should have some.”
“I’d be a good King precisely because I have no military experience,” I said. Yeah, let my words and ideas speak for me. I was the one with the education. I should be able to baffle them with my bullshit.
“What you talkin ‘bout Diaper Pail?” Said Crater Face.
“Look, I stayed at home and ran the temple,” I said. “And with each marvelous victory that you guys brought, I absorbed the territory into our kingdom.”
“Yes the territory we bought by the sweat of our brows, and the bronze of our swords,” said Jagged Knife.
“Look, I’m not arguing,” I said. “Crater face, you sacked Ur and now we have their donkeys to pull their grain into our temple. Stud Service you brought us Sippar, and let me tell you their scribes have been enormously helpful to me. And you Jagged Knife, what didn’t you get for us? It’s your booty guys. But if you become King, do you think you will have time to enjoy any of it?”
“Oh I think I can try,” said Stud Service.
“Working on your collection?” asked Jagged Knife.
“Well you know, I am lacking Chinese women,” Stud Service said. “And I have heard that they can do amazing things with chopsticks.”
“A little moo shoo pork?” said Jagged Knife.
“Hey I want the whole plate,” said Stud Service.
“As King you won’t have time to enjoy it,” I said. “Do you know how long it takes to supervise grain distribution? Guys thanks to your efforts, we are not just the city of Kish anymore. We are a Sumerian empire. The Prince that becomes King would have no time for fun. And no more opportunities for booty. Go lead your armies. Have fun. Conquer the Egyptians. Sack their tombs. I’ll stay here, be King, and distribute the grain.”
I looked at my section of the table. It is a highly polished marvel of a table imported from Anatolia. My brothers’ faces were reflected in it its surface. If I could stare down at the table just right I could see their eyes. Hoping to the Gods that they weren’t doing the exact same trick. Please don’t do it. Please don’t do it. It looked like they were doing it. Damn it. I quickly turned my head and scratched my eyes as if my sleepies were bothering me. I had used the same trick twice. Never ever use the same trick twice. Even these guys who did not have the word subterfuge in their entire vocabulary would never use the same trick twice. If you get caught…
“Are you all right?” asked Jagged Knife.
“Yeah, I think I got the that sickness from Ur.”
“Well its been going around,” he said.
“Yeah, it makes my sinuses hurt and itch.”
See boys. Itchy sinuses. Itchy eyes. I am scratching, not spying on you guys. Now did they believe me? I wouldn’t have believed me, but then again, these men didn’t know the meaning of the word subterfuge, and I, I had to deal with priests everyday. The word “priest” should mean subterfuge.
“Excuse me,” I say to the priests as I “sneeze” on to the table, looking into those priestly eyes. “Bless you,” they say, none the wiser. And I knew I was good because I was still alive. Priests may not kill you. But there are many steep steps leading up to the main temple of Kish. You can always have an “accident” on one of them.
“Yes, well, Diaper Pail, I don’t think I will take your word for it about the busyness,” said Crater Face. “Your city may take long to manage, but my kingdom won’t.”
“Your kingdom?” said Jagged Knife.
“I am the Crown Prince,” said Crater Face.
“Excuse me,” said Jagged Knife, “I was the one that really built this empire. Just ask Diaper Pail over there.” Jagged Knife’s eyebrows went down over his eyes. Oh oh.
“Woah guys. No fighting. This is why I called this meeting. And for that matter it’s why I think I should be King. I don’t have any military claims to make. If you guys don’t want me to be King, I’ll accept it. But then you guys have to decide amongst yourselves who will be King. With out violence! All right?”
“Alright.” “Yeah.” “Ok.” They all said. But of course it wasn’t all right. I was going to be King. I couldn’t let the trained killers, i.e. my brothers, go for the crown. I mean Jagged Knife was about to kill Crater Face, his brother. This is why these people should not be King. If you can kill your brother with out batting an eyelash whom else will you hurt?
It was the next day when I knew the die had been cast. It was 10:30 in the morning, the busiest time in the marketplace. I was standing in its center by the fruit stand, the one right by the temple walk. I was on my way to supervise the grain distribution sorting for the Festival of Gilgamesh, when the messenger caught up with me.
“Hot enough for you, your Majesty?” Said Naram, the messenger.
“Yeah, Nar. And it is only 10:30, ” I said. Spring this year has been overly hot.
“Well here,” said Naram as he handed me a clay message tablet with Stud Service’s signet ring stamped at the base.
“It’s from your brother Prince Lugalbanda. He wants to meet you tomorrow at 3, in the palace, to talk about the succession issue.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Say hi to the wife and kids for me.” It was the best I could think of with my hackles up. The whole thing smelled of a set up.
A messenger, who I personally knew, who I won’t be suspicious of, finds me in the market place. In the busiest time of the day, and says, in front of the whole world, that I am to meet my brother at a particular time, and at a particular place. And then we will discuss a very private Royal issue. My brother Stud Service is so concerned. “My little brother, ‘Diaper Pail’ we used to call him, when he was little and innocent, jumped across the table at me when I suggested that we support Prince Enmerkar for King. I had no choice but to defend myself. Now let us have a period of morning for my poor deluded brother.”
Yes I was invited to a set meeting and I would jump him. I would commit a criminal act. He was just defending himself. No disappearance. No found corpse in the middle of the night. No questions of culpability. No rallying points for my supporters. We all know what happened, the mad Prince Meskalamdug, attacked poor Prince Lugalbanda. He defended himself. End of story. Now everyone shut up and go home. And I would have had to have been mad if I went to that meeting. Nice try Stud Service. I gave him an “A” for effort but he was still going to fail the subterfuge course.
That night at six, at the moment the town crier announced the changing of the hourglass, I dismissed the priests from the temple. “Go home guys, I’ll finish up.”
“Go home? But your Majesty,” said Ishme, the high priest. “All the sacks in the great hall still have to be divided!”
“So I’ll do it,” I said.
“But your majesty!” he said. “This is not a job for one man. Even a Prince.”
“Wow Ishme,” I said, “your dedication to Gilgamesh is admirable, but then so was that of your late predecessor, High Priest Dagan.”
“Your Majesty are you accusing me of being a thief?”
“I accuse nothing of no one. Now go.”
All the priests looked at me, grumbled, and whispered to each other as they left. Every one expects a priest to take more than his share during a distribution, but High Priest Dagan took a lot more than his share. In fact, he was robbing the temple blind. I had him executed for all the world to see that no one is above the law.
Though I worked with the priests for ten years, they were not my allies. In fact, if they were anyone’s allies, they were my brothers. What do the Princes know about running the temple? Nothing? Let the King be King and the priests be priests. And if the priests wanted to take a little more than was their right, or a lot for that matter, how is the King to know? After all he knows nothing about the running of the temple. Wink, wink. I was not going to show allies of my brothers what I was about to do.
I made sure that the temple was empty and then walked over to the Altar of Ereshkigal, Goddess of the Underworld. I thought it was rather fitting that it was her altar. An altar of death for the goddess of death. Her old altar was three hundred years old and crumbling, so I had it replaced. Rather than use temple funds, I paid for it out of my own pocket and had the new alter specially made by a carpenter in Egypt. Who no one knew.
I reached into the base of the altar and removed the main support beam. The altar didn’t collapse because the beam is a fake. It is not the main support for the altar. In fact its sole purpose is to cover up a keyhole. The key being my signet ring. I pushed my signet ring in the hole and turned it to the left. A wood panel at the top of the altar receded, revealing the big hollow space in its center. In this space was a bow with a full quiver of arrows and a scimitar. The instruments of death in the altar of death. I wrapped my weapons up in a blanket and waited.
I stayed in the temple till late at night. For lack of a better thing to do I actually put the grain into the distribution piles. Right before I left, I took some ceremonial wine and dumped it all over my robes. I picked up my bundle and stumbled to the palace, hoping to all the Gods that one of Stud Service’s men didn’t decide to shoot at me with an arrow. I was meant to die at that meeting but you never knew, some trooper might have ambition.
I tried to look out the corner of my eyes. Not turning my head. Would this be the death of me? Not being able to see some sniper from a second story window. Should I look? But if I did, it would give the game away. That I suspected something. That I was walking into a trap. And if Stud Service’s troops realized that I suspected what was coming, well there was no more reason to be subtle. They would attack me en masse, and I, the “pseudo priest,” had no troops of my own to stop them.
I managed not to get shot as I “stumbled” up to the palace gate. I hoped that my drunk act would be convincing to the guard.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
“Hey guard, guardie, guardie, wardie, twardie. It’s me (hic!) Prince Meskalamdug.”
“Forgive me for saying this, your Majesty, but are you…uh…”
“Drunk? (hic) Yup. I was celebrating. (hic) I got this present for my Shebite concubine.” I showed him my blanket wrapped bundle. “When she sees what is in here, lets just say I’m going to be getting a present.”
“You mean one of the special Shebite presents?” asked the guard.
“You know it (hic),” I said, and stumbled into the palace.
Well if my drunk act was convincing the guard would run to Stud Service and say that your pseudo priest brother suspects nothing and that you might as well kill him tomorrow during the meeting as planned.
I entered my chambers and dismissed my servants. I bathed myself to make sure that any sent from the wine, or anything else for that matter, was off my body. I changed into the cleanest robes that I could find. I didn’t want anything to give me away. Not even a smell. I sat down and waited for the early hours of the morning.
In the palace there is a network of secret passages that are supposed to be known only by members of the Royal family.
“My sons,” said our father, “this is something I have to tell you and I hope to the Gods that you never have to use it. But just in case, in this palace are secret passages to, and from, your chambers. To be used by us, and only us, in case of danger. They lead out in to the city. This is the final defense of our family. So tell no one and I mean no one!
“But Why?” Said Stud Service. “Why would anyone want to hurt us?”
“My son there are always people who want to kill the King.” Most of them are his own brothers.
Quiver on my back, bow in my hand, sword at my side, I skulked down the passageway and headed to Stud Service’s chambers. Oh, I might not be a professional killer like my brothers, but I was raised as a Prince of Kish. I was trained to kill. Something they seemed to have forgotten. Just because you haven’t raped, and then slaughtered, every man, woman, and child in a captured city, doesn’t mean you don’t know how to.
I got to the passage exit that leads into Stud Service’s chambers. Leaning against a wall, asleep, was one of Stud Service’s guards. I guess Stud Service didn’t listen to Daddy. I guess he also thought that only one guard would be enough because only the Princes knew about the passageways and they would never use them against each other.
I was sure that the guard would be pissed off at my brother when he woke up the next day to find out that he was wrong. Of course the guard found it hard to wake up at all with one of my arrows through his heart.
“You did this to me Stud Service.” I said to myself. “You made me one of you, a killer.”
I entered Stud Services chambers. He was asleep. On the bed alongside of him was his former nanny/Nubian concubine. By their respective places on the bed were jugs of wine. Apparently they were celebrating. With my death there would be one less obstacle to their child eventually becoming King.
I walked over to the bed. The Nubian opened her eyes in horror. My scimitar was the last thing that she ever saw.
I pull my brother’s hair with one hand and placed the scimitar on his throat with the other one.
“I moved up the time of our meeting,” I said.
“Well?” Stud Service said.
“What?” I said.
“Are you just going to stand there like the Diaper Pail that you are, or are you going to finish the job?”
“I don’t think that a man in your position….” I said, but I didn’t get to finish my thought, because he was in precisely the proper position to stop me. He grabbed my arm and flipped me to the ground. My sword flew out off my hand and as I went to grab it, he grabbed his from under the bed. Apparently, now that I was like my brothers, a professional killer, I had to leave swords lying around under furniture. Murder weapons, don’t go anywhere with out them.
When I got to my feet he was ready. Our swords met with a resounding “clang.”
I swung mine towards his shoulder. He blocked it and forced my sword downwards.
“Well?” I said.
“Well what?” he said copying my attack. This time I was the one who pushed the sword down.
“Aren’t you going to call your guards?” I said as I swung towards what I thought was an opening by his stomach. Stud Service blocked it with the blunt edge of his blade.
“Why should I?” he said.
“I killed your wife.” I said as I took several steps back to assess the situation.
“Concubine,” he said, running towards me to bring the attack to me.
“And don’t you care for her?” I said swinging at his sword hand.
“Oh she will be avenged,” he said as he dropped into a controlled roll, which ended with him swinging his sword up at me, blocking my strike.
“Avenger her?” I said as I lunged at him while he was still on the ground. “If she was my wife I would be screaming.”
“That’s because you are a Diaper Pail,” Stud Service said as he threw himself back on the bed, bounced up, grabbed a bedpost, and vaulted forward.
Yes I was a Diaper Pail to him. I was a baby when he was almost an adult. I was younger than him, faster than him, and since I didn’t have military experience, I wasn’t as beat up as him. I leaped at him. His sword cut my arm. But mine cut his head, clear off.
I looked around the room. The guards may not have been called but they most certainly heard my “initiation” into the world of my brothers. I had to do something fast. First I wrapped one of Stud Service’s sheets around my arm. Fortunately the cut wasn’t that deep. Then I grabbed the jugs of wine, poured them on the bed and threw a lit torch on it. My killer brother was scared of the dark and he always kept a torch lit. Just in case.
As I emerged from the passageway into the main city, my mind, like the bedroom, was burning. I realized that I had committed three capitol crimes. Murder, regicide, and arson. Was I now one of them? I had killed my brother, the love of his life, and some poor slob whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Would I do this again? Had I gone down the road of murder? When I was King and some beggar child blocked my path, would I kill him to get him out of the way? Life means nothing to my brothers and now I was one of them!
Worse of all, however, I had committed arson. How can any thing be worse than murder? Well to me it was. I committed arson in a walled city for the express purpose of a distraction to save my skin. In a walled city fire spreads like, well, fire. Who knows what damage it would do to Kish? And this was the city that I had run for a decade. My city, not the priests, who saw it as a gravy train, not my father who had to keep his eyes on the big picture, and not my brothers who couldn’t care less about it.
If they didn’t come from Kish they would have conquered for someone else. My city. Mine. Mine and the peoples’. And how many did I doom to a horrible death because I wanted to save my neck? How many kids would become orphans, or worse, beggars, their arms and legs made useless by fire? Leaving them to sit in the marketplace and show off their useless limbs that now looked like burnt mutton to the passerby’s in the hope of a few coins. That kid, whom I would kill in the future as a callous King, I caused his deformity. I had done this.
When I emerged from the tunnel the realization that I had become an arsonist really pissed me off. I wanted revenge on somebody! My two surviving brothers were almost certainly gathering their armies together. No, they would have to wait for another day. But the man who “led” me down my fiery path, Naram, the messenger, he would be unguarded.
I ran down the back alley that led to his house. I stopped at his back door. If I didn’t know where he lived, which I did, I would have immediately found out. Above the door was a mosaic that read “Here is the house of Naram the Messenger. He is fleet of foot and wise of mind. You can trust him with your life.” How much did that little advertisement cost? Who else did he betray to afford it?
I slammed my scimitar through his reed door. It crumbled just like his traitorous body was about to. I ran upstairs to his bedroom. All Sumarian bedrooms are on the second floor next to large windows to let out the heat. I wonder how much heat would emerge from his freshly spilled steaming guts.
I found him asleep in a chair. I stood in front of him and touched the point of my blade to his chest. I wanted him to see his executioner.
“So was it just Prince Lugalbanda’s idea to kill me, or were there others involved?” I said.
“Who? What? Oh! Your Majesty. Hi. What are you doing here?”
“Alive you mean?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about?”
“Messenger, its amazing how well you can lie with my scimitar pointed at your chest.”
“I am not lying. I have no idea what you are talking about.”
All of a sudden this seven-year-old girl ran into the bedroom. “Hey you! Stop hurting my Daddy!” She said as she started to kick me in my shins.
I raised my sword to defend myself. I swung it at her and stopped it, just inches from the crown of her skull.
“Gods no!” said Naram.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the girl as she ran out of the room. “Look at what you have done to be Naram! I have been reduced to a killer of children!”
The child’s mother ran into the room holding a kitchen statue of the Goddess Ningal. Obviously she was going to use it as some sort of club.
“How dare you hurt my child! Oh…Your Majesty…the plot…How dare you try to hurt my child!” She started to run at me with her “weapon,” but I pointed my blade at her chest and she stopped.
“So you do know that your husband tried to kill me?”
“And that is an excuse to take the life of a child?” she said.
“No.” I said.
I looked at the woman and the crying child who ran to her mother’s leg. I turned back to Naram who was still sitting on the chair. He was gripping the armrests so tightly that his knuckles were as white as Egyptian temple stone. I looked at the child again and turned around and left. What was I supposed to do?
I ran down the stairs. Angry sure, but, ironically, hopeful. I done something my brothers could never have done. Would have been embarrassed to do. I left an enemy and his dependents alive. I was not my brothers.
I ran into the alley. Blocking both of its entrances were many heavily armed troopers. Standing beside me, behind mean looking bodyguards, were Crater Face and Jagged Knife.
“Well, well, if it isn’t our little fire bug?” said Crater Face.
“Hello Crater Face,” I said.
“Diaper Pail is that a scimitar in your hand or are you just happy to see me?” said Jagged Knife.
“Oh I am happy to see you two. I want you to go out and apprehend a couple of Royal idiots.”
“Are you going to…” Crater Face started to say, but he was cut off by me screaming “argh” and running at the bodyguards waving my scimitar.
There was no way I could fight my way past all the troopers. I had but one chance. I had to kill my brothers. The troopers were professional killers but they were killers loyal to the Royal family of Kish. If my two brothers died and the troops didn’t follow me, the only Royal left would be Stud Service’s seven-year-old kid. Total chaos. Kish’s enemies would use the chaos to invade, and the retribution of conquered cities against their conquerors can be very severe. I was the only logical choice to rule.
There were three bodyguards between me and my brothers who were standing together. This, by the way, is against all strategy. Make one target and the Diaper Pail will become King.
I connected with the first bodyguard’s sword. Middle blade on middle blade. The second bodyguard came at me. I kicked him in the groin. Actually I kicked him in his studded leather armor, which slammed into his groin. He went down. Hard. Where was the third bodyguard? Had he run away? When I became King, and it looked like I would, I would have him executed for it.
I swung my scimitar at the first bodyguard’s thigh. He blocked it and pushed my blade up. I used the momentum he gave me to swing down at his shoulder blades. He blocked it. But the move left him open. I kicked him in his knee. He dropped. I moved towards my brothers who were finally drawing their swords. I guess they thought that little Diaper Pail couldn’t even get this far. I raised my sword for a death strike and then my back found out where the third bodyguard and his sword went.
So now I stand here in this gray misted area. I have yet to meet the Gods. I can only assume that I am in some sort of waiting room of the afterlife. Waiting for the civil war in Kish to end. I told my brothers this would happen.
I am so bored. I have had to listen endlessly to the sounds of Stud Service and his concubine try out “moves” they didn’t dare do while they were alive. My only joy is watching new troopers appear daily. I bet with myself which side’s men will appear next.
Wait, there is that purple light. The signal that someone new is coming. It’s Crater Face.
“So Crater Face. Welcome to our world. Jagged Knife won I see. I bet you wished you had listen to me in the first place and made me King.”
“Oh shut up Diaper Pail. Just shut up.”