Oil Fire

Issue #23

If I had been a child of one of the twelve great Houses, my crime of stealing scrolls from the priests’ library would have been punishable by death. My body would have been left atop my House’s tower until my flesh filled the bellies of the sentinel birds, then my picked-clean bones placed in the city walls so that in death I would still serve a purpose, warding the city from the demonic vapors that swept down from the mountains at night and filled the river valley all around Ummur’s walls. Not even the humblest goatherd dared remain outside the city’s walls past moonrise.

But I was not a child of a great House. My death would serve no purpose, but I could not be tolerated to live among the chosen. So I was banished. I walked down the dusty road south of Ummur, the priests watching every step I took until the road dipped out of sight.

But I was back within the walls well before moonrise, using the knowledge I had “stolen” from the priests to hide from the guards’ sight. There was more in their library I needed to know before I could leave Ummur.

As I skirted around the marketplace filled with farmers and artisans setting out their goods I wondered if that was still true. There were a few scrolls left that I had never read, in the library off limits to all but the highest-ranking priests, but I would have to face great risk to get to them. Perhaps it was time to move on, to follow my clues to the city of the goddess far to the north. I was certain I could find it, if only I had the courage to take the first step outside the walls of my city.

Those walls towered over me as I neared the hiding place I called home. It was the blood and the bones of the members of the great Houses, the descendents of the city’s twelve founders, which the priests said had the protective magic that kept the vapors without, but as with all things magic the common people believed there was power in imitation. So within the mighty walls and watchtowers of Ummur there was another humbler wall, a row of former homes and shops now given over as abodes to the dead so that the common folk could feel that their ancestors too were guarding them. It was unthinkable that a sentinel bird should be tempted to eat profane flesh, so the rooms containing the bodies were sealed, windows and doors. Airy mud brick homes became ovens in the hot summer, and the smell of slow-roasting flesh hung thick in the air. No one lingered needlessly in the neighborhoods of the dead. It was the perfect hiding place.

Being banished served me well. No longer needing to spend my days among the sisters keeping the temple, now I studied until weariness took me, then woke to study again. Soon I would know all the priests knew. Only then would I allow myself to be banished from Ummur, to go out into the world and find more knowledge than the priests could ever dream of.

That had been my plan. But one hot summer day I woke to the sound of a funeral procession, the clatter of tambourines and sistrums and the wailing song of the dancers. The procession was passing on the main road that ran from the ziggurat at the heart of the city out to the watchtower for the House Elam. I saw the number of dancers who were employed in singing and scattering wilted flower petals, the finery of the mourners’ clothing, and the ornate bier being used to carry the veiled body of the deceased, and I realized they were not bound for any of my neighbors’ houses; they were going to climb the tower itself, the tower of House Elam.

Oh, poor Enanatuma, my sister in all but blood! This could only mean her father, the head of House Elam, was dead. Her father, who had welcomed me, his daughter’s strange orphan friend of no House, her fellow temple dancer, into his home. He who had given me the most important gift of all when he had shown me how to read, to unlock the mysteries of the library it was my tiresome duty to keep clean. Her father was gone, and her House would need a new head.

I watched the procession go by from the shadows of an alley. They were close enough to touch; some of the dancers’ skirts brushed against me as they passed. I had to be that close to see their faces, to see Enanatuma. I bit my lip to keep my voice from joining those of the dancers and pulled my veil closer around me. It had jewels that hung over my forehead, the largest one positioned over the blue tattoo that marked me an outcast from Ummur. That was a bit of cheek on my part; in truth that enspelled jewel hid more than the mark from view. The moment its cool facets touched my skin I could not be seen; I did not even cast a shadow.

A familiar face passed by, Enanatuma’s cousin Amar-Sin. I had never known him well, had only seen him a few times waiting to walk Enanatuma home from the temple. The years had not been kind to him. Some great pain, some frustrated longing was etched on his face. It was too much to be for his uncle; the furrows it had left in his face were too old. He walked alone, no wife at his side, no children around him. He was a noble son, so it was unthinkable that he wouldn’t marry. It was nearly unthinkable that he wouldn’t marry again if his first wife had died without bearing him children, but surely that must be the case.

Enanatuma and her family walked at the end of the procession. Her husband Shulgi carried their little daughter in his arms and held their son by the hand. Enanatuma looked pale and confused, as if she hadn’t yet realized what was happening. I fell into step beside her and slipped my arm through hers, giving her hand a squeeze. She stopped walking, letting the procession carry on without her.

“Puabi?” she whispered. “Is it really you?”

“Yes,” I whispered back. We had been estranged long before my banishment. I had seen her only once since the day ten years ago when I had given up dancing and devoted all my energies to magic. I had done her a favor in return for the thousand kindnesses she and her father had shown me and had intended never to see her again. But she was still my sister.

“I need you,” she said. I couldn’t tell from her words whether it was Puabi her sister or Puabi worker of magic that she needed, but either way I had only one answer to give.

“I shall come. Tonight.” I got up on tiptoe to kiss her cheek, for she was tall, with arms that didn’t come from spinning and weaving. Which goes to show that sometimes people don’t need my spells to fail to see the obvious. “My heart weeps with yours, sister.”

“I know,” she murmured back. Then she was gone, running to retake her place at Shulgi’s side. He turned to look back. The last time I had seen him he had been dressed in cast-off rags and covered with brick dust, and I had thought him the finest looking man in all Ummur. Ten years of easy living had softened him, but only a bit, and the violet robes of a noble son suited him more than I had ever dreamed they would. I found I could not turn away; I had to take this moment of seeing him that I had so diligently denied myself for so long.

I think his dark eyes almost saw me even through the spell, his gaze was so intent, but then his daughter tugged his hair sharply and he turned away.

Enanatuma and I had been terrible dancers. We both loved the movements and the feeling of being in motion, but we never had the proper reverence to the gods, which was the first calling of a temple dancer, or so Sister Nata had told us over and over. This was perfectly true. Neither of us wanted to learn to use our bodies to honor the gods. I used my dancer’s grace and strength to run from rooftop to rooftop across Ummar, vaulting garden walls and climbing to tantalizingly forbidden rooms. Enanatuma used hers to practice the art of gis-gis-la.

Her father teaching me, a girl, to read had been a grievous sin. But it paled in comparison to teaching his daughter the gis-gis-la. I knew from the ancient scrolls that once all had practiced the gis-gis-la, but over time it had been restricted to just members of the twelve Great Houses, and then to just the men. If it were ever known that Enanatuma’s father had taught her this martial art, their entire House would be put to death, from the members of the House council to the lowliest cousin of a cousin, and their watchtower and the city walls containing the bones of their ancestors razed to the ground lest the demonic vapors take advantage of the weakness such a sin represented.

It was still a danger to the rest of the House even now that he was dead, which was why I was not surprised to find Enanatuma’s house empty of servants as I slipped over the garden wall. I could hear the clang of blade on blade as she drilled with her husband. No servant could be trusted to keep such a secret, especially not considering which of them was the student and which the teacher.

I lingered in the garden, waiting for them to finish and Shulgi to leave. I had often watched Enanatuma practice the gis-gis-la with her father, mastering the spins and leaps, slashing away with her long-bladed sword and catching her opponent’s blade with the prongs on the hilt of her dagger.

She had gotten very good since I had last watched her fight. Shulgi was clumsy and slow by comparison. At last he gave up with a curse, throwing the blades to the floor and storming out of the room.

I felt a cold chill in my heart. This was not the Shulgi I had once known so well.

Enanatuma fetched up the blades and set them reverently in their place of honor around the family altar. She had just bowed her head in prayer when she twitched at the sound of my sandaled feet on the stone floor. I tugged off my veil and her face lit up briefly before darkening once more, as if she wanted to smile and burst into tears both at once.

“Sister,” I said. “What ails Shulgi?”

“Oh, he—” But the tears at last came and it was several minutes before she could continue. I held her close, as once upon a time she had held me, and waited to hear how I would be needed.

“It is as you feared,” she said at last. “He truly believes he is a noble son of House Akitu. So he gets angry when he cannot fight the gis-gis-la as any noble son can do, and he will not listen to my advice on how to conduct House business.”

“With your father dead, he is head of House Elam?” Enanatuma had no uncles, no close family at all, only distant cousins. But they were cousins very covetous of power.

“Only until Eku comes of age,” Enanatuma said, “but yes.”

“What do you need me to do?” Ten years ago I had not appreciated that magic raged like an oil fire. If one were not careful it would grow too hot too fast, and trying to douse it would only spread it more. I had learned more control since I had crafted that spell for Enanatuma, one that made everyone believe Shulgi was a long lost son of Akitu, but at the time I had had more confidence than skill. The spell had worked, but it was as though I had used too much oil for such a small spell. It made a flame that was higher and hotter than needed for the task. I could not extinguish that flame; I could only try to keep it from spreading further.

“I don’t want you to undo it,” Enanatuma said.

“He will go deeper,” I warned. “Soon he will realize he should not allow you to practice the gis-gis-la. What then?”

“Then I give up the gis-gis-la,” she said.

I did not believe her. For her to put up her blades would be like me giving up magic; it was unthinkable. But there were still tears in her eyes, and I didn’t have the heart to argue with her.

“What is it you need?” I asked.

“Help Shulgi. Help him to be a good head of House Elam, and keep him safe. I fear my cousins are watching him closely, waiting for him to make even the smallest misstep. Particularly Amar-Sin.”

“Amar-Sin wants to rule your House?” I recalled the man I had seen that morning, wrought with grief. I found it difficult to imagine him conspiring to do anything.

“Sometimes I think so,” Enanatuma said. “Sometimes I think he suspects Shulgi is not what he claims to be. He almost seems to hate him, although I don’t know how that could be.”

“Has he changed since his wife died?”

“What? Amar-Sin never married.”

“Never married? Then why the grief?” But Enanatuma was already impatient with me.

“Please, can you help Shulgi?”

“I confess, I do not know any spells to make him a great leader, but at the very least I can make a protective charm to shield him from poisons and magical attacks.”

“Thank you, Puabi.”

It took me longer than I had anticipated to make the charm, an armband of gold studded with assorted gemstones. Each gem was the focus of its own protective spell; in truth every such spell I knew. If there were anyone in the world who wanted Shulgi kept safe more than Enanatuma did, it was me. The individual spells were easy enough, but finding a way to mount them on the gold band so that they created harmony took a little more work.

And so it was three nights later when I came to bring it to Enanatuma. I was quite proud of it, the most complex magic I had ever worked, but the moment I saw her stricken face I knew I was too late.

“He has been challenged,” she said dully. “He ignored my advice about how to conduct House business and has offended Amar-Sin, who was looking to be offended, like as not. Now my cousin has the excuse he was looking for and has called Shulgi out.”

“Amar-Sin is good at gis-gis-la?”

“One of the best,” she said. “Not that it matters; a 10-year-old boy could beat Shulgi, and he knows it. He will not speak to me about it at all, only keeps drinking bowl after bowl of date wine.”

The challenge would be a fight to the death. Worse, the victor would control the fate of the defeated’s family. Amar-Sin would as good as own Enanatuma, and her children could be cast from their home or banished from Ummur entirely at his whim. If he were feeling particularly vindictive, he could have young Ekar executed to ensure he never sought revenge for his father.

The words were out of my mouth before the thought even entered my mind: “Could you beat him?”

Enanatuma looked surprised, then thoughtful. “Yes,” she said at last. “Yes, I could.”

“The challenge is at dawn?”

“Yes. At the square before the ziggurat.”

“I need a piece of jewelry, something you can wear under gis-gis-la armor.”

Enanatuma nodded and pulled a long necklace from around her neck. It was a simple thing, an imperfect piece of lapis lazuli tied to a cord of leather. It had been tucked unseen under her gown. The lapis lazuli was still warm from her flesh.

“Shulgi’s first gift to me,” she said. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I knew the piece well; I had worn it myself for just one night before it was ever Enanatuma’s.

“When I am finished with this, it will disguise you. You will look like Shulgi, but you won’t sound like him,” I said. “Can you do this?”

“Yes. It will be tricky, but there is no ritual which says I must speak.”

“It would be best to keep the fight brief.” She rolled her eyes at me, just for an instant like her younger self as scornful of me telling her how to fight the gis-gis-la as I would be of her telling me how to cast a spell. Then she was serious once more.

“I will tell the servants I am going to the temple to pray for his victory in case they should notice my absence,” she said. “But what about Shulgi?”

“I will see to Shulgi,” I promised.

There was scarcely enough time for me to cross the city to my room, imbue the stone with the spell, and then carry it back across the ever-brightening city to Enanatuma’s house. She was anxiously awaiting my return, casting nervous glances at Shulgi’s form on their low bed. She was already dressed in his armor, which needed only a little padding around the shoulders and waist to fit her.

“He will wake soon. He had a lot of wine, but even so, he is always an early riser,” she said.

“He will remain here with me until the fight is done; you can trust me on that.” I slipped the leather cord over her head, tucking the stone beneath the breastplate. Then I looked up into Shulgi’s dark eyes and my breath caught.

“I just thought,” Enanatuma said, her voice snapping me out of my reverie. “I will always be Shulgi when I wear this now, won’t I?”

“Yes,” I said. “The spell will not fade, and it cannot be broken.” I wondered for the first time what dangerous power I had just given her. But she was my most trusted sister; I kissed her cheek and let her go.

I sat with my back against one of the pillars that divided Enanatuma’s bedroom from the garden beyond and waited for Shulgi to wake. The sun was not yet over the garden wall, but the air was already still and hot. I imagined Enanatuma fighting in that metal armor in the shadeless square before the ziggurat. No wonder challenges were always met at dawn.

Shulgi had passed out draped facedown across the bed, still dressed in his formal garb from the House council meeting that had led to the challenge. This close to him, I could see the strands of silver just beginning to show in his still-thick hair. My hand itched to touch it, to see if the waves of it were as soft as I remembered.

This would be the hardest part. I had not spoken to him since the morning so many years ago when I had left him alone in our makeshift bed with only the lapis lazuli necklace on the pillow beside him. I hadn’t trusted myself. Now I would have to speak to him, to keep him here until Enanatuma returned. Worse, I had to let him speak to me and not search his every word, every tone, for clues to his true thoughts. The past must stay in the past.

At last he began to stir, groaning and rubbing at his face. Then he saw the sunbeam nearly touching his hand and remembered.

He jumped up from the bed, sober and alert in the blink of an eye, and rushed towards the cedar chest that held his gis-gis-la armor, or had before Enanatuma had taken it.

“Shulgi,” I called softly just as his hand touched the lid. He spun, eyes searching the garden before at last falling upon me.

“Puabi?” He had a strange look to his face, as if he had just spoken a name he had heard once and had no idea whether it was connected to me or not. A look of recognition almost washed over his face but retreated just as rapidly.

“It is I,” I said simply. “Puabi.” Was it the mere affirmation of his confusing suspicions that brought that look of recognition back, or was it the sound of my voice? Whatever the cause, his eyes lit up and I knew he knew me.

“I searched everywhere for you!”

“I know it.”

“I went every day to the temple in hopes of seeing you.”

“So I gave up being a dancer.”

“Why?” There was no need to search the tones of that word for meaning; it was filled with pain and loss that could not be hidden.

“You know why.”

But I wondered if he did anymore. He believed himself a noble son; believed it mind, heart and soul. How would he remember our time together, I an orphaned ward of the temple sisters, he a refugee from a far-off city who had found work repairing the high city walls of Ummur, dangerous work with little pay. Neither of us much better than slaves. How could we marry with no money for a home, no money to feed children?

And yet I had convinced myself that it was possible. I had accepted his proposal and his gift, the lapis lazuli necklace that had been his mother’s; it was all he had to give. I would have married him, I know I would have, if my sleep that night hadn’t been disturbed by the wail of a child.

I had left Shulgi’s side, crawled to the edge of our hiding place on the roof of a shop near the temple. It was the perfect place to sleep on hot summer nights. From my vantage point I saw a woman laying a squalling infant on the temple steps, just as I had been left so many years before. She kissed the baby, wiped at her eyes, then hurried away.

Another child waited for her in the shadows of an alley, a boy of six or seven years. She took his hand, and after one last long look back at the babe she was gone.

What had happened? The child on the steps was a baby, but not newly born. Some change in this woman’s circumstance meant she could no longer feed both children, I surmised, but what? Had something happened to her husband?

A sudden vision filled my mind: Shulgi falling from the city walls to be dashed on the rocky ground below.

I didn’t know what had happened to that woman; I only knew I could never be her.

I wasn’t certain how much Shulgi remembered beyond my name. He looked confused, his eyes washing over me and then looking around the room and then back at me. His past and his present didn’t seem to connect in his mind.

He would never know what I had done for him, how I had made sure he and Enanatuma would meet. Noble daughter that she was, she had money enough for both of them. She could keep him safe. She was the one person I knew who would raise him up from his lowly place in the world, who would see what he could be and not just what he was. And he had been perfect for her, he would never try to make Enanatuma a meek woman, touching only spindles and looms. He would love her as she was.

So he would have, had I never cast that spell.

Enanatuma never realized what I had done, either, to bring them together. How nervous she was, the day she asked me to weave the spell that would make him a noble son, the little difference between a man she could marry and one she could not. I hadn’t even needed a jewel to focus the spell on, only a scrap of paper, a genealogy of House Akitu that could hold a few extra “long-lost” branches. I gave Shulgi an ancestor so I could give him to Enanatuma.

He was still staring at me, confused. Then he looked down at his hand resting on the cedar chest.

“Shulgi!” I said, stepping forward, but too late. He had already thrown back the lid and was staring at the empty space where his armor should be.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “Where is Enanatuma?”

“She is saving your life and her House. Be still and let her do it.”

“What do you know of my wife?” he demanded.

“Think of your children. Think of Eku. This was the only way,” I said.

“What was the only way? And what do you know of my children? Why are you even here, now?” Then I saw his eyes move up to my forehead, to the blue mark the priests had tattooed there. “You were banished. Why?”

Before I could answer, Shulgi’s eyes moved past me to the garden and a look of shock froze his features. I turned to see his mirror image in dusty armor clutching a blood-soaked cloth to the side of his face.

“What happened?” I cried.

“I was victorious,” Enanatuma said, “but I paid a price.” And she pulled the cloth away from her Shulgi-face to reveal a gash starting near the corner of her mouth and extending up into her hairline, just missing an eye.

“Oh no,” I said, looking from her to her husband and his unmarked cheek.

“What have you done?” he asked, a whisper which held all the urgency of a scream. He dropped onto the edge of the bed, hands clutching violently at his hair.

“What you could not,” she said. There was no hint of accusation in her words, only her own fierce brand of love. She gave me the bloody rag and pulled the necklace off over her head. She was Enanatuma once more, but the injury remained.

“It’s not serious, sister,” I said, for the bleeding had already stopped. “It will heal.”

“It will leave a scar,” Enanatuma said. “A scar on my face, not Shulgi’s.”

We must cut him. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to say the words aloud. Even if we gave him the scar he lacked, how to explain Enanatuma’s? More magic, more illusions?

Ten years had taught me nothing; I was still spreading oil fire even as I tried to douse it.

Shulgi lifted his head from his hands. Enanatuma stood over him, her gis-gis-la dagger in her hand. Her thoughts had followed mine, but she too shirked away from the inevitable. She lowered her arm.

“What you have done has damned every soul in this city,” he said to her. “You can cover it up from the eyes of men, perhaps, but not from the eyes of the gods. The wards of House Elam, how will they hold out the demons now that you have done this thing?”

“The same as they have these last twenty years, since I first took up the swords,” Enanatuma said.

“How did I allow it?” He was genuinely confused to the point of anguish. Did he remember nothing of his former life?

“No one knows what the vapors are or why the walls keep them out,” I said. “The priests act confident, but I’ve read their most secret texts. They don’t really know.”

But Shulgi only grew more enraged, leaping to his feet to pace the room. “Do not tell me this was no sin! You who are not one of us, not one of the noble Houses; you don’t know what it is to hold this sacred trust that protects us all. To keep the magic in our bones strong throughout life so that they will serve their purpose after death. But Enanatuma knows.” And he turned on her. “She knew the sin of it every time she took up the blades. She felt it in her bones. Every time.”

Enanatuma met his gaze steadily, saying nothing, but I saw the glint of a tear in her eye and realized there was truth in what he said. I had broken every law of Ummur in my pursuit of knowledge, but I had never once felt I was doing wrong. I had never felt guilt.

But Enanatuma had, and she had never said a word, not even to me, her closest sister.

“You have to leave,” Shulgi said at last, and there were tears in both their eyes now. “Leave Ummur. There will be no covering this up, no more illusions, no more tricks.”

“Shulgi,” I said, but I was unheard.

“You should die, we should all die,” he said to her. “It’s the law.”

“Shulgi, the children-” Enanatuma said.

“Not just our children,” he interrupted. “Every child of House Elam will be condemned, and what then? The priests say the walls containing Elam’s bones must be razed. The walls of the Houses to either side must be extended to fill the gap. Do you know how long it would take to build those walls? How far we have to go to quarry the stones?” He broke off, a far-off look to his eyes, as if he were trying to recall the details of a dream he had had long ago. “I know,” he said and looked down at his hands, as though a part of him expected to find calluses there.

He broke himself out of his reverie with a shake of his head. “And I’ve spoken only of the stones, not what lies between, what really keeps us all safe. How many would die each night before Ummur was made whole again? Not just our children.”

Enanatuma’s face contracted as she fought the tears. The gash on her cheek began to bleed anew.

“What else can I do, Enanatuma?” he asked. “What else? I cannot undo what you did. I can only hope your actions have not dishonored us to the point where the gods no longer smile on House Elam.” He grabbed her arms now, pulling her close. “You should die for this, I know. But I can’t condemn you. Even to save us all, I can’t. So you must leave and never return, and be as dead to all Ummur.”

“I will go,” Enanatuma said. “If Puabi swears to watch over my children, to protect them for me until they are grown and wed.”

“How can she, marked as she is? She could never be seen with them,” Shulgi said.

“Puabi knows what I am asking,” Enanatuma said.

I nodded, and in so doing sealed my fate. It would be years now before I could leave Ummur. Enanatuma hugged me a little too tightly before turning back to Shulgi. “May I say farewell to the children?”

“No,” Shulgi said. “My love, your injury. They can’t see it, can never know what you’ve done. We cannot force them to keep such secrets.”

“What will you tell them?”

“I don’t know. What will I tell anyone?”

“She fled,” I said, my words sounding dull in my own ears. “She was certain you would lose, that you would leave her at the mercy of Amar-Sin, who hates her.”

Shulgi barked out a laugh that almost sounded self-mocking.

“What?” I asked.

“Amar-Sin does not hate Enanatuma. Quite the opposite. Exactly the opposite.”

“What are you talking about?” Enanatuma asked, barely more than a whisper.

“He told me once. It was at our wedding feast. He pulled me aside and told me that you and he had made a vow, that when he returned from his journey to the south the two of you would marry. It was a secret vow, not one sworn before a priest as such things are meant to be done. Don’t you remember? I told you about it and you laughed it off as some ridiculous story in his imagination.”

“I don’t remember,” Enanatuma said, but her face had gone very white.

“He’s never mentioned it again, but in every look he gives me, in every word he utters, he makes sure I never forget. No, he does not hate you.”

Whatever more was going to be said remained unspoken as we heard voices from across the garden and the footfalls of a servant approaching.

“You were seen leaving the fight with rude haste, ignoring many well-wishers. You will need to make apologies and explanations to keep your allies,” Enanatuma said. “And if I am gone, you will need those allies more than ever.”

Shulgi looked at her, and I could see that he still wrestled with the obligation to surrender his family for the good of the city. I stepped up, pressing the blood-soaked cloth into his hand and raising it to his unshaven cheek.

“Not good enough,” Shulgi said, pushing away the cloth and taking the dagger from Enanatuma’s hand. One fierce motion and his decision was irrevocably made. Enanatuma tore the cloth from my hand to press it to his cheek, but he pushed her away, knocking her to the floor behind the bed. Then he caught my arm and threw me down beside her.

“Stay down,” he hissed, slamming the lid down on the empty armor chest just as the servant appeared.

“What is it?” Shulgi asked.

“Guests, my lord.”

“Now? Damn, but this gash is bleeding again.”

“Shall I fetch a surgeon, my lord?”

“Why bother? The blood is what they’re all here to see,” Shulgi said. Enanatuma and I watched as the sandaled feet of the servant left the room, then Shulgi’s followed. He had not even said farewell to his wife.

We got to our feet, Enanatuma looking more than a little dazed. “I think what Shulgi said might be true. I think I remember, like a dream I had long ago, making that vow. And we....” She broke off, eyes gazing off into the distance. “Do you remember him?”

“Not at all,” I confessed.

“Did I love Amar-Sin once, and forget? I abandoned him for Shulgi and forgot every moment we ever had together?”

“Enanatuma....”

“I felt something when he died. I had stabbed him with my parry blade; we were quite close at the end, practically in an embrace. Puabi, I thought at first that he had seen through your spell, because my name was the last word from his lips. Except the way he said it, it brought back such feelings. It felt so familiar. I did love him once, didn’t I? If I had I would’ve told you, my sister. Don’t you remember?”

“No, you never told me any such thing.”

“Can you get caught up in your own spell?”

I could not answer. Enanatuma was desperate to know if she had broken faith with one betrothed to take up with another. I was certain to spend the rest of my life questioning whether I had broken that betrothal myself to bring Shulgi into her life. It was also possible that Amar-Sin’s story was truly just his imagination, or something he had invented to try to raise his position in House Elam. But was it possible that the spell I had cast to give Shulgi a noble line had not been my first spell on his behalf? Had I first done something to get rid of Amar-Sin?

I would never know. Magic was truly oil fire; it had spread and spread until even I was burned. The spell meant to save the life of my love had led to my dearest sister killing her own lover. I knew in my soul that it was true. Admitting it would give no comfort to my sister, though. All she had left now were memories of her husband, and I wouldn’t do anything to poison them.

“You will forget again,” I promised her. “Think only of Shulgi and your love for him, and you will forget these other ghosts of memories. But now it’s time for you to leave. Take my veil.”

I draped it over her and she vanished from sight. Her strong arms pulled me into one last hug and then she was gone.

I would never see her again, never hear of how she fared or whether she even still lived. Would she ever put the necklace on, I wondered, just to look at the reflection of her husband’s face in a bronze mirror or a still pond?

As I waited through the hot day for nightfall so that I could leave the house unseen, I fell asleep on Enanatuma’s bed. It was well past sunset when Shulgi shook me awake. A surgeon had indeed been by, as a row of coarse stitches adorned his cheek. He had cut himself more deeply than Enanatuma had been wounded, but I doubted any but the three of us would ever know the difference. Just two of us now.

“You knew Enanatuma. You were both dancers, sisters at the temple,” he said.

“Yes.”

“I forgot about you when I married Enanatuma. Not willfully, not like a man putting aside thoughts of an old love for the sake of the new. I forgot you, completely.”

“Shulgi,” I said, desperately not wanting to have this conversation. “You’ve forgotten many things.”

“They’ve been coming back since this morning. It’s like the story of my life is actually two stories, and I remember them both. They both seem equally true. I’m not sure which is true.”

“I am sorry.”

“Why?”

“Because it was my spell that....” Broke you? Is driving you mad? “It’s my fault.”

“Yours and Enanatuma’s, yes? The two of you plotting together and never once speaking of any of this to me!” He paced again, the violet robes snapping around him in sympathy to his growing fury.

“It was to keep you safe. Everything I did was because I couldn’t bear the thought of you dying.”

“You made my life a lie!” He turned to face me, and there was something deliberate about the space he left between us. “I have many hateful things to say to you, to you and my now departed wife. How you used me; how you played with me, just another doll in some girls’ game.”

“No-”

“I won’t say them. I choose not to. If I even still have a choice. Enanatuma is gone, now I want you gone as well.”

“I cannot leave Ummur,” I said. “I promised to watch over your children.”

“I will not see you,” he said, spitting out the words. “Ever. I will not once ask myself if I’m not secretly pleased that she is gone and you remain. I will not wonder if that was even your intention from the first.”

“Shulgi, I never-”

“Go!” he roared, his face so contorted with rage I feared for his stitches.

So I left.

I watch over them still, he and the children both. He found the armband I had made for him; I have seen him wearing it. It had been left in Enanatuma’s clothes chest; he must have taken it to be a last gift for him that she had never had a chance to give. The children have wards as well, spells imbued in pretty little stones they just happened to find lying in their path and picked up and kept, as children are wont to do.

I wondered what Shulgi thought of it all. I wondered if he would forget me once more, as his past as a noble son would once more become “true” for him, matching his present life as his past as a builder of walls did not.

And sometimes, as I lay in the heat of the day waiting for sleep to take me, I wondered if he had been right about my intentions, and whether he ever did think about me in Enanatuma’s place. And I would admit at last, now that it was too late, that it had never truly been the priests’ library that had kept me in Ummur after my banishment.

Then I would go to sleep in my little room among the rotting dead, waiting for the day when Enanatuma’s children would be grown and I would be free to leave Ummur. Waiting, and fearing when the time came I would find I could not go, and I would linger on to be near to the man who would not see me. Me, the only true ghost in Ummur.


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Kate MacLeod lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two sons. When she's not working or homeschooling her boys she likes to write. Her work has previously appeared in Allegory, Beyond Centauri, Warrior Wisewoman 2, and is forthcoming in the anthology Fantastical Visions V. She can be found on the internet at KateMacLeod.net.

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