Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 13

NEWS OF JEREMIAH’S dire speech to the village elders ran on a hundred tongues through Anathoth.

When he had gained the will to stand, Hilkiah left the mulberry tree and trudged home. There he closed himself in his room, winding himself tightly around the shame inflicted upon him by his son in front of his peers. Every whisper of the wind, every creak of the tree branches sounded to his ears like accusing voices. “There is old Hilkiah,” they said, “the priest who raised a wicked son with a tongue like a jailer’s scourge. He lacks even the respect due a father from his son.”

The old priest began to decay from inside. He wanted to die for disgrace.

Libnah, for her part, felt torn between the opposing camps within her breast. She was wounded by the pain of her husband; Hilkiah was a good man who had always done his best. He did not deserve such dishonor in the days of his old age.

And yet—with a mother’s certainty she knew Jeremiah would not say such terrible things solely for effect. His feelings always lay too close to the surface to let him gratuitously tread upon anyone, much less his own father. She felt anger at her husband’s plight, but also fear that her son’s oracle was true.

That night’s dinner gathering was a desert of resentment, a sterile plain of closed glances and words left unspoken. Hilkiah concluded the benediction in a voice devoid of inflection or vitality. And so supper began: his family shared a room, yet was divided by barriers harder than stone, higher than the walls of Jerusalem.

Of all those gathered around the cheerless board, only Lemuel felt anything other than confused anger or distress. It was about time, he thought. About time that everyone else saw what a foolish, selfish, muddle-headed dreamer Jeremiah was. Lemuel’s face wore a sardonic smirk as he saw with satisfaction the mess Jeremiah had managed to make of things.Image

Yes, it was about time.

He glanced at his wife. Hannah’s face was indrawn. She wished deeply to retire from this field of battling wills, but could not decently do so.

She raised her eyes to look directly at Jeremiah, who brooded in his place, unaware. He appeared to be studying the table before him with great concentration.

In her puzzled sorrow, she lost her customary caution, forgetting to hide past and present feelings beneath a drab, dutiful exterior. In her gaze now was a ghost of the old look, mingled with a knit-browed confusion at the distress caused by one she knew to be tenderhearted and true in his deepest self, despite the hurt he had cost her.

A slap across her face from the back of Lemuel’s hand sent her sprawling onto the floor, bloodying her lip.

“You whore!” shouted Lemuel, leaping to his feet in a frenzy. “You sit there making moon-eyes at this … this … ” He pointed angrily at Jeremiah, stuttering in his wrath. “ … this idiot?”

Shocked out of their solitary grief, the family sat roundeyed and aghast as Lemuel stormed on.

“You’ve never forgotten him, have you? Despite all the hurt he caused you, despite the way he deserted you, knowing full well how you felt; despite all that, it is still he you love, and not me! Do you deny it, you ungrateful wench?”

Hannah sat silent, her eyes wide with fear, blood running down her chin.

“Is it he you think about in bed?” screamed Lemuel, his face purple in fury. “Do you lie with him in your mind, while I feed you and shelter you and clothe you? What is the charm of this wretch, that those on whom he inflicts the most harm willingly offer him sanctuary? By the names of all the gods, it shall not be so with you!” He started toward Hannah, raising his fist to strike her again.

Joash leaped from his place, grasping Lemuel’s arm as it descended toward Hannah’s unprotected face. The sinews bulged on his sun-darkened forearm as he squeezed Lemuel’s wrist, forcing him away from the now-sobbing Hannah. Lemuel grimaced and strained, trying in vain to break his older brother’s iron grip. At last he won free and bounded from the room and out of the house with an animal cry of frustrated brutality.Image

Joash stood panting, looking after him for a moment. Then he turned to stare at Jeremiah in bewilderment and distrust.

“WHY, LORD?” Jeremiah prayed, sitting outside in the starry autumn evening, chilled by more than the cool air. “Why do I spread distress and woe at every turn? Why do my words fall like sword blows on those I love?”

The house was dark. The family had drifted away from the meal in a dazed, uncomfortable silence. No one spoke to him, no one looked at him. It seemed they wanted only to be out of his presence.

He was more lonely now than when he had walked the roads and byways of Judah. He felt turmoil inside like a storm cloud, whipping his heart in a cold swirl of doubt and anguish.

He slid off the rough stone wall and wandered into the night like a lost soul, absently pulling his cloak tighter. The breath of impending winter whispered about him, and winds of apprehension wafted treacherously through the open windows of his mind.

“I’M TELLING YOU he ought to die!”

Lemuel’s face was livid as he brought his fist down on the table of the dimly lit room. His voice had by now risen far above the conspiratorial whispers in which the conversation had begun, and the four others in the room glanced nervously at the door and windows, hastily motioning their overwrought colleague to keep quiet.

“Lemuel!” one of them hissed, “he is your brother—your own flesh and blood!”

“Aye,” murmured another, “and he preaches in the name of Yahweh. If Josiah’s agents learn of our complicity in his death, we are dead men!”

“You are all old women!” sputtered Lemuel, getting louder again. “He is a disgrace! He has no support! He insults the elders of Anathoth, my father among them, and threatens the worship of Chemosh! Do you wish to stand idly by and allow this troublemaker to stir up more noise about what we are doing, we who have remained faithful to the gods of the earth and the sky?” Lemuel held their unwilling eyes with his dilated, angry look. “Why should this muddled wanderer, who goes off for years at a time, be allowed to upset our way of doing things? I say we take care of this misfit now, and I care not a fig whose brother he happens to be!”

“And I say there is more to your words than jealousy for the reverence toward Lord Chemosh,” said another of the men. “Your ire burns hot toward your brother for something else—a woman, perhaps?”

“That is none of your concern!” shouted Lemuel, his fingers curling into claws at his side. “What matters is silencing this fool, and soon! Or do you wish to share the fate of the priests and worshipers of Ashtaroth at Nob, just up the road?”

The group fell silent as they remembered the chilling event: Josiah’s guards had slain thirty men and women with the sword, then burned their bodies and scattered the charred bones on the ruined high places of the gods. Such a desecration was frightening to contemplate. Since then, devotees of the baals and asherim had been careful to conceal their religion from any not known to be sympathetic. The worship went on, but discreetly, amid hope for better days.

“Well,” conceded one of them finally, “it may be that your counsel is sound, however flawed its motives. Very well—I will support this action. Who will stand with Lemuel and with me to slay the troublesome preacher?”

Slowly and quietly, all three of the others placed their hands atop those of the speaker and of Lemuel, who wore a hard, glittering grin of triumph.

Just outside the house where the plot was being laid, the wandering Jeremiah had stopped, hidden in the darkness. Hearing the incautious voices, he stood frozen in dismay. For as long as he could remember, Lemuel had despised him. Now, for the first time, he knew why: It was the night in the soul of his brother which hated the light of the Eternal in his own heart.

Each of the brothers was an instrument, a tool. And there could be nothing but enmity between them forever. Their hostility was born of the ancient war between the ruling forces of the two brothers’ lives—one good, the other evil.

Jeremiah remembered the words of his calling: “1 chose you while you were still in your mother’s womb … “ Could the dark architect of Lemuel’s malevolence also make such a summons?

He did not return to his room that night, cloaking himself instead in the darkness among the ravines of the surrounding countryside, seeking some word, some counsel to aid in treading the ever narrower and more treacherous path he walked.

THE NEXT MORNING the house of Abiathar gathered for breakfast in apprehension, feeling in different ways the brittle tension in the air. Lemuel sat in his place, looking even more dour and disgruntled than usual. Hannah, her eyes red-rimmed and dark from lack of sleep, sat downcast, afraid to look up.

The door slammed open, and in strode Jeremiah, his clothing still wet with the dew of the autumn morning. Without a break in his step he paced directly up to Lemuel, whose slack, open-mouthed stare bespoke his surprise at the change in his younger brother. Jeremiah had none of the defeated, brooding demeanor of last night, but rather a hard, set look, a talisman of urgent purpose chiseled across his face. With his accusing finger pointed directly between his brother’s wide eyes, his voice rang out:

“I know of the plotting in your heart. I know you have laid plans to take my life, because of the words the Lord bade me speak. I had no blood on my hands toward you, my own brother, but you have conspired with evil men to kill me, to blot out my memory from this place.

“Now, therefore, listen to what the Eternal, the Lord Most High, says about you and those with whom you devise your wicked schemes: ‘I will punish you. Your offspring will die by the sword and by famine. Your memory will be completely erased from the land, and I will bring disaster upon you in the time when I judge this nation.’”

For a moment he held his pose, his finger aimed at Lemuel like a thunderbolt from the hand of God. Then he turned on his heel and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

He had gone perhaps twenty long paces from the house when he first felt the fire in his veins begin to cool. His nostrils ceased flaring, his heart slowed its angry, racing gait. The pain of what he had said began to wrap his chest in dull, aching cords of regret. Another twenty paces, and he felt tears running down his face.

He had thought it would bring him fierce joy and a sense of vindication to pronounce the Lord’s judgment on Lemuel and the men of Anathoth. But the scene burned into his mind was not the death of Lemuel, deserving though he was. Nor was it the punishment of the baby-slaying idolaters. Instead, the faces of Hannah and his mother wavered before his tear-veiled vision, and the faces of children and families caught in the winnowing fork of God’s wrath. Prophesying judgment brought no satisfaction, nor did it lighten his burden. But he could do nothing else.

He walked into the broken country east of the village until the middle of the morning. Weak from his overnight fast and soul-weary from the questions in his mind, he crawled beneath the shelter of a heavy copse of scrub cedar and lay on his belly, his face in his arms.

“O Lord God,” he moaned, “I am cut to the depths of my spirit by the pain I carry. Why must the wicked do as they like, despite Your warnings and Your displeasure? Why, instead, do the righteous suffer at the hands of sinners?

“I am pinned beneath Your will; I feel it crushing me between You and my enemies.

“I cannot ignore the fire You have kindled within me—it blazes, and no matter how I try to hold it in, I cannot. But when I speak, my enemies gather round like wild dogs. I am a lost lamb surrounded by a hungry pack whose only wish is to tear and rend. Hear my cry, O Lord! Deliver me from the teeth of those who oppose me! Fulfill Your promise, which You made when You called me, saying, ‘I will make you like a bronze wall against your enemies.’”

His words spent, he lay silent, overcome with grief, and with longing for—he knew not what.

The wind, sighing through the pungent green cedar branches, slowed and stopped. Even the sparrows in the brush ceased their busy chatter. And the Voice was within him.

Jeremiah. “

One word. His name. Never before had the Voice spoken his name. And in those few syllables, resounding repeatedly through the hallways of his soul, he heard his entire being described, known, spun out like a thread of flax in the hands of a master weaver—seen through and through.Image

Jeremiah. Yahweh knew his name—and everything else.

The Lord God knew his hurt, his anguish; knew the pain of pronouncing death on those he loved; knew the sorrow of being alone; knew the lash of unjustified hatred; knew the piercing misery of being abandoned by those closest to him.

And He knew more. He knew Jeremiah’s pride, his self-will. He knew the dark, secret places where Jeremiah imagined himself a lofty figure on Judah’s landscape—a seer, a tower; perhaps even a Moses. The Lord God Almighty knew the traces of contempt that sometimes peeked from the corners of his vision as he beheld the sin of the people. He knew the unholy, blood-red lust for revenge that sometimes made his thoughts crawl like snakes in a vat of excrement.

Yahweh knew. He knew. And Jeremiah cried out in silence with a wail beyond weeping. He flung his arms over his head as if to hide from God’s face. He was unworthy—wholly unworthy. Yet again the Voice was within him.

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how will you compete with horses? If you stumble in the plain, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”

Jeremiah’s inner cry was cut off now, abruptly hushed by the power of the knowing One.

“My beloved will be given into the hands of her enemies. My inheritance has become like a wild beast—therefore I despise her. I will bring others to spoil My vineyard. My beautiful fields will become like a wasteland, because no one cares.

“So bear your shame, Jeremiah. My anger will cause this bitter harvest. But know that after the time of tearing down will surely come a time of building up. After I uproot Judah, I will again have compassion on her. If she will turn and renew her love for Me, I will bring her again to her own land, each family to its own home. In this hope, you may find your hope.”Image

His senses numbed, Jeremiah fell into the deep sleep of utter exhaustion. When he awoke, feeling hungry, the sun was dragging its gold-and-purple train down the western sky. He slowly sat up and looked below the colors, back toward Anathoth. He could think of but one place there where he might find shelter and comfort.

He crawled out from under the cedars, and set out for the hut of Mahseiah the scribe.

This chapter is from the novel Jeremiah: He Who Wept by Thom Lemmons, copyright © 2013 by Homing Pigeon Publishing. If you’d like to download a full version of this book for your smartphone or tablet, please visit www.homingpigeonpublishing.com.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 20

PRINCE BELSHAZZAR GRASPED the glazed-clay drinking bowl, still half-full of frothy ale, and hurled it against the far wall of the chamber. Striking the baked-brick wall with a loud pop, it shattered into shards, splashing the wall with the remnants of the brew. Shocked, the others watched in dumb, feigned fascination as the white beads of foam ran in tiny rivulets down the seams between the bricks. All faces were averted, for the only alternative was meeting the furious eyes of the prince-regent.

“I ask for reports, and you bring me dung!” Belshazzar was shouting, his full lower lip quivering in rage. “Rumors, and the whisperings of foolish old women.” He spat, glaring at each of them in turn. None of the counselors dared show his eyes to the son of Nabu-Naid.

Still furious, the broad-shouldered prince clutched both fists into the front of the nearest vizier’s robes, half-lifting the astonished and frightened older man out of his seat. “How can I keep my father—and your king—apprised of the movements of Cyrus if the messengers you send are too fearful to make contact with him?” He shook the nobleman like a truant schoolboy. Dropping the courtier with a disgusted grunt, he turned toward the rest of them. “Must I wait until his army is encamped outside the lshtar Gate before I can know with certainty what his intentions are?”angry

“My lord prince,” ventured some foolhardy soul into the black curtain of silence, “Sardis is a far journey. We only dispatched the couriers two months ago, so surely they will soon—”

“I must know now!” Belshazzar bellowed, crashing his fist to the table in front of the white-faced vizier. “The illiterate fool has already toppled Ecbatana without so much as drawing a sword! He has rolled up the territories east of the Tigris like a worn-out carpet, and now he challenges the might of Croesus!”

Clawing at his face in furious frustration, the prince-regent strode to and fro like a caged tiger. “Croesus has appealed to Babylon for aid,” growled the prince-regent, “and I sit here like a fat ox, with crows cawing in my ear.”

“Egypt has also received an embassy from the Lydian capital,” meekly ventured one of the nobles.

“Egypt!” sneered Belshazzar. “Egypt had her teeth pulled at Carchemish, in the days of Nebuchadrezzar. She won’t answer the call of Croesus.”

“What has the king said of these matters?” asked another counselor.

Belshazzar halted his furious pacing, glaring at the speaker. “The king … attends to other matters,” he grated hesitantly, deciding that the words he really wished to say were best left unuttered. He resumed his striding, muttering to himself—or perhaps to his infuriatingly absent father. “If Sardis falls to Cyrus, he will have completely outflanked us to the north and south. How long can it be before he turns his attention to the cities of the Two Rivers?”

He halted his feverish pacing, aiming another thunderous scowl at the huddled, silent group around the table. “Well?” Belshazzar demanded. “Do you have tongues in your heads, or not? Speak, fools! Your sovereign’s regent commands it!”

Chests heaving with tongue-tied anxiety, the counselors looked at each other, then at the top of the table. What could be said when all answers were wrong?

PUTTING THE STYLUS ASIDE, Daniel took many deep breaths, trying to calm the trembling in his hands spawned by the still too-vivid memory of the terrifying visions that had burst across his sleeping mind. Even now, with the sunlight of the spring morning drenching his chamber, the blasphemous words of the dream-beast’s eleventh horn chilled his heart with a midnight darkness. Despite the gay, reassuring chirps of the sparrows in the garden outside his window, he bent only unwillingly to the task of recording the images of the frightful demons in his dream.

It was a vision of kings, this dream of his. He began writing what a Guide had explained to him of the vision:

The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—

His breast swelling with grateful emotion, he wrote for emphasis: Yes! Forever and ever!

Despite the appalling fear he had felt for the winds and for the huge and dreadful beasts, the end of the dream had shouted peals of hope, of certain victory! The people of the Lord would triumph.

Daniel’s hand paused in its writing. He remembered the sense he had had in his vision—the aura of vast, uncounted multitudes of victorious saints, rejoicing in the sovereignty of the just rule of the Eternal, and the vague, irrepressible intuition that the salvation promised by this triumph of righteousness would roll like a flood far beyond the borders of Judah—indeed, of Chaldea! Somehow this victory was a vindication for all creation; every piece of Adonai’s handiwork would rise up together in a great shout of joy for the defeat of wickedness.

While he pondered these unnameable thoughts, a pounding came on his door. Glancing quickly about, he covered his tablet with a damp cloth to preserve its moisture, then hid the tablet behind his couch.

Opening the door, he found, to his astonishment, one of the sons of Azariah. With tears streaming down his face, the young man said, “Uncle Daniel—come quickly! Father is dying. He asks for you.”

IN A DAZE, Daniel entered the house on Adad Street. The son had told him, on the swift journey through the streets from the palace, about Azariah’s sudden, piercing cry of agony that morning at table. He had clutched at his chest, collapsing in a helpless heap upon the floor. Each breath he now drew was a battle dearly won, and the sudden, awful knowledge came unbidden to them all that he would leave them very, very soon.

At last they reached the portal. Mishael and Hananiah, already there, met his disbelieving, helpless stare with sad shakes of the head and tear-stained glances. Through the main room he walked, all sound roaring together in his ears, all sight blurring into a shapeless glare, except for the face of Ephratah and the miserable, lost faces of Azariah’s children.

He entered the bedchamber. Azariah lay panting on his couch, clutching at his chest. Through pain-wracked eyes, he spied his old friend. Weakly he patted a place beside him, indicating that Daniel should sit. The vizier leaned close to his friend’s lips.

“A pain … here,” whispered Azariah, tapping his breast. “Like a camel sat on me … fully loaded.”

Daniel, the tears draining unheeded from his eyes, nodded at Azariah. “You should not speak, my friend,” he whispered hoarsely. “You should save your breath for your family.”

Azariah, impatient even on his deathbed, shook his head. “Already told them … all,” he muttered. “Wanted … you.”

Daniel forced a wavering smile to his lips. “Well, then … here I am.”

Azariah’s eyelids fluttered. Daniel, fearing the end, could not draw breath until again he saw the focused gaze of his dying friend on his face. “You need … ” Several labored, wracking breaths interrupted his words. “ … need to forget … before.”

Daniel stared at Azariah as a decrepit host of painful memories chased each other across his face. The dying man’s eyes held a knowing, reproving look. Daniel, choking on his emotion, could only nod. Again he saw Azariah gathering himself, at almost oldunbearable cost, to speak.

“But never forget … Jerusalem,” he breathed.

Again Daniel could make no reply, other than a vigorous shake of his head. Gripping the hand of his lifelong comrade, he rained tears upon the front of Azariah’s robe. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he turned to see the entire room filled with the family and friends of Azariah/Abed-Nabu, son of Judah, counselor of Babylon.

The man on the bed moved his head slightly, taking them all in with his gaze. Then, with a tiny smile of farewell on his lips, the pain-creases on his face softened, his eyes closed. The ragged, tortured breaths halted. It was over.

Accompanied by Ephratah’s soft sobbing, Mishael intoned, in a grief-clogged voice, the psalm he had uttered by the tomb of Caleb.

Do You show Your wonders to the dead?

Do those who are dead rise up and praise You?

“No, my friend,” interrupted Daniel, suddenly remembering the victory hymn of the rejoicing multitudes in his dream. “Have you forgotten what else David says?” Daniel rose, gripping the arms of the eunuch.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, You are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,

and fly to the uttermost parts of the seaeven

there, Your hand will guide me,

Your right hand will hold me fast …

Hananiah raised his face to Daniel’s, an other-worldly gleam in his dark eyes. His chin quivering with the effort of speaking aloud rather than with his beloved harp, he chanted.

I will exalt You, O Lord,

for You lifted me out of the depths …

O Lord my God, I called to You for help

and You healed me.

O Lord, You brought me up from the grave …

STANDING ON THE HIGHEST BATTLEMENT of the citadel of Sardis, Cyrus turned to the Lydian prime minister standing at his elbow. “Well, then, Lysidias; do the terms sound agreeable to you?”

The nobleman nodded limply, unable to believe the evidence of his ears. The conqueror of Sardis proposed to leave Lydian society almost exactly as he had found it. No pillaging. No enslavement or forced relocation of masses of people. Lysidias would remain in his post, but now would report to Cyrus as his kshatra—satrap, as the Lydian tongue styled the odd Aryan syllables. And Cyrus said he would have allowed Croesus the same opportunityhad the Lydian king not taken the unfortunate and untimely expedient of immolating himself in the private courtyard of his suite.

The only traces of conquest Sardis would be forced to accept were the inevitable tax and the continued presence of a Persian as chancellor of the treasury and commander of the armed garrison in Sardis—a light enough load for a people who, scant hours before, had feared for their necks.

Feeling himself almost reborn with relief, the Lydian knelt before the breeches-clad king with the amber eyes. As a scribe made notation of the event, Cyrus peered toward the western horizon and remarked, “This tower commands quite a view. I suspect Croesus spent much time enjoying it, eh, Lysidias?”

The newly created satrap of Lydia replied, “No, my … my king. The king—er, that is to say, Croesus—passed most of his time in the gardens, or in the treasury. He did not concern himself overmuch with the view from the towers.”

Kurash chuckled at the pungency, intended or otherwise, of the Lydian’s remark. Shading his eyes, he could spy the faraway sparkle of the sea, and beyond that, a dark smudge on the most distant line between earth and sky. “What is that land yonder, Lysidias?” he asked. “There, beyond the sea.”

The satrap glanced in the direction of Cyrus’s gaze. “That would be the isles of the Greeks, my king. Not far from the mainland of Hellas itself.”

“Hellas … ” The name had an odd tingle on Kurash’s tongue. He felt a curious struggle within his breast. He wanted to press on from Sardis, to encounter these Greeks and see what sort of men they might be. And yet … some small corner of his soul recoiled at the thought. Some barely audible voice—his fravashi, perhaps—whispered that elsewhere lay destiny for himself and his empire. Destiny … and eventual danger.

DANIEL WAS IN A LARGE, empty courtyard. A broad, limpid canal flowed through the courtyard, its waters weirdly silent. The vacancy, the utter absence of the noise of feet or even the most distant voices cast a pall of eeriness over the place. And yet there was something familiar about the citadel enclosing the huge plaza—as if he should recognize his whereabouts, but couldn’t, quite; as if he were remembering something he had not yet seen.

He heard a footfall behind him, but not the sound of a human foot. Turning about, he saw a magnificent ram; its pelt was of glistening white wool, its hoofs and horns of gold. The nostrils of the lordly beast flared red, and dark fire flashed from its eyes. One of the beast’s horns, he noticed, was larger than the other, as though it had grown in earlier than its mate.

As he watched, the ram snorted, lowering its head and charging to the east, the sinews bunching mightily along its back and hindquarters. Wheeling about in a cloud of dust, the animal bolted back in the direction it had come, raking the deadly horns along the ground as it fiercely asserted mastery over its domain.

To the four directions of the wind the ram charged, halting at last, hot breath blowing out its nostrils. With head held at a high and imperious angle, the beast surveyed its surroundings, staring through Daniel as if he had no more material presence than the air.

As he stood admiring the ram, he heard the bone-chilling sound of a bellowed challenge, the adversarial battle trumpet of the rutting season. Glancing to his right, he saw a he-goat prancing impossibly through the air as it passed over the high western wall of the courtyard, coming to rest a stone’s toss from the ram.

The two beasts blared their battle cries at each other, pawing in the dust and shaking their heads in a naked display of brute hostility. Daniel noticed that the he-goat had but one horn, albeit a large one, and it was queerly placed—in the center of the goat’s forehead. The nerves in his spine unraveled as he watched and listened to the challenge and counter-challenge. Clearly there would be but one survivor of the impending clash.

Presently, the he-goat rushed violently at the ram, which lowered its head and bounded forward to meet the attack. When the charging beasts collided, a peal of thunder rang out; Daniel fancied the daylight dimmed several degrees. When he could uncover his ears and open his eyes, the mighty, milk-white ram lay dead. The he-goat straddled its carcass in triumph.goatram

No sooner had this happened than the large, single horn of the goat shattered, and in its place grew out four grotesque horns, pointing north and south, east and west. And in their midst, another horn grew forth. As the small horn bulged outward in awful urgency, Daniel felt the blood freezing in his veins.

For he knew its kind. He had seen this before, in the eleventh horn of the Fourth Beast. Even as the horn grew and grew, becoming a living thing, he knew what would happen. With the dreadful surety of a remembered nightmare, he listened to the blasphemies and watched the horrendous, uncontested progress of its loathsome evil.

And then a Voice was speaking, with a sound more dire and commanding than the clash of the king-beasts. He knew the resonant tone of his Guide and listened with all his soul, for the victory of the arrogant Fifth Horn had profoundly disquieted his spirit.

“These animals represent the kings of Medea and Persia, and the king of the Greeks to come,” his Guide was saying, “and the vision you have seen concerns things which lie far in the future—in the time of the end … ”

Daniel wondered to whom he should tell these things. Should he speak to the king, to warn, to chasten?

“No!” said the Guide to his unspoken question. “These things are true and trustworthy, but you must seal up this vision, for many seasons and kings will pass before its fulfillment … ”

As morning light seeped beneath his eyelids, he clutched his hands to his breast. His heart pounded as if seeking explosive release from his body. His eyes were open, but the room swirled about him as for one who had drunk too much rich ale. Again, he reflected, a vision of four! This time four horns, and the four kings they represented. Like the ten horns of the Fourth Beast in his earlier vision, the four horns of the goat were followed by a horrible fifth. Kings of Persia, and a king of the Hellenes! The frightful imagery, the tolling, diamond-hard words of his Guide swam before his fevered memory. He felt himself trapped in a sickening, helpless vertigo, drowning in the overpowering elixir of the Eternal’s soul-flooding revelation. Daniel moaned, covering his face with his hands. His clothing and divan were drenched in the cold sweat of his fear. Panting with exertion, he raised himself trembling on one elbow, then fell limply back. Gathering the tiny vestiges of his strength, he moaned aloud the name of his body-servant.

The page padded quietly into the chamber, approaching his master’s bed with a worried, quizzical look.

“I … I am ill,” Daniel wheezed. “I cannot appear in the court today … ”

KURASH STEPPED OUT of the low-gunwaled boat, his leg sinking calf-deep into the miry swamp. In the distance he could see rocky hills rising. “What is the name of this country?” he asked, turning to the Greek who had piloted the small craft to the mainland.

“Macedon, my lord,” the wiry, dark man replied in the harsh, clattering accent of Hellas.

“Macedon,” mused the Persian. He grunted with the exertion of pulling his feet out of the muck in which they disembarked.

Each step made a loud sucking noise as they slogged their way toward higher ground. “Is all of Macedon’s shoreline such a quagmire?” laughed Kurash. “I shouldn’t think the people of this place would have energy enough to do anything save walk from one house to another, if the whole country is such a sea of clinging mud!”

“It would not do for you to speak so to the Macedonians, my lord,” cautioned the Greek. “They are a quarrelsome lot, and they don’t take reminders of their backward ways lightly.”

“Have they frequent occasion to be reminded of their … lack of advancement?” queried the horse-king.

“Oh, the dramatists and philosophers of Athens and the other cities of the Attic peninsula delight in satirizing the Macedonian hill folk,” said the guide. “It’s all a sport to them. But we who live closer—in Thermopylae and in the north and east of Epirus—don’t treat the Macedonians so lightly.”

When they had lurched a few steps farther through the mud, he continued. “The folk of Athens can comfort themselves with their walls and their citizen armies. But we must live cheek-by-jowl with the Macedonians. One day they will tire of being seen as clowns and buffoons. And then … ”

Kurash carefully noted the muted respect the Greek paid these supposedly crude Macedonians. How well he remembered the disdain with which the “civilized” Medes had jibed their mountain cousins, the Parsi! So the Athenians derided the Macedonians, did they? He fell silent, partly in thought and partly to conserve his breath for the next step through the pitchlike mud of the bog.

THAT EVENING, as the reconnaissance party bivouacked in a ravine between two flinty hillsides, Kurash called Gobhruz to him.

“Old friend,” said the king when the gray-bearded Mede bowed before hlm, “what say you? Is it time to turn back—toward Babylon?”

The older man mumbled something in his beard.

“What was that?” pressed the king. “I couldn’t hear you.”

The Mede stared into the flickering light of a nearby campfire for several moments, then glanced at the king. Unable to hold the eyes of his sovereign, he looked at the toe of his left boot, mumbling, “I said, ‘Babylon has had many others; why should you be any different?”’

“What is this, Gobhruz?” asked Kurash, chuckling. “Have we come to the very western end of the world, and now you think the walls of Babylon shall best me at last? Where is the man who spoke of the fear of a star-gazing king?”campfire

The old, sturdy Mede shook his head. “No, my king. It’s not that. You will take Babylon—her time is finished. This much I know.”

Kurash carefully watched his mentor’s profile, as the face of Gobhruz flickered orange and black in the firelight. “What, then?” he asked at last.

“You are being taken by all this,” the Mede said, gesturing widely about them. “And once you have taken Babylon, the taking will be complete.”

Kurash’s silence urged him to continue.

“Each victory, each new tributary takes you farther away from what you were. Makes you both more the king, and less the Parsi.” The old man chewed on his thoughts for many heartbeats. Raising his eyes to Kurash’s, he said, “When you were a boy, it was enough for you to have a spirited charger beneath you, and the free air of Anshan to breathe. Then you got a bit older and discovered you were the son and grandson of kings. You began to outgrow Anshan.”

“If I am to be the king of Lydians and Medes—and Chaldeans,” Kurash observed in a muted tone, “must I not take what is best from each part, the better to understand the whole?”

Gobhruz’ hands plucked at a straggling tuft of wiry grass, twisting it to and fro as he searched his soul for the words he wanted. “I left Elam because I wished a simpler, less affected existence. I have served you with all my heart, as I swore I would to your father. And now … ”

A night bird’s song wafted down the hillside. A piece of green wood hissed on the crackling coals of the fire. Quietly Kurash said, “My friend, I would not bind you to an enterprise you find distasteful. You have my leave to return to Anshan, there to live out your days—”

“I cannot leave,” interrupted the Mede. “I made an oath to your father, and I cannot leave.”

“Very well then,” said Kurash. “You will stay—and be the conscience of the king. A wise shepherd has need of much advisement. And a voice of caution is a prudent addition to any counsel. Will you do this for me, my friend—and teacher?”

Gobhruz peered long and hard into the fire, then looked down at his feet and nodded his head slowly. “Aye.”

“Then … what say you?” queried Kurash, a tiny smile flickering on his lips. “Shall we turn our steps eastward—to Babylon?”

Without looking up, Gobhruz gave a weary, affirmative nod. “Aye,” he grunted.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 19

ADAD-IBNI SHIFTED UNEASILY on his cushion, eyeing the fig he held in his hand. The chief seer had taken two or three nibbles from the ripe fruit, and the sour look on his face had nothing to do with its taste.

Furtively he glanced up at the stern, pacing figure of Nabu-Naid, carefully composing his response to what the emperor had just proposed. “Everyone knows of my king’s deep devotion to Lord Sin,” he began, before wincing inwardly. Already he sounded too accusative. He started again. “No one has a greater appreciation than myself of the importance of reverence to the Moon Lord. But … my king well knows that the priests of Esagila would evince a certain … ”—he groped delicately for a word—“reserve … toward such an ambitious project as my lord proposes, unless it were directed toward the benefit of Marduk. Especially now—” Realizing he had said two words too many, the mage hushed.

Nabu-Naid stared hard at the bald-pated old man. “Perhaps you wished to say, ‘Especially now that the unpopular work in Haran is just completed’?”

The silence crackled with hostility in the morning-lit chamber until Adad-ibni could tolerate it no longer. “Surely my king realizes,” he said, squirming, “that by correcting the unfortunate state of affairs in Haran, he unavoidably attracted the attentions of certain malcontents seeking an excuse for the poor harvests.”

The emperor sneered at his chief mage, shaking his head in wry amusement. “How hard it is for you to say what you mean, Adad-ibni,” he smirked. “You of all people I would expect to appreciate my attentions to the temple, guarded so long and faithfully by my recently deceased mother.” Adad-ibni bowed low in respectful genuflection at the mention of the emperor’s ancient matron. She had lived so long that some half-thought her bewitched, and she finally died at the unimagined, toothless age of one hundred and four years. Her son had seen to it that her funeral was well attended and lavishly carried out.

“My king knows I hold the utmost respect for his revered mother,” said the mage. Hidden in his robes, his fingers made the sign against the evil eye.

“What you say in the silences between your many words,” huffed Nabu-Naid, turning his back upon the seer, “is that you doubt the priests of Marduk will permit, without severe compulsion, the construction of a proper temple to Lord Sin within the walls of Babylon.” Over his shoulder, the emperor turned a beetle-black eye upon the huddled, cringing form of the chief mage. “And we must not greatly discomfit the priests of the cherished Marduk, must we?”

The sarcastic tone of the emperor’s words frightened the mage almost as much as his anger. One should not trifle with the gods, he thought. Of course, he could not verbalize such a direct reprimand to his royal sponsor. With his habitual obliqueness, he observed quietly, “My king should also consider the sizeable resources controlled by the priests of Esagila. Without their agreement to contribute to the project—”

“The scoundrels!” Nabu-Naid snorted. “They take a man’s goats in security for a pledge, and when he can’t pay them twice the worth of the flock, they keep the whole mangy lot! There are scores of temples in this city, my city,” raged the petulant haranking, “not to mention the hundreds of shrines and altars, but does Lord Sin, the Ancient One, have a house in which his name can be venerated?”

Angrily he paced to the other end of the chamber, then whirled about to add, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten, seer: The house of Marduk gave money and materials for the building of that ridiculous edifice to Nabu in Borsip, but do you think they’d donate as much as a strip of copper if they thought Lord Sin might be so honored? Ha!” Again the emperor turned his back on the mage.

Under his breath, the mage quoted, “Nabu is the Son of Marduk, and the reflection of his glory.” This fixation of the emperor’s is ill-omened, he pondered miserably. But how can I tell him so? Aloud he said, “Perhaps my king should sojourn outside the walls of this city to refresh his mind—to pray to the gods and permit himself time to make a judicious disposition of this delicate matter.”

Nabu-Naid, toying distractedly with the amulet about his neck, suddenly halted, staring thoughtfully at his chief diviner. The wisp of an idea had wafted its way to him. With his eyes squinted in speculation, he began smiling. “Perhaps you are correct, Lord Adad-ibni.” A look of wicked relish crawled across the ruler’s face.

The mage could not fathom what was taking form in the corridors of his sovereign’s skull, but he suspected it could not be anything overly pleasant.

“Perhaps a tour abroad is precisely what I need,” grinned the king, rubbing his hands together. “Since you mention it, good mage, there are some ruins in Teima, in the far reaches of the Arabah, which I have wished to examine for some time. I understand they have many ancient inscriptions there, preserved in the dry sands of the region. I believe this is an excellent opportunity to pursue my passion for antiquities.”

The mage, apprehension clogging his chest, calculated furiously in his mind. Teima! The city lay leagues to the west, across huge stretches of desert not quickly traversed. It was already the middle of the month of Adar—the New Year Festival was only weeks away. Without the king’s presence in the capital, the festival could not take place. Gasping with dismay, the mage pleaded, “My lord! You cannot possibly travel to Teima and return in time for—”

“The festival, my lord mage?” An evil chuckle hissed from between the aging monarch’s dry lips. “You may well be right!”

 

“AND SO, MY BELOVED SUBJECTS,” announced the emperor to the silent, stunned courtiers, “I shall depart on the morrow for Teima. While I sojourn away from my beloved city, I leave my son, Belshazzar”—the emperor clapped a hand on the shoulder of the loutish, smirking crown prince—“to act as steward for the kingdom.

“I charge you all,” he concluded, “to obey him as you would me … ”nabonidus

 

STANDING ON THE WALL of Sardis, the Lydian guard leaned back while drawing a draught of water. Suddenly the helmet slipped from his head, clattering over the edge of the battlements and finally coming to rest among the rocks below the citadel. Cursing under his breath, the sentry peered carefully about in the dusky light. No one watching—good. Gingerly he mounted to the top of the wall, then edged along the narrow shelf outside the battlements, more than a little mindful of the sheer drop yawning at his feet.

Reaching the corner where two walls joined, he climbed cautiously down to the rocks below the wall. This corner, known to few even among the city’s guards, was the only place one could descend to the ground in a relatively easy manner. Again looking about to see that he was alone, he made his way over to where his dented bronze helmet lay among the boulders near the base of the wall. Shaking his head in disgust, he strapped the headpiece to his belt and turned about to retrace his climb up the seemingly sheer wall.

Unseen by the Lydian sentry, two Persian spies slinked away from their observation post. When they were out of sight of the walls of Sardis, they trotted quickly toward the camp of Kurash. Their lord would be pleased with the news they brought this day.

 

KURASH CHUCKLED MERRILY, shaking his head in amazement. Rising from his couch, he said, “Scribe! Fetch me two bags containing a tenth-shekel of gold apiece.” Grinning at the wide-eyed spies, he continued, “I would reward the keen vision and quick minds of these two.”

For months the army of Medes and Persians had been encamped against Sardis, the glittering, seemingly impregnable capital of Croesus and his Lydians. Having won acclamation as king in Ecbatana, Kurash had quickly moved to quash Croesus’ incipient attempt at a land-grab in Cappadocia and Armenia to the north. The fantastically rich Croesus had thought to take advantage of the tumult in Medea to carve out a larger territory beyond his former eastern border.

But the Lydian gambit was doomed to failure. Kurash, at the head of a reborn Medo-Persian host, had swiftly routed the effete, well-groomed forces of the gold-king. Now Croesus and his minions were holed up in the citadel of Sardis, set on a rocky ridge behind walls that had, until this moment, been invulnerable.sardis

“Boy, fetch me Commander Gobhruz,” Kurash ordered. The page scampered away. “Tonight, my fine fellows,” the king of Medea and Persia said, still smiling at the two newly rich reconnaissance men, “you shall escort the general to the place you found. We shall determine how many men, and in how quick a fashion, we can place inside the walls of Sardis. “And tomorrow,” he continued, more to himself than to the men, “we shall see who is the richest king in Lydia.”

 

BABYLON WAS NOT A HAPPY PLACE. The seasons ground inexorably along, the month of Nisan approached—and still no word came from Teima, the remote desert town to which the king had hastened. For yet another year it appeared the New Year Festival would not be celebrated.

Aside from the ominous prophecies of pestilence and disaster from the soothsayers and diviners, the city’s merchants and tradesmen grumbled about more prosaic matters: of lost trade and unsold goods, of profits vanished without the joyous excesses engendered by the rebirth and homecoming of Marduk. The temple prostitutes—and, for that matter, the freelance whores—were as unhappy as the others about the loss of commerce resulting from the emperor’s frustrating absence.

In Esagila, far darker mutterings could be heard. Throughout the temple complex, the emperor’s thinly disguised attempt at coercion caused the priests of Marduk to gnash their teeth in anger and pray unceasingly to the King of Heaven to bring down this rebellious and obstinate fool who had abandoned his people, leaving his surly and caustic son behind to pollute the palace with his ungracious presence.

esagilaBut if Belshazzar was a boor, he was no simpleton. The prince-regent brutally intimidated his father’s opponents. He was unblinking in his use of the military, which he wielded with the iron grip of an absolute commander. Only a month ago, as the population watched aghast, he had marched a squadron of infantry into the very sanctuary of Ishtar, the heavy-breasted Lady of Uruk, and dragged out a priest known to be an open critic of Nabu-Naid. The man was hauled into the midst of crowded Aibur Shabu, where he was disemboweled and his corpse dumped unceremoniously into the Zababa Canal. Tactics such as this had had their effect; though extremely unpopular, the reign in absentia of Nabu-Naid was secure.

The Jews of Babylon proceeded on their way, outside the mainstream of Babylonian custom and practice, yet unmolested. Their teachers and scholars read to them from the writings of their prophets and exhorted them from the pages of their ancient Law. They continued a process of coalescence around the adamant, unremitting core of their Unnamed One and His stone-hard, profound injunctions: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me; thou shalt not take My Name in vain; thou shalt keep My shabbat …

 

DANIEL GLANCED UP from his reading of the scroll, squinting his eyes and rubbing them with his fingertips. The oil lamp burned low, and the inked letters on the parchment had begun to flicker and waver before his vision with every dip and tremor of the unsteady flame. It was time to rest.

He rose, rewrapped the scroll, and placed it carefully beside the others on his reading table. Remembering the hard, worn face of Ezekiel, its author, he stroked the vellum sheath of the yellowing document, copied in the long-dead prophet’s own hand. He turned toward his couch.

Beyond mere fatigue and the lateness of the hour, he felt the weariness of his years pressing upon him. For almost fifty years he had been in or near the royal court of Babylon. The drain of the constant vigilance needed to navigate safely through the subtle feuds of opposing factions and personalities, the relentless responsibility of administering the endlessly mutable policies of the emperor and the prince-regent, the shifting, slippery surfaces of uncontrollable events, and the solicitous concern for protection and maintenance of the Chosen, his brethren—all these clamored incessantly for his attention. Added to them was his overarching, lifelong sense of being a foreigner in this city that, though almost the only dwelling place he had ever known, could never be home. Such cares and burdens caused each of his years to weigh heavily upon him just now, each of the sixty years of his life tugging at him with a nagging insistence.

“Sovereign Lord,” he prayed, his face buried in the scented linens of his bed, “I am so tired. Grant me the rest that is beyond sleep, beyond waking. Grant me the ease of soul that I crave; grant release, and quiet … ” Unable to frame within himself the words to express his longing, he found himself remembering Mishael’s lament by the tomb of old Caleb. In jews2some ways he could almost crave the quiet, the stillness of that final couch. An end to striving. A state when worry, care—the arduous necessity of being—was ended.

“O my God,” he continued, “Your ways are too high for me. Your will is above the highest heavens, and I am but a weak and weary old man. Once I tasted the dizzying wine of Your choosing, but now I have only the tastelessness of old age. Twice I felt my tongue ablaze with the imperatives of Your message, but now my throat is parched by the aridity of the years. And thrice I was blinded by the brilliance of Your visions, but now I witness only the gathering of darkness. O Lord of Abraham,” he moaned fervently, “give me peace at last. Let me finally rest and be quiet.”

Falling on his couch still fully clothed, he tumbled into the deathlike darkness of an exhaustion far beyond the physical; it was weariness of the soul that claimed Daniel, and his breath came so slowly that each might be his last.

 

He stood on the shore of a vast and mighty sea. Feeling a cold, foreboding tendril of air moving against his cheek, he looked far out over the restless waters of the deep. A dark bank of clouds roiled along the flat plane of the horizon, pulling within itself, mounting higher and higher, as if gathering like a black panther for a vicious spring. Then a breeze from behind caused him to spin about in alarm. At his back, a huge cloud-beast coiled for the attack. Then he looked around, and on every horizon, all about the huge circle of the earth, the winds of creation were gathering for the onslaught.

Four huge maelstroms of the heavens rushed forward at once, smiting the sea and casting up waves as high as mountains. As he watched, terrified for his life, four hideous beasts rose from the waters of the sea where the winds had struck.

The first was like the lion of Ishtar, but with the wings of an eagle. The second was a bear, gnashing its teeth on the gory ribs of its latest kill. The third was a leopard with the wings of a bird; and the fourth—Daniel’s tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth in terror at the sight of it. This creature from a twisted nightmare was utterly indescribable; its horrific appearance sent the mind reeling in revulsion. The only features that his recoiling senses recorded were its beastsbrutal teeth of iron, with which it mauled and crushed its victims—and the ten horns on its head …

 

Long minutes or hours later he awoke, the echo of his awesome Guide’s voice still reverberating in his mind. His heart jolted against his windpipe as the dream crossed and recrossed the window of his mind. Four beasts. Ten horns. There had been an eleventh one too, a blasphemous horn, swelling and boasting. And a glorious Son of Man, whose authority would be absolute, whose kingdom would never end … Searching within himself for a response to the fantastic mind-journey of the night, Daniel discovered two emotions intimately entwined in his soul.

On one hand he felt exhilaration. He had tasted the power of the Eternal thrumming in his vitals—for there was no doubting the Source of the vision he had seen.

On the other hand he felt a haggard sense of foreboding. It seemed the Eternal still had a calling for His world-weary servant, and Daniel knew there was no way of predicting the paths on which such a summons might place his fatigued old feet. Some tale was yet to be told, he sensed, some vision yet to be imparted.

With deliberate slowness, Daniel rose from his couch and began gathering his writing materials.

 

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 18

NABU-NAID WAS IN A QUANDARY. The nobility and military were anxious to fill the void created by the disappointing susceptibility of the last three kings to sudden mishap. The prime minister had every intention of stepping into the vacancy, but he could not wrest the Dragon Throne by mere, crude force. Such overt action, though well within his capabilities, offended his sense of tidiness, of destiny. Something further was needed, some validating sign, some endorsing portent: some way to persuade all and sundry of the inevitability of his succession to power.

Scratching his beard in perplexity, he suddenly thought of Belteshazzar. Of course! The Hebrew’s interpretations of Nebuchadrezzar’s dream-omens had heralded great change before; why not now? Smiling to himself, he summoned a runner.king

WHEN BELTESHAZZAR ENTERED the suite of the prime minister, he was shocked to see Nabu-Naid crumpled on the floor, heaving great moist sobs into the hands covering his face.

“My lord Prime Minister? What is the matter?” Nabu-Naid leaned on one elbow long enough to peer past soggy eyelids at the concerned face of the vizier. “Ah! Belteshazzar! Thank the gods, you are here at last! Come,” blubbered the aging Nabu-Naid, tugging a cushion into place beside him. “Sit. I must tell you—for you alone can help me.”

Still puzzled and slightly alarmed, Daniel edged down beside the prime minister. Hesitantly he asked, “How … may I be of service, my lord?”

A deep, quivering sigh fluttered from Nabu-Naid’s breast. Peering into Belteshazzar’ s eyes, he said solemnly, “I have had a dream, Belteshazzar.”

Almost instinctively, Daniel searched within himself for the inner eye, the burning heraldry of the Almighty’s summons. He felt nothing, sensed nothing. His forehead creased in confusion. “Can you describe this dream, my lord?”

Good, thought Nabu-Naid. He will hear me out, then compose a suitable explanation. Believing his goal well in hand, the prime minister rose from the floor, clasping his hands behind him as he paced pensively to and fro in front of the listening Belteshazzar.

“As I lay on my couch last night, my soul was troubled. In my sleep, a voice called to me, but I could not understand the words … ”

Again Daniel tested the inner waters of his spirit, finding not the least ripple of a response. Nabu-Naid continued.

“Again and again the voice called out, but I could not discern what was said. However,” the prime minister said as he halted pacing and fixed Belteshazzar with a significant stare, “the tone was familiar to me.” Five heartbeats went by, and he resumed his prowling.vision

“In my dream I asked myself, ‘Whose is this voice which sounds so familiar, yet whose words are hidden from me?’ And suddenly, I realized!” The prime minister’s voice dipped to an awed whisper. “It was the sound of our departed lord—Nebuchadrezzar’s voice!”

Daniel looked askance at the restless figure of the prime minister. A small doubt had raised its irksome head. Still. he listened on.

“I knew that my dear master was trying to say something to me,” the prime minister was saying, his voice beginning to fray with emotion, “but I could not comprehend his meaning. Now and again certain words or phrases would pierce the veil of my cognizance. ‘Throne,’ he seemed to say once, then ‘my son,’ and finally, ‘my friend.”’ Overcome by the memory, Nabu-Naid halted again, daubing his eyes with a linen kerchief concealed in his sleeve.

Daniel’s inner voice still told him nothing.

Returning to where the vizier sat, stooping to grasp his forearms in a fervent, beseeching grip, Nabu-Naid begged: “O, Belteshazzar! You were often able to comfort our beloved father Nebuchadrezzar! Can you not again bring balm to his restless spirit, and to mine? Can you not tell me the meaning of this dream?”

Something deep within him whispered to Daniel that he lacked all the parts to this whole. He closed his eyes for a moment, in reflection.

Aha! thought Nabu-Naid. Here it comes …

“My lord,” said Belteshazzar at last, “I do not see the truth of this dream. It does not lie within me.”

Taken aback, the prime minister stared open-mouthed at the vizier. “But … I do not understand—”

“I cannot help you,” said the vizier, standing to leave. “This—this dream of yours is not revealed to me. The Almighty has not shown it to me.”

Nettled by this unexpected recalcitrance, Nabu-Naid frowned. “How can you not aid me, Belteshazzar? Always before—”

“I had no choice before,” interrupted Belteshazzar on his way toward the door. “The word of the Lord burned in me, and I could not hide it, even though … ” A regretful memory plucked at the sleeve of his mind. “Even though I wanted to. But know this, my lord,” the vizier finished, “some dreams are better left undisturbed. Once their meaning is announced, the dreamer may wish he had remained unroused, uninformed. Sometimes the way forward is harder than the way back.” Then he was gone.

Fuming, Nabu-Naid ground his teeth in frustration. He would have his omen, if not by Belteshazzar, then by some other. Adad-ibni, perhaps …

“THE MEANING OF THIS DREAM is this, my brothers,” intoned Adad-ibni pompously to the assembly of priests and mages. “Our father Nebuchadrezzar speaks from the blessed realm beyond to say to our lord Nabu-Naid—and to us—that a wise and experienced hand is required to steady the tiller of Babylon in this pivotal time.”

The smells of sandalwood and myrrh were thick in the great hall of Esagila. The senior priests of all the chief deities were gathered to hear the interpretation of Nabu-Naid’s portentous dream. After seven days of fasting and consultation with the sky-charts, after arcane divination ceremonies and rigorous sacrificial procedures, Adad-ibni had convened this council of the topmost echelons of the god-houses to announce his findings.

Not that many were in doubt about the ultimate result. The rise in Adad-ibni’s fortunes and his correspondingly close association with the prime minister these last years, were factors lost on no clear-eyed observer. To some of the priests this reading of omens had about it the odor of a thing done after the fact.

“Our father Nebuchadrezzar,” proclaimed the seer, “whose firm and mighty hand lifted Babylon out of bondage to the Ninevite intruders, now speaks to us again, this time from across the chasm of death. He bids us recognize the value of age, of wisdom acquired by years of experience, of steady, sure knowledge gained through long association with the inner workings of the kingdom … ”

Seated among the front ranks of the dignitaries, Nabu-Naid shifted a bit uncomfortably. He had asked the mage to work in some reference to his wisdom, but Adad-ibni made him sound as if he were in his dotage.advisors

“First, our father Nebuchadrezzar says, ‘Throne.’ What else can this mean but that he wishes to speak to us in our confusion about him who shall sit upon the Dragon Throne itself? Next, he says, ‘My son.”’ Adad-ibni affected a pained, grieving look, his voice dipping several pitches. “How we have suffered, watching the rending pain to which our royal houses have been subjected! Who has not wept within himself for the sorrow brought on by the untimely passing of three scions of our greatest families?”

Again Nabu-Naid squirmed slightly in his seat. Was the fool trying to eulogize Awil-Marduk and the others? Let him get on with the matter at hand!

“And finally, my brothers,” announced the mage self-importantly, “Nebuchadrezzar says, ‘My friend.’ Who else can he mean than one on whose arm he has leaned, one on whose advice he has depended? One whose patient, capable hands have helped guide and shape the governance of the empire for so many years? One, in fact, to whom our departed lord himself spoke through the mysterious dream-world, to show him the charge he must accept? Nebuchadrezzar, seated among the lords of heaven, has aided us in our hour of need. The man he has chosen to uphold Babylon among the nations is our lord prime minister, Nabu-Naid. This is the meaning of the dream. The gods have spoken.”

THE CLAY WAS SCARCELY DRY on the proclamation tablets before Nabu-Naid performed his first official act as emperor, dispatching several divisions of infantry to Haran with his son Belshazzar at their head. Their nominal mission was to defeat the Medean garrison there and reclaim the ancient city between the Tigris and Euphrates for the Babylonian Empire.

Not much resistance was encountered at Haran, since Astyages’ dwindling resources were focused on the growing problems on his southeastern flank. Crown Prince Belshazzar and his legions made quick work of the few hapless defenders they met and soon began the real task Nabu-Naid had set before them: to restore and rebuild the Temple of Sin, which had languished so long under the inattentive Medean hegemony.

In some quarters, grumbling was heard about the folly of sending Chaldean troops so far north for no other purpose than refurbishing the dilapidated shrine of a lesser god. After all, they reasoned, why should the king, the earthly regent of Marduk, concern himself with the faraway temple of the moon god Sin, to the neglect of Babylonian bellies? In recent years the river-fed plantations of Akkad and Sumer had not yielded with the bounty of times past. The waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, carried through a webwork of canals, did not nourish the soil as in the past; fields that once had produced amply now bore less and less—as if the land was fatigued. Even the temples found themselves in the position of being silver-rich and staple-poor. More and more, Babylon had to import her bread—such as was available.

The new emperor could not completely scorn the rumblings in the marketplaces and along the river docks. Perhaps it was inevitable that this son of a priestess should once again look to the heavens, to the signs and omens, for delivery from his dilemma. Nor had he forgotten the quick-witted Persian—and Cyrus, his presumably clever sovereign—who had bandied words with him in his suite. Shrewdly Nabu-Naid found a way to fuse the two needs, forging a double-pronged justification for the Haran gambit.

“THE GODS HAVE LET ME see a dream … ” quoted the crier from a clay tablet bearing the imperial seal. A crowd had gathered in the square before Egibi’s counting house, attracted by the gaudy livery of the imperial household and the strident fanfare of the accompanying trumpeters. At the mention of yet another royal dream-sign, the throng grew quiet, even as it muttered with mardukmuted skepticism.

“Marduk, the Great Lord, and Sin, the Light of Heaven and Earth, appeared to me. Marduk said to me, ‘Nabu-Naid, king of Babylon, bring bricks on your own horse and chariot and build in Haran the House of Joy for Sin, that he may take up his dwelling there … ’

“Then I replied to Marduk, ‘But the Medes, the barbarian hordes, have laid siege to the house of Lord Sin.’ Marduk said to me, ‘These whom you have named—they shall cease to exist!’

“And indeed, Marduk has brought against them Cyrus, king of Anshan, his young servant … ”

Egibi, standing in his doorway, stroked his beard as he leaned on his cane. So Nabu-Naid openly admitted his dependence on the Persian’s success, did he? Whether the mountain king was victorious or not, the banker ruminated, the new king’ s words confirmed certain suspicions about the undergirding of the Babylonian royal house. The merchant began questioning whether the size of the barley shipment he had just taken on consignment was truly adequate. In uncertain times, he thought, a full belly may cost dearer. Wheeling about in decision, he called a runner to him. “Boy, fetch me the latest tablet of accounts,” he ordered as he hobbled toward his private vault. “I may wish to make some changes … ”

“I ASSUME, OF COURSE, that you will wish certain alterations made in the religious observances here in Shushan,” began Gaudatra, bowing deeply to his royal host as a slave passed him the bowl of sweetmeats. “Shall I give orders that the shrines and temples be destroyed, or will you merely replace the images and altars with those more suitable to yourself?” Daintily the governor picked through the delicacies presented to him.

Gaudatra dined now as a guest in the fortress of Shushan, which until Kurash’s coming had been his own residence. The stronghold was temporarily commandeered by the newly acclaimed lord of Elam until completion of the more grandiose citadel-palace which would be the capital of Kurash’s empire. The new ruler’s many lavish gifts to Gaudatra had considerably lessened the chagrin of being moved out of his own house.

Looking up from his food, Kurash stared at the governor strangely. He had been in control of Elam for almost a year, and still the oddities of these plains-dwelling city folk shocked him. “Why would I wish the shrines and temples destroyed?” the Persian asked in honest befuddlement. “My fight is not against the gods, but against men.”

It was Gaudatra’s turn to be confused. “But … my lord,” he stammered, a candied almond halfway to his mouth, “thus it is always done by the conqueror. A victory for my lord Kurash is a victory for his god, and a humiliation for the defeated gods. For countless generations it has been this way. Surely my lord sees the sense of this?”sin

“I do not,” stated Kurash flatly. “I care not a fig to whom or what the people pray, as long as they pay their taxes. While I reign in Shushan there shall be no destruction of temples or holy places. The customs of the people of my lands shall be respected, and they shall not be prohibited from worshiping the gods their ancestors worshiped. Is this understood?”

The governor bowed low. “My king’s wishes shall be obeyed.” As Gaudatra straightened, Kurash thought he detected a lingering crease of doubt or confusion. Just as well, he thought. Let him ponder for a while—perhaps he’ll come to see the stupidity of such blind adherence to tradition.

After the meal, as the governor paced in disciplined steps from the hall, Kurash turned to the ever-present Gobhruz. “Well, old friend? What say you? Shall Ahura Mazda be jealous of the freedom that I grant to my new-found people? On the Day of Testing, shall my spirit be cast into outer darkness with the devas and the wicked men?”

The old Mede grunted, shifting his eyes away from those of Kurash. “My lord knows I bother little with such matters,” he muttered. “I concern myself with the ways of men, not the ways of gods.”

“Well said, Gobhruz,” chuckled the new lord of Elam and most of Medea, as well as Persis. “Well said, indeed.”

The older man chewed the words he wished to offer next. Kurash, sensing unspoken thoughts rambling about in his mentor’s head, finally said, “Out with it, Gobhruz. Your silent thinking is more painful for me to bear than whatever it is you would say.”

Glancing at his lord from beneath his graying, bushy eyebrows, the Mede asked, “What next, my lord? After this?”

Kurash leaned back in his chair, staring down at the open palm of his hand. “My informers tell me that Croesus has extended his Lydian clutches along the River Halys to the upper reaches of the Euphrates. Perhaps he thinks that because Asturagash lies gasping in Ecbatana, no one concerns himself with the northern lands of Medea. But I suspect he shall soon learn the error of his suppositions.”

Impatiently Gobhruz shook his head. “Not that, my king. I already knew that, or guessed as much.”

Kurash’s forehead wrinkled with perplexity. Wordlessly, he waited for his most trusted adviser to continue.

“You were bred to rule,” explained the Mede, “or to die. No other choice was ever permitted you. From the time of your birth I have known this. Your father knew it too, though he would fain have not.” The older man peered carefully at the face of his king, then away. “Do you know the story of your infancy?”thinking

Kurash shook his head, helpless to do anything but listen.

“It is rumored—and for my part, I believe it,” said Gobhruz, “that Asturagash, after he had given his daughter Mandane to your father as wife, suffered from a dream. The form of the dream differs from teller to teller, but suffice it to say that the night-vision gave him cause to fear you.”

Kurash’s eyes widened, his nostrils flared. An echo of the child’s anger caused him to clench his teeth. So! The ambivalence toward Medea he had felt as a young boy had been more than infantile pretension! Apparently his grandfather, in the far-off palace at Ecbatana, had felt some intuition of the destiny that had brought them both to this day. Perhaps the old king, through his daughter, felt and feared the birth-pangs of the new.

Gobhruz continued: “It may be these stories were only entertainments for the old women and eunuchs of the palace at Ecbatana. I cannot say. But I do know this … ” Again the bodyguard fixed his king with a challenging stare, and this time his eyes did not blink away. “From your first breath, something—be it a god, or a deva, or both—has drawn you toward empire, as a moth is drawn to the flame of a lamp. Your feet are set on a path which you can neither change nor understand.”

The eyes of the two men sparked with each other, the amber eyes of the king burning hot and quick, the dark gaze of his friend and servant glowing with a more stubborn, grudging warmth. Presently Gobhruz went on.

“What I meant earlier was this: After the throne of Medea is gained, what then? Have you considered this?”

Kurash’s face silently asked him to continue.

“Yesterday you ruled Persis. Today and tomorrow, Medea. The day after, Lydia—perhaps the islands of the Hellenes after that. And one day you will stand before the walls of Babylon, and some star-gazing Chaldean king will know what your grandfather Asturagash learned on his bed, in the hush of the night.”

Kurash smiled. “Good Gobhruz, I believe you make too simple what is really—”

“But mind this, O Kurash, Shepherd of the People,” pressed the older man, “and take it to heart: You cannot conquer any city, lay tribute upon any land, or set satraps over any tribe which has not already been subjugated by some now-forgotten chieftain in some vanished yesterday.” The bodyguard’s words rained upon the king’s shoulders like fate, stabbing Kurash in the hidden places of his soul. “Think of it, Lord Kurash: Tomorrow you shall take the preeminence, but only yesterday it was the Medes, cyrusand the day before that the Chaldeans, and before them the Assyrians.” Gobhruz paused, continuing in a softer voice. “What you win today,” he said, “what your sons after you may hold for a little while, will one day lie under the shadow of another—perhaps a child yet to be born. Each conquest shows the way of its own undoing, my lord. Such is the nature of kings, and of kingdoms.”

Kurash slowly clenched and unclenched his fist, studying it as if seeing it for the first time. After many heartbeats he looked up at his bodyguard, his counselor. “Then shall I not make the attempt? Shall I go back to my valley and be a quiet, contented horse-king?” There was no bitterness in the king’s voice, no rancor. Only a certain quiet guardedness, such as a pupil might display at an unwelcome assignment.

“I have already said it,” replied Gobhruz. “You can do nothing else than go forward. It is your fate—or your duty. But you must know, too, that it cannot be forever, this empire you are building. With men only the semblance of permanence, the appearance of eternity is possible. The wish is there, but not the capability to fulfill it. With the gods, matters may be different, but such lies beyond my seeing.”tomb

Once more a rapt, plaintive silence filled the chamber. Looking away, into a distant comer of the room or of his future, Kurash intoned softly, “Well said, Gobhruz—well said.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 17

NABU-NAID CAREFULLY EXAMINED the man seated on the embroidered silk cushions of his private suite. He wore the garb of a horseman, his clothing dusty and rank with sweat from the long time he had spent in the saddle on his journey here. He spoke Aramaic that had something of a Medean accent about it, but with a slight difference. He claimed to be an emissary of this Cyrus—Kurash, they called him in Shushan—who was causing such a stir in the territories east of the Tigris.

This envoy had arrived at the gate of the palace accompanied by only one other rider. Both were mounted on handsome Nisayan chargers, the horses bred by the Persians in the high valleys and tablelands of their distant country.

The prime minister was intrigued by the possibilities for this meeting. One of his dearest desires was purging the Medean presence from Haran and its environs. Could Cyrus be used as the lever to loosen Astyages’ grasp on the city of his ancestors?

“It is said Cyrus seeks to extend his domain,” began NabuNaid. “How far does your master believe he can reach?” asked the prime minister, his obsidian eyes closely observing the messenger’s reaction to such a direct thrust.

The amber eyes of the envoy never wavered from the prime minister’s, his face a relaxed, unreadable mask. “My lord Kurash keeps his own council in such matters,” stated the Persian, deftly deflecting the prime minister’s question. “My mission to Babylon is to determine the stance of your king on the question of my lord’s intention to annex Medea. What will his posture be in this regard?”

Geheime Zusammenkunft / Gem.v.Repin - Secret Meeting / Repin / 1883 -Parry and thrust. Nabu-Naid liked the style of this outlander; he gave as good as he got. With new caution, the prime minister pursed his lips before replying. “One might think your master a bit brash in his disdain for the might of Astyages’ arm. The Medes have ruled vast territories for longer than you have been alive.”

The Persian smiled. Nabu-Naid’s eyes widened at such an unexpected response. “My lord’s enemies have frequently commented on this brashness of his,” the emissary said, “but he has not seen fit to change his practice. Most of those who have found fault with his impetuosity are by now either his vassals, or dead.”

Such confidence, reflected Nabu-Naid, was either well-founded or suicidal. Filing this away for later analysis, he framed his next query. “How soon would Cyrus move against Medea?”

“The answer depends,” retorted the Persian, “on the disposition of your king. My lord Kurash would be ill-disposed to mount an early offensive without knowing whether he might be forced to face the combined resources of Babylon and Medea.”

Again the quick parry. Playing for time, the prime minister asked, “Why does Cyrus believe Babylon might align herself with Medea?”

“You were allies against the Assyrians, were you not?” answered the envoy. “Didn’t my own kin ride under the banner of Uvakhshatra, alongside the infantry of Chaldea? The memories of Parsis are not so short that we can easily assume your neutrality in this matter. Today’s foes can be tomorrow’s advocates, and it is always best, if possible, to know which is which.”

So the horseman knew his history, thought Nabu-Naid. If Cyrus commanded the loyalty of many such as this sharp-witted one, his bravado might indeed be well justified. “I have never spoken to my lord Awil-Marduk on the matter you raise,” admitted Nabu-Naid. “But,” he went on, seeing the impatient look of the Persian, “I believe I can say that his, ah … his inattention can be assured, at the very least.”

As the Persian digested this veiled promise, Nabu-Naid smirked inwardly at the joke he had made with himself. Inattention, indeed—to be sure!

“I must caution you,” the Persian warned finally, “that my lord Kurash is most intolerant of double-dealing. If I am allowed to take him this word you have just given me, be assured that he will rely on it. If he is disappointed … ”

Nabu-Naid kept his face carefully neutral. Inwardly he bridled at being threatened in his own chambers by an outlander errand boy, even if a clever one. “Your master may rely on the words spoken here this night,” he said at last, his tone inflectionless.

“Very well,” said the Persian decisively, rousing himself quickly from the cushion. “I must be off. My lord Kurash will be most grateful for your frank understanding.”

Nabu-Naid allowed his chin to bend toward his chest. When he straightened again, the horse-sweat smell of the Persian’s clothing was all of him that remained in the room.

AS HIS COMPANION swung astride his steed, Gobhruz asked, “Did you find what you needed to know?”

Grinning, Kurash nodded his head. “There are currents and crosscurrents in this place, Gobhruz. The prime minister is a jackal with the patience of a serpent and the belly of a swine. We have not seen the last of him—yet he may entwine himself in his own trap.”

As they reined their mounts out of the citadel courtyard and into Aibur Shabu, Gobhruz mumbled, “Still, I fail to see why you risk your neck on such errands as this. Why not send someone?”

“Some things,” replied Kurash as the horses’ hoofs clattered over a canal bridge, “one must see first hand.”

riders

AWIL-MARDUK LAY RESTLESSLY on his couch, waiting impatiently for sleep to come. Through the open window he could see the vivid disc of the moon, coursing on its stately path among the lustrous stars of the clear Chaldean night.

During these last few weeks, a deep sense of well being had gradually displaced the nervous apprehension of his early days as heir to his father’s throne. With the freeing of Jeconiah, something shifted in the depths of his soul—a calming, a blooming confidence rose up within him, as if knowing he was free to show mercy somehow mitigated the solemn nature of his responsibility. He had found the first traces of his identity as king of Babylon.

This quiet exhilaration was what kept him awake tonight, staring out at the blazing host of the heavens.

The change in Awil-Marduk’s nature was noticed in other quarters as well. Outside the king’s chamber, in a shadowed corner out of earshot of the bodyguard stationed beside the door, a whispered conference was taking place between two who were not as pleased as the rest of the court with the increasing control exerted by the newly confident young king.

“Are you certain this is required?” asked Nergal-Sharezer nervously. “If we are discovered—”

“How can we be discovered, fool?” hissed Nabu-Naid, allowing his impatience with the prince to pierce his self-control. “As I told you, I have ensured the silence of those who will know what has passed and taken steps to place the blame far from anyone within these walls.” His midnight-dark eyes lashed the fretful prince. “The weaklings who once agreed with our cause are now wavering, because they suppose Awil-Marduk’s abilities improve. But you and I know better,” he asserted fiercely. “If you would sit on the throne, you must learn to do what is necessary. Because of my love for this city and its kingdom, I am able to face this unpleasant reality. Are you?”

Nergal-Sharezer, perhaps as fearful of the one before him as of the deed afoot, nodded hesitantly, then dropped his eyes.

“Good,” grunted Nabu-Naid. “Now go and do what we planned, and I will make certain of the rest.” Quietly the two men stole away from the king’ s chamber.

LATER, IN THE DEAD HOURS when even the night creatures have ceased stirring, Nergal-Sharezer, dressed only in a light sleeping-robe, strode toward the king’ s door, his face agitated with alarm.

“Guard!” he half-whispered to the soldier standing outside the door. “You must hurry! As I lay on my bed, unable to sleep, I heard a sound outside, below the king’s window! I fear intruders may be seeking a way to the king’s couch from the garden outside! Come with me!”

The guard, his face furrowed with concern, hesitated, glancing from the urgent visage of the prince to the door where duty bound him.

“Come on!” hissed Nergal-Sharezer. “I have summoned another to take your post! You are the night guard—it is your duty! As prince, I command you!”

A man dressed in the livery of the palace guard came hurrying from the shadows down the hall, rubbing his eyes as if just roused from sleep. Seeing this, the bodyguard wavered, then turned toward the prince. “Show me, my lord,” he said in a low voice. As they strode off, he turned to the drowsy soldier just arrived. “You guard the king,” he warned. “See that you stay awake!” The replacement sentry nodded, taking his station outside the royal bedchamber.

As the prince and the bodyguard paced swiftly around a bend in the corridor, Nabu-Naid sidled out of the shadows. Going to the king’s door, he produced a key from within his robes. Quietly he unlatched the heavy oaken door, while the disguised sentry stood by and drew his dagger. Then NabuNaid stepped back to let the weapon-bearer slip noiselessly into the room’s darkness. In a moment the prime minister heard a quick rustling of bedclothes, then nothing. The footsteps came quietly back to the door, where NabuNaid waited, holding out a wallet bulging with silver. Reaching eagerly for the wallet, the catspaw failed until too late to see the dagger in the prime minister’s hand.knife

SEATED ON THE DRAGON THRONE, Nergal-Sharezer looked somberly about the hushed gathering in the huge hall. Outside, the fierce heat of late summer broiled the walls and streets of Babylon, where the funeral of the lamented young Awil-Marduk had just been solemnized.

“My people,” intoned the newly installed monarch, “the gods shall not allow the treachery practiced upon my dear brother, your murdered king, to go unavenged. The dagger that took his life bore a Medean device. The criminals shall be punished, though they hide in the very citadel of Astyages himself. As regent of Marduk, who sees and redresses wrongdoing, I swear this to you.”

From his place by the king’s shoulder, the prime minister smirked inwardly. Indeed. The gods would punish this betrayal. He would see to it personally.

A GROUNDSWELL was gathering in Medea, a tempest that battered the walls and watchtowers of the citadel in Ecbatana. The nobles and commanders of the provinces of Astyages’ empire, from embattled Armenia and Cappadocia in the north and west to Bakhtrish and Arachosia in the south and east, made pilgrimage in ones and twos to Parsagard in the Zagrash highlands. Following the lead of the clans of the Persian plateau, they sought out one who could supply them with a quality of leadership missing in Astyages’ gluttonous tyranny.

At first cautiously, then with a building enthusiasm, they pledged loyalty to the charismatic Kurash, son of Mandane and Kanbujiya. Along with the Parsi’s quick intelligence and grasp of the intricacies of empire, they discovered a sensibility and appreciation for the diversity of their ways and cultures that Astyages had always lacked. The old Aryan virtues of independence and open dealing found a refreshing new expression in the court of Kurash of Persia. He was becoming the first people’s king. The tide would prove to be irreversible. Kurash would march into Ecbatana all but unopposed and would take upon himself a new royal name and title: Darius the King of the Medes and the Persians.

BABYLON FOUND HERSELF in mourning once again for the untimely death of a king. Nergal-Sharezer had succumbed to a sudden illness brought on, according to the court physicians, by consumption of spoiled pomegranates. The poison had swiftly carried away the prince who promised justice for the slayers of his sister’s husband. The prime minister made a stirring oration in the vast courtyard of Esagila on the day of the royal corpse’s consecration, lamenting the mysterious workings of fate and circumstance. Weeping uncontrollably through all the proceedings was Labashi-Marduk, the sallow-skinned son of Nergal-Sharezer who was confirmed as king in his father’s stead.

He too died—less than one year later.

IN A SMALL SEMICIRCLE at the tomb’s opening, Daniel, Azariah, Mishael, and Hananiah stood and looked sadly upon the wrapped, spice-sheathed body of Caleb. The ancient, gnarled servant had finally breathed his last, and the friends resolved to do this final service for one who had attended them so faithfully for more years than they could readily reckon. As a gesture of respect, Azariah had insisted the beloved servant’s body be encrypted in one of the spaces reserved for the members of his family, here in a small, rocky valley not far from the walls of the city. Azariah’ s son stood beside him trying to appear brave but unable to avoid wiping his cheeks and nose with the backs of his hands.

tomb“So much death these days,” sighed Mishael, wiping the perspiration from his forehead with a chubby forearm. “From the greatest to the least, all must bow before the scepter of the grave.”

Azariah looked at Hananiah. “Have you a qaddish for our fallen servant?”

The musician nodded, glancing at Mishael. The eunuch cleared his throat as Hananiah strummed a melancholy phrase on his lyre. The song began.

O Lord, the God who saves me,

day and night I cry out before You.

May my prayer come before You;

turn Your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of trouble

and my life draws near to the grave.

I am counted among those who go down to the pit …

I call to You, O Lord, every day;

I spread out my hands to You.

Do You show Your wonders to the dead?

Do those who are dead rise up and praise You?

Is Your love declared in the grave,

Your faithfulness in Destruction?

Are Your wonders known in the place of darkness,

or Your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

As the last strains of the maskil wafted away on the cool winter breeze, Azariah looked deeply into the moist eyes of the eunuch. “It always comes to this, doesn’t it, my friends? Kings, beggars, prophets—all must come at last to this closing door which never reopens.”

“But even worse is to sleep forever in a land not your own,” observed Hananiah quietly. “Perhaps, one day … ” The taciturn man fell silent.

A distant echo, quiet as the bursting of a lily’s bud, caused Daniel to catch his breath. He looked at his friends, a strange hopefulness pressing tentatively against his breastbone. “Perhaps … ” he breathed, and could say no more. Too fleeting to name, too beautiful to trust, the moment passed. The others watched him until he shook his head and rubbed a hand across his eyes. “Forgive me,” Daniel shrugged, “I thought … Never mind. Azariah, should we not seal the tomb?”

“Yes,” said Azariah, still thoughtfully studying his friend’s face. “I suppose so.” The four men and the boy placed their shoulders against the large round, flattened stone beside the entryway. As they heaved, the rock rolled grudgingly down the stone channel cut into the valley floor, until it ground into place across the opening of the tomb. Dusting off their hands and sighing as they looked a final time on the resting place of the one they had known and loved so long, the small party turned to go back to the city.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 16

THE CHORUS of professional mourners paced slowly past, each singer swathed in identical white mourning garments, each cheek cleanly, evenly gashed with the official badge of grief. As they trod past the silent crowds thronging either side of Aibur Shabu, they sang a carefully rehearsed funeral ode to Nebuchadrezzar, whose embalmed and decorated corpse followed along behind, atop its shimmering golden bier.funeral

For a final time, the populace of Babylon lined the Processional Way to watch in somber fascination as the body of Nebuchadrezzar, the only ruler all but the oldest Babylonians had ever known, promenaded past on its way to Esagila. There it would receive its final consecration by the priests of Marduk.

Awil-Marduk strode solemnly behind his father’s bier, striving with every fiber of his being to appear kingly. Behind the dutiful, sober facade, however, a frightened child screamed silently for rescue. The new king already felt entrapped, hemmed in by the stifling confines, the onus of his inherited, unavoidable obligation. Why? he shouted silently to the dead ears of his father. Why have you done this to me?

In step just behind and to the side of Awil-Marduk, Nergal-Sharezer cut his eyes unobtrusively toward his brother-in-law and new king. Unbidden, a smirk curled his lip as he studied the profile of the one about to embark upon the rule of Babylon without a single qualification other than the accident of birth. But that might be remedied, the prince told himself, remembering his conversation with the prime minister. Awil-Marduk might inherit the mantle, but it remained to be seen how long it would remain on his shoulders …

Daniel followed closely behind the bier and the emperor’s family, at the front of the nobles and court officials whose duty prescribed their attendance at the emperor’s last procession. As he walked, he thought of the closing days of this king who had brought him to this city so long ago, who had raised him to the inner councils of empire, then lowered him, and finally raised him again in the waning rays of his life’s sunset.

Something had left the king after his experience in the sky-garden—and something had been added. From that day forth, Nebuchadrezzar seemed to relinquish his grip on the fabric of this world. To Daniel he appeared to lose interest in maintaining his mortal life, putting in its place a type of anticipation of something yet unseen—as if craning his neck to spy what might await him beyond.

The fire, the urgency, the spark of command—the attributes which had made him the lodestone of the empire for decades—all these were gone, shuffled off as suddenly as one discards a cloak no longer needed. In his last days, Nebuchadrezzar had exhibited instead a sort of amused detachment from the matters of state: a weary, knowing uncoupling from the harness in which he had placed himself upon the death of his own father, so many years before. He had ceased to be a king, and had become instead a tired old man ready to accept death … and even to embrace it.daniel

Daniel wondered: What had the Eternal whispered into the ears of the one whose body now lay on the bier ahead? How had that terrifying encounter with the Holy One altered Nebuchadrezzar, that he could so suddenly shift his gaze from the glittering, fortified habits of a lifetime to the dark vulnerabilities of Sheol?

And what now lay in store for the empire, and for the Chosen? For all but a few years of Daniel’s life, Nebuchadrezzar had been the pivotal fact of daily existence: the adversary to be feared or the patron to be served. Now he was gone. Who might the Lord of heaven be raising up to assume the place Nebuchadrezzar had vacated?

Nabu-Naid trod along in his place within the ranks of courtiers, his mournful face masking the eager anticipation hammering in his breast. Since the first wavering wail of the priests had announced the emperor’s death, the prime minister had tasted the intoxicating draught of a carefully laid scheme ripe for implementation. With the powerful Nebuchadrezzar out of the way, he felt his time had come at last.

He did not fear overmuch for his ultimate success. He had spent too much time and made his preparations too sure to overestimate his chances of fulfillment. With the crafty certainty of years of cunning, he knew the pieces were falling into place.

Glancing to his left, he noticed the profile of Belteshazzar. Nabu-Naid was slightly puzzled by this fellow. In all the prime minister’s years of tangled maneuverings within the court, he had never found this Belteshazzar involved in any intrigue whatsoever. And yet he maintained his position and standing with the emperor, even returning from disgrace to march in the front ranks of the nobility! What was it about the Hebrew that enabled him to enjoy such effortless immunity from the vicissitudes of fortune? Nabu-Naid decided to keep Belteshazzar near him. A leader had need of good luck; perhaps proximity to Belteshazzar would grant it …

Peering ahead, Adad-ibni burned with indignation each time his glance lit upon Belteshazzar, who occupied a place of great honor near the bier of the emperor. How was it possible? Why did the gods jest with him so, taunting him with this Jew who could never be finally disposed of?

Adad-ibni had barely averted a disaster, even as the final preparations of the king’s corpse were being completed. It seemed that Nebuchadrezzar had dictated to this hated Jew a tablet alluding to his bizarre seven-day disappearance as a visitation by Belteshazzar’s god! As if having Belteshazzar back in the good graces of the court were not enough, having a public proclamation of the power of his god become a part of the public records of Nebuchadrezzar’s reign—the thought of it caused the chief mage to shudder even now. Fortunately he had been able to find and destroy all the tablets copied from the original, and he had managed to “store” the original with the priests of Marduk. He had no doubt that their self-interest would dictate the damning tablet’s ultimate fate.

But still, there walked Belteshazzar, not two shoulderwidths away from Nabu-Naid himself! And Adad-ibni had thought the prime minister his ally. Fuming silently, the seer walked on …

Daniel’s fingers slipped beneath his mourning robes as he walked, fingering the small, rustling packet secreted away in his girdle. He smiled inwardly. The parchment copy of the king’ s narrative, carried in his belt, gave him comfort on this day of uncertainties. Regardless of the hostility of Adad-ibni and the others, Daniel’s fingers, tracing the outlines of the parchment, reassured him that a God existed who raised and abased kings, who remembered promises made—and who could preserve His people.image

DISMOUNTING HIS HORSE, Commander Indravash of the Medean army grunted with the effort of levering his old, unpliant body down from the stirrup. Hobbling with saddle-stiffness, he approached the door of Egibi and Sons.

The slave attending the door looked him up and down, a cool appraising manner in his stare. Indravash, who had come so often to this door on missions of the same sort, felt himself bridling with resentment. In these last years he did not receive the unctuous welcome of former days. No longer did Egibi dispatch a boy to the cellar to fetch a cooling draught of beer. No longer was their business conducted behind a latched, private door, under Egibi’s personal supervision. Nowadays the treatment accorded the envoy of King Asturagash stopped barely short of perfunctory.

Indravash, though unwilling to admit it openly, knew the reason. Asturagash was losing his grip on the far-flung empire built by his father. What was it about kings, wondered the old commander, that so often inhibited their children from receiving the vigor of their sires? Horseflesh could be improved and strengthened with breeding—why not men?

The slave at the door had returned with some minor clerk of Egibi’s establishment. “Follow me, please,” the employee announced in a dull voice, striding away within the house, not bothering himself to ascertain whether Indravash followed. Grumbling under his breath, the old Mede limped behind, carrying the package Asturagash had sent for pawning.

The servant motioned for Indravash to be seated on a palmwood bench just outside the main counting-room door, then strode off to other duties.

Indravash looked about him: Apparently Egibi was as prosperous as ever. Slaves and scribes hurried in and out the chamber, some carrying deeds to loaned property or transaction documents, some toting bags of silver, bales of spices, and sundry other goods. No one glanced in the direction of the dusty, tired old man holding the worn leather pouch. Indravash slumped wearily on the bench, with no choice but to wait.

horsemanPresently Egibi’s youngest son strode out of the counting room, busily dusting his hands together. Briskly he approached Indravash, smiling a businesslike smile. “Greetings, Lord Indravash. I hope you have not been waiting too long. Let me see what you have brought us this time.” Expectantly he studied the bag in Indravash’ s lap.

Slowly the Mede reached into the bag, gingerly drawing forth a piece of statuary. From the dull yellowish color and the straining of Indravash’s sinews as he hefted the piece, Egibi’s son could tell it was of solid-cast gold—heavy and quite costly. It was the figure of a horse. Its eyes were of tiny emeralds, its flaring nostrils rubies. The teeth of the beast were fashioned of seed pearls, set evenly inside the finely worked line of the spread lips. A jewel-encrusted saddle and bridle caparisoned the beast, and it stood with one hoof upraised, as if poised to gallop away when placed on the floor. The banker immediately discerned that the figure was the work of a meticulous craftsman, and quite valuable—not to mention the worth of the gold alone.

Carefully he took the figurine in his hands, turning it this way and that, studiously examining the piece for flaws, defects, anything that would lessen its value to the collector. There were none. It was an exquisite piece; Egibi’s son imagined Asturagash had parted with it only grudgingly.

Setting the figurine gingerly on the low table beside the bench, he pursed his lips as Indravash looked at him expectantly. The banker cocked an eyebrow at the Mede. “Forty mana,” he said at last.

Indravash’s eyes bulged in disbelief. “Forty mana?” he glared, the veins standing out on his forehead. “The gold in this statue alone amounts to nearly a talent! This is an insult!”

Egibi’s son shrugged. “Lord Indravash, you are not bound to accept my offer. There are other banking houses—”

“You know cursed well why Asturagash comes to you,” grated Indravash. “He cannot very well have the priests of Marduk whispering in the ear of your new king that Medea must auction off the treasures of the royal household to pay her troops!”

The son of Egibi, his face a blank slate, stared coldly at the Mede. “Lord Indravash, this is a banking house. We don’t consider it our business to discuss political matters with the patrons—”horse

“Not your business?” scoffed the Mede, jumping angrily to his feet. “Since when has politics not been your business? In better days, when Asturagash breathed heavily on Nebuchadrezzar’s eastern frontier, your father fell over himself lending money to the king—whenever asked, and at terms more generous than he offered to his own people. But now,” he growled, “now that Croesus and his Lydians nibble away at our northern frontier, now that this upstart Kurash withholds his levies and makes war-noises on our southeast flank, you offer me forty mana for a piece worth more than the miserable hide of every slave in this house!”

The Medean commander stood panting, his teeth bared, while the still-seated banker’s gaze was cool, unemotional. Unseen by Indravash, a small circle of armed slaves gathered behind the Mede, poised to intercept any physical threat to their master. Egibi’s son allowed several moments to grind awkwardly past, then said quietly, “Lord Indravash, you have heard the offer of Egibi and Sons. It is the only one you will receive. You may stay or go, as you wish.”

Making as if to leave, he smiled secretly when he heard the low, defeated voice of the Mede. “Wait,” said Indravash, miserably. Veiling his emotions, he again faced the commander, a neutral, interrogative look on his face.

Shoulders slumped in resignation, the Mede gazed long at the precious statuette. Unable to look the banker in the face, he said, “Very well. Weigh out the silver.”

Egibi’ s son made a small gesture to a waiting scribe, who hurried forward to make the arrangements. “Thank you, Lord Indravash,” said the banker, breezily. “I am grateful you allowed us to make an offer. I hope your return journey to Ecbatana is safe and swift.” He strode busily away, his mind already moving on to other matters.

Behind him, Indravash watched dejectedly as the scales parceled out the paltry worth of his master’s future.

AWIL-MARDUK PACED NERVOUSLY to and fro at the end of the council chamber. Those seated around the table glanced nervously from the matters at hand to the king’s frenetic gait. The conference had already lasted most of the morning, and several important matters still awaited the king’s attention. But the king became progressively more restive as the meeting ground on, until at last he seemed able to pay only the scantiest heed to the discussion. No one knew exactly what to make of this odd behavior.

Nabu-Naid, clearing his throat discreetly, said, “Your majesty will no doubt wish to hear again the summation of this last report? I believe my king was distracted when the ambassador made his statement.”

Awil-Marduk halted his pacing, a startled look on his face. He looked at the council for several awkward, expectant heartbeats. It became painfully obvious to everyone in the room that the emperor had no idea what topic was currently under consideration. At last he spoke.

“Belteshazzar?”

“Yes, my king,” answered the august, silver-bearded official.

“It strikes me just this moment: I have never considered the prisoners my father impounded. Shouldn’t a new king release some captives?”

Embarrassed by the random gyrations of the king’s thoughts, Belteshazzar carefully studied the hem of his sleeve. Across the table, Nergal-Sharezer stifled a snicker.

“Yes, my king,” answered Belteshazzar finally. “That sort of thing is sometimes done at the outset of a king’s reign … as a gesture of goodwill.” Another long, tortured silence enveloped the room.

“Very well, then,” snapped the distracted young king. “Take me to the prison cells at once.”

Belteshazzar, looking quizzically about the table, then back to Awil-Marduk, asked, “Me, my king?”

“Yes, of course,” snapped the monarch, with a sharpness engendered by his discomfort. ‘1 wish to see the prisoners. Immediately.” Shrugging at the others, Belteshazzar rose from the table. “As you wish, my king.”

THE GUARD AT THE BOTTOM of the stairway bowed at their approach, somewhat startled to see the king in this area of the citadel.

“What sort of prisoners are kept in the citadel?” asked Awil-Marduk, as he and Belteshazzar made their way along the dank passageway.

Belteshazzar drew a deep breath before replying. “Most of the captives kept here are of the political sort, my king: persons of royal or noble blood from conquered lands kept here as hostages: defeated generals, vanquished kings—”

“Kings?” asked Awil-Marduk sharply. “Kings in this place?”

Belteshazzar looked carefully into the face of the young man. “Yes, my lord,” he answered softly. “Your father conquered many lands, many peoples. And not all of them acquiesced easily to his authority. Sometimes it was necessary to take rather stem measures … ” The vizier’s voice faded into sad remembrance, then silence.

Awil-Marduk reached out and took hold of the older man’s shoulder. “Belteshazzar, I know my father trusted you. I … I must tell you this, for I know no one else to tell … I—I do not know how to be a king, Belteshazzar.” The eyes staring at the vizier from beneath the imperial crown were desperate, liquid with worry. “I am not my father, Belteshazzar. I do not delight in this”—he gestured about him—“this subjugation of others, this deciding who shall live and who shall die.”

“But, my king—” began Daniel.

“I am not a king!” shouted Awil-Marduk. “Others may call me that, but naming a thing does not make it so! I never wanted this, but it sought me out nonetheless. Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?”

“Here, lad. I will listen.”

The king and his vizier looked at each other, startled. The voice had come from one of the dark, barred doorways of the many cells along the torchlit corridor. A morbid fascination drew Awil-Marduk to the opening, and the shadowed, gaunt face waiting there.

“Who are you?” asked the ruler of Babylon, softly.dungeon

“I don’t know,” replied the ghost-voice in the cell. “Once I was known as Jeconiah, king of Judah. But now … I don’t know … ”

At the name, Daniel felt a thrill spiking along his spine. The lost king of his people, carried to this place while still a smooth-cheeked youth! Rushing to the bars of the door, he whispered in awe, “Coniah! Is it truly you?”

A long hush fell, broken only by the sibilant sputtering of the torches bracketed along the walls. “How long it has been since anyone called me by that name!” breathed the prisoner. “You must have been in Judah, friend, to have known of me.”

“I am Daniel, son of Kemuel,” said the vizier, bending near the bars. “I came to Babylon almost at the same time you did, although … ”—Daniel paused, glancing self-consciously at Awil-Marduk, standing quietly beside him—“under better circumstances, I fear.”

Awil-Marduk spoke. “How long did you reign in Judah, Jeconiah?”

The wretch within the shadows tilted his head, thinking. “So long ago, so long … I was only a boy when my father died, when they made me king … ”

Daniel felt Awil-Marduk stiffen beside him as Jeconiah spoke.

“It could not have been more than … three months. Three months, perhaps.”

“You … When they made you king,” asked Awil-Marduk uncertainly, “were you … afraid?”

A spectral chuckle escaped the dry lips of the prisoner. “Ah, yes,” he nodded. “I was a terrified child disguised in the raiment of a king.”

Awil-Marduk’s fingers twitched at his sides, as if he longed to reach toward this prisoner of his father’s ambition, to heal—or to draw sustenance. He wanted to win back from the greedy grasp of unforgiving time the boy who had once been locked into this cell, guilty of no offense other than the accident of his birth. How well he knew the sensation of being trapped by the unasked-for, the unavoidable.

Turning to his vizier, Awil-Marduk made the first confident decision of his reign. “Belteshazzar, summon the guard. I wish to release this prisoner.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 15

STEPPING SOFTLY into the royal chamber, the emperor’s morning servant moved quietly to avoid prematurely disturbing the sleeping Nebuchadrezzar. Though it was his daily task to assist the ruler in waking and performing his morning toilet, the eunuch was careful not to rouse his imperial master until he had completed all the preparations.

Since the spring nights were still somewhat cool, he had brought warm water, heated in the kitchens, to pour into the alabaster wash-basin the king used to rinse the cobwebs of sleep from his face. This he now did, managing the flow carefully, so that scant sound of splashing could be detected.

jugNext he set the emperor’s chamber pot beside the royal couch, so that his master might not encounter the inconvenience of walking across the room to relieve himself. When the emperor was fully dressed and had left, the eunuch’s task would be to lug the foul-smelling vessel down to the river, emptying it in a private place.

Finally he laid out the emperor’s toilet articles: the finely tooled gold comb, the myrrh-impregnated oil for his beard and skin, the flawless linen under-robe with vivid purple stitching. When all was done, he turned his steps to the couch, to softly grasp the shoulder of his master and summon him to the day at hand.

Still three paces from the gold-and-ebony bedstead, the slave stopped, puzzled. The couch was vacant and undisturbed. Odd, that. In his waning days the emperor did not much avail himself of the concubines who took their turns sleeping in the adjoining suite, available to provide companionship if wanted. The slave shrugged, smiling. Even among the old, could the desire not make itself felt? Since his own neutering, the servant of course could not feel such things himself; but doubtless the king could—and apparently had.

He silently drew aside the silk veil that partitioned the imperial bedchamber from that of the concubine. Again his forehead wrinkled in confusion. There lay the concubine, fast asleep—and alone. The king was not here either.

Could he have risen early, and be already up and about? Such had never happened in all his long years of service, but the eunuch knew no other explanation. He went to the sleeping girl, shaking her rudely awake.

“Where is the king, you?” he demanded. “Tell me his whereabouts, and quickly. I must see that he lacks nothing for his morning preparations.”

The sleep-drugged girl raised herself on one elbow and blinked blearily at the fat old body-slave. “How should I know where he is?” she asked petulantly. “I haven’t seen him.”

He stared at her. “What do you mean? Wasn’t he sleeping with you last night?”

Sleepily, she shook her head. “I was here by sundown,” she said, rubbing her face. “But he never came in.” Looking out through the drawn veil, she commented, “It appears he didn’t sleep there either.”

The eunuch felt the first beginnings of panic. He had attended Nebuchadrezzar since his youth. Always the emperor’s routine upon awakening had been the same. Instinctively the servant knew something was amiss.

Leaving the concubine to drift back into sleep, he paced quickly out of the suite.

HE SQUATTED in the shadows, eagerly gnawing at the handful of roots and grass he had plucked from the moist soil. His clothing was tom and dirty from sleeping on the ground in the garden. As he chewed, his head darted this way and that in mindless, instinctive fear of what might be lurking about him. Hearing footsteps, he scrambled back among the low shrubbery that had concealed him during the night. Peering through the gaps in the foliage, he saw the feet and legs of one who made strange, incomprehensible sounds as he walked along the path. With the dumb skill of a wild thing, he made no sound, no movement as the threat moved toward him, then past and away. Long after the meaningless cries and the sounds madof breathing and walking had receded down the side of the incline, he stayed in his den, fearful of discovery.

“YOUR MAJESTY! Where are you? Please, you are frightening your humble servants! My lord Nebuchadrezzar?”

His voice growing hoarse from the repetitive calling, Azariah trod wearily down the steep side of the sky-garden. For a moment, near the top, he had sensed—something. But he had seen and heard nothing. Where was the emperor? With a chill, he remembered the troubled words of Daniel. What would happen if they could not find him? Worse yet—what would happen if they did?

“AND I SAY we must take action!” insisted Nabu-Naid with quiet emphasis. “For six days now we have combed every chamber, every closet, every corner of the palace grounds—yet we cannot find him anywhere! How much longer can we afford to let the empire stumble along, headless and groping? If our enemies knew—”

“But perhaps they do know!” hissed Awil-Marduk. “Perhaps it is they who have created this confusion! Have you considered that possibility, my lord prime minister?”

With barely veiled anger, Nabu-Naid grated, “My lord prince knows we have thought of nothing else these six days past! But how much longer do you think we can hide such a state of affairs from the people of this city? How much better to make a decision, to take affirmative steps, to make an open proclamation! Better far than this, this … futile effort to hide from a serious problem.” His glaring eyes roved the circle of the Privy Council, daring anyone to contradict him.

All eyes shifted to the prince-regent, crumpled into a chair at the farthest remove from the head of the table, openly miserable at the thought of such immense accountability being thrust upon him. Where a more ambitious man would be exultant, Awil-Marduk wished only to hide. But it was too late for that now.

Nabu-Naid knew well the anguish with which the crown prince regarded his prospects: It suited the prime minister’s purpose to intensify and accelerate the hapless prince’s discomfiture with his destiny. What better way to cause the nobility to recognize Awil-Marduk’s unfitness for leadership than by allowing him—no, forcing him—to assume it? And when certain nabonidusmatters took their course, and the nobility and populace cried out for stability, for vision …

“And when does the prime minister suppose such an announcement should be made?” queried another of the council members.

“One more day,” pronounced Nabu-Naid decisively. “If he—or his body—is not found … then we shall move.”

IT WAS DAYBREAK. His eyes fluttered open, squinting against the rays of sunrise that sought him out in his lair. Before he made any overt motions, his nostrils tested the air, his eyes flickered this way and that, seeking any indication of hostile presences. Satisfied, he sat up, wincing with the cramps his body invited by sleeping in the cool night air.

His belly was empty. Crawling through the underbrush, he found the place he sought. Digging through the loose soil, he found more of the roots and tubers on which he subsisted. He crammed a dirty clump of these into his mouth and chewed, all the while scanning the narrow horizons of his habitat for signs of danger.

As the last stringy, half-chewed clump of vegetation slid down his throat, his mind peered forth, wide-eyed and wondering, from the cavern in which it had hidden these last several days. Suddenly he awoke, staring without memory or comprehension at the grimy, scarred hands in his lap, his fingernails filthy black crescents of dirt. He looked down at his tom, soiled raiment. Where was his purple robe? Why did his hair hang in straggling, unkempt clumps? Why was his beard tom and ragged, matted with filth? Why did he sit here in his sky-garden like some animal?

Like an animal. With the force of a thunderclap, he remembered. The Voice … the dream … and Belteshazzar!

“VERY WELL. It’s decided, then,” said Nabu-Naid, black eyes glittering from his wrinkled face at each somber countenance gathered in the chamber. “We shall make a public announcement of the emperor’s death, simultaneously acclaiming Prince Awil-Marduk’s succession to his father’s place.”

Gravely, the other heads in the room nodded slowly. Awil-Marduk’s face was drawn and ashen—he looked very unlike an emperor.

“Scribe, take down these words,” commanded the prime minister. The clerk, moistened tablet in hand, took up his stylus and waited attentively.

“By the order of Awil-Marduk, rightful heir to the throne of Babylon, the chosen Crown Prince of his father the Emperor Nebuchadrezzar; and with the concurrence of the Privy Council: Be it hereby made manifest … ”

A gasp, as if each occupant of the chamber breathed through a single throat, prompted Nabu-Naid to pause in his dictation. The widened eyes and gaping mouths of the others caused him to look over his shoulder, toward the entryway.

There stood an apparition that might have been the emperor back from the dead. Indeed, he appeared to have clawed his way out of a shallow grave: His face and hands were caked with dirt, his hair and beard flying wild as wind-tossed branches. His clothing had the look of a beggar’s rags, though the tatters that hung from him were of the finest linens and silks. But the most shocking feature of his appearance, the magnet to which every gaze in the room was finally drawn, were his eyes.

They shone like lamps of heaven. His face, though grimy and stained, reflected their glow with the radiance of a seraph. His was the face of one who has seen the gods.

Perhaps fifteen heartbeats passed before anyone thought to make obeisance. Then the counselors scrambled frantically to their knees, as eager to avoid the hypnotic luster of the emperor’s eyes as to demonstrate their loyalty to one whom, moments ago, they had agreed to pronounce dead.

For an eternity no sound was heard, save the thud of pulses and the half-suppressed panting of awed courtiers. Then the emperor spoke, with the voice of a man who has returned from a journey of incalculable length: “Bring to me Belteshazzar.”eyes

DANIEL WALKED into the emperor’s chamber, his face stiff with apprehension. The summons had reached him at Azariah’s house, the runner breathless and white-eyed with the urgency of the message. Since learning he was to appear alone before Nebuchadrezzar, Daniel had scarcely drawn an even breath. He took two paces into the room, then a third.

Then he saw the emperor.

The tangled, matted hair, the filthy, ragged appearance—at once Daniel knew the reason. He had seen it all in his mind’s eye, when with fear-choked breath he had given Nebuchadrezzar the implications of his dream. Falling to his knees, he could hardly speak. “My lord,” he murmured finally, hardly knowing whether he addressed the visible emperor, or the invisible Presence.

At length, Nebuchadrezzar spoke. Daniel had never heard the emperor’s voice sound so aged, so tired—as if this last ordeal had sapped the last reserves of the vitality and decisiveness which had driven and sustained him all these years. “Belteshazzar … you … you spoke and saw truly.”

A thrill of fear shot through Daniel’s chest, a racing of his already rapid pulse. He remained silent.

“The Voice … my sanity … all just as you said.” The sound of his words was faded, threadbare; the speech of a man who had been finally, irrevocably humbled. Slowly Daniel raised his eyes until he was looking at his king. Nebuchadrezzar leaned weakly against a wall, staring out a window.

The silence stretched so long that Daniel thought perhaps he should venture some word, some summons to recall the emperor from the distant place of his inner vision.

“What do you see, my king?” asked Daniel softly.

Nebuchadrezzar sighed. “Only a city, Belteshazzar. A city I once ruled.”

“But my lord is yet the emperor! No one would dare say—”

“No, Belteshazzar,” said the emperor, shaking his head. “In my time … my time away … I learned the identity of the true Ruler of Babylon.” He raised his eyes, and the light shone in them. Daniel felt his own face widen with wonder at the brilliance of Nebuchadrezzar’ s certainty.

“I can never again believe that I reign in this place,” asserted the emperor, a wistful smile drifting across his features. “Now that I know … ”

An immense silence draped the room as each man bowed within the temple of his own mind, each in his own manner reflecting, remembering, wondering, worshiping.

“My king, you have never been greater in my eyes than at this moment,” Daniel breathed softly.

Nebuchadrezzar peered quietly at Daniel. “Thank you, Belteshazzar … my friend. Perhaps at the end of a life of conquest and dominion, I begin at last to learn the way of true greatness.”

Another reflective hush stretched between them for a moment. Then the emperor said, “I wonder if you might fetch a tablet. I would like to create a record of this revelation, and I believe you should be the one who inscribes it.”

When Daniel had returned with the tablet, Nebuchadrezzar began:

“Nebuchadrezzar, Emperor of Babylon; to all peoples, nations, and men of every language, who live in all the world. May you prosper greatly! “It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me … ”writing

THOUGHTFULLY, GAUDATRA SHIFTED the baked-clay goblet in small circles before him. Squinting through one eye at his host, the governor asked, “So, then: In return for my allegiance and assistance, you are prepared to extend my authority throughout central Medea, and northward along the eastern shore of the Tigris?”

Kurash nodded, calmly.

“But what prevents me from making my own arrangements with Asturagash, perhaps returning here at the head of a punitive army? Why might I not keep what I already have, and add your territories to my suzerainty?”

Kurash made no reply other than a crafty smile.

“Ah, yes … ” mused Gaudatra. “Your mountain passes, and those unpredictable rock slides … ”

“That, and the unquestioning loyalty of all the clans of Persis,” added Kurash. “After your difficulty in coming here, you would find a large host of very warlike horsemen ready to defend their homeland to the last drop of blood.”

Gaudatra toyed with the gold braids in his beard. Again he aimed a question at the young, smiling king of Anshan. “But why me? Why approach the governor of the richest province of Medea? How could you think, Kurash, that I would be easy to persuade to your cause?”

“That’s Lord Kurash,” growled Gobhruz in warning, from his seat in the corner. Kurash waved a calming hand toward his mentor.

“Because you are the governor of the richest province of Medea,” Kurash answered the query. “You have far less reason than any other noble in Medea to tolerate the wasteful ways of your sire. How long has Elam been the very breadbasket of Ecbatana? How long has she filled the gluttonous bellies of the lords of the Medes? And how long can she continue to send the best fruits of her fields and rivers north to Ecbatana, when so little flows back south to her?” Kurash carefully watched farmingthe face of the governor as his words struck home. “You and I know, Gaudatra: Asturagash is not the equal of his father. Uvakhshatra, vicious and vindictive though he was, at least understood the economies of empire. Were one of his stature astride the throne in Ecbatana, one such as myself would have no more chance than a marmot in an eagle’s nest. But Uvakhshatra is dead these long years past, and his son understands little save his own cravings. Look within yourself and see if it is not as I say.”

Gaudatra contemplated these words for several moments. Outside, the sound of children and dogs at play could be heard. The governor ladled another dollop of goat’s-milk yogurt into his mouth. Swallowing slowly, he posed a final question.

“Granting all that you say, Lord Kurash,” he began, “what, other than the eventual annexation of the territories you mentioned, does the province of Elam stand to gain from a Parsi monarchy? And why come toward Medea? Do not easier pickings lie to the east?”

Kurash rose from the table, smiling and stroking his beard as he slowly circled the table where Gaudatra sat. “As to what Elam may gain from my kingship: If the imperial capital of my realm were located at Shushan, rather than Ecbatana, would this not benefit the people of Elam—and their governor?” He glanced sidelong at Gaudatra, whose calculating face told Kurash all he needed to know.

“As to your second question … ” Kurash paused, remembering the frustration of a young boy, the son and grandson of kings. He recollected a dusty, humiliating ride to Babylon, a city whose walls were so wide that two chariots might be driven abreast along their tops. He recalled a promise he had made to himself, and to his lifelong friend and protector seated so quietly in cyrusthe comer. “Let us simply say, Gaudatra,” he said softly, turning to grip the envoy with his perilous amber eyes, “that I have undertaken a quest whose goal lies west, not east.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

Categories: Fiction | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 14

THE LAMP FLAME SPUTTERED unsteadily, signifying a lack of oil in the reservoir. For the third time that night, Azariah rose to fetch additional fuel.

Daniel, Hananiah, and Mishael, gathered in a worried knot around the table on which the lamp sat, watched Azariah leave. The four friends had been huddled in a corner of the main room of the house on Adad Street. Ephratah and the children had long since retired for the night. Indeed, the moon had risen and half-traversed the night sky since the apprehensive discussion had begun. But for these four, sleep fled.

Agitated anxiety shouted in quiet desperation from Daniel’s eyes, danced in nervous twitches along his face. He looked about at his lifelong friends as Azariah returned with the oil and carefully poured it into the lamp’s basin. “I tell you, brothers, my fear is less for myself—it’s too late for that anyway—than for what may happen to this city if the emperor listens to the wrong advisers. If those whom I suspect gain his ears … ” A long, brooding silence followed.

“Adad-ibni cloaks himself in a new smugness these past weeks,” agreed Azariah. “Even my own master, the prime minister, is changed in his demeanor toward the emperor. Like you, Daniel, I believe dark work is underfoot in the court. I cannot see the direction of the tide, but I feel the pull of the current.”

“When a king asks counsel from one who knows nothing,” muttered Mishael gloomily, “it is usually safest to tell the king what he wishes to hear.”

“Precisely!” agreed Daniel vehemently. “What benefit are advisers who only parrot the opinions already in the emperor’s head? He will hear nothing save his own thoughts, parlayed back to him in words calculated to please his palate. And I … when I was with him and had the chance … ” Shamed by the memory of the paralyzing terror that had seized him when he was closeted with the emperor, Daniel fell silent.worried

“It accomplishes nothing to blame yourself,” insisted Azariah, seeing the chagrin on his friend’s face. “Who knows whether, given your burden, any of us would have done any better?”

Daniel looked up at him, the slow tread of an accusing memory crossing the careworn track of his face. Azariah looked down, shaking his head. Still he has not forgiven himself, he thought.

“Is Nebuchadrezzar’s memory so short that he has no fear at all?” asked Mishael. The eunuch shifted uncomfortably, then went on. “How many omens and signs must the Eternal send before the emperor learns to heed such warnings?”

Glancing sharply at his friend, Hananiah softly hummed the opening phrase of a psalm. The two musicians’ eyes locked, then Mishael smiled and nodded.

Azariah stared from the round, smooth-cheeked face of Mishael to the withdrawn, ascetic features and shadowed eyes of Hananiah. “What passes between you two?” he demanded a trifle testily.

“Hananiah reminds me of the song of the prophet Hosea,” replied Mishael. “The Lord says,

When Israel was a child I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called My son.

But the more I called Israel,

the further they went from Me … ”

Azariah contemplated these words a moment, then looked up again at Mishael, puzzlement still creasing his brow. “Unravel your riddle for me, Mishael. I haven’t the mind of a poet—I cannot fathom your meaning.”

Again Mishael smiled, looking at Hananiah. Patiently he explained. “I believe Hananiah means this: If the Almighty One, after so many generations of teachers and prophets and plagues and blessings, could not cause Israel and the kings of Samaria to heed His voice, how can we expect Nebuchadrezzar to be mindful of Him after two mere dreams?”

Azariah nodded appreciatively at Hananiah. Looking at the quiet musician, he said, “He who speaks fewest words strikes the most telling blows.” After a few moments’ reflection, he continued soberly, “The burned ruins of Jerusalem give eloquent testimony to the stubbornness of hearts that should have known better.”

As Daniel nodded in agreement, the shadows of trepidation deepened across his visage. His forehead furrowed with the weight of the burden in him, and he stared darkly into the steadily burning lamp flame. “There you have it, my brothers,” he said. “I know, as surely as I breathe this moment, that the Unnamed One shall again send His shafts toward the soul of Nebuchadrezzar. If the Eternal did not spare even the House of His Name, what dire consequences may attend the awakening of the emperor of Babylon? And when that happens, what may become of the rest of us?”

His worried glance took them in, each in turn. Failing of any fit answer, the three dropped their eyes to the table top, where the lamp flame flickered, a tiny light lost in the great darkness of the night and the city.

SNIFFING IN DISDAIN, Gaudatra, governor of the Medean province of Elam, looked down the main street of Parsagard. It was not a street really—more a dirt path. Simple, gable-roofed houses of wood and rough-cut stone cluttered randomly about the haphazard, unpretentious village, the Camp of the Parsis, as if the herdsmen led by this Kurash person had simply allowed their stick-and-hide tents to ossify where they sat in this small valley among the Zagrash highlands.

Accustomed to the grandiose scale and permanence of the walled cities of Medea, Gaudatra found himself wondering: Could this disorganized hamlet—without walls or planning or architecture, and with yard fowl, dogs, and urchins chasing each other noisily between the unpainted dwellings—could this really be the capital of the great leader he had been hearing so much about?

He arrived in front of another of the tent-shaped houses, distinct from the others only for its size. That and the contingent of armed Parsis guarding the bronze-sheathed oaken doors were the only hint that Gaudatra had reached the palace—if such a dignified term might serve—of Kurash, King of Anshan and of the Clans of Parsis. Of course, since these highland cousins of the Medes were illiterate, no legend or motto endorsed the emissary’s supposition. Shaking his head in disgust, he stepped from his palanquin.

His bodyguard parted to make way for him, their mounts tossing their heads and rattling the bits in their mouths. Striding to the leader of the guards, he said in a bored voice, “Announce me to your master. I am Gaudatra, lord of the province of Elam and servant of the emperor Asturagash, monarch of the Medes.”

Without glancing at the finely dressed emissary, the commander replied tersely, “My lord Kurash is in council. He may not be disturbed at this time. When he commands me, I shall be pleased to escort you into his presence.”horsemen

Astounded by such arrogant, unjustified audacity, Gaudatra was speechless. He stood gulping air like a beached fish, uncertain where to begin in berating this bumpkin for such presumption.

A day and a half of tedious, wearying travel—most of it uphill—had been required to reach this insignificant, out-country settlement. They had wound through tortuous mountain passes, along narrow, twisting trails hardly suited to comfortable passage. A few times he had been obliged to descend from his sedan and walk along the flinty, rough-hewn paths, so crude was their fashioning. He was tired, annoyed at being so far from his comfortable home, and thoroughly nettled at the prospect of such rude accommodations as this pathetic mountain village must surely offer. And now this insolent minor functionary of some mountain-goat pretender to royalty had the cheek to ask him to wait, like a common peasant, on the pleasure of the ruler of this horse-kingdom!

Just as he was about to lash the guard with his wrath, the twin doors were flung open upon their stone-socketed hinges. The guard bowed, gesturing Gaudatra toward the opening into the hall of the mountain king.

The Medean noble crossed the threshold, indignation still smoldering in his breast. He paced the length of the high-raftered hall, four great wooden pilasters supporting the central beam of the roof. His eyes were drawn toward the end of the large, airy chamber, to a skylit dais where some person—presumably the king—waited. Gaudatra’s eyes were still unaccustomed to the dimmer light offered by the high, narrow openings in the walls of the chamber, and he stepped a bit uncertainly toward the throne.

Arriving at the foot of the dais, he made a proper bow—more than the upstart deserved, he thought—toward the youngish man seated on the ceremonial seat. Gaudatra’s vision had finally adjusted to the interior lighting, and he took in the scene: Kurash’s startling amber eyes were fastened on him in a measuring gaze the more disconcerting for its frankness. The king of Anshan sat on a carved mahogany chair covered with the pelt of a lion. The beast’s mane hung off the back of the throne; its forelegs—claws still attached—draped off the arms of the chair on which rested the hands of the monarch of this place.

Kurash wore little jewelry. A plain silver circlet nestled amid the straight, straw-colored locks of his head. His clothing, though well fitted and finely wrought, was of spun wool and tanned leather. He wore the breeches of a horseman rather than the robes and gowns of the more sedentary nobles of the plains.

Hanging behind him on the wall of the throne room was a woven tapestry depicting a lion slaying a gold-hoofed bull. This ancient heraldry of their shared Aryan heritage, little remembered by the Medes, proclaimed the differences between their lionbullrelated peoples. The Medes had gone on to greater pursuits, reflected Gaudatra, using more sophisticated means to achieve their ends. The Parsis, meanwhile, still lived in backward recapitulation of their more-recent nomadic past. In Gaudatra’ s opinion, they longed for the nonexistent splendor of days better forgotten.

“Be welcomed, Lord Gaudatra,” pronounced Kurash finally. “I trust your journey from Elam was smooth and unhindered?” Gaudatra glanced at the king sharply. Did he detect a wisp of irony glinting within those amber eyes? Without replying verbally, he made another small bow.

“I believe you may know my adviser and bodyguard, Lord Gobhruz?” The king gestured to an older man seated below his right shoulder.

Gaudatra scanned his memory. Ah, yes; this fellow had at one time lived in Shushan. He had been a military commander, if Gaudatra’s memory served. His odd manner and old-fashioned notions had gradually alienated him. No one was sorry when he emigrated from Medea. The emissary gave Gobhruz a bow that stopped just short of being derisive.

“If the king will permit me,” began Gaudatra in a patronizing voice, “the king should consider directing some of his subjects to construct a wall around his … city. Surely in these wild parts one would sleep better behind a strong fortification. And, might I say with all due respect”—realizing the irony of his last words, the Mede could not suppress a tiny smirk—“that one who is so late in sending the emperor’s tribute of horses should spend less time conferring with expatriates”—he sneered at Gobhruz—“and more time considering the security of his own future.” Gaudatra made a sardonic bow.

To his surprise, when he looked up, Kurash was smiling at him. Those brass-colored eyes again gripped him in a cool, appraising gaze. Gaudatra had the uncomfortable sense that the expression on this man’s face had less kinship with a smile than with the bared fangs of a crouched beast of prey. Somewhat concerned, he thought of his bodyguard, waiting outside the now-bolted doors of this chamber. He was not afraid—not yet. After all, he was the protected envoy of Asturagash, the overlord of these parts. Kurash realized this—did he not?cyrus

“Asturagash will not be receiving horses from the Parsis this year, or any other,” announced Kurash in a voice as flat and dangerous as the blade of a sword. He sat very still, apparently waiting for Gaudatra to reply. Swallowing drily, the lord of Elam carefully considered both the tone and wording of his rejoinder.

“My … my lord surely realizes the … the gravity of the situation? For many years the Parsis have sent to their kindred and protectors, the Medes, a levy of the Nisayan chargers for which these lands are famous. To withhold from the king what he has every right to expect … My lord cannot be seriously considering such a course.” Despite his best intentions, Gaudatra could not avoid a weak, interrogative inflection in his words.

Kurash made no answer. There was only that smiling, perilous amber stare, the same shade as the lion’s hide, relentless as a stalking cat.

Choking on the apprehension rising rapidly in his throat, Gaudatra stammered, “My lord Kurash leaves me no choice … but to report such words to his king and mine, the Emperor Asturagash—”

“As you made your way here,” cut in Kurash, “I hope the mountain passes gave you no difficulty. I instructed the lookouts in my outlying territories to watch most carefully for you.” Kurash allowed the import of his words to absorb slowly into Gaudatra’s consciousness. “I gave them most specific instructions,” the king continued, “about the description and numbers of your entourage. So often in the ravines and narrow trails of the Zagrash mountains, rock slides can block the path, boulders can break loose and slide down into the restricted gorges through which one must travel … ” The silence stretched to the breaking point.

“You dare not!” breathed Gaudatra in horror. “I am a protected envoy of—”

“And then there are the avalanches,” continued Kurash smoothly. “In these mountains one must constantly be watchful.”

landscapeThe lord of Elam could not speak. His chest rose and fell in great spasms of fear. Once he made as if to sprint toward the locked door of the chamber, to beat upon it and call for his guards to break in and save him from this madman. But when Gobhruz slid his hand along the hilt of his throwing-knife, the Mede thought better of any such attempt.

“Good Gaudatra, you seem overwrought,” observed Kurash drily. “You will sleep in my house tonight, and perhaps the weariness of the road will be abated somewhat. Tomorrow, when you are rested, we will discuss these matters further. I believe you will see,” he finished, peering carefully into Gaudatra’s widened eyes, “that I have more to offer than a few horses.”

“AND SO, MY LORD,” finished Adad-ibni, “the portents signify the need for caution.” The mage glanced surreptitiously toward Nabu-Naid, who was seated at Nebuchadrezzar’s side. Seeing the prime minister’s tacit approval, Adad-ibni went on. “The lion is in the house of Marduk, which is all to the good, but the moon drifts between Nergal and Ishtar. Lord Sin the moon god requires placation just now. It would be better to give him no reason for anger.”

Nebuchadrezzar shifted in his seat, now cupping his chin in his hand, now drumming his fingers on the table beside him. He grew impatient with Adad-ibni’s long-winded circumlocutions. After all this time, he thought, surely Adad-ibni did not think his rumblings about signs and portents frightened his emperor. Let him state what he wanted and why, and save all this self-justifying blather for the more easily impressed. Nebuchadrezzar was old; he didn’t have time for such nonsense.

Nabu-Naid could see the emperor’s pensive expression. “What my lord the High Mage seems to be pointing toward,” he interjected, “is that the great temple of Sin, the House of the Moon Lord in Haran, still lies in disrepair and disrespect. Surely something can be done.”

Nebuchadrezzar glared at his prime minister. “Again, Nabu-Naid? Still you bait me about the wrong done to your family, and ask me to risk the anger of our respected ally, King Astyages of the Medes. That’s the point of all this … ”—he searched for a suitable word—“all this astrological gossip, isn’t it?” He gave a scoffing laugh, shifting his scowl to Adad-ibni. The shaven-headed seer dropped his eyes, fumbling awkwardly with the hem of his robe.

“You two are quite a pair,” scolded the emperor. “When hints and importuning don’t get a result, you bring the gods into the fray—don’t you, Nabu-Naid?”advice

The prime minister made no reply.

“Such advisers I have!” moaned the aged king. “Such counselors! Who cares a fig about the empire? Who troubles himself about the benefit of the provinces and their affairs? No one!” Nebuchadrezzar rose from his chair, hobbling angrily back and forth before the two abashed courtiers. “Every sniveling one of you in this court cares only about his own advancement, his own wants!”

Whirling upon them, he shouted, “There are no men of vision left in Babylon—only men of appetites!” His shoulders slumped as the stiffening anger leaked from him. “You are all leeches—good for nothing but sucking the life out of an old, tired man,” he muttered. “Leave me, both of you! I’m bored by the sound and sight of you!”

When the door closed, the emperor stood, leaning against the arm of his chair, panting with exertion and annoyance. In these graying, dimming days, he became ever more aware of the niggling voices at the back of his skull—wheedling, teasing, accusing. They mocked him, baited him. And now the voices were beginning to speak to him, the voices of Adad-ibni, Nabu-Naid, and the others. But they weren’t really speaking to him; only to the idea he represented for them, only the potential benefits he might bestow. That was what they curried favor with, made obeisance to. Not him. No one cared for Nebuchadrezzar the man. Only Nebuchadrezzar the ruler.

He felt a familiar, stifling panic rising within him. Out! He must go out somewhere. He must breathe freer air, hear cleaner, less stagnant sounds. To the garden—yes, he would go to the sky-garden. He would see more clearly there. Finding a favorite cane, he hobbled as quickly as he could from the chamber. Soon he was climbing laboriously toward the pinnacle of his handmade mountain. A gentle spring breeze rustled the leaves of the miniature fig trees. Gratefully he breathed the green, growing life-smells.

Even now, at night, he could feel the eternal energy of the plant life around him. Standing here in the peaceful evening he could even imagine this as a real, tree-clad mountain: It was possible to forget about the slaves down below, hidden by layer upon layer of earth and stone and archway, endlessly turning the mechanism which lifted water from the Euphrates to the artfully hidden irrigation ditches crosshatching the sky-garden. He could fancy this his own forest—brought here as if by incantation from the lush lands of the north—where he might find solace from the nagging importunates of his court.

At last he neared the highest point. He stood beneath the date palms, not yet in their fruit-bearing season. The dark, flat expanse of the city stretched at his feet like a shadow-woven carpet. Here and there a light glowed. He could sense the resting, steady pulse of this metropolis he had called forth from Assyrian dominion. Babylon slept; but even in repose she was mighty indeed. Even at rest Babylon was a matchless monument to the things he had done correctly, an incontrovertible endorsement of the power of his vision and his dominion.

And then the voices spoke. No, not the voices, but a Voice—a distillation of an infinite majesty, a Reality which cast this paltry village of streets and canals into such insignificance that Nebuchadrezzar’s soul cowered in the farthest corner of his mind. He could not escape this Voice, nor hide from it, though he were to climb to the top of the world’s tallest mountain. Thundering into his shivering consciousness with undeniable authority, with world-shattering immediacy, the Voice uttered words like crushing tablets of stone.

This is decreed concerning you, Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon

Hearing his own name uttered by the Voice, he quaked all the more. He was known! Known to the very core—to the naked center!

Your kingship is stripped from you. You will be driven away from people, and will live with the beasts of the field. You will eat grass like the cattle eat. Seven times shall pass, and you shall be as a dumb animal until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men, and gives them to whomever He pleases.mad

Like some furtive night-thing, the emperor of Babylon crouched down to the ground. His panicked mind darted into a cleft hidden deep, deep within him. On all fours, he crawled into the bushes of the night garden, to hide from the hostile, all-seeing eyes of the bewildering, tiny world he now inhabited.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 13

AT MIDMORNING Daniel returned to the palace. As he passed over the bridge spanning the Zababa Canal and on through the wide, guarded gateway of the imperial residence, his eyes met with those of a messenger who was nervously scanning each face that entered or left the palace grounds.

Seeing Daniel, he hurried toward the vizier, a relieved expression becalming his troubled face. “Lord Belteshazzar, you must hurry! I am commanded to take you straightway to the emperor!”

Foreboding balled Daniel’s stomach into a cold fist. Nodding, he said to the page, “Lead on.” Quickly they passed into a nearby corridor.

 

NEBUCHADREZZAR SAT by a high window overlooking the clustered buildings and the wide, straight thoroughfares of his Babylon. In the middle distance, directly in his line of sight, soared Etemenanki, within the walls of the Esagila complex.

But the emperor saw none of this. His chin rested in his hand as he sat by a small lacquered table, the fingers of his other hand mindlessly sifting leaves of aloe, dried and crushed, from a small carved-ivory bowl. The rich aroma of the spice leaves failed to penetrate his consciousness any more than the sight of his city’s energy stimulated his eyesight. Blindly he stared out the window, his vision turned darkly inward. Restlessly, vainly, he pondered the enigma of this latest omen that had invaded his sleep.

Behind him a door opened and closed. Gradually, he became conscious of another presence in the chamber, and turned to look behind him.etem

Belteshazzar was there, kneeling by the doorway, his eyes fixed in a sad, knowing gaze on the face of his emperor. For as many as thirty heartbeats, the two men beheld each other. The emperor sensed it was not necessary to tell Belteshazzar why he had been summoned: The vizier’s eyes exhibited comprehension, pity—and perhaps too much knowledge. It was only needful to fill in certain details. Nebuchadrezzar opened his mouth to speak.

“They could not help me.” Nebuchadrezzar’s tone was neither angry nor resentful. The emperor was not accusing, not condemning. He was pleading.

Daniel’s chest pounded. As He had to Joseph in the most ancient chronicles, the Eternal had given into his hand the secrets of another man’s innermost passions. It seemed indecent to know such intensely private things as another man’s dreams—let alone an emperor’s! Even now, before hearing Nebuchadrezzar’s words, Daniel felt the Lord’s message burning within him like a white-hot key eager to find its lock. He did not want to hear what would come next, yet knew it could not be avoided. The burden lay before him like the blazing summons of Moses. He could not walk away.

Daniel sighed deeply. “Tell me, my king.”

He did.

By the time the emperor had finished speaking, his vizier was trembling visibly. Seeing Belteshazzar’s ashen face, his dry swallows, Nebuchadrezzar demanded, “What’s wrong? Speak, Belteshazzar! Do not spare my emotions, for I have walked in nothing but fear since this night-specter came to me.”

Still Belteshazzar could not speak. His mouth moved, but his voice was mute, swathed in the gauze bindings of dismay.

“Surely knowledge cannot be worse than this dreadful uncertainty!” said Nebuchadrezzar, his voice rising in alarm. “Speak!”

But it was not the emperor’s apprehension that clamped Daniel’s jaws in a vise of panic. He knew the words he must utter, and a chaotic fright gripped him in its cold, ruthless fist: a fear for the wrath he knew his interpretation of the king’s dream must engender.

Again he stood divided within himself, as if still young and alone and half-mad with anguish, helplessly pondering two untenable alternatives. Once more the rending agony of choice tore him screaming asunder—Adonai’ s axe cleanly clove him body from soul, husk from center. This day no apothecary, no cleverly concocted ruse could save him. The heartbreaking loyalty of his deceived friends would not avail now. He balanced on the diamond-sharp point of a sword, and all steps led to doom.

Through the thick, cloying fog of his dismay, he heard the imperative voice of the king: “Speak, Belteshazzar!” In this moment, he fancied Nebuchadrezzar’s voice echoing Adonai’s command: “Speak!” Looking at the aging monarch, his eyes began to betray him. No longer did Nebuchadrezzar sit in the chair, staring urgently at him. Now his place was taken by an old, blind beggar, peering intently into the abject, quivering center of Daniel’s torment, shouting with a silent, deafening voice: “Speak!”

Falling on his face, he heard his words tumbling out in a blubbering rush. “My king, I would to God that the interpretation was directed at your enemies! I beg you, my lord: Consider your ways, and turn, lest the things the Lord has shown me come true!”

Nebuchadrezzar sat absolutely still. His voice came in a low, inflectionless murmur. “What things?”

Blindly Daniel rushed over the precipice of his panic. “The tree, O my king—the tree represents yourself. Your power is great, your rule vast. Many nations and peoples rest in your shade, O Nebuchadrezzar, and your dominion nourishes the whole earth … ”

Nebuchadrezzar did not move or speak. His eyes narrowed to slits as he waited wordlessly for Belteshazzar to continue.

“The holy one you saw, my lord, and the command he gave concerning the tree—” A fear-induced palsy clasped Daniel’s throat. After several moments of ragged panting, he was able to go on. “This word means that you will be brought down, my king.”

Nebuchadrezzar stiffened in his chair. Without looking up from the floor, Daniel felt the icy blast of the king’s indignation prickling the nape of his neck. Rushing helplessly forward, he said, “You will live like a beast of the field. The dew of heaven will drench you and your mind will become like that of an animal, until seven times pass. When you acknowledge that the Eternal, tellingand He alone, is sovereign over all creation, then your kingdom and your mind will be restored. This is why the stump and the roots of the tree remain in the ground.”

The emperor felt stabbed to the very heart by the graceless words of his vizier. He had humbled himself before Belteshazzar—practically begged! In return he had hoped for the slightest comfort, the smallest crumb of assuagement. Instead, at his most vulnerable moment, Belteshazzar chose to humiliate him with this simpering polemic, wheezing the same tired theme: the power of his nameless god, the sad state of the “chosen” Hebrews. Here sat his king, real and alive and in the room—in need of balm. But did Belteshazzar bring words of healing? No! He moaned and whined about his Almighty!

“So,” growled Nebuchadrezzar, “the stump remains, does it? How benevolent.”

“My king, I beg you,” sobbed Daniel, his face mashed into the cold oaken planking of the floor. “Take heed! Consider the error of your ways and turn, that the wrath of the Almighty might be avoided! Lift up the weak, and do justice to the oppressed, and perhaps—”

“Enough!” hissed the emperor, thrusting himself angrily from his seat and pacing to the window. He spoke without turning his head. “I protected you. I shielded you from the jealousy and wrath of those who could not allow themselves to see your worth.” He snarled over his shoulder toward the cowering vizier: “I brought you into my own house, elevating you above those who had served me far longer. I trusted you, Belteshazzar. And this is how you repay me?”

Galvanized by his wrath, Nebuchadrezzar stood spear-straight, his eyes flashing sparks as he flung verbal coals upon the humped back of Belteshazzar. “Why is simple loyalty so difficult for you Hebrews? Why must your every profession of allegiance be offered alongside the galling, high-handed demands of your invisible Almighty? With one hand you offer service, and with the other you slap the king’s dignity in the face!

“Well?” he demanded, wheeling suddenly. “Have you nothing to say, no defense to give?”

Daniel, prone and trembling on the floor, made no response.

“Get out of my sight, and out of my palace,” gnashed Nebuchadrezzar in contempt. “For the sake of your past service I will spare your life. But I will not tolerate two-minded advisers in my presence. Leave me at once.”angry

Turning back to the window, he heard the rustle of clothing as Belteshazzar limped forlornly out of the chamber. The door closed, and he was alone with his anger.

 

KURASH ALLOWED the Nisayan gelding to pick its way slowly among the loose stones of the steep trail. The way to the shrine was serpentine, twisting back and forth across the mountainside like water seeking the easiest path to the sea.

The early morning sun splashed crimson and gold along the craggy heights of the Zagrash range. Across the jagged gorge, four peaks reared their heads above their brethren. Kurash studied the scene, appreciating the quadrilateral symmetry that was such an integral part of Parsi symbology: the four winds of earth, the four legs of the horse, the four walls of a house. Perhaps one day I shall rule four kingdoms, he thought with a smile.

Turning his head slightly, Kurash asked, “What did you learn in your latest foray among your plain-dwelling brethren, Gobhruz?”

The Mede, his mount carefully following behind that of his liege, thought long before replying. “There is much discontent in Shushan, and elsewhere in the Medean kingdom,” the older man said finally. For some moments the only sound was the squeak of polished tack, the clacking of hoof against stone, and the snorting of the horses. “In Ecbatana, of course, King horseAsturagash maintains iron-fisted control. His profligacies are not much commented upon, as long as the nobles have enough new territory to divide among themselves. Elsewhere … ” The unfinished sentence shrugged with possibilities, with conjecture. Gobhruz knew Kurash too well to suppose the inflection would go unnoticed.

Glancing at the peaks above them, rearing saw-toothed against the azure sky of the Parsis, Kurash spoke thoughtfully: “The walls of the clans of Hakhamanish. For long years his children have desired no other fortification. They have dwelt in relative peace and security among their high valleys, content to send their horses and their sons to fight the fights of the Medes, their cousins.

“What will they think,” the king of Anshan asked, more of himself than Gobhruz, “of the wide world beyond these mountains, the world of which they know so little? What will they think of the one who leads them forth from this tiny realm into the broad lands of the earth?”

He turned his gaze to the path climbing ahead. ‘Will they go gladly forth and take their place among the kingdoms of men? Or will they hate the one who invites such an irrevocable birthing?”

 

HEARING THE APPROACH of the two horses, the priest glanced up from his contemplation of the flame on the altar. Assuring himself the fire had sufficient fuel to burn for some time, he rose, dusting off his tunic and woolen breeches. He bowed as Kurash dismounted, receiving in return the salute of the king of Anshan.

“Greetings, Diravarnya,” called Kurash. “And may Ahura Mazda preserve your life.”

Bowing toward the fire on the altar, the priest replied, “May the Divine Flame preserve us all to the Day of Testing.”

altar“Do the worshipers provide adequate sustenance for your needs?” asked the young king, handing the reins of his horse to Gobhruz.

“Well enough, my king,” replied the priest, his gray eyes never wavering from the face of Kurash. “I am sustained by my service to the Wise Lord. I do not require much.”

For several moments the only sound was the sighing of the wind through the desolate crags round about. Kurash and Diravarnya locked gazes in measured silence. Finally the young king tore his eyes away from the calm, unmoving stare of the holy man.

Clearing his throat a trifle too loudly, Kurash said, “I wish to make a gift to the shrine—in the name of my father.” In a ruffled, jerky manner, Kurash fumbled in his saddle pouch, fishing out a wallet. From inside it came the muffled clinking of silver. Avoiding the priest’s cool gray eyes, he held out the offering. “In the memory of King Kanbujiya, my sire and your protector.”

Slowly reaching out to take it, Diravamya said quietly, “I accept your gift, King Kurash, with thanks, and I am grateful for your memory of me. But my protector is Ahura Mazda, the One Lord, whose flame I guard. As long as it is his will, I shall live; when he wishes it, I will die. So it must be.”

With difficulty, Kurash again raised his face to peer at the holy man. After a false start, he stammered, “Diravarnya, I … I would ask a blessing … ”

The priest inclined his head, silently waiting for the king’s next words. His expression was an odd mixture of curiosity and cognizance—as if he knew what Kurash would say, and only wondered in what words the request would be couched. The detached, self-possessed manner of Diravarnya the priest rattled Kurash. He was not accustomed to eyes with such long, beyond-seeking focus. Unnerved, he struggled for words to make his petition. “I … I have certain … plans,” stuttered Kurash. “Ambitions. Dreams. Will you … could you beseech Ahura Mazda on my—on our behalf?”

A tiny smile pursed Diravarnya’ s lips. He nodded slightly, as if Kurash’s words had merely confirmed what he already suspected. He turned his head to peer into the heart of the flame on the altar.

Turning back to the waiting monarch, he said, “Before our ancestors ever came to this place—indeed, since the beginning of all things—the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda, taught men to worship him. In fire, sky, and water—in the stars and in the clouds of heaven—in all life and all creation, his hand can be traced. Few are those who hear his voice, Lord Kurash. Fewer still are those who follow.zoroaster

“All the times and fates of men are in the hands of Ahura Mazda, and have been forever. It is he who raises up kings, and he who abases them. It is he who places song in the heart of the victor, and he who silences the tongue of the vanquished.” Looking carefully into the widened eyes of the young ruler, the holy man continued: “Your days are in his hands, King Kurash, whether you acknowledge him or not. He has already determined your course according to his own designs, and these are the paths you shall surely tread. I believe he calls you forth from Anshan for a purpose—though my poor vision does not extend so far as to see its end. I am not so great a seer as others have been … ” The priest looked away wistfully, over the heads of Kurash and his bodyguard, then back again. “If in these words you can find some comfort, Lord Kurash, it is well. Further counsel I cannot give.”

Turning away from the king, the holy man went back to his place by the altar. Carefully he added fuel, his attention absorbed by the service he rendered to the flame. He did not glance up when Kurash and Gobhruz remounted, leaving the way they had come.

 

ADAD-IBNI RUBBED HIS PALMS together in delight, an oily cackle issuing from between his smirking lips. News of Belteshazzar’s disgrace had trickled down from the highest levels of Chaldean society to the lowest, but it was especially here in the palace that its import was felt. The void created by his dismissal brought quick adjustments in the convoluted web of loyalties and alliances by which the courtiers of Babylon lived and died. Spaces were filled, modifications made. Some who thought themselves well-placed experienced a sudden, unwelcome reversal in their prospects; others on the periphery suddenly discovered themselves closer than ever to the dizzying centers of influence. Belteshazzar’ s great misfortune set off a whole series of sympathetic misfortunes or happy chances, depending on one’s prior allegiances.

Adad-ibni himself was one of the primary beneficiaries of Belteshazzar’s unexpected humiliation. The mage sat now in his chamber, congratulating himself on his good fortune, and glanced up as a knock came on his door. Motioning with his eyes toward his servant, he watched as the slave went to the entryway.face

A page entered the room and bowed, holding out a small scrap of parchment. The servant took it and brought it to Adad-ibni. Quickly the seer scanned the note. It was autographed with the sign of Lord Nabu-Naid. Showing no reaction, the mage dismissed the courier. As the door closed, his eyes narrowed in calculation. He rapidly sifted back and forth through the probabilities created by the invitation he held in his hand. Arriving at a decision, he stood.

“Fetch my robe of office,” he ordered his servant. “I must pay an official visit to the emperor.”

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

Categories: Fiction | 1 Comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 12

THE NIGHT WAS CLEAR, the moon so full and brilliant that Nabu-Naid felt he might almost hear the singing of Sin as he passed overhead in his pearl-white chariot. The prime minister paced along the wall of the citadel overlooking Aibur Shabu, where only weeks before Marduk had ridden in his victorious processional and the emperor had made his annual penitent passage.

But the moon god Sin, not Babylon’s Marduk, was the patron deity of the prime minister. His mother was a priestess of Sin in Haran, the northern city now under sway of the barely civilized Medes. Even now, with the temple of her god in shambles, the ancient matron clung tenaciously to life. Perhaps it was only the stubborn will of this shriveled, defiant old woman that maintained one stone of the moon-lord’s temple upon another. It grated upon Nabu-Naid to remember the temple of Sin in Haran and the indignities heaped upon it. In better days the moon-lord had been revered and widely respected—unlike now, when blatant Marduk held his brassy sway over the hearts and minds of the people. It galled Nabu-Naid that Nebuchadrezzar could not be troubled to redress the injustice done to Sin. In these, the emperor’s waning days, he could not be bothered by so trivial a matter as the liberation of the disgraced temple of Nabu-Naid’s mother and the moon god she served so faithfully.moongoddes

It would not always be so, the prime minister promised himself. Hearing footsteps, he turned, smiling and opening his arms to greet the one whom he had come here to consult.

“Greetings, most excellent Nergal-Sharezer,” the prime minister gushed, gripping the forearms of the emperor’s son-in-law as he made a small bow.

Nergal-Sharezer gave a curt nod, returning the salutation. “And health to you, honored Nabu-Naid,” clipped the younger man. “You wished to speak with me—somewhere private, you said?” The prince gestured about him. “We are alone, as you can see. What did you wish to say?”

“The young lord says so much in so few words,” said Nabu-Naid admiringly. “Certainly, your humble servant is grateful for the prince allowing such an imposition as this meeting.”

Nergal-Sharezer looked away, bored, tapping his fingers on his crossed arms.

“If the prince will permit me,” hurried Nabu-Naid, “I will speak more directly. Although … in such matters as we must discuss this night, one would be wise to tread carefully.” The prime minister allowed the phrase to hang in the air, glistening invitingly in the moonlight.

“Careful of whom?” said the prince finally, unable, despite his air of affected ennui, to endure the suspense.

Smiling inwardly, Nabu-Naid leaned toward the prince. “Of those who wish the downfall of Babylon.”

Nergal-Sharezer’s nostrils flared, his eyes widened. “Is there rebellion afoot?” he demanded.

“Oh, no, no, my lord,” assured Nabu-Naid, “nothing … quite so—obvious.” The prime minister, knowing the fish was now hooked, caused the inflection of his denial to belie the surety of its words.

“Well, man? What, then?” queried the prince, his voice rising in impatience.

“There are those,” answered Nabu-Naid, “who would like nothing better than to see one seated on the Dragon Throne who would be, shall we say, less than vigorous in his prosecution of the affairs of the kingdom. Those, perhaps, who would benefit from the … ”—Nabu-Naid affected a look of careful consideration—“the distraction of him who wears the mantle of Nebuchadrezzar. Those, for example, who might stand to gain from the encroachment of the Medes.”

Nergal-Sharezer stepped away from the prime minister, thoughtfully rubbing his beard as he gazed out over the city, silvered by the lustrous moon. Slowly he nodded. “Since you have broached the subject, good Nabu-Naid … I too have sometimes thought the crown prince did not have the necessary … discernment for the task of governance. And it is true that Astyages the Mede creeps ever closer to the heart of the empire. Today Haran—tomorrow, who knows?”

“My lord’s eyes are truly keen,” oozed the prime minister. “A pity that one with such penetrating vision should not inherit the crown—especially with the vital interest my lord has, as prince consort, in the ongoing prosperity of this great empire … ”

“Perhaps,” agreed Nergal-Sharezer, turning again to face the older man. “But the honored prime minister knows that our father the emperor has already decreed—”

“Yes, yes,” groaned Nabu-Naid, shaking his head in saddened resignation. “A pity, that.” For several moments the two men stood silent, contemplating the unfortunate, apparently insurmountable difficulties of the situation. “Still,” intoned Nabu-Naid finally, stroking his cheek in deep study, “perhaps … ” He allowed a long hush.

“Well? What now?” asked Nergal-Sharezer, his eagerness pathetically obvious in his voice. Again the prime minister sternly suppressed a chuckle.

“I was just thinking,” muttered Nabu-Naid, outwardly lost in thought. “There are a few wiser heads among the court: men who might be persuaded to see reason …” He allowed the sentence to ramble into silence. He fancied he could hear Nergal-Sharezer panting with anticipation. “Yes,” Nabu-Naid went on, whispering reflectively, “it is just possible … ”

“What should I do?” prompted the prince at last.cuneiform

Nabu-Naid started as if he had forgotten he was not alone. “Oh, my lord prince,” he stuttered, “forgive me. When an old man gets lost inside his own head—”

“Never mind that,” urged Nergal-Sharezer. “What is to be done?”

“Nothing for now,” cautioned Nabu-Naid. “One must not forget that while our father Nebuchadrezzar lives … ” He watched as the prince finished the thought for himself.

“True,” conceded Nergal-Sharezer. Peering directly into the older man’s eyes, he said, “I am grateful to you, honored Nabu-Naid. It cheers the heart to know there are minds as wise as yours in this city. It gives one hope.”

Nabu-Naid bowed humbly. “I am your obedient servant. My only wish is the good of Babylon.”

“I must go now,” said the prince. “Shall we speak more of this later?”

Nabu-Naid nodded serenely. “In the fullness of time, my prince.” He watched.Nergal-Sharezer whirl about, striding across the roof and down the stairway. Then Nabu-Naid gazed upward into the gray-white orb of the full moon.

“Like you, my lord Sin,” he said, smiling, “I shine brightest when most men are asleep.” Chuckling to himself, he followed the prince toward the stairway.

 

A SWORD-BRIGHT SWATH of moonlight fell through the window and across Nebuchadrezzar as he tossed on his bed, moaning and muttering. His eyelids fluttered, his fingers twitched as he chased night-phantoms through the dark halls of the dream-world.

He stood beside the Euphrates, the sky above him the exultant blue of summer. A huge tree rose up before him, the mightiest and most magnificent tree ever seen—a king of trees. Its branches spread wide as if to embrace the entire world. Even the splendid cedars of Lebanon could not compare with this leviathan, the girth of its trunk as great as the base of the Etemenanki treeziggurat itself.

As he looked up into its branches, every bough was a chorus of birdsong, every leaf a hymn of joy. He laughed with delight at the beauty of the fruit hanging in profusion from its limbs—so abundant that it seemed this tree, of itself, could feed the whole earth. Beasts of the field and forest lay down in its shade, lulled into peace by the cool tranquility of its overarching shelter.

Even before he looked up into the sky, he felt the heat of holiness raising the hair on the nape of his neck. Afraid to raise his eyes, yet unable to avoid doing so, he looked into the sky to see one coming down from the blue vault whose brightness made the midsummer day darken to twilight by comparison. Beholding the frightful messenger’s descent, the emperor had no doubt of his source: He came from the awful presence of the gods themselves—or beyond. Then the holy one spoke in a voice like thunder and storm.

“Cut down the tree and hack off his branches! Strip his foliage and scatter his fruit! Let the beasts flee, and let the birds in the branches scatter to the four winds! Leave him only a stump and the dead roots in the ground, bound with iron and brass.

“Let the dew of heaven drench him, and let the beasts of the field be his companions. Let his mind leave him, and let the consciousness of an animal be given to him. The holy ones have declared this verdict: ‘This shall come to pass, so that all living beings may know that El Illai, the Most High, is sovereign, that His hand extends over all the kingdoms of men from the utmost ends of the earth, and He makes such disposition of them as pleases Him. He sets over them such as He wills, and exalts even the lowliest of men …, ’”

stumpNebuchadrezzar’s eyes snapped open, staring blindly into the darkness of his bedchamber. His hands, stretched on corpse-rigid arms to either side of him, gripped the fabric of his couch like the throat of an enemy—or a lifeline.

 

AT THE OTHER END of the palace, Daniel shifted uneasily in his sleep. A voice not heard since—when?—called out to his spirit. Groaning in his slumber, with a knowledge beyond sleep or waking, he recognized the voice of his summoner. Then he slept on, perhaps realizing he would need all his strength to bear the burden of the vision being placed within him.

 

A HAGGARD, DROWSY GROUP of astrologers and mages shambled into the council chamber of the emperor. Outside, the cocks still slept, yet these men had been rousted from their predawn beds to assemble here at Nebuchadrezzar’s command. Mutterings about the emperor’s irrational behavior and his possible dotage ceased abruptly when Nebuchadrezzar himself hobbled into the room.

Even allowing for his advancing age, the emperor looked feeble. His appearance was that of a man aging swiftly, beyond the bounds of time’s normal passage. The drooping skin under his eyes told the tale of sleeplessness; the harried, haunted glimmer within the eyes told of something else. The wizards and seers genuflected, each wondering what new terror stalked the emperor’s soul.

“I have suffered great fear from a dream I have had,” the emperor began.

Adad-ibni stiffened. To the wizened mage, this had the unpleasant ring of familiarity.

 

DANIEL PASSED THROUGH the portal of the house on Adad Street, nodding to the gatekeeper. As he entered the courtyard, he saw Ephratah, the wife of Azariah, gathering water for the morning meal from one of the standing urns along the far wall. As she straightened and turned, he bowed respectfully toward her.

“Peace to this house, and to its mistress,” he said.

“And peace to you, friend of my husband,” she returned, smiling in greeting. “Azariah is with the children, washing for the meal. Will you break your fast with us, Daniel?” Grateful to hear his infrequently used Hebrew name spoken aloud, Daniel made a small gesture of appreciation. “Nothing would please me more.”

Azariah, though well advanced in the imperial service and thus entitled to quarters in the palace complex, insisted instead on living in this house in the New City where he had spent so much time. When Azariah took Ephratah to wife, Hananiah—like Daniel, a confirmed bachelor—continued living in the house at Azariah’ s invitation. He had become like an uncle to Azariah’s two sons and daughter, a beloved member of the household. Mishael lived at the palace, as Daniel did, but the four friends maintained close contact, frequently gathering in this house which they had shared as younger men.friends

This morning Daniel felt a vague sense of foreboding, as if some task faced him for which he had no stomach. He craved laughter, familiar faces, and the warm glow of shared memories as antidotes to the nagging premonition that tapped at his shoulder like an unwelcome guest.

Passing into the family’s common room, he passed Caleb: ancient, gnarled, impossibly still alive. The aged servant squatted by the doorway of the common room, awaiting the arrival of the family and the food. Though Azariah and his wife begged him to rest, the dried-up old one—deaf and devoted and stubborn—insisted on continuing to serve the patrons of this house. He shrugged off their entreaties with no more notice than a dumb beast, persisting in the duties that had framed the daily rhythm of his life for more years than anyone else in the house could calculate. It was as if he himself were part of the furnishings of the place; as long as the house lived and functioned, so would he.

Daniel leaned near Caleb’s face. In his great age, the old man’s vision had begun to fail, even as his hearing had long ago. “Good day, Father Caleb,” Daniel shouted, touching a bony shoulder in greeting. “Why don’t you return to your couch? Azariah’s children can manage the serving duties.”

Caleb’s eyes, their rheumy orbs enfolded within a face as wrinkled and creased as ancient parchment, flickered over Daniel’s face. “Good morning, young master,” croaked Caleb. “Please make yourself comfortable. I will bring you food.”

Daniel smiled and shook his head. He straightened and turned about just as Azariah entered the room, one hand steadying his daughter on a hip, the other interlocked with that of his youngest son. Seeing the familiar figure standing beside Caleb, Milcah fought free of her father’s grasp. She raced across the floor, holding out her hands in a plea for Daniel to pick her up.

Laughing as the little girl toyed with the graying hair about his temples, Daniel hefted Milcah playfully. “Oof,” he grunted, “you are too heavy for such games, young maiden.”

In response, Milcah twined her arms about Daniel’s neck, pressing her cheek against his beard. “It tickles,” she smiled.

A young servant bore in a large board, heaped with freshly baked wheat cakes, honey, dates, and soft, white goat’s cheese. Ephratah came in, carrying a clay jar filled with water. Joel, Azariah’s older son, entered from the direction of the sleeping quarters, still rubbing his eyes blearily despite the vigorous scrubbing his father had administered to his face. Dragging cushions and straw mats into place about the board, Daniel and the family of Azariah gathered for the morning meal.

Before anyone touched food, all eyes turned to Azariah, the master of the house. Closing his eyes and raising his hands palm upward in supplication, he intoned, “Blessed art Thou, Eternal God, King of Creation, who has blessed us and given us the fruit of the earth to eat … ”

The benediction concluded, each person helped himself to the foodstuffs on the board. Caleb hobbled to his place behind Azariah’s left shoulder, ready to fetch and carry or render such assistance as might be needed. The servant who had carried in the food retired unobtrusively to a nearby position where he might see Azariah’ s discreet hand signals, unobserved by the revered yet feeble Caleb.

“So then, Vizier Belteshazzar,” began Azariah in a teasing, pompous tone, “to what do we owe the unexpected delight of your presence at this, our humble house?” Licking the honey from his fingers, he waited, eyes twinkling, for Daniel’s reply.

“Why, to this excellent bread, of course,” rejoined Daniel. “If the bakers in the Avenue of Enlil knew of its existence, they would kill one another to possess the secret of its making.”

Ephratah smiled, rolling her eyes wearily. “Lord Belteshazzar jests, I fear,” she said. “Is there no bread in the royal house, that he should be driven so far from his quarters in the palace of the king to this poor board?”meal

Daniel smiled, a hint of melancholy tugging at the comers of his eyes. “Alas, good mistress, it is distance from the palace I seek this morning. Distance, and the companionship of good friends. The rich foods and veiled hostilities of the imperial court are an inauspicious combination for a settled stomach.”

“What is wrong in the court?” asked Azariah, his tone sombered by the dour tone of Daniel’s response. “Is the emperor so near death?”

Daniel sighed, toying with his food. “No, it isn’t that. In fact, it’s nothing I can name. Only a feeling; a sense that something is—about to happen.” His eyes locked with those of Azariah, a meaningful communication passing wordlessly between them.

Azariah knew the concerned, burdened, knowing look in Daniel’s eyes. He had seen it before, in their youth—in the court of a humiliated, powerless king in Jerusalem, when they were summoned to appear before the cold, evaluating eye of a foreign conqueror’s official. He had seen it again when, as frightened boys in this strange new city, they were told they must consume a diet not compatible with their religious scruples; and again, a few years later, when an angry emperor made threats against seers powerless to interpret a troubling dream; and once more, when a decree had gone out concerning a ceremony, an image, and a furnace …

“My friend,” said Azariah, “don’t borrow trouble. Perhaps you worry about nothing. Let events unfold as they will—there will be time enough then to deal with them.” Even as the words left his lips, Azariah knew he spoke nonsense as far as Daniel was concerned.

“What’s going to happen, Uncle?” queried Joel, the oldest child. His eyes were wide, his face advertising absolute acceptance of Daniel’s intuition. From the lips of a child, Azariah thought to himself, looking down at his son.

Daniel smiled, ruffling the hair of the round-eyed boy. “Perhaps nothing, Joel, as your father says. Perhaps I allow the cares and problems of the court to intrude upon me too much.” Daniel looked away, over the heads of those seated at the table, his manner far louder than his words.

“Daniel, don’t think too much about … the other time,” ventured Azariah into the uneasy silence, as the pain of a festering memory clouded his friend’s countenance. “A man does what he must, and none of us may reach backward in time to undo what has been done.”

Daniel’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

“Leave the past in the past,” insisted Azariah, sallying once more into the breach of his friend’s remorse. “This is a new season, and the mistakes of yesterday need not burden today.”

At last Daniel looked at Azariah, a smile of gratitude testing the surface of his lips. “Thank you, old friend,” Daniel said. “My heart is warmed by your concern.” Looking about him at the other quietly anxious faces at the table, he went on. “In truth, this is what brought me to your house this morning, not the taste of your excellent bread.”family

Ephratah smiled demurely, inclining her head toward Daniel. “Our home is always open to you,” she said. Milcah, seated beside her mother, nodded vigorously.

A low, rasping snore was heard. The eyes of everyone went to Caleb, still seated at his station behind Azariah. The ancient servant had fallen asleep where he sat, his head lolling on his chest. Through his open mouth he sucked noisy draughts of air. The children giggled, covering their mouths to avoid waking the beloved old man. Amid broad smiles, the family resumed its meal.

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 11

THE COUNSELOR’S VOICE droned drily on, drearily reciting statistics gleaned from the tablet he carried, his finger carefully tracing the mud-baked characters as if they were a lifeline, a tether to a cherished reality. His hand cradling his chin, Babylon’s Crown Prince Awil-Marduk leaned his elbow wearily on the table in the council chamber, making no effort to hide his boredom.

With the fingers of his other hand he drummed on the tabletop, barely enduring the arid matters of state to which his title had chained him. Far better, he thought, to be on patrol along the Lydian frontier, breathing the crisp mountain air of the Cilician highlands. Or perhaps in the harem, enjoying the music, the incense, the languid eyes and accommodating bodies of the perfumed courtesans. Anywhere but here, listening to this insufferable talk of wheat harvests and droughts, of river traffic and military levies.trade

Nebuchadrezzar watched his son, bridling with frustration at the boy’s complete disregard of his responsibilities. No doubt he would prefer to be gambling on some foot race or trying the latest vintage from Syria. Never mind that he was the designated heir to a domain bestriding not just one, but two of the greatest rivers in the world and enfolding the great seaports of Phoenicia besides. It was an empire comprising scores of peoples and languages, and commanding wealth beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary mortals. This was Babylon, the repository and treasury of the most ancient civilizations of man, and all her future king could think of was his next dalliance with some sloe-eyed concubine.

Nebuchadrezzar was infuriated. He thought of the dangers and uncertainties that he and his father, Nabopolassar, had overcome to raise Babylon again to her just place among the kingdoms of the earth. Painstakingly they had forged the alliance with Cyaxeres the Mede and his Aryan horsemen. Cautiously—it was years in the planning!—they built their organization, courting the favor of this or that diplomat, soothing with flattery the resentment of this or that disaffected governor. Only when the time was right had they sounded the war cry. And Marduk had granted them victory. The hated Assyrians had been destroyed, their capital ransacked. For fifty years now Nineveh had been an abandoned, haunted ruin, while the bounty of the world flowed into Babylon. But what did Awil-Marduk know of this? There he sat, for all the world like a truant schoolboy being force-fed his lessons!

Though having grown up in the imperial court, the boy’s attention had ever tended away from the convoluted affairs of government and politics. Nebuchadrezzar wondered if his son had managed, for all his years of luxurious upbringing, to actually avoid the thought of taking responsibility for that which provided the bounty he thoughtlessly enjoyed. The burden of leadership—grimly earned at great risk and with absolute dedication—seemed repugnant to Awil-Marduk. As well might the plow harness be offered to a wild ass of the plains. Did his son think, unconsciously perhaps, that there might be some way of avoiding the mantle being readied for him?

Nebuchadrezzar rose from the table, able to stomach no more. Hastily the courtiers in the council chamber fell from their seats, making obeisance. Out of the comer of his eye, the emperor saw his son rise to leave with him. Whirling, he thrust his finger in Awil-Marduk’s face. “You will stay,” he grated through clenched teeth, “and discharge your duty as crown prince. Even I will not live forever, boy, and I did not build this kingdom as your personal plaything. Sit, listen—and by the gods’ teeth, learn to be a king!” His eyes lashed Awil-Marduk as the crown prince sullenly returned to his place. Still glaring at his recalcitrant son, the emperor spoke to one of the kneeling advisers. “Belteshazzar, do what you can with him. As he is, he is unfit to lead children, much less a kingdom. Perhaps your Hebrew god can open his ears. Apparently I can’t.”

Daniel’s face was burning, as much with embarrassment for such public humiliation of the crown prince as with fear of the wrath of Nebuchadrezzar. Along with the rest of the prostrate courtiers he remained as still as death until the sound of the king’s rapid, heavy footsteps had faded into the distant reaches of the palace. Carefully they all resumed their places about the table. Daniel looked up without expression at the crown prince, and remained silent.

Finding his place on the tablet, the counselor resumed his droning report.

Seated at the far end of the table, Prime Minister Nabu-Naid carefully sifted through the scene just ended. Shifting, replacing, recalculating. Pieces of the puzzle clicked into place.

NEBUCHADREZZAR STALKED THROUGH the palace, meeting not a single soul in his angry march—as if his ire plumed out before him like the bow wave of a Phoenician trading vessel, warning all in his path to hide and avoid contact with him. He strode to a courtyard giving access to the huge staged garden he had built so many years before—still the wonder of all who saw it. Passing quickly into the foliage, he climbed to his place of refuge, the place he sought in times like this, when the burden of empire became insufferable. Sometimes he found it odd: He had commissioned the construction of this extravagant sky-garden to please his earliest wife, a maiden from the hill country of Medea—in fact, the mother of Awil-Marduk, the very son whose intractable lack of vision had driven him here. Weary of the unrelenting flatness of the river-lands, hanginggardensshe had wished for some small reminder of her homeland. So he had built this artificial mountain for her and planted its terraces with all manner of trees and bushes. And yet, he found its green, lofty isolation comforted him more than it did the wife for whom it was intended.

Now he ascended to its highest point, where, from the shade of carefully tended palm trees and tamarisk saplings, he could gaze out over his city—the crown jewel of his empire. It comforted him to come here and remember all that had been accomplished. He liked the early mornings best, when the city was yet dewy with the repose of the night. But any time was acceptable—especially now, as he heard the rustling leaves whisper solace in his ears and felt the cool shade caress away the heat of his frustration with Awil-Marduk. By degrees he allowed the seething in his breast to recede, exhaling the stale breath of irritation as he inhaled the calming, cool-scented air of the garden. Picking a handful of ripe dates from one of the miniature palms planted nearby, he chewed the sticky-sweet fruit and contemplated his Babylon.

Surely all this could not be wiped out easily. Yet such was his greatest fear: that all he had so painstakingly forged would be forgotten, and his name be swept aside by the winds of time like dust in the waste places. This—although he could admit it to no man—was the true source of his impatience with his son, his adamant insistence upon the boy’s assumption of responsibility.

With each passing year, the shadows in the corners of the king’ s consciousness testified to the encroachment of his mortality. During the early years, the time of building, he had been too busy to attend to the messages murmuring in the silences of the night. The din of battle and the exhilaration of victory had drowned out the quiet, insistent doubts that waited, catlike and self-contained, in the undusted corners of his mind.

In these days, however, those soundless voices kept up an incessant din within the chambers of his soul. However he might crave permanence, regardless of the magnificence of his monuments, the voices inexorably reminded him of the ruins of ancient kings, of their stone-carved decrees, fragments of which lay like so much rubble in the study of Nabu-Naid, his prime minister. Lately Nebuchadrezzar had begun having his stone-carvers and masons inscribe his statues and obelisks in the archaic Old Babylonian tongue. Perhaps by evoking the ghosts of history and bygone glories he might somehow create a connection, a bridge of perpetuity, between the forgotten dust of the past and the undreamed-of aspirations of tomorrow.

But the voices still chittered in his ear, mocking his vain, temporary efforts at staving off the inevitable. Here, at the summit of his garden, he could almost forget the voices. How could this vast metropolis, this seething network of diverse tongues and customs held together by his authority and governance, vanish into the sands of time? How could the world forget Babylon? Such was not possible—was it?

Popping another date into his mouth, he chewed as noisily as he could, praying to the rustling leaves and their green shade to again give him soothing enchantment.frieze

EGIBI SAT IN THE VAULT of his counting-house, once more tallying the day’s take. Rubbing his snow-white beard in satisfaction, he reached for his bowl and swallowed a cool draught of beer. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his linen robe, nodding slowly to himself.

Two hundred mana of silver lay before him. The flickering lamplight reflected softly from its lambent surface. Astyages had been as good as his word—not that Egibi had to rely on the Medean king’ s word overmuch. Astyages had at least as much reason to desire Egibi’s discretion as Egibi had to want the interest on his principal. After all, if it became known in certain quarters that the lord of the Medes pawned his household gods to finance his army’s rationing and wages, there would surely be trouble for the son of Cyaxeres. Egibi smiled to himself. How would Nebuchadrezzar like it, he wondered, knowing that a banker within his own capital supported the lifestyle of the Medean monarch?

He took another swallow of beer, allowing his mind to roam along the path of possibility. He had lived a long life and had seen kingdoms come and go. He recognized the signs: Astyages had allowed his desire for personal comfort and lavish living to overwhelm his judgment. And now he must hock the most cherished totems of his house to prevent disaffection within the ranks of his host.

The banker wondered: How long could Astyages maintain the charade? Already one heard rumblings of change in the east: Generals entertained notions of empire, vassal kings plotted revolt. What was the name of that Parsi cousin or nephew of Astyages? Kyrus, perhaps, or Kurash, was it? Yes, traders talked. One heard things.

And yet … Egibi’s fingers caressed the strips of silver stacked in orderly piles next to his scales, a small frown dragging at the corners of his mouth. Through the years he had gained handsomely from Astyages’ inability to deny himself. He would regret to see the Mede overthrown. Where would he find another customer as profitable?scribe

A knock on the door interrupted his rumination. The head of his servant Jozadak appeared in the opening. Egibi’s eyes sent a silent query toward his overseer.

“Master, the accounts are tabulated and the valuables secured,” Jozadak announced. “Is there anything else you require before the doors are locked for the night?”

Egibi squinted at the ceiling a moment, mentally running through the nightly checklist that over the years had become as ingrained in him as the routine by which he dressed himself in the morning. He glanced back at his overseer, about to shake his head in dismissal, when his eye, as acute as ever, discerned some indefinable something in Jozadak’s manner: an evaluating, almost unapproving look that gave Egibi pause. Seeing Egibi’s eyes lock with his own, Jozadak looked downward quickly, but too late.

Egibi studied his manager more carefully. Jozadak, conscious of being captured in the act of assessing his employer, stared fixedly at the floor, the color rising in his cheeks. The silence between the two men swelled huge within the small chamber.

“Close the door and sit down, Jozadak,” said Egibi quietly. The manager complied. A moment more the older man regarded his overseer, then said, “The way you look at me, Jozadak—as if you don’t quite approve of what you see. I have noticed this before.”

“I’m sorry, master—”

“You are a fine employee, Jozadak,” cut in Egibi. “You have been with me since your youth. What is it in me that you find objectionable? Do I treat you unfairly?”

“No, master,” said Jozadak, after an uncomfortable pause, his hands furiously kneading a fold of his robe. “Your employment is agreeable, and I hope my service has been—”

“Exemplary,” Egibi finished for him. For several moments he allowed the quiet to gather force. His insight into human nature had not diminished with his years, and he was perceptive enough as a businessman to realize Jozadak’s worth to him: The overseer’s honesty and industry made him a prized commodity in the firm of Egibi and Sons. Besides, he genuinely liked the man who sat across from him, sweating profusely in the cool vault. And after all, were they not distantly related kinsmen, if the legends were true—the stories about the tribes around Samaria and Jerusalem having once been a single, glorious kingdom?cuneiform

Finally Egibi’s voice pierced the pregnant hush. “Jozadak, I hire scribes and bookkeepers to read my accounts and tell me what I must know, so I do not concern myself much with scrolls and tablets. Instead I have learned in my long life to read people—as carefully as ever you examine the tallies each evening. What I see in your eyes—in those moments when you believe I’m not watching—disturbs me. I am disturbed precisely because I value you. I am not sure whether you perceive something in me that compromises your respect, or are merely analyzing your chances of stealing from me. In either case, I must warn—”

“No, master! It’s nothing like that. You must believe me!”

Egibi was taken aback by Jozadak’s interruption. After peering at the younger man’s insistent face a few surprised moments, he asked quietly, “Then what?”

Once more Jozadak’s eyes dropped, his fingers wrapping themselves tightly within the wrinkled creases of his robe. “It’s … I can’t help thinking … ” Chest heaving, Jozadak looked up at Egibi, then away. “Once your people, like my own, knew the Lord of Hosts,” he said, unable to look directly at the older man. “Once the people of Israel and Judah were alike in their devotion to the Eternal. But now … ” Jozadak gestured helplessly, unable to finish. Wishing he had veiled his feelings more carefully, berating himself for giving occasion to this wretched conversation, he fell miserably silent, waiting for Egibi to dismiss him from his presence, and probably his employ.

“Ah … I see,” came Egibi’s soft response, after he reflected a moment on Jozadak’s words. “I do not care what gods a man prays to if he keeps his word. I have never concerned myself with the religion of my patrons—or my servants, for that matter. As long as—”

“But it makes a difference!” blurted the overseer. “It matters very much, master! A man can be no better and rise no higher than the gods he serves.” Jozadak, seeing his employer’s puzzled, surprised look, groped for a way to clarify his assertion. “These gods of stone and wood and metal—they are only thinly disguised versions of the desires and grievances of their makers!”

Egibi stared into the intense gleam of Jozadak’s eyes. Despite his sophistication and—he had supposed—his indifference to such intangible ideas as gods or the lack of them, he felt something stirring inside him. He was drawn in despite himself by the almost embarrassing candor of the younger man across from him.

“When men pray to Shamash,” Jozadak went on, “they really bow to notions of their own strength and radiance. When they worship Ishtar, it is only their own lusts and covetousness that they adore. All these gods are made only by men themselves, and they consist of no more than the fancies, fears, and aspirations of their creators. Men use lifeless images of molded clay and hammered gold as an excuse to applaud themselves.”

Egibi shifted uncomfortably. He did not much like the tenor of Jozadak’s remarks. They seemed, if not sacrilegious, at least disloyal. He thought of the New Year Festival just concluded and of his own participation in the celebration, along with that of all the most respected merchants and tradesmen in the city. Like the vast majority of the wealthy citizens of Babylon, he had allowed his servants and employees much free time during the festival days in honor of Marduk’ s homecoming.coins

“But the Lord God,” pressed Jozadak, his face glowing with the earnest heat of conviction, “is above all such limitations. He is above all understanding. He alone is the true God! And He calls His people to be holy, set apart from this city’s trappings and its false gods and its—”

“Enough,” pronounced Egibi, standing abruptly. “Jozadak, I have heard you. I suggest you keep your opinions about the religions of Babylon to yourself. I do not wish to be without your services, but if your scruples will not allow you to work for me, I will give you high recommendation to others whose employ you find less distasteful. In the meantime, we may consider this interview concluded.”

Jozadak, brought up short, made a small bow toward Egibi. “Master, I … I do not wish to leave your service. But I…” Observing Egibi’ s stern look, he swallowed the words on his tongue. “I will see that the doors are secured,” he finished quietly, turning to leave.

“Thank you,” said Egibi. “And Jozadak?”

The overseer paused, his hand on the latch of the vault door. His shoulders tensed, as if in anticipation of a blow.

“In the morning,” said Egibi, “make sure we have adequate stores of oil on hand. I have heard some of the traders say there may be a shortage soon.”

“Yes, master. I will see to it.” Then he was gone.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. It will soon be available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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