“Lockhart,” a man yelled. He came up with two women in his trail. One of the women recognized someone in the group and began to run. Evan recognized Millie in turn, and ran to her. They wrapped up in each other’s arms, and Millie kissed Evan’s face everywhere through her tears. Their lips touched, but they just held each other and cried. This became a different sort of crying from the tears of the god. The other woman and Alexis got the same sort of satisfied, smiling look on their faces, and Alexis took Lincoln’s arm. Katie looked up at Lockhart. He did not look at her, but he reached out and took her hand. Boston laughed and almost applauded. Quick as a fee, she flew from big, weeping tears to joyous giggles. People thought quick as a fairy, but to be sure, she did not act much different when she was human.
“Labash?” Lincoln asked the man.
He nodded and opened his arms. “Boston.”
Boston raced into his arms. “You are our age,” Boston said.
“About twenty-five,” Labash said. “But it has been a long twenty-five years.”
‘Come,” Millie dragged Evan to meet her friend. “I want you to meet Ninlil.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Evan said, and shook her hand politely.
Millie waited for the interchange to happen before she added, “The goddess.”
“Enlil around?” Lockhart asked, and Ninlil frowned, but not for long as Boston, now a happy elf, interrupted.
“Is Enki still wearing his glasses?”
That image made Ninlil smile. “Those little round things. I can hardly imagine what he looks like without them. But come. This place has become so depressing.” The travelers blinked and found themselves in a completely different location. They appeared on Etemenank, about three layers down from the temple at the top. The whole thing had been built in two-story layers, each smaller and set back from the one below. The bottom layer looked of a length that Decker called about two football fields. The top layer, the actual temple of the gods looked the size of an ordinary two-story house. On the set-back part of each layer, the garden grew, a brick walk all the way around between the green.
Ninlil bent down to work with her flowers, and ignored the people. Labash spoke right up. “Don’t worry. Your horses are being cared for by gnomes who took on the appearance of men, much as they disliked that idea. All of your equipment will be there when you are ready to go.”
Lockhart looked at the sky. “Not to complain, but the guards said no one was allowed up here on the tower. We need to find some place where we can bed down for the night.”
Labash smiled. “You can stay here tonight, and for as many nights as you want. It doesn’t rain often. And the guards don’t come up here. I light the fires outside the house of the gods, and nobody ever said we could not cook on those fires.”
Millie added, nice and loud, as she looked at Evan. “Mostly, we sleep among the trees and flowers. The stars are endless, and we can watch the moon rise. Even if it rains, we have shelter, overhangs, and some small chambers on the outer edge we can sleep in. It is lovely.”
Decker sat at the top of the steps that went down to the next level, and ultimately to the bottom, where he could watch and make sure the guards did not come up. People imagined he enjoyed the greenery and fragrant flowers well enough. Meanwhile, Elder Stow examined the edifice and everything he could about the city through the eyes of his scanner. He mumbled, sometimes.
Alexis knelt down beside Ninlil and talked flowers. Lincoln and Sukki joined them, and soon they were all up to their elbows in dirt. Millie and Evan might have been right there with them, but they wandered off for a while for some private time together.
“So, this is the hanging gardens of Babylon,” Lockhart made it a statement, not sure what else to talk about.
“Not exactly,” Labash said, and got Katie’s full attention. “Nebuchadnezzar, the king’s eldest son is sixteen. A few months back, he met his fourteen-year-old Median Princess bride-to-be. He showed her all the wonders of Babylon, but she countered with the wonders and beauty of her mountain home. Needless to say, his teenage hormones went wild thinking of her, and he wanted to do everything he could think of to please her.
“A new palace?” Lockhart suggested.
“Well, yes,” Labash agreed. “But more than that. He wanted the Ziggurat covered in greenery, like the mountains, he said. And he wanted another edifice built near, with the new palace built in between.”
“A second ziggurat?” Lockhart asked.
“No. Not twenty stories. About eight or nine stories, but this time designed to be covered in greenery. I plan to use more stone, though bricks are the only natural choice in this part of the world.”
“You?” Katie asked.
Labash nodded. “We use a big screw to pull water from the Euphrates, and fill the canal. You can see the canal from here, if you look toward the river. We use donkey-round pumps to get the water to the top.”
“You know. The donkeys are tied to the gear and walk around and around in a circle to provide the power for the pump. It took some real engineering skill to get it to work. But we get water all the way to the top of the ziggurat, and then we control the descent to water all the trees and plants on the way down. It will eventually rot the bricks this edifice is built with, but Nebuchadnezzar figures his grandchildren can worry about that.”
“So, you are building a second mountain for the princess and a palace in between?” Katie asked.
“One not so big, and with more stone so it may last a bit longer, but essentially, yes. And yes, I know I need a bigger screw. We are deepening the canal as we speak.”
“And all the result of teenage hormones,” Lockhart smiled.
“What does the king think about his son’s building projects.”
“Supportive,” Labash said, with some hesitation in his voice. “To be honest, Nabopolasser is only worried about consolidating his power to face Assyria. Right now, things are kind of in a stalemate. Assyria still owns northern Mesopotamia, and despite going through a civil war, they remain the power to deal with. Babylon owns southern Mesopotamia. And the Medes, with the Persians and Parthians backing them, own Iran and the mountain fringes above Mesopotamia, though no one really owns the Scythians and Cimmerians. The king is too busy playing politics, making alliances with Medes and Persians to worry about Nebuchadnezzar’s teenage lust, except to say the Median princess is part of the deal, so I guess the king wants to make her happy, too.”
“Sounds complicated,” Lockhart said.
Labash shrugged. “Most political intrigue is complicated. Bricks don’t talk back and change their minds. I’ll stick to building. I got my own screw job to worry about.”
“Ha, ha.” Katie did not laugh.
“Lord Kairos,” Evan came up, holding Millie’s hand, and Labash stopped him right there.
“It is just Labash,” Labash said.
“See?” Millie tapped Evan’s arm.
“If I am a king someday, God forbid, or count or the duke of earl, maybe Lord or Lady, as the case may be. But otherwise, only my little ones call me Lord…or Lady. As for the Kairos part, you should not call me by that name. The name is not unknown, though I have taken great pains to limit its exposure—at least, written exposure. But in most times and places, I don’t make the Kairos public knowledge. Sometimes, I can do more, and do better when I stay hidden. You wouldn’t want to be guilty of revealing me to the wrong person at the wrong time. So, best not to call me Kairos in public. Besides, my name is just Labash.”
“Labash,” Evan said, and he and Millie took the bench that sat on the brick walkway between the green. Lockhart took Katie’s hand and walked off for some private time of their own. Labash imagined getting back to work, but Elder Stow stepped up, his eyes still glued to his scanner.
“I just want to say, the screw, canal, and pump system is a marvelous job of engineering. It is so simple, but it does the work, perfectly.”
“Thanks. But I am going to need a bigger screw soon, and the donkeys don’t last long on the pump. I am only glad I convinced the king that donkeys would work better than condemned criminals. I am open to suggestions, though, if you have any.”
They talked about the new building and the water system for the rest of the afternoon, and Boston got right in there with them.
About an hour before sunset, Decker spoke to the group. “There are two priests coming up the steps, and two guards, temple guards from the look of them, and they appear to be escorting a young woman.”
“Hold your fire,” Labash said. “They do this every month. They probably have food and stuff with them. I supply the water. The young girl will be left for three nights in the temple, to be ravished by Marduk, or whatever god comes along in the night. They will pick her up in a week.”
“That’s barbaric,” Alexis said.
“Good word,” Ninlil said, and added the epithet, “Men.”
“Yeah,” Labash did not disagree. “But as far as I can tell, no girl has been visited, much less touched since I have been here. She will offer some fanciful tale to make it look good, but otherwise she will spend the days with us, helping in the garden.”
“Can’t you stop it?” Alexis seemed on a roll.
“No way,” Labash answered, honestly. “There are girls lined up around the block to get the chance. Any girl chosen is honored, and her family gets to eat well that month. The priests of Marduk decide, and they keep a few of them every year for service in the temple. You know, they are not celibate priests.”
“So, the family gets paid for giving their daughters,” Katie said, and did not sound happy about it.
“How do the priests decide?” Lincoln asked.
“Young and good looking,” Labash answered. “How do men decide anything concerning women.
The Priests and guards bowed as they went past. The girl looked drugged. The priests and guards bowed again on the way down. No one said anything about the travelers being there. Ninlil added a word.
Someone down below screamed, but everyone tried really hard to ignore it.
The screaming gets loud and the fun really starts. Don’t miss the second half of Zombies, Murder and Mayhem: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday…