“What am I doing?” Artie asked, as Alexis and Katie sat on each side of her, and comforted her. Boston’s eyes teared up in empathy.
“Crying is a good thing, sometimes,” Alexis said.
“Are you afraid for Andy and your people?” Katie asked.
Artie stopped crying and looked up into Katie’s face. She nodded.
They got interrupted by the sound of horses. Elder Stow groused as he turned his screens back on.
The sun was up, and everyone was awake, but they stayed near the fire and looked warily toward the sound of hooves, unable to see through the trees, but curious to imagine who their visitors might be. They relaxed when they heard a woman’s voice.
“Ishtara?” Lincoln always had to be sure.
“Grumble, grumble,” Elder Stow said as he shut down his screens. Decker laughed softly.
Two men with spears appeared, but stopped at the edge of the trees as a woman came into the camp. She was dressed in the armor of the Kairos and sporting the full regalia of weapons. They did not doubt who it was.
Ishtara’s walk was hard to describe. It was sexy—desirable in a way that made the men open their eyes, wide, and made Alexis and Katie want to hold on to Lincoln and Lockhart. But at the same time, there was something in her stride which said she knew perfectly well how to use every one of those weapons she carried. She appeared unnaturally attractive and supernaturally dangerous at the same time.
“Boston,” Ishtara held out her arms. Boston hesitated, and offered a small curtsey before she ran into that loving hug. “You have a visitor,” Ishtara noticed.
“Stand up,” Ishtara said, like one used to giving commands. Alexis and Katie did not hesitate to stand, so Artie stood with them. “Let me look at you,” Ishtara said, and walked around Artie with a critical eye. “She appears human enough to pass inspection, I think. How does she act?” Ishtara paused to hug Artie. “Welcome to the free and living people of the universe,” she said.
“I am confused,” Artie said as she let go and turned to Alexis to explain.
“She is learning human,” Alexis said. “We are working on feelings and emotions, something she did not know she had three days ago.”
“They were suppressed, I think, for fear excessive strong emotions like fear, hate, anger, maybe love would impair her in her work,” Katie interjected. She looked to Mingus and Elder Stow, both of whom nodded.
“Now that Artie is free,” Alexis continued. “We are learning, but something like a child for the time being. I don’t mind.”
“We’re keeping her,” Boston blurted out.
Artie paused to look down at the fire before she spoke. “When I look at you, I feel many things. I do not understand them. You are very beautiful. I am a little afraid. I dare not look into your eyes.”
“Lincoln, have you been falling down on the job?” Ishtara smiled, and the men melted to see her smile, except Lincoln who felt ashamed.
“No. I haven’t had much time to read and inform the others about this time zone.”
“We have been rather busy,” Mingus added, almost like he was defending his son-in-law.
“Okay,” Ishtara said as she took a taste of what was cooking for lunch. She did not care for it, and her dislike appeared on her face. “The short-short version, and then you need to pack up. I need you back at the city, and you can get some real food there.” Ishtara gathered her thoughts before she began.
“I was eighteen, a slave, scrubbing the floor, singing some Disney tune, which I guess is my habit. Ishtar appeared to me and said she had need of me.
“You are not my mother,” I said, but she smiled and said I was not her son. Then she stepped inside of me. I don’t know how to explain that, exactly. It felt weird. My whole body changed and shifted until I had Ishtar’s likeness. I have no godly power whatsoever, but she gave me an abundant spark of her being. I am filled with love and war, and I can’t help it, so there is no point in asking me to tone it down.
“A week later I stood in line with a dozen other girls. The King, Muballit, was anointing his eight-year-old son to be king after him. Three of us were chosen to become the future king’s wives, though I think Muballit wanted nannies. Hammy was a wild one.” Ishtara grinned. “I didn’t help matters.” She didn’t explain. “Anyway, no one knew where I came from or who my parents were, or anything. I, that is, Ishtara had always been a servant in the house since I was a child.”
“You don’t know your family?” Alexis sounded sad and Boston and Artie both picked up on that sentiment.
Ishtara shook her head. “I am sure I looked different, but everyone says I always looked the way I do now. I believe I had a different name, but I have no idea what it might have been. Ishtara means something like ‘of Ishtar’. It is an unknown name, so I can’t imagine I was always called that, for real. I scolded Ishtar for her cruelty in taking me from my family, and she finally broke down and told me my parents died when I was very young, and that was how I came to be a servant in the house; really, a slave.”
“You were a slave?” Artie asked with some disbelief in her voice.
“Yes, but mostly that just means I had a job to do, and I did it as well as I could. Human slaves still have their own will and still think and feel for themselves. There can be consequences for disobedience, but no one can make a human slave do anything they don’t want. I suppose, in that respect, it is like all of life. There are consequences with everything we do, though the consequences tend to hit slaves immediately, and sometimes in an unkind and unfair way.” Ishtara shrugged.
“God help us if someone invents obedience crystals for humans,” Lincoln was thinking the worst.
“So, at eighteen, I got married to an eight-year-old, and six months later, I gathered the men in the city and drove the Elamites from the gates. We slaughtered them, or at least I did. Muballit, who could not keep his eyes off me since he first saw me, wanted to annul my marriage to Hammy and take me for himself. Ishtar showed up. I’ve seen her a number of times in these past few years. She said, “No. She married already.” And she dragged me from standing before the throne to Hammy’s side, and I kissed him smack on the lips, like a real lover’s kiss. I couldn’t help it. Ishtar made me do it. But then, Muballit was not about to argue with the goddess.”
“So now you are a wife and a general?” Katie wanted to get it straight.
Ishtara nodded and smiled again. “Not-my-mother Ishtar says it is Marduk’s turn and Assur can just suck it.” Ishtara stood. “Pack it up. A friend of yours is in the city, waiting to see you.”
“Wait,” Katie needed to know something. “Hammy?”
“Babylon,” Lincoln named the city.
“I see they finished the Ishtar gate,” Lockhart pointed over their heads.
“I see they cleaned up the slums,” Alexis said. “They look like real row houses now, like permanent dwellings.”
“Busy place,” Elder Stow pointed out.
“See, now this is a city,” Decker agreed, though that was not what Elder Stow was pointing out.
Ishtara led them to the stables by the palace. She let the fifty men at arms that trailed her go back to their families to rest and relax. There were gnomes in the stables, and the human grooms were strictly instructed to listen to the gnomes concerning the care and feeding of the horses. Then they stopped in the doorway and watched while three Anazi battle cruisers in the distance, headed off into space.
“Well,” Alexis said with a smile in her voice. “None of the soldiers or stable boys said anything about Artie. I think her human disguise is working.”
“But why were all the men and boys staring at me?” Artie asked.
“Boys and girls. Girls and boys.” Ishtara let out a sly grin. “Lockhart?”
“I’m not going near that question,” he said, and several people laughed. Katie, Alexis and Boston walked with Artie and tried to give her the quick scoop before they reached the throne room.