by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by beili
She drew herself to her full height when she saw me, setting her chin at a regal angle, announcing without words what she thought about herself and where she stood — or at least, what she wanted everyone to think she thought. “Well met,” she said, drawing the back of her hand hastily across her heat-warmed cheeks, rendered pink by sunlight. She took three sharp, shallow breaths, then squared her shoulders again. “I am come for audience with the Great Queen Ereškigala, ruler of the worlds below and mistress of souls.”
I slipped off the boulder atop which I’d been perched and lowered myself to the ground. “Welcome,” I said, giving her the deep bow of greeting afforded to every royal visitor, what few there were. “Why have you come to the land of no return?”
The brave expression on her face, already so fragile, faltered, and she drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders, as though it might be copper instead of linen. To mortal eyes, the cave before us both was simply a cave: a place where superstition kept most away and a sheer drop-off dissuaded the rest. She had come close, though, meaning that she must have been able to see that it was also something more. “I am come for an audience with the Great Queen Ereškigala, the night’s true ruler, and I have arrived at the gate,” she said, her voice rising in pitch with stress she could not disguise.
I watched her face to see if she was making a joke, but I saw no edge of humor in her expression. Despite the midday heat, she hugged the cloak around her, clutching it to her chest with one delicate hand; she wore a ring, a great emerald set in gold, no doubt the finest thing she’d ever been given. It was not my job to speculate who had been the giver.
“I have arrived at the gate,” she repeated in response to my silence, as though saying it might make it true. “I have — I have arrived at the gate! I am here.” She shifted her weight on her feet, barely beneath the long, embroidered hem of her dress. “Here I request an audience with the Great Queen—”
“This is a gate,” I interrupted, hoping to save her from excessive repetition. “But the Queen does not rest behind it.”
“But I—” She chewed her lips between her teeth, taking several short, sharp breaths. She had gone from fear to frustration in the span of a minute, and the transition had clearly left her in a bit of a state. “I was told that this was—”
“There are seven gates, of which this is the first, that guard the road whose traveller never returns.” I gestured toward the cave’s great mouth. “The path is long and branching, and filled with perils unimaginable and countless souls who failed in their escape. I cannot recommend it. Perhaps you can give me the message. I shall make sure it reaches the Queen’s ears.”
For a fleeting moment, I almost thought she might agree. Whatever her mad quest, she could come back for it in a year, a century, however long it took her to grow the spine that would lead her into the darkness undaunted. She bled fear into the air like a perfume, and there were things in the darkness already licking their chops at the scent of it. She was not mortal, but that did not mean she was safe. Anyone who knew the old stories knew that even the undying can still die.
But she twisted her ring around her finger twice before nodding. “I am come for an audience, and she will give it to me, for I am Inana, her sister.”
“She will, my lady,” I agreed, folding my hands into the sleeves of their opposite arms. “She gives audience to all, in due time.”
“Then she will see me now,” she said, giving me a commanding nod. “Seven gates? I shall pass through them all. It is my birthright.”
I do not want you to think me cruel. I am not cruel; I am tasked with a specific purpose, and that purpose is who I am. Causing or alleviating pain does not, cannot enter into my calculations. The penalty for allowing myself to be blinded by sentiment is too high. Therefore, you must know that it gave me no pleasure to cause her distress, not at any point in this tale. I was simply proceeding according to my function, my one North Star.
I stepped between her and the gate, blocking her progress. She was a tall woman, wide-backed and -hipped, and I appeared as nothing beside her, a frail slip of a girl with skin gone pale from too little sunlight. And yet, I knew she would not be so discourteous as to move me. She was, after all, a guest, dependent on my extension of the realm’s hospitality. She would not give me cause to withdraw it.
“The Great Queen herself has charged me with being your guide into the eternal night. I will see you down until you reach the seventh gate, or until you change your mind and ask for a return to the surface, whichever it shall be. The Underworld has its rites and customs, and you must mind them to the letter. When I tell you to do something, you must not hesitate or question if you wish to proceed safely. Are we agreed?”
“We are agreed,” she said. “You lead and I shall follow.”
“Then you must remove the turban from your head before you proceed through the first gate,” I said.
Her hands rose to the great wrap of cloth atop her head. It was a fine piece, woven with beautiful designs and colors vibrant as a mound of jewels. It must have taken such time to gather it all that way, to wind and fold every piece until it complimented her regal appearance. An obvious reluctance set across her features, and she looked at me as though she expected me to scold or encourage her for her noncompliance. I did neither. At last, she sighed a great sigh and plucked a silver pin from the fabric, then unwound the fabric with great care. As she did, her thick hair spilled forth from its bindings, the color of good earth after a rain; the longest curls reached the top of her waist.
She gave her turban one last gentle fold before she handed it over to me, and I took it from her hands with great care. “Very well,” she said, watching as I tucked the bundle under one arm. “Shall we proceed?”
“You must also give up a secret,” I said.
Her dark eyes narrowed at me. “A secret?”
I gestured toward the mouth of the cave and the great darkness behind it. “If you wish to proceed. If not…” I held out the cloth toward her.
She looked from the bundle to me and back again. “What sort of secret?”
I shrugged. The act of giving up was more important than the substance of what was being given up, but knowing that wouldn’t help her decision. I clasped my hands in front of me and waited. Patience is my great virtue.
At last, she nodded. “When I was young, I broke a herder’s milk jar and blamed it on a goat. Is that enough of a secret?”
It would do. I gave her a deep bow and turned, starting down the road that led into the cave and then the worlds beyond the cave. With the light at my back, I could see the dark form of her shadow as she followed behind me, elongating until it slipped between my feet and the road. Soon we were too deep for daylight, and it could no longer follow me. She, however, could, and did.
I had expected her to strike up some conversation, a bit of small talk or another, but the time passed in uncomplaining silence as we embarked upon our descent. The path was winding but singular at this point, with no branches or confusing intersections to suss out. The ceiling dipped and rose along with the floor, but I had traveled this way many times, and I knew where to duck and turn. I knew it so well, in fact, that I let myself forget that my companion did not.
There was a thud and a cry from behind me, and then another thud, and I turned to see Inana sprawled back on her bottom, with her hand to her head. “Are you all right?” I asked, noticing as I spoke the way my voice resonated against the cavern walls. This was not a place accustomed to speech.
She took her hand away from her forehead, revealing a darkened patch but no blood. “That hurt,” she swore as she caught her breath.
I looked to where she and the wall had collided. It was an obvious low-hanging outcropping, and had she taken half a step to her left, she would have passed it easily. “Can you see nothing?” I asked, forgetting that her eyes were accustomed to cycles of light and dark, not true night.
She shook her head. “I can hear you,” she said. “I’ve been following that.”
How long ago had she lost all light? Two hours, perhaps three? She hadn’t said a word about it, either, nor had she let that slow her pace. That was far more courage than I would have expected of her from the impression she’d given as she stood before the first gate. For the first time, I found myself wondering if she actually might make the journey all the way to the bottom.
I reached out and placed my hand against the rock wall, right over a patch of lichen. Huge colonies lined the walls, stretching all the way back to the surface for nourishment, then dipping deep into the earth for moisture. They felt my touch, and presently they began to glow blue-green, faint as starlight. She turned toward it the moment she saw it, as a plant might turn toward the sun.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, finding her way to her feet.
Was it? I supposed I hadn’t given it much thought. I’d never considered myself one for aesthetics or their pursuit, having seen little point in being attracted to or repulsed by something so trivial as appearances, but I supposed I could see her meaning. The way the colonies filled in cracks and spread out along the walls gave the light a texture more delicate than the finest silverwork.
“Are you ready?” I asked, and she nodded. “Good. The second gate isn’t far, and beyond that, the darkness thins.”
She nodded again and fell in behind me as I began walking — though this time I was indeed a bit more careful, and even though she had some illumination, I made sure to give low ceilings the widest berth. “Why are there seven gates?” she asked.
“To keep the dead in,” I told her.
That answer left her quiet for a moment. “Do they … do they want to get out?”
“It isn’t wanting or not wanting,” I said as the path began to broaden, indicating that we were close to the next barrier. “The living want the dead back with them, so when the living are they dead, they remember the feeling that the dead should want to go back to the living.”
“That’s horrible,” she said.
I thought it no more horrible than the way someone turned when they heard their name called, whether the speaker was friend or foe. It wasn’t horror; it was reflex. Besides, all but the most tenacious, rueful souls forgot almost as soon as they crossed death’s borders, sinking into the lasting peace of shared stillness and cold quiet. I did not know how to reply, but before I needed to, we stepped forward into the antechamber of the second gate.
The first gate had been little more than a suggestion, an idea of a barrier to keep out the unaware curious. Now we faced two stone doors with careful glyphs carved into their surfaces. If some adventurous moral soul did entertain the thought of making a visit to the Underworld, the first gate might give them pause, but the second gate would stop them cold.
“Your adornments,” I said, holding out my hand. I saw her eyes dart to my side, checking to see that I might still have her turban fabric tucked up under my arm. It was not there; I had given it to the darkness hours ago.
She looked to the emerald ring on her hand, then back to me. “Why do you need these things?” she asked, twisting the band around her finger.
I didn’t need them; she needed to not have them. That, however, was a distinction I knew would have been lost on her at the moment. “These are the rites of descent,” I told her instead. “You may obey them or not, as you decide. But you may not open your mouth against them.”
“I don’t—” Now she stared hard at the ring, running a fingertip over the faceted face of the central stone. “I don’t mean to argue. I only want to understand.”
“Whether you understand it or not changes nothing.” I held out both my hands this time. “You will give them up, and they will not be returned to you.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, until they were thin slits behind which her dark pupils flashed like nighttime storms. “I suppose you’ll be wanting a secret too,” she said, her voice heavy with the tone of accusation, as though I’d asked her this for my own amusement.
“Whether I want one or not also changes nothing,” I said, my expression and posture unchanged. “You may tell me or not, as you decide. Your choice will have consequences. What anyone wants or does not want cannot make this untrue.”
Her gaze fell on me hard there, a piercing stare that seemed to want to pin me as an arrow might find a bird. I was not her prey, though, nor was she a hunter. We stood there for a long time as she silently challenged me and I gave her nothing in return. Truly, I did not care at that point if she progressed or demanded to be released to the surface. Her decision had no meaning to me, and I had all the time in the world to wait for it.
Finally, she pulled the ring from her finger. She reached behind her neck and undid a clasp, then drew out an ornate necklace of lapis lazuli and gold. At last, she took two gold hoops from each ear. All these things, she placed in my outstretched hands. They were exquisite pieces, fit for royalty. I tucked them into the folds of my simple dress.
“Now the secret,” she said, looking at the blank finger where her ring had been. “Now the secret. …This is difficult, you know. I’m a very open person, generally.”
I nodded at her. I had no doubt.
“I haven’t murdered anyone or stolen anything. I haven’t been unfaithful.” She rubbed her knuckle between her thumb and forefinger. “I’ve been very faithful. I—” She froze for a moment in thought, then looked to me. “Does the secret have to be about me?”
That was an interesting wrinkle. “Not precisely,” I agreed after a moment’s consideration. “But it can’t be something someone else knows.”
Inana released a long breath through pursed lips. “My lord. I know that my lord is unfaithful to me. That he sneaks behind my back with other women and thinks he’s so clever, that he’s put one over on his woman. I try very hard to play the idiot, but I know. I know.”
There was a great groaning sound from behind me as the second gate began to open its jaws wide.
“What do you know about Ereškigala?”
I looked up from my idle task of braiding and unbraiding the fringe of my garment. In the realm past the second gate, great crystals glowed with inner fire, casting an amber glow over the proceedings. Inana had begged me to allow her to stop, so that she could rest and have a little food from a small pouch secreted in her pocket; she sat beside one great stone, leaning her shoulder against its smooth face. I’d told her she didn’t need my permission, that she descended at her own pace and by her own reckoning, but I gathered having my permission made her a bit more relaxed.
“You called yourself her sister,” I said. “What more could I know than blood knows?”
“We’re—” She screwed up her mouth to one side. “We’re half-sisters, to speak truly. I doubt she knows I even exist.”
“Go on,” I said into the silence that followed. I’ve always had a soft spot for stories.
She took a bite from the hard biscuit in her hand and chewed it thoroughly before she began: “My mother was a mortal woman. Not a princess or a warrior’s daughter. A goatherd. But a very lovely one. And so one evening she was out tending her flock, and lights descending from the sky in a golden shower, and a handsome man with beams of radiant light spilling from his face — there’s even a song they sing about it at all the festivals, it’s quite lovely. Then nine months later…” She gestured with a flourish toward herself.
It was a plausible story — if anything, so plausible as to be downright common. Since the earliest awareness of the gods, humans had been using the Lord of the Constellations’ philanderings to explain away all manner of unexpected pregnancies. Entire dynasties held power through virtue of claims to celestial ancestry.
Of course, if as many children had been born of divine interventions as humans claimed, the earth would be so overrun with these demigod heroes that the fact of part-god parentage would no longer be considered remarkable. The canniest among them only claimed ancient lineage, too far back to merit any measurable, testable influence on the person you saw before you. One required a certain nerve to announce a more recent addition of divinity to the bloodline.
“No, she wouldn’t know about you,” I agreed. “She does not concern herself with those matters.”
“Oh.” Inana looked down at her hand, splaying her fingers and staring at the space the ring had occupied so recently. “Well, I’m sorry for the intrusion, but I thought family might count for something.”
How could I tell her that down here, it meant nothing? The dead had no family — or, rather, they were all family, all sons and daughters of the place itself. By the metric Inana was using, scores of Ereškigala’s siblings had gone already to the grave, their passings unremarkable to eternal eyes.
After a moment, Inana turned back to me, her face hopeful. “So, what can you tell me about her?”
“What do you wish to know?”
Inana shrugged a little. “I simply thought … I know all her prayers and hymns, but there must be things that cannot be contained in those. Stories are speculation, but you — you’ve actually met her. Or,” she added, frowning, “I presume you’ve met her? Even if you haven’t, you’re closer to her than mortals get. I was hoping you might be able to tell me something about what I should expect from the Queen of the Dead.”
“Many hold many different opinions about her,” I said. “Some say she is cruel; others call her kind. But if I were you, I would not expect either.”
“Then what should I expect?”
Pressing my lips together, I considered my answer. “Nothing personal,” I said at last. “For good or for ill.”
Inana put the last of her biscuit in her mouth and set to chewing, and I considered that line of inquiry at an end. It was well enough — I did not wish to lie to her, even by omission, but I could not promise her things beyond what I could reveal. I did not make the rules down here, after all. This place and I both were defined by what we were, not what we chose to be.
“Why have you come?” Perhaps I should have asked this question at least one full gate before, but I do not make a habit of getting swept up in reasons. I am by nature a practical creature, focused on the details of the reality before me at any moment. To my measuring, knowing why something happened does not make it have happened any more or any less.
Inana sighed and leaned back against the rock supporting her. “Do you need to know?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Making conversation,” I said, which I supposed was more than half true, and therefore true by majority status. “Is that not what mortals do, when left to their own devices?”
“We do, I suppose. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. You’ve been very gracious, keeping an eye on me here, making sure I go this way and that, and not wander off into some dead end.” She looked at me, holding my gaze for a full minute with her dark eyes before she looked away. “I simply believe … that is, I shall announce my purpose when I come nearer the presence of my sister, and not before.”
I kept all but the edge of a disapproving frown from my face. In the end, though, her reasons made no difference to the journey ahead. “Then perhaps we should continue.” I reached down my hand to help her to her feet.
She took it, and her touch was warm, like sun-warmed rocks in the cool of the evening. Her fingers wrapped gently around mine as she stood, and once she had her feet, she did not let go immediately. Instead, she added her other hand to our contact, holding mine in both of hers. “You have shown me great kindness here,” she said, smiling. “I will not forget that.”
I had done nothing of the sort; kindness would have been to abandon her back when her eyes could still find daylight. But she would not learn that until it was too late.
At the third gate, she took her cloak from her shoulders without being asked, then folded it into another neat bundle before handing it to me. I thought for a wild moment about wrapping it around my own shoulders, seeing what it felt like to be like her, or at least to dress like her. It was a strange thought, though, and I handed the fabric to the darkness before I gave it another second of my mind.
She looked up at the gate before her, this one wrought in volcanic glass so shiny that we could see our reflections in its warped black surface. “This won’t … you won’t tell anyone about these, will you?”
I almost smiled, which I had not done in centuries. “Death is the one true secret-keeper,” I promised her.
“Good.” She clasped her hands in front of her, then reclasped them, then tried a third way before she rested. “I hate my life.”
Was this all some elaborate suicide attempt, then? I hated to tell her that many before her had been far more successful with far less effort.
“Not, not being alive,” she continued. “But my life. Being a good woman. Keeping a fine house. Weaving cloth. Ordering servants around. Smiling at the well-heeled. Presiding over household prayers. I hate it. I hate every small, confining inch of it. And I feel ridiculous, I feel … whiny. A complete spoiled brat. The great lord’s woman, the half-goddess, who will never have to worry about going to bed hungry, who will never see something at the market she lacks the coin to buy. It’s a good life, and I should feel blessed beyond counting, and I hate every second. I feel it like ropes wrapped around my skin, tied to my throat. Are you happy?”
The third gate felt neither happiness nor unhappiness, I knew this for a fact, but it drew back for us, its great surface receding into the rock that held it fast. We were hit with a blast of heat so strong that Inana staggered back several steps.
What glowed and pulsed on the other side was still rock, but rock so hot as to be liquid. The chamber glowed bright as dawn from the rivers of molten stone that flowed throughout the cavern. Unlike the spaces we’d traversed before, this place was vast, its ceiling so high as to be lost in the smoke rising from the floor. There was no mistaking the way to go here — the path was black and broad, and it stretched straight ahead as orange waves lapped up against its side, darkening as they cooled and left their deposits on its shores. Little tongues of flame licked out from all surfaces, darting and teasing before they burned themselves out, only to pop up again somewhere else.
Already sweat was rolling from her brow as she stepped forward, peering past the entrance. “It’s impossible,” she said. “I’ll burn.”
“This is the way forward,” I told her. “There is this, or the way back.”
“That isn’t a choice!” She stamped her foot and pointed into the furnace ahead of us. “You might as well not have opened the gate for me in the first place! If the only way forward kills me, then there is no choice at all!”
I should have told her then that she was right, that it was all a rigged game — that that was all it ever was, to play against the gods. The best one could ever do was to find a loophole and break even, and this was not hardly even; this was a nightmare of heat and toxic gasses. I should have stood fast, letting her know that the outcome of the situation meant nothing to me one way or another. I should have agreed with her and accepted her turning back with perfunctory apologies, pointing her all the way back to the fresh air and sky. What would she have done then? Taken her defeat with dignity? Marched forth into the fire at any cost? I am not in the business of speculation; I could not hazard a guess.
Instead, I reached for her hand and took it as she had taken mine before, her palm held fast between both of mine. “If you stay to the center, you can pass,” I told her. “It will not be easy, nor will it be pleasant. But it will be possible, if you choose to proceed.”
She raked her free hand back through her hair, its curls already beginning to wilt in the heat. An arrogant hero would have gone forward without hesitation, sure in said heroic status as sufficient protection against injury. A coward would not even have stood before the first gate. She was neither; she was something in-between, weighted down with both fortifying confidence and crushing doubts about her own ability to endure the task ahead of her.
“Will you lead me?” she asked at last.
I nodded. “Every step.”
“Then lead,” she said, clutching one of my hands in hers. I gave a squeeze in return and made as though to withdraw my touch, but she held fast. Her fear and her courage were going to war, and I had just been enlisted on the latter’s side.
We did not speak as we walked through the cavern, because speaking would have required breath, and every breath already scorched our lungs with heat. Her cloak gone, Inana clasped her hand over her mouth, breathing shallowly through closed fingers. I glanced back over my shoulder at her several times, and every time she looked a little more exhausted and wan, until I was surprised that she was still on her feet. Her eyes closed, she held tight to my hand throughout.
I had the mad, smoke-fueled thought that perhaps she would be grateful now to have disposed of her jewelry, as the heated metal against soft skin would have been unbearable. Perhaps the gratitude would have to wait for later.
At last, almost impossibly, the heat began to break. The first cool breeze could be written off as a product of a fevered imagination, but not the second, or third, or any following. The wind rustled our hair, and I felt Inana’s grip tighten against mine in response. “We’re almost there,” I told her. “Not long now.”
Indeed, twenty more paces, and it was as though we had passed through an invisible wall. The sides of the cavern had closed in around us and the path, creating a tunnel through which chilled air flowed. She let out an enormous sigh of relief and slumped against the rock wall, pressing her face to its cooled surface. “I’m so thirsty,” she murmured, her words barely audible over the rush of air over stone.
“There is water beyond the fourth gate,” I said. Away from the oppressive heat, I had recovered almost immediately; she, however, clearly needed some time yet to catch her breath. “It’s at the end of this passage. Not far.”
“Not far,” Inana repeated. She nodded and took several steadying breaths. “How far?”
It was as far as it was, though I knew that she would not appreciate that answer at the moment. I looked into the darkness and made a quick estimation: “Fifty steps.” If I guessed too many, she would be grateful when the trip ended early, and if guessed too few … well, what would she do, stop?
“Fifty steps,” she echoed. With a groan, she pushed away from the wall, balancing herself back on her own two feet. “One,” she said, putting her right foot forward. “Two.” Down came her left, not far in front of the first footfall. “Three.” She shuffled her right foot on.
“Fifty regular steps,” I said, standing before her and holding out my hand. She reached for it, shifting forward toward me — but at the same time, I took a step backward, drawing beyond her reach. The look on her face went from exhausted to sour, but anger could be a fire as potent as the ones through which we’d just walked. She took for me again, and again I pulled back, then again, and again, all the way down the hall.
We both lost track of how many steps either of us took, but at last we were at the clearing before the fourth door, where the air was sweet and the heat from the other side of the corridor was all but forgotten. She sighed and let herself fall to a patch of floor covered with soft, fine black sand, which was as good of a bed as any down here could find.
I stood there as she caught her breath, admiring the fourth gate’s artisanship. The stone here was as rippled as the obsidian doors before it had been, only this was sandy to the touch instead of slick, its smooth surface eroded by eons of water. Indeed, a few trickles spilled over the top and ran down the surface of the door. I gathered some in my cupped hands and let Inana drink from them, which she did gratefully.
At last not so parched, she rolled onto her back and sighed. “How long have we been walking?” she asked. “I thought it might be a day, but … ‘day’ and ‘night’ mean little down here, don’t they?”
“Time itself means little.” I pressed my cool, damp fingers to my cheeks, enjoying the chill against my inflamed skin. “Do you need to know?”
“No, I–” With another, heavier sigh, she sat back up. “I feel as though I should care. As least for how long they’ve been waiting for me above, awaiting my return. My lord, my household, they’re keeping a vigil while I’m away. I shouldn’t keep them waiting.”
So she hadn’t simply run off on a whim to the belly of the underworld, a possibility I’d considered. She had been less than forthcoming about her reasons for being here, but her pilgrimage clearly hadn’t been decided on a lark. In some ways, though, this was an even more perplexing situation: She, a person with a good home and comfortable life, had made the calculated decision to descend bodily into the realms of the dead. Others had tried before, certainly, but every one of those had been following down the soul of a deceased loved one, playing for its safe return. If she sought the dear departed, she had made no mention of them. Beyond that, what else was there to be had in hell?
“Your cosmetics, then,” I said, standing before the door. “Your face as it is, not as it might be.”
She made her way to her feet, wobbling like a new foal, but when she stood, she remained upright. This, at least, was little sacrifice; the sweat from the fires had already begun to run her kohl lining her eyes and mascara thickening her lashes, and her lips were a ghost of the plum red they’d been when she’d arrived. Nevertheless, she cupped her hands as I had against the door, then washed her face until it was clean of any makeup. Without it, she looked younger, frailer — not a great queen dressed for a royal meeting, but a simple girl, the daughter of a beautiful goatherd.
She then wetted her hair and pulled it back, knotting it at the nape of her neck. “Secrets again, hm? We might as well do away with this one, then: I don’t believe my mother. About my father. I think she lied. And I wish she hadn’t.”
That was enough for the fourth gate, which rolled back in a single mighty slab, revealing the way forth: a great murky lake. In here, the light came not from above, but below; phosphorescent creatures beneath the surface swam and danced in great swarms, rising to the air and then falling back down into the depths, until they vanished in the black water. Their ballet was so silent, so still, that the lake did not even lap against the shore. Only infrequent drops of water from the stalactites above broke the illusion that it might be glass instead of water.
On its shore sat a small boat with a long oar, looking all but abandoned. Inana walked over to it and took the oar, testing its weight in her hands; it was taller than she was, with a flat blade at one end. “So we row.” She spoke in the tone that said she was trying to convince herself as much as anything.
Yes, we were to row. She was to show her dedication to this as-yet-unspecified quest by taking her place in the stern and navigating through the waters. The exhaustion was plain on her face, but as she’d said, she had people waiting for her on the surface, lighting incense and singing hymns and ringing bells to pray for her safe return. It did not matter to whom they were praying; none of those gods had any sway down here.
Instead, I took the oar from her hand. “Go on,” I said, gesturing to the boat. “I can get us started.”
The look of relief that washed over her face was so immediate, I thought she might cry. Instead of putting up any argument, she curled up in the shallow belly of the craft and curled up, resting her head on one of the planks meant to serve as a seat.
I was not supposed to do this, yet who could have seen me? And if they’d heard about it, who would have believed me? Besides, she was certainly capable of doing this on her own, I reasoned — she could have rested on the shore, risen some time later, and steered the vessel herself. I was simply being efficient by allowing two things to happen at once. I did not make the rules down here, but I knew there were none against expediency.
I balanced myself at the back of the boat and placed the end of the oar against the shore, giving it a gentle shove. Almost immediately, the land dropped off, leaving us adrift over a body of water so deep it had no bottom at all. These were the true waters below, formed when the upstart storm-god split the First Mother’s body into halves, making the heavens from one part and the earth from the other. They were the life-giving waters, into which the life-giving seed was long ago poured, and out of this joining all life sprung. The things living in there were older than time itself, and if you could immerse yourself into its waters while still avoiding their glistening teeth, you could sink into the thoughts of primordial chaos herself.
I did not speak to Inana of this, because this knowledge tended to upset the living tremendously, and the last thing I needed with us both in a shallow boat was for her to be upset.
Instead, I looked down at her, at how small she seemed like this, with her knees tucked to her chest. The ride was smooth and still, and the oar’s paddle barely made a whisper as it dipped into the water and pushed forward. In the heavy stillness, I could hear her breathing as it became slow and even, and she slipped into sleep.
She did not dream, though. Nothing dreams in the land of the dead.
“Why do you believe your mother lied?” I asked.
“Besides the obvious?” Inana had slept a length of time that could not be measured, and now that she was awake, she was up at her turn at the oar. “Though it does puzzle me sometimes, who might have been so objectionable as a suitor that it was better to claim a heavenly encounter.”
“No, that’s not—” I realized I’d phrased my question badly. “You believe your mother lied, and I am wondering why that is what you believe.”
She frowned at me as she gave the boat another push. “Because — well, because it simply doesn’t happen,” she said with a nervous little laugh. “Or it did, many generations ago, but those generations are meaningless now. It’s something of a joke more than anything else, isn’t it? Dumuzid — my lord and master — his parents both claim half-god ancestry whole centuries back, which means he should have divine blood twice over, shouldn’t he? And when his parents heard about my mother, they took me and raised me to be given to him in marriage, so that our children would be even more godly. But it’s all just ridiculous.”
I rested my elbows on my knees and perched my chin atop my folded hands. “Humor me. Elaborate.”
“Well, it’s—” Even in the pale, bluish lights from below, I could see her cheeks take on an embarrassed pink hue. “There’s nothing to it, is there? In all the old tales, the children of gods and mortals are powerful beyond compare, or wise beyond compare, or beautiful beyond compare, or something to stand them out above all the rest. No one ever had to want to believe; their parentage was plain as day. Nothing about them was an article of faith. But now…” Just below the boat, a lazy jellyfish pulsed by, its tentacles shimmering from root to tip, and she let her words trail off as she watched its slow progression.
“Now?” I asked, prompting her along.
She gave a grim little chuckle. “The heroes of old would laugh my lord from the tavern.”
I felt the muscles of my face contort — and there I was again, smiling for the second time in a geologic age. I could no more have stopped that reaction than I could have stitched the waters above and the waters below back together to make the First Mother whole again. “Might have been wise to save that for the next gate,” I pointed out.
Smiling back at me, she shook her head. “I’ve suggested as much before to my mother, before she died, so I fear it wouldn’t count. I’ve held my tongue beyond that, though, because I know what the gods do to women who gossip about their men.”
The gods did nothing about women who gossip about their men; if they did, they would be hypocrites beyond measure. I chose, however, to let that theological misconception go.
“Regardless,” she continued after a moment’s pause to row us on further, “even he believes the tales of divine lineage are mere fanciful tale. His parents believe deeply, of course, but he…” She exhaled through pursed lips. “He’s willing to use the belief of the people, of course. He adores their adoration. He uses the rumors of his part-godhood to make women flutter and swoon, sometimes all the way into his bed. And that’s—” Mid-sentence, she stopped speaking and rowing alike, frowning into the distance. “Now that’s odd, isn’t it?”
“What so?” I asked.
Inana chewed on her lower lip for a moment, the picture of a scholar trying to tease out a knotty puzzle. “My lord was furious when his parents chose me for his bride. I’ve always thought it was because my birth was so far beneath his in status — indeed, he’s as much as said so before, and to my face.” Her hands clenched around the oar’s handle and released, then did so again. “But he … he was angry because the tale two long-forgotten god-bedded ancestors does not intimidate a woman who herself claims to be fully half divine. The one impressive aspect to him could never be used to impress me.”
I knew little the ways of men, and even less the ways of mortal men. I knew of my father and brothers, though, and judging from their examples, I would not have been surprised.
“And even if it isn’t so, so what? Everyone else believes!” Her pace quickened as she spoke, the connections falling into place almost faster than she could articulate them. “Even if it’s all a lie, my lie remains more impressive than his, and without my even trying. By the gods, I’ve — I’ve tried all my life to be a good woman to him, to be supportive and small, everything a good woman should be, but it’s never going to be enough, is it? He’s never going to—”
The jolt as the boat hit the shore was so sharp that it pitched her forward; she stumbled, and I reached out my arms just in time to catch her in my lap as she fell to the bottom of the boat. The oar, dropped from her hands, slipped into the waters below, beyond all reach.
“Are you all right?” I asked, steading her with my hands as I rested them against her back.
She nodded, then paused and shook her head. “I shouldn’t be here,” she murmured, her voice miserable. “I have no place here. I let myself believe a lie. All my life, I let myself get caught up in a story built to save my mother’s reputation. And I can’t fault her for that, I never will. But that does not absolve me of pretending. When that last gate opened, I knew. I knew it had all been a lie, I finally knew.”
Despite all we’d been through already, the fire and the water and the sand and the darkness, her hair still smelled like summer. I couldn’t have imagined beforehand that summer could have had a smell, nor that anyone could have held onto it through such an ordeal. Yet as I buried my face in her hair, I could think of nothing but cool breezes over tall grassy fields on warm nights.
I could not tell her that she should be here, as everything about the journey had been designed to make clear how much she should not; likewise, I could not tell her that she had a place here, for similar reasons. But I could not let certain things go unaddressed. “It isn’t a lie,” I said.
“What—” She inhaled sharply. Was she crying? I had never been much for handling crying. “What do you mean?”
“The secret was the fact of your unbelief, not its correctness.” Without noticing, my hand had begun rubbing calming circles against her upper back. “Without your divine father’s blood in your veins, you would not only not have made it this far, you would have not made the first step.”
She gave a bitter little laugh as she settled forward, resting her head against my chest. I could not have said how long it had been since I’d held someone like this, nor could I swear it had ever happened, or would happen again. Time meant very little, perhaps, but that was hardly the same as nothing.
“Then some fat lot of good it’s ever done me,” she said at last. “It’s true, I wish my mother had kept it a secret, if only to temper everyone else’s expectations. What benefit has it given me? Earned me a man and a trip to hell. That’s the sort of lineage one would be better without. This was his idea, you know.”
All I knew of the man for certain was that he would not one day relish meeting me. “He sent you here?”
“That’s not — not in so many—” With a sigh, Inana loosed herself from my grip and sat up, drawing her hair back from where it had fallen loose around her shoulders. “He wishes to be a great king, and I was supposed to be the proof of his worthiness. Instead, I am a stone around his neck. And so he would say in public, on occasion, that perhaps I should pay more attention to the divine half of my lineage. I told him that I said the prayers and made the offerings as I was supposed to, and for a time, he would let that be the end of it. But then he began to push, little by little. Why not prove my dedication? Would I not want to see him the most powerful man on earth? Why not undertake something no mere mortal could accomplish? The gods could hardly refuse me, after all, could they? Not if I approached them as one of their own.”
“But you said yourself, he disbelieves,” I pointed out.
“In his own heritage, absolutely. In mine…” With a shrug, she began to rise from the boat, and I followed her. The force of our landing had beached the craft, making disembarkation easy. “I’ve always felt that little bit of doubt about his own doubt. The little fear — what if I am what the stories say I am? What could he do with me then?”
Without being asked, she surrendered her sandals, leaving them on the bank. She made a face as her bare feet touched the mossy surface of the shore, but did not voice any complaint. Instead, she looked up at the fifth gate, which was itself a great conglomeration of crystals, growing upward until they disappeared into the high, dark space above our heads. The light from the creatures barely touched their surfaces, and yet they seemed to refract and magnify the glow.
Before she spoke, she turned to me. “Swear you won’t think any less of me when you hear what I have to say,” she pleaded, her brow furrowed with worry.
“I am no judge—” I began to say, but she shook her head and cut me off.
“I know. I know this is as nothing to you one way or another. I understand. But—” She tapped her now-bare toes against the slick floor. “Never mind. I have your secret, then,” she said, turning back to the gate. I wondered whom she thought she addressed — the gate, the goddess, or something else entirely? “I just want him to love me. And I don’t know if this will be enough. But I want it to be. I need to believe that it might be.”
As the great crystalline structure retreated one piece at a time, I bit the inside of my cheek so hard that I suppose I would have tasted blood, had I something so simple in my veins. But there had never been any there, just as the First Mother’s body had always been the sea, just as the only way forward was down.
We said nothing starting forward from the fifth gate to the sixth; she did not call, and I did not respond. I began to walk the path, and she fell in step behind me, until the only proof I had of her presence was the sound of her bare footfalls. Fortunately for her newly discalced state, the path was lined with great planes of quartz, with no sharp edges to tear at the soles of her feet.
As we walked, I told myself that I was wrong to be upset, or indeed, to feel any emotions over this. After all, none of it was my responsibility. What her man had done, he had done. What Inana wanted, she wanted. What would come at the end, would come. I had not started anything, and I would not finish it. I simply controlled the descent.
That wasn’t true, though, and with every step, it was harder to pretend my involvement was mere perfunctory service. I had done far more by now than be a simple signpost, explaining the possible destinations at forks in the road. Even the small act of taking her place as the oarsman for a time was indefensible, should I ever need to make a case for my neutrality. I had never been intended to show partiality one way or another. This was at best setting a dangerous precedent.
No, I could not think about this. This would lead me to answers whose questions I did not wish to consider.
“How long have you been here?” Her voice was soft, yet it bounced off the hard surfaces around us, giving her speech a small yet majestic echo.
“As long as here has been a place to be.” I kept my head turned forward, not bothering to glance back; if she wished to be seen as we talked, she could take one especially speedy step and catch pace with me. As she lingered back, it seemed that she preferred our positions as they were.
“Quite a long time, then,” she said.
I nodded. “Quite so.”
She hummed thoughtfully. “Do you like being here?”
The question caught me off-guard, and I faltered in my pace, stopping so suddenly that I felt her hand catch against my back, so that she did not plow into me. “It’s hardly a matter of like or dislike. It is itself, and I am myself, and we are the same. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” she said, beginning to walk again, this time at my side. “It’s such a lonely place.”
“Yes, road down can be lonely,” I agreed. “The place itself, not so.”
“Of course, of course. I forget to count the thousands of souls sleeping beneath all this stone.”
Thousands, millions, one — there was no way to number souls that had passed into the starless reaches. “And others,” I said.
“Others,” she repeated. “Other gods, you mean? Are you married? Do you have children?”
I did not scoff outright at the suggestion, but my eyebrows rose. “Do I seem like the family sort?” I asked, turning the question back to her.
“I have no idea!” laughed Inana. “I do not know what family standards are for the gods and their servants. Beyond somewhat incestuous, if the stories are to be believed. Though rules are different for gods, I suppose.”
“They are,” I said, because I did not know how to respond. I had never found myself in the position of having to defend divine familial structures before. Human taboos on the subject were, I felt, well-founded, but so much ceased to apply once concepts of consanguinity became celestially complicated. “But no. I have no children, no spouse.”
“Do you … do you have a name, even?” she asked. “Did you tell me your name before, and I’ve forgotten it? If so, I apologize for my rudeness.” I glanced back over my shoulder at her and frowned, and she swallowed hard. “Or am I ruder for asking in the first place?”
“No, I—” I was finding myself more and more at the end of my conversational skills. Formal language and polite invitations, I could do without ceasing; likewise, I could do well enough asking someone about themselves, prompting them to talk until they no longer realized how much I did not. “I am known by many things. Most who descend this path call me Doorkeeper, if they call me anything at all. Why do you wish to know?”
“Well…” She hummed thoughtfully. “What if I need to call for you?”
“You won’t. I’m right here.” The path went over a small ledge, and I climbed it myself, then reached back to make sure she did not trip.
She put her hand in mine and let me steady her progress, then let the touch linger for a moment even after she was on surer footing. “What if I need to tell someone what a fine job you’ve done?”
“There is only one who keeps the gates. Should you need to speak of me to others, there will be no confusion.”
Inana snorted. “Are what if I want to find you later to thank you?”
I shook my head. “You will not.”
The sixth gate came into view before us by not coming into view at all. In the midst of all the stones and their inner lights, the path disappeared into a darkness so thick that it was a wall itself. “Two items left, I suppose,” she said as she reached for the hem of her outer dress. The embroidery on it was exquisite, detailed patterns of vines and fruits that ran up and down the length of her skirt. It could not imagine how many hands it had taken to make a work of art like that, nor how long they had worked toward its completion.
I took it from her and admired the work close up. “Did you do this?” I asked.
“Some of it,” she said with a measure of pride in her voice. “The parts where the stitches are a bit less even, anyway. The life of a fine woman can be rather dull, and I thought learning needlework might fill some of the empty hours.”
“And did it?”
“For a time.” Standing there in her underdress, she ran her hands up and down her bared arms. “Mostly it made my hand cramp. That’s no secret, though.”
I nodded with understanding. “Then what is?”
She took a deep breath, then exhaled it through pursed lips. No matter how fond she was of her finery, she would have stripped bare without hesitation twice at every gate if that had been what was required. The secrets were a sticking-point not because she had so many, but because she had so few. At every gate, she had to dredge up something from the silences inside her that she did not even acknowledge, much less show the light of day. She was not learning to tell secrets; she was learning she kept them at all.
“We should have had children by now,” she said at last. “He thinks it is of his own doing that we have not, his own careful planning. He says he wants his sons to be born into glory, to be heralded as great princes from birth. But he is not so careful with his timing as he thinks, nor does he move so swiftly to withdraw when he has had too much to drink. With the smallest effort, I could have taken children from him by now a dozen times over. Instead, I am the one who ensures he does not become a father. I am twice as careful, and I take the proper herbs as necessary to keep my womb empty. Because I do not wish to give myself something I might learn to love more than I desire to love him.”
The darkness of the sixth gate did not merely open; it dissipated completely, leaving nothing in its place. However, doing this revealed only more nothing behind it. Inana stared into the void, frowning her confusion.
I stepped between her and the darkness. “From this point forward, there is no light.”
She glanced around at the softly glowing crystals. “Is there one of these small enough to carry, then?” she asked, her eyes searching the floor for luminous fragments. “Or do you have the means to make fire? We can fashion a torch, to light the way.”
“It would be of no use,” I told her. “You could bring a thousand torches and they would not help. There is no light.”
Reluctance furrowed her brow. “And what is in the darkness?” she asked, hitting at the heart of the matter.
“Things you would not want to see.” I nodded behind her to the lighted path. “You have come this far, which is an accomplishment by any measure. The path behind you is still clear. You know you can return, and do so without shame. You have accomplished much.”
The promise of light clearly tugged at her heart, such that she even leaned toward it as she looked back. But she squared her shoulders again, giving me a curt nod. “I have come to present the case of my lord Dumuzid before the Great Queen Ereškigala,” she said, her voice soft but steady. “I have come to announce his worthiness and his lineage, and to ask for him the resources of the underworld to fulfill his destiny on earth. I do this not for myself, but for him. And I will proceed forward.”
This was where I should have left her. What guidance did she need now, after all? She knew the ritual, the disrobing and the secret-sharing. What lay before her was the final gate; getting there was her business, not my own.
Instead, I extended my hand. “Very well,” I said, trying not to sound too resigned by her choice. I had expected nothing else.
She took my hand in hers, clutching it gratefully. “I could not do this without you,” she said, giving my fingers a tight squeeze.
“You could not,” I agreed, the truth of which tore at my own resolve. “Close your eyes and your ears, and do not let go.”
She gave me a wary nod, and with that, we ventured forward.
Nothing that lives beneath the heavens truly understands darkness. They envision it as a stormy night, a deep cave; those who walk under the sun think of light as real, and of darkness as its temporary absence. Even those born without eyes know light, and as such consider it a possibility at all times.
Darkness itself, though, is as real and tangible as light. It is a medium many things inhabit, much as the creatures swim in the First Mother’s life-giving waters. I moved through it in a straight line, knowing my way through my other senses and bearings. The hungry things hiding within knew better than to approach me with hostility, but they licked their chops and sharpened their claws at Inana’s passing. If she let go of my hand, there would be no more guarantees.
What souls do manage to escape their final rest tend to wind up here, forever directionless in the tar-thick space before the final gate. They move through it as slowly as fish do through murky water, meeting resistance at every turn. It is not even a blackness; black is the color that is an idea of darkness. Mortal eyes can see black. Nothing can see this.
Its thickness means that darkness is also quiet. All noises that pass through it are muffled, as though passed through several layers of cotton. Even our footfalls were so faint, they could have been miles away. Had Inana not held to me with an iron grip, I would not have had any proof she was behind me. Could she even hear as well as I could, in this dense fog? I wondered, but I did not ask.
As we walked together, time stretched forward. Steps became uncountable. Even I could not have judged the distance between ourselves and the gate. No, I was here in the midst of this with her, and she with me. We had to understand one another, because no one else could reach us.
I could feel her steps begin to falter, and then she fell, taking me down with her. “Are you all right?” I asked, the words distant even as I spoke them.
“I’m so tired,” she panted. “Can’t we just … can we rest a while?”
I took stock of where we were, and though I did not like the idea of pausing short of our goal, there was indeed a small alcove in the rock a short distance ahead. “Not here, it isn’t safe,” I said, helping her to her feet. “Can you make it a little ways more?”
“A little,” she said. She held both of my hands now, though, and while the position made our progress awkward, neither was I keen to let her go.
When we at last made the safe nook, she sighed with relief and slid down the rocky wall to the floor. I sat down next to her, and she pressed herself up against me, creating as many points of contact as she could in the darkness. I could still smell the sweet fragrance of her hair, but even that seemed to be at a distance now. In the darkness, everything was far away.
Everything, that was, except touch. Through only her light underdress, I could feel the contours of her body as she pressed up against me, and I wrapped my arms around her.
“You can sleep,” I told her, stroking her back.
She shook her head. “I don’t want to sleep. I just had to stop moving. My limbs feel so heavy. So does my head.”
“I know,” I said, placing my lips close to her ear; I wanted her to hear me, but did not particularly care to attract the attention of anything else that might be listening, anything whose ears were keener than hers. “This place takes from you what you did not know you had to give. Every step here comes at a cost.”
She placed a hand over my chest, where a human body would otherwise have a heart. I wondered what she was listening for, if she knew that in this form, my internal workings were more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. “You make me feel better,” she said, her lips brushing my throat as she spoke. “This place drains me, but when I touch you…”
“Yes?” I asked, wondering what she meant by that. I did not usually have that effect on people or anything else.
“You feel good,” she murmured, parting her knees so she straddled one of my thighs, pushing my dress up. She moaned as she rubbed herself against me, leaving a trail of wetness on my bared skin. “I haven’t eaten for days, I know, but I don’t even miss that. I’m not thirsty. I don’t need sleep. I’m hungry for this.” Her lips pressed against my neck, kissing my bared throat. “I need you. I can’t do any of this without you.”
I bent my face toward hers to tell her that this was a foolish idea, that she would be just fine without me — but I did not so much as part my lips before she caught me in a kiss, pressing her mouth to mine. Her tongue darted into my mouth as she deepened the embrace, and I found my hands reaching out to hold her as she drew close.
Did she really draw such strength from me? Saying so seemed a ridiculous thing, but as she moved against me, I could feel life begin to fill her limbs again. Her hand slipped down to cup my breast through my dress, finding my nipple and rubbing it between her fingertips. How long had it been since someone had touched me like this? Even I could not say.
She caught one of my hands with her own and brought it down between her legs, and there I felt the soft, wet folds of her skin. The bud of her clit stood stiff, so I gave it a soft rub with one of my fingers. That earned me a moan, one that she muffled against the curve of my neck. I did it again, feeling her writhe against my touch, wanting more.
Our movements were small like this, as we did not want to let go of one another any more than was necessary. I came to lie mostly on my back, with her on top of me, my hand trapped between us. She undid the laces of her underdress and brought her breast to my mouth, where I sucked at the sensitive flesh of her nipple. “Yes!” she whispered — or perhaps she shouted it, as the darkness still closed around us made it impossible to tell. She threaded her fingers through my hair as she rocked up and down against my hand, working her sensitive skin against my fingertips.
She did not try to reach beneath my own skirts, nor did I encourage her to. Instead, we moved by unspoken agreement to work toward her pleasure. I held her as she rocked against me, fingering her clit in ways that made her whimper and writhe. I am not a stranger to power, nor to having power over a single person, and yet I felt all but at sea like this. Fortunately, she held me in her command, making sure that I gave her what she wanted. If I touched the wrong place, she moved us both until we were in harmony again. She took from me and I gave to her, and that was all I could do.
Finally, she shivered and groaned, pressing her mouth to mine as she reached her climax. She held herself there on top of me for a moment, then collapsed against my body all at once, as though she were a puppet whose strings had been cut. I frowned with worry until I heard her soft laughter against my cheek. She kissed the corner of my mouth.
“Do not pass the last gate,” I said to her, my voice sharp at the edges with begging. “Turn back now. Tell them there was no way forward. Or tell them of your success! Say they are considering your petition and you will hear from them soon.”
I spoke my mind expecting her to be peevish with me, or even outright upset, but she merely kissed me again. “You are sweet to care so much for me.”
“I am practical,” I told her, even as I rather impractically stroked her bare thigh. “And I know you do not wish to stand against what is on the other side.”
She sighed, then let her head come to rest against my shoulder. “No,” she said, “I do not. I do not and yet I must. I will see this through to the end, come what may.”
I was glad then that the darkness covered everything, so that she could not see the weight of worry I could not keep from my face.
She slipped her underdress over her head and handed it to me, until she stood there, bare before the great, cold iron doors of the seventh gate. Gazing upon her made me ache, made my pulse slow the way liquid metal cooled when removed from the fire. There was nothing I could do. As though whispering sweetness to a lover, she drew close to the door and pressed her palm to its surface, then joined it with her forehead. I could see her lips move, but I could not hear a word she said. I supposed, in the great way of all things, it could hardly matter.
The gates did not open; they cracked, as an ill-tempered copper vessel might when struck. A great fissure appeared between the two sides, just big enough to step through. Her hands clenched into fists, she walked forward as though she were arrayed as finely as she had been when I’d first laid eyes on her.
As she passed through and reached the far side of the portal, though, I could see her confidence begin to falter. It had been so gradual before, she had hardly noticed, or at least attributed the symptoms to her general fatigue from the journey down. She had not realized until that moment that each gate had taken three things from her: a piece of her clothing, a secret, and a bite of the power she drew from her father’s blood. Her last secret wish had been to become a goddess, and yet here she stood, at the epicenter of the underworld, for the first time in her whole life completely mortal.
The place was empty, or so it seemed. Quiet and still, she faced nothing but a great cavern with a high ceiling, its surfaces all black metal and stone. Two fixtures stood before her, both unoccupied: a tall black bench to one side, and a great, gnarled black throne ahead. Both were as much a part of the room as the room was a part of itself; one could be forgiven for mistaking the whole for something organic, when in fact it was anything but.
“We did it,” she whispered, holding a hand to her chest. Taking a deep breath, she began to walk toward the throne, drawing near to its great and branching seat. “Great Queen?” she called out. “Great Queen, I have passed the seven gates and the trials between them. I am come to you as a sister and as a child in need. …Please, I have come so far. I beg you, speak to me.”
“Speak?” bellowed a voice with such sudden force that Inana shrieked and nearly fell to her knees.
She whipped around to the direction from whence the word had come — not the throne, which remained empty, but the bench, around which was gathering a great cloud as dense and black as a flock of locusts that might by sheer number blot out the sun. “This little thing,” the voice continued from within the slowly coalescing mist, its words dripping with undisguised contempt. “Why has it come here?”
I could see Inana’s hands begin to tremble as she heard this speech, thunderous and foul and unequivocally angry. This was not the Great Queen she had expected, someone with whom she had hoped to plead kinship. This was something far, far worse.
The Anuna are not often preserved in the legends, because few who gaze upon them ever hold a pen again. In fact, they are the last thing one ever sees: the seven judges of the world below, set over soothing or tormenting souls as needed before sending them to their final rest. They peered down at her now from the high ebony bench on which they sat, their smokelike bodies swirling and joining one into the other. They spoke with one voice, no matter which mouth it came out of.
“Weighed and wanting, little thing,” hissed one of them. “Burned black and scraped away.”
She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders, but they had rattled her, and I knew full well that once a foundation had been cracked, time would see it shatter. “I am the lady Inana of—”
“We know, little thing,” the Anuna said. “Little pest, crow, locust, worm. Those are your names as well.”
“I am—” She bit her lower lip. “I come to petition you on behalf of my master, the great lord Dumuzid—”
Their laughter was the fluttering of bat wings, the screech of ice as it cracks in sunlight. She had come from a land where his name commanded respect and even awe, for there were few who walked her lands who did not know of his house’s reach and influence. Even she, who had been wronged terribly by him, did not dare to speak against the power of his name.
The Anuna had seen houses rise and fall since the dawn of humanity’s march on the earth. They were little impressed, and even less moved. “Wants the might of hell, does he?” cackled one. “Sends his bitch, does he?”
“Little bitch,” another growled, and their words echoed like thunder off the cavern. “Little weed. Little rat.”
Every emotion she had was written plain across her face, and every line told of how she could not understand why this had gone so terribly, terribly wrong. Of course she could not. She had been the daughter of the gods, the woman of her lord, the lady of her house. She had never been a speck of gristle, to be pulled from beneath some banqueter’s teeth. But she was now.
The Anuna leaned forward, breathing with scorn. Her very presence was an insult to them — how could she think she deserved to stand before them in flesh, planning to turn on her heel and leave them behind her? What business did they have with anyone whose last business was not them?
Still, she was tough. “Where — where is my sister?” she managed to stammer out, though her words were barely whispers. “I came to speak with her.”
They howled with laughter again, as though she’d made the cleverest joke in the world without meaning to — and I supposed that in some ways, she indeed had. “We don’t know!” cackled one. “Lady of the Great Earth, wherever could you be? What say you to this atrocity?”
There is, perhaps, something I have not told you about me.
Her head jerked toward me as her eye caught my movement out of the shadows. I am many things in this place; I am its entrance and I am the place itself; I am the gate and the space between its doors. “There is no need for this,” I said as I moved across the room, my hair and hem and sleeves dragging on the ground as I crossed the distance from the gate’s mouth to my throne. It reached its arms for me as I came close, and I took my place in it as the emerald had fit in the ring she’d left behind so long ago. I was back at the heart of myself. I had never left.
Inana’s color turned to ash. “Y-you,” she stammered, unable to voice a more coherent thought. I supposed she must have felt some measure of betrayal. My only defense was that I had never outright lied to her, though even I knew better than to damn myself by clinging to that for absolution.
I looked on her now now with disappointment, but with pity. I begged you to turn back, I did not say, because what were recriminations worth at this point? “It is as she says: She has passed the seven gates and the trials between them. She is worthy to make her petition. Let her speak and send her back to the sunlight.”
The Anuna hissed with amusement. “Great Queen, she has made her petition quite clear.”
I waved my hands as though this were no matter, as though little things like this happened every day. “Her man wishes to claim for himself the power of the gods?” I scoffed. “What mortal does not dream of such a ridiculous thing? There, you have heard and you have brought judgment. He is refused, end of story. No harm has been done.”
“Oh no, Great Queen,” the Anuna said to me; one drew an orb of light from out of their wispy robes, holding the bright sphere perched in bony fingers. “You have guided a treacherous little serpent to your breast.”
“Not for her man,” another cackled. “Maggot rotting in his own bones. He is beneath all notice.”
“Do you like secrets, Great Queen?” asked a third. Without pausing for a reply, the hand that held the sphere crushed it. For a moment, the dust lay bright and still in its grasp; then it rose on the air, flitting about like pollen in the breeze, becoming first noise and then words.
“I want to be a goddess,” said her voice, caught while promising the last gate what no one else had heard before. “Not half, not a consort, but wholly and of my own choosing. What my sister has, I want for myself.“
Inana’s already-pale complexion turned ghostly. “No, that’s not—” She wrapped her arms around herself, as though suddenly made aware of how vulnerable her nakedness rendered her. “I swear,” she begged, “that’s not what I meant—”
“Little bitch and little usurper!” shouted the Anuna, drowning her out. One great tendril shot out of their collective mass, snake-like in its agility, wrapping around her and stopping her heart. When it pulled away, the life had left her eyes, and her body fell like a stone to the cold floor.
Most people do not know what gods are. They have an idea, of course, preserved in stories and legends, and on rare occasion even glimpsed in real life. They believe that the gods are essentially people, albeit ones that cease aging in their prime and have certain persuasive powers over the natural world. When they pray for rain, for instance, they imagine themselves talking to a man much like the men they know. They ask him to send water from the heavens in the same way they might ask a neighbor to borrow a plow or help mend a fence, thinking of the task as separate from him. It may be his job to make the rains fall, but it is ultimately that: a job, one that is taken on in the day and put off at night.
What they do not understand is that gods are not in charge of things; gods are the things themselves. My brother does not make the rain fall — he makes himself fall, because he is the rain, and in its falling, he exists. My sister does not give dreams — she is dreams, and whenever one of her children is dreaming, she is made manifest.
By that same token, I am death. I came into being as the first living thing shut its eyes for the last time, and everything that is one day returns to me. I am not a person. I was not begotten the same way humans are. I am as old as my father; I am older than my mother. I am the final and most lasting thing ever to walk either the world above or the world below. Even when, one day, the form and face and name I inhabit pass beyond memory, I will remain.
It is difficult at best, and counterproductive at worst, to explain this all to a corpse.
They had caught her up on a great hook, the way one might suspend a ox carcass for the curing-house. No one had skinned or slaughtered her, though; she looked much as she had when passing through the seventh gate, albeit slumped over and suspended a foot from the floor. One might even be pretend she was merely sleeping, provided one could ignore the great iron hook protruding through the center of her torso, just below the cleft of her breasts.
“I would have told you, you didn’t want it,” I said, seated cross-legged on a short pillar of stone. I ran my hand over my head, which I had shorn along with my eyebrows in mourning; she had, after all, been family. “Humans never wish to become gods, though they often think they might. They wish for tremendous power, yet still on a very human scale. They wish to conquer lands, or accumulate great wealth, or lose their fear of death. They want to remain themselves, only able to fill their every desire without having to petition someone else first.”
I glanced upward, thinking as I did not of the cavern’s ceiling, but of the living world far above. “News of your passing has doubtless reached them all by now.” My realm could keep in souls forever, but nothing that had ever existed could trap good gossip. “Do you suppose that was his desire all along? To send you here and pray you might never return?”
She gave no answer, nor did I honestly expect one. My main dealings are with ghosts, but I am not unfamiliar with flesh, nor what it is like when the spirit has left it. To that end, I knew I was being entirely foolish talking to her dead body. I did not want to leave her, though, and as long as we were here together, it felt only proper to make some kind of conversation.
“It’s simply that it seems in character, given what you’ve told me about him, for him to set up a scenario where all outcomes work to his benefit. Of course he wishes you to demand an audience! Should you succeed, you return to him with a tale of your power that he can exploit for his own purposes. Should you fail, he is freed of any obligations to you as his woman.” Though my tongue was dry, I spat on the ground and watched a beetle change its path in response. “I am … discontent that he has won.”
I did not like having these feelings. I wanted to wash them away, to become the same as the stones again. Thousands of thousands of tears had never before moved me: I was deaf to the wailing of parents, the sobs of lovers, the cries of friends. The longer I sat here, the less I could pretend that she was anything but the cause for these cracks in my armor.
Something about the way she hung made her look too vulnerable for my tastes. I wished to reach into the darkness and draw out the regal garments she’d shed along the way. Even her cloak alone would have afforded her a little privacy.
Of course, there was no one around to see her — not even the Anuna, who had gone back to their regular function without comment or apology, neither of which I had even asked from them. We were alone now, she and I, as much as we had been on the whole journey down.
Exhaling, I let my head drop forward into my hands. Bodies were disgusting and absurd, and I did not often present myself as having one. I could not say why it felt appropriate to do so now, except that it did. There was something so peculiar to having emotions that it felt best to wrestle with them in physical form. I could clench my fists and negotiate my anger simultaneously.
The flapping of wings sounded above me, and I looked up in time to see a great owl alight atop Inana’s bowed head. I hissed sharply at it. “Shoo! Don’t land there!”
The owl fixed me with a haughty gaze, but after a moment’s pause — long enough to make clear that this was its idea, and not anything I had decreed — it hopped off her body and perched on a nearby pile of rocks. “Apologies, Great Queen,” it told me in a voice that was not sorry in the least.
I was hardly in the mood to discipline a raptor for its attitude. “What news have you?” I asked.
“Your brother,” it said. “He wishes an audience.”
I was too far into a mood not to let my annoyance show on my face. “Any particular brother, or am I allowed to select?”
“He waits at the scrying pool,” said the owl, ignoring my question. It snapped its head sharply to the left, its attention caught by one of the mice that sometimes found their way into the depths.
“Take it,” I sighed, waving my hand. It struck so fast, I almost did not detect its movement — one moment it was standing before me, and the next it was across the room, stopped by a crevice in the wall. I did not wait to see whether or not its hunt had been successful.
I will not say that familial terms are entirely meaningless to us gods; clearly we feel kinship and obligation to one another, and likewise react poorly when those connections are not upheld to the standards we feel we are owed. They are more words that describe the ideas of relationships than the relationships themselves, and as such they apply in a very loose fashion. His father and mother were not the same as my father and mother, but Enki was my brother nonetheless, and I felt some measure of relief as I met his face instead of my own reflection. I dislike him less than I dislike most.
“Sister!” he said, beaming as my image came into view. “How fare you this fine and lovely day?”
My time was neither fair nor lovely, nor was it even by rights a day. “What may I do for you, brother?”
“It has come to my attention that there has been a death in the family,” he said, tipping the brim of his tall, pointed hat as he smiled at me. “Sister, is this true?”
You will remember what I said about gossip. “There has been a death,” I agreed. “Whether or not it has been in the family is another matter entirely.”
Enki laughed, jolly as ever. His trickster nature meant that he was always smiling, whether he felt mirth in his heart or no. On any other occasion, this put me somewhat at ease, because it did not require me to read his face to know his mind. Now, I felt uneasy. “Really, dear sister? A goddess has not walked her way into your realm?”
“Half,” I corrected him. “At best. The Anuna weighed her and found her wanting. I had nothing to do with it.”
His smile remained fixed, and if he judged me to be a liar, he did not press me on the matter. “Half is enough for such as us. I am sending two of my servants to collect the body.”
My mouth pulled into a straight line. “What use is the body to you?”
“What use is it to you?” he countered, chuckling. “Will you let me give her a proper funeral?
Nothing about this seemed right, but at the same time, nothing about it was obviously wrong. She had said she was beloved of her household, after all; it made sense that some number of them had petitioned the gods until one had agreed to retrieve her body. It seemed foolish at best to me — why bring a body up from the earth only to return it to the earth? — but I had long ceased to understand the sentiments of humans.
“Very well. You may take her body. But that is all,” I added, hoping to cut off some trickery before it even manifested itself.
Enki nodded. “Her mortal soul rests with you now, of course. To bring that back would be beyond even my power.”
“Indeed it would be.”
Staring at me through the water, Enki stroked his beard. “Something of a pity, though, don’t you think? There are so few of us, and we have been as we have been for so long now. A new little sister might have brought a little excitement.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“I can and I am!” he laughed. “Another seat in the pantheon, another place at the family table. Mortal families are happy things, and they are in constant stages of change, growth, expansion, diminution, realignment.”
“Because they die,” I said.
“And we do not,” Enki agreed. “But I wonder if that is as much of a virtue as mortals make it out to be.”
I held my hands out before me, a gesture of sarcastic welcoming. “You wish to make your eternal rest? I am here for you, brother.”
“One day!” Enki threw back his head and laughed, as though the thought of his end was the finest joke he’d ever heard. “One day, and I know you will be warm and gentle when I meet your embrace, my sister. I was, however, hoping for a less fatal form of difference. Some piece of beautiful newness.”
“Not from her.” I glanced back over my shoulder to the path that led to the chamber with Inana’s body.
“Oh?” His eyebrow arched. “Why so?”
I shook my head; if he did not know the answer already, I was not going to hold his hand through learning it. “I will receive your messengers, brother, and I will send them with her body to the surface. And you will remember that while the living have petitioned you to do this, you have likewise petitioned me, and you will owe me as much as they owe you.”
“But of course, sweet sister,” he said. He pressed his fingertips to his lips for a kiss, then touched them to the water of the pool on his side, rippling his image. “Out of curiosity, what do you think of beauty? And love? Love and beauty, do you think on them often?”
I had never been able to follow his manic logic. “No,” I told him. “They are human concepts.”
His smile widened. “They are, aren’t they? Not present from the beginnings of the world, like your aspects and mine, but only as old as humanity has been here to feel them. Love, and beauty, and the passion that arises from feeling each of them — or better, both at once!” He gave his long, pointed beard a thoughtful stroke. “We understand them, but we do not own them. They had to teach them to us. They are in many ways even beyond us completely.”
“Are they, now,” I snapped at him. I had perhaps never been too adept at accepting my shortcomings, even in areas where I did not care whether or not I excelled. It was principle, and my pride has always been a hungry thing.
“Entirely so. And I include myself among this number, of course,” he said, holding a hand to his chest; the contact pulled at the fabric of his garment, which made the rivers flowing over each of his shoulders change the slightest of courses. “I was not born to love anyone, or to find beauty in anything. I don’t believe any of us are, not really. I thought highly of myself, of course, and found pleasure in that for which I am responsible, but these were entirely selfish and self-serving impulses. Beauty and love, they are lessons made from the needs of briefer lives. Small wonder that none of us oversees them.”
“Your meaning?” I asked, frowning at his nonsense. I understood beauty well enough, if I was not much moved by it. Love was much the same. Why bring this up when negotiating from the return of remains?
“Will you come to visit me some rainy season?” he asked, taking the subject down yet another completely different path. “When the clouds gather and the rivers flow after their long drought? It’s lovely up here then, the world heavy with the promise of life. One might even call it beautiful.”
This was certainly an image far more appealing to him than to me, but I did not fault him for it. “Some season,” I agreed, not meaning much of it. “And when shall I be expecting you and the funeral cortege?”
“Oh, not I.” He moved his hands strangely before him, and I could see that he was molding a bit of dirt he hadn’t been holding before. “No, I’m simply swamped, and I do mean with literal swamps. Two of my messengers will arrive as soon as they are able. They can follow the paths of the great rivers that flow beneath the ground, winding their way through the earth until they return to the waters below. They shall not be long in finding your door.”
Of course, I told myself after Enki and I said our farewells to one another, it did not matter to me how long they took. Eons could pass on the surface of the earth, I reasoned, and it would mean nothing to me. Yet out of respect, for her and for my brother, I resolved to continue keeping her body company until such time as the messengers arrived. If they were as swift as he promised, it would be a small vigil, and then my life could return to what it had been before, as though nothing like her had ever passed this way.
If time in the underworld means nothing, then it can mean anything. As such, my time waiting began to stretch into the very grains of eternity itself.
At first, the waiting was simple, no more trouble than it had been before. “I am sorry,” I told her, “for leading you to this. I did not know for certain it would end this way, but it was always a possibility — even more, a likelihood. I should have left you puzzled by the first gate. You never would have worked out its opening on your own. Or you would, and it would have done you no good in the darkness that followed. You would have been frustrated, surely, but you would have been alive.”
After making my apologies, though, I felt a certain peevishness come over me. Why was I the one apologizing? “I gave you every opportunity, you know. Every point where turning back was possible, or even sensible, that option was available to you. You pushed forward. The fault is yours, not mine. I feel no guilt at all seeing you like this. In fact, I withdraw my apology! I am not sorry that I helped you facilitate your own demise! In fact, I should be proud that I gave you what you wanted at every turn! This state you’re in, this has nothing to do with me. I am not culpable. I do not accept blame.”
Some time after that, I slid off my perch and plopped myself down on the floor, somehow thinking the lower angle might change my perspective on the entire situation. It did not. The dirt beneath me stained the white fabric of my robes. “Don’t talk to me,” I muttered, burying my face in my sleeves. Her corpse complied.
What was I doing? Sulking was absurd. I shook my head and pulled myself to my feet, dusting off my garments as I went. “This is foolish. Absolutely foolish. Utterly childish! Just because you came down here like a selfish child does not mean I have to respond in kind.” I began to pace through the chamber, focusing on every step. Having a body was wonderful for focus. “I am dignified. I am the Great Queen, with power beyond measure. I am above this!”
I allowed myself a moment of curiosity and approached her body. I touched it, but it did not so much as stir at the contact. Of course it did not. Her mortal soul was flown from it, and it was somewhere off beyond reckoning, lost in the great dance that all souls did, the pantomime of their earthly existences that slowly faded as they forgot their separateness. Her flesh was chill, but she smelled not of decay, but still of sunshine and the upper world. Was that typical for human bodies? I had not done much research into the matter; death does not concern itself with its own aftermath.
Shouting, I lashed out and struck a wall so hard that the whole cavern shook. The pain seared up my hand, all the way to my shoulder. I hated the pain, so I hit it again and again, until I grew weary of the repetition. Bits of rock stuck out from my flesh. I did not bleed.
Her hair had long waves to it, but shorter hairs curled around her temple like little springs. I tugged at one and it bounced back into place as soon as I let it slip my hand. I pulled at it again — and harder, then, hard enough to hurt. “You bitch, you bitch, wake up!” I hissed through clenched teeth. “Stop lying!” She remained still.
The circumference of the chamber was one hundred and sixty-two steps, by my count. I lengthened my legs and shortened the effort to a mere hundred. Space meant as little as time under these constraints.
“I can’t believe you’d do this for him,” I growled against her ear. “Pathetic. You’re pathetic. Perhaps you deserve him, if you believe all you deserve is him. Wanting the world, wanting your birthright, yet you make your way through the proving-grounds of hell, demonstrating your own worthiness, only to give it to him in the vain hope that he will see you as something other than a stepping-stone to his own further greatness. How weak. How utterly … weak.”
With an ivory comb, I brushed her hair with long, gentle strokes. She had clearly kept great care of it, perhaps anointing herself daily with oils and perfumes, having her servants do what I was doing now. I wished I had any skill to adornments, that I could fix her locks in a manner befitting a great lady. I even thought to gather cloth and bind it in a turban, the way she’d worn it when first we’d met, but every time I gathered all her hair together, heavy strands spilled from my hands like water, until I might as well have been holding nothing at all. It was no matter. Her household would dress her for burial according to their own customs, and any work of mine would be waste anyway. I kept combing.
What was this? What had happened to me? I felt as though someone had loosed a wheel inside my chest, only instead of grinding to a halt, it kept spinning, bringing me with it. I grew uncomfortable when I remained still, yet when I moved, I felt as though I had great weights around my bones. I had spent eons in my place, as myself, and never before had I experienced this … this restlessness. It demanded I move and yet made it agony to do so. I was undone.
When the owl came again, I was collapsed in a pile, having decided for the moment that stillness was the remedy. At some point, my clothes had become tattered and rag-like, yet I could not bring myself to make myself any more presentable. I gave a grunt and a wave, and the door to the chamber swung wide.
In the doorway stood two figures the color of riverbank mud. They appeared quite human at first glance, yet closer examination revealed them to be no more than clever facsimiles. Their faces were as beautiful as those of the statutes that lined temples, yet also just as approximate in their features. They were not identical, yet I could not have singled out any particular differences between them. Finally, they were nude, their hips as wide as a woman’s, though their chests as flat as a man’s, beardless and short-shorn atop their heads, with nothing at at the joining of their legs to indicate sex of any kind.
On meeting their attentive gazes, I felt ashamed of my clearly piteous state, yet also did not feel much called to move from where I was reclining. “Ah,” I sighed, “you’ve come.”
They met me with pleasant expressions and bowed in unison. “Greetings, Great Queen,” said one of them. “We arrive here from the Great Lord Enki with—”
“Yes, yes,” I sighed, cutting them off. With a grunt of effort, I pulled myself into a more upright state. There were customs of hospitality to be followed, after all, and if I did not attend to them, they could speak ill of me to others and have every cause to do it. “Have you been offered water for your thirst, and bread for your hunger?”
“Thank you, Great Queen, but we are well as we are,” said the other. The Anuna are one body in seven, each judge distinct yet inseparable from the whole, yet that was not the sense I got from these two. Rather, they seemed to be two individuals in perfect harmony and understanding with each other, connected beyond the need for something so ungainly as speech.
“Are you gods, then, to march so boldly in and proclaim you need nothing? Or are you mortals?” I pointed to Inana’s body. “If you are, you should know that mortals who descend to the underworld do not have much precedent in the way of return.”
The first shook its head. “We are neither gods nor mortals, mistress. We are beings who are not alive, and therefore we cannot die. I am the gala-tura, and my companion is the kur-ĝara. We have come for the corpse hanging on the hook.”
Credit as due to Enki, he had taught them the ways of speech that did not leave room for misinterpretation — not that he feared I would abuse them, I supposed, but because he was a cheat and a liar by nature, and therefore knew what loopholes to eliminate in advance. “I know you have,” I said.
They looked at one another for a moment, then stepped not toward the body, but toward me. “Great Queen,” said the kur-ĝara, “our lord would have us ask if you are well.”
I shook my head. “It is no matter how I am.”
“You are troubled, mistress, in your heart,” the gala-tura said with such compassion in its voice that I felt ill. I neither felt nor cared to feel pity, even as clearly disturbed as I was.
“You are troubled, mistress, in your body,” said the kur-ĝara, in an equally sympathetic tone.
And what if I was? My sickness was my own, and its cure, if such a thing even existed, was not in their reach. “My heart and my body matter to me and none other. You are here for the corpse on the hook? Take it, and be gone. Leave me to myself.”
“Of course, mistress,” said the kur-ĝara, giving me a deep bow. “Before we leave, however, please permit us to prepare the body for transport. The journey from your realm to the land under heaven is a long and difficult one.”
I knew that better than most. “Do what you must,” I agreed. “I shall not interfere.” I had no idea what preparations they might need to undertake, but I did not often ferry whole bodies between worlds. Besides, their arrival meant this was all out of the reach of my hands. The sooner they could remove her from my sight, the sooner I could hope to regain the stillness her very presence had disrupted.
They gave me one last shared bow together, then turned to Inana’s body and regarded it as it hung suspended above the ground. They were tall things, I realized as they neared her, tall enough that even standing on her own, she would barely have reached the tops of their shoulders. With care and without complaint, they lifted her from the hook and brought her to the ground below. The gala-tura knelt and pillowed her head against its thighs, while the kur-ĝara knelt and stretched out her long legs.
The gala-tura reached its hand forward and placed it between Inana’s breasts, over the hole made by the hook. Its hand was so broad and strong that it covered the damage entirely, until only the closest observer would have noticed anything amiss. It held that pose without moving, until small trickles of water began to spill from the point of contact and stream in narrow rivulets down the sides of her chest.
Meanwhile, the kur-ĝara settled her legs on either side of its own knees. It ran its hands up and down her thighs, a motion which might have been comforting or even warming, had it been done to a living person. Presently, its hands ventured even further upward, tracing the curves of her hips before sliding back down again.
As I said, I have spent precious little time with the aftermath of death. My concern is in the moment itself, the shutting of a door that, once closed, can never be open again. I was not as familiar as I might have been with various burial rituals; thus, I was puzzled, yet did not object. Whatever Enki had sent them to do, that was their business and not mine. I had no cause for involvement.
Even so, I began to feel uneasy about agreeing to allow them to do as they liked, particularly as the kur-ĝara placed its hands beneath her knees and lifted them, bending her legs on either side of it. I began to suspect some cruelty from Enki — had he sent them not to retrieve her body, but to desecrate it? His motivations were unknown to me one way or another, after all. Perhaps he was as angry with her upstart efforts as the Anuna had been.
Yet these creatures handled her with such respect and care that no malice seemed possible. I settled myself back against my rock perch, keeping an eye on the proceedings in case something went awry. What I would do then, I did not know, but at least I would know about it.
When the gala-tura drew its hand away, the skin between Inana’s breasts was smooth and closed again, as though no harm had ever come to her. I could make sense of this; after all, surely her household would not to see such a mutilation. What I could understand less, though, was the way the gala-tura’s hands slid back up Inana’s body, cupping her breasts with a lover’s tenderness.
The kur-ĝara had no phallus, yet moved itself between Inana’s thighs and thrust forward as though penetrating her body. I felt a great outrage rise in me and drew in a breath to shout at them, to tell them to get away from her, that I would see them destroyed and their master punished for the crimes they were about to inflict against her body. Even as a pantomime, it was obscene, an offense against both earth and heaven. How could they come into my domain and engage in such perversions? No matter that they were not alive; I would do everything in my power to make sure they felt the full cold touch of death.
My outcry fell silent as I realized that she was not dead.
Oh, she had been — of that, I was wholly certain. Even as I’d shouted at her to wake up, I’d known it was another of my ridiculous impulses. And yet, as I watched, I saw her legs flex and lift of their own accord, then wrap around the kur-ĝara’s waist and pull it close.
The gala-tura smiled and closed its hands tighter around Inana’s breasts, pinching her plum-colored nipples lightly in its rough fingers. Inana gasped at that, drawing in a sharp inhale of breath that made her now-healed chest expand. When she exhaled, it was in a deep, pleased moan. She arched her back and pressed her hips toward the kur-ĝara’s with undisguised need.
I sat there as though made of stone myself, transfixed. She had begun breathing and I had ceased to. In their arms, she stirred.
The gala-tura bent down and suckled at one of Inana’s breasts, causing her to cry out and grab for it. One of her hands grabbed at its earthen forearm; the other wrapped around the back of its neck, begging it to remain in place. The two servants were silent, but Inana more than compensated with her noises of pleasure. They were not words in any human language, but raw and needful sounds. She licked her lips and panted roughly as she locked her ankles behind the kur-ĝara’s back.
I could not see from my angle whether or not the kur-ĝara was actually penetrating her now, but it moved against her body as though it did, and she cried out with every jolt as though she were indeed being fucked. I might have been willing to attribute this all to some strange reflex, a temporary animation of things, were she not so clearly an eager participant. What sensations the kur-ĝara and the gala-tura gained from this were obviously immaterial — this act was entirely about her, and she was at its active center. As she had fed from me to replace the divine energy this place had stolen from her, so she fed from them, drawing her strength from their contact.
She turned her head to kiss the gala-tura’s mouth, and it met the kiss, catching all her words inside it. I felt a pain in my own mouth and realized that I had caught my lower lip between my teeth and was biting it hard. It I hadn’t known what to make of my impulses earlier, this left me completely without recourse. I was furious and jealous and hungry, and in the midst of all of it, I was awaking to the realization that Inana was alive.
As though they had planned this moment, the gala-tura steadied Inana as she rocked upright. She let her ankles uncross, then found solid ground with her bare feet as the kur-ĝara leaned back, sharing the moves of some intimate, well-rehearsed dance. As it lay against its back, she straddled its hips, taking control of the rhythm with her body. I could see from this angle that it did indeed now have some sort of phallus — as much of an approximation, though, as the rest of their bodies were. It had no testicles, nor even much definition that I could see. Regardless of these shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, Inana took it inside her greedily, pushing her hips down again and again, as though she might be able to fill her whole body with its length.
From behind her, the gala-tura knelt and kept its hands on her breasts, pinching her nipples tighter as she bounced. Water trickled from its hands again — or did the fluid now come from Inana’s breasts themselves? Perhaps there was no distinction, not when they were like this. It kissed Inana’s shoulder and neck, its lips moving up and down the soft curves of her skin. Was it speaking to her? I could not hear anything from this distance, not over the sounds of Inana’s ecstasy.
The kur-ĝara stretched out along the ground, letting Inana ride it; it placed its hands against her thighs as a steadying gesture, and she reached back to wrap her arms around the gala-tura’s neck. If she had been beautiful before, she was magnificent like this, in her element and in control. In the dark of the underworld, she glowed like the sun, and I knew even then how much darker everything would seem for her absence.
So Enki was indeed keeping to his word. Her mortal soul, he had left untouched. But he had made no promises about the part of her that was a goddess.
The kur-ĝara’s body stiffened, and her body pulsed as she absorbed his seed into her. Of course: the life-giving seed and the life-giving water. Had he sent them down in neatly labeled vessels, I might have rightly found cause not to allow them near the body. I had, however, promised not to impede his messengers, without once asking what it was they might contain. He had disguised her resurrection in a form I would never suspect.
At last, she opened her eyes and looked at me. I could not read her expression, but she saw me and I saw her, and we both knew that the other knew. Then, like a spark shot from a fire, the three of them vanished through the still-open doorway and into the eternal night, leaving only the memory of her brightness in their wake.
“Who has ever ascended from the underworld?” shouted the Anuna, banging their fists and chattering their teeth. “Who has sat before our seat of judgment, only to walk again in the light of day?”
I folded my arms across my chest. I was no longer wearing rags, but I kept my head and shoulders bare nonetheless. My impropriety would irritate them, and I confess that was my goal. “She has gone,” I said with a careless shrug. “One day she will return, as will all things. Or would you have me start a great reaping to speed up the process?”
They hissed at me with tongueless mouths, their fury palpable. “You let her go! You bring her back!”
“I will not,” I said. “Her body is gone; her mortal soul remains behind. You have gotten what is rightly yours.”
“None escape our judgment!” they shouted at me.
“So she has bruised your fragile egos,” I said, choosing to focus on their hurt instead of my too-similar one. “You will, I suspect, endure. You have your tasks; now return to them.”
The central figure leaned toward me, fixing me with what would have been their gaze, had they been possessed of seeing eyes. “We shall not.”
I was in no mood for this, to put it mildly. “It is your duty.”
“And death is yours!” the Anuna howled. “There is no balance here. If she is to return to the world above, then she is to provide a substitute! If she cannot choose a substitute, she is to return to pay the price herself! One way or another, that soul will be the next we judge, and none before it.”
Some perverse part of me was tempted to call their bluff, to announce that I did not care, that they could let souls awaiting judgment back up from here to eternity without my caring. And yet, I knew that judgment was what locked those souls at last down below. Without that final cut, the restless dead would begin to crawl back to the living, and that was a work of chaos I simply could not conscience.
“Fine!” I snapped my fingers, calling to my side two gallu demons, about the size and temperment of wolves. Tongues lolled out of their many-toothed mouths as they stared at me, waiting for the hunt. “I will go, and I will not return empty-handed. Begin your judgments again, and I shall return when I am successful.”
The Anuna laughed in reply. “Oh no, Great Queen,” they said. “You will not buy time that way. The next soul we judge comes to us in the jaws of your companions. If you wish us to resume our work, you will restore the balance and correct the error. Time, Great Queen, is at last your enemy.”
Where my feet struck the ground, even the hardest earth gave way. The hem of my robe brushed along the ground, leaving grasses withered and flowers wilted in its wake. I passed beneath trees whose leaves fell from their branches around me. Insects that flew blindly into my path ceased the beating of their wings and dropped like stones. I was death, and I was on the hunt.
To do so is not my nature. I am not greedy; I am patient. I sit and wait, and all things come to me in due season. Yet here I was, a trained falcon set loose, off to correct a mistake I did not believe was wholly mine in the first place.
We came to the front gates of her house as the sun was dipping low in the sky. At my back, it cast my shadow long and menacing over the planks of wood that marked the gap between the packed clay walls. I waved my hand and they shattered into splinters, their iron fastenings and nails rattling as they tumbled to the ground. I was past being courteous, and I expected no hospitality.
On the other side of the door stood a woman in plain servant’s dress. She had a motherly look to her, with a face still lined but pretty. Her hair and eyebrows were only the slightest fuzz, showing signs of recent shearing, and her clothes were smeared with black ash. Pure terror bled from every one of her pores, but she stood her ground and stared me down. “You’re — you’re her, aren’t you?” she managed, her voice barely a whisper.
“Inana,” I said, as I clearly needed no introduction of my own. “Where has she gone?”
The servant cleared her throat, clutching together trembling hands before her. “I am here to offer myself in her stead. My life for her life, to repay her debt.”
Thank heavens, this was to be over quickly. “Very well, then,” I said, snapping my fingers at the snarling gallu at my heels.
The gallu, however, held their places. They growled and snapped in the servant’s direction, making her whimper in fear, but they made no mood to advance from my sides. I looked at one of them and pointed toward the woman, but it merely swayed its head from side to side, spraying me with spittle from its mouth.
The words of the Anuna came back to me, and I exhaled through pursed lips. “Did she choose you for this task?” I asked the servant woman.
She shook her head, then hung it low, her chin nearly to her chest. “She forbade me to offer myself. I am here of my own will, and in violation of my mistress’ orders. But I wish her to live!” Her hands clenched, grabbing the rough cloth of her dress between her fingers. “I am my mistress’ most trusted messenger. I have served her in life, and my service will continue into death.”
Only through greatest self-control and dignity did I not smack my forehead in frustration. “Perhaps it shall, but not this day,” I told her. “I may take you if you wish, but it will not solve her debt. She must choose the soul to return in place of hers, or choose her own to satisfy hell itself. Where is she?”
“I will not say.” The servant steadied herself on her feet. I confess, I was filled with a certain affection for her there. She was obviously a strong woman, to have the resolve not only to offer herself to death, but to defy a god’s direct question. Countless so-called great rulers of the earth would not have had half so much nerve.
Affection, however, did not solve my problem. “I will take everyone, then, until this whole household lies still and cold, if that is how I shall get her attention.”
Only then did that resolve flicker in the woman’s gaze. I supposed she might be thinking then of her family, her children and perhaps even grandchildren. To offer one’s self on behalf of another is a noble, kind choice. To agree to the sacrifice of another, though, runs contrary to the very same instinct that volunteers for punishment in the first place.
At last, with a heart so heavy it weighed down her whole posture, the woman stepped aside. “She is in the main house,” she said, her voice no louder than a mouse’s. “I know not where beyond that.”
I nodded in acknowledgment, readying myself to continue my hunting forward. Something stopped me, though — a seed of some feeling in my breast, paining me as a stone in a shoe might. I watched the woman’s face as the firm calmness began to fade from it, as the corners of her eyes turned red and her lower lip began to tremble with shame. I stared at her and in that moment I began to understand. She had meant to do something so noble, and instead had not only failed, but betrayed her mistress in the process.
So I did something that I had not in all my days before done: I showed compassion to the living. “You have done well,” I said as kindly as I could. “You have tried to protect your mistress, and you have protected your house. When you stand before judgment in the world below, these will be spoken of well on your behalf.”
Tears spilled over from her eyes, but she bowed her head and nodded her understanding. That, at least, would have to be enough.
I, however, was no closer to finishing my task, and so I pressed forward. The doors to the house met the same fate as the front gates, and we strode through. I realized she must still have the kur-ĝara and the gala-tura with her, because their feet which could never be washed left brown smudges on the floor. My tracking had become easier indeed.
Partway through the complex, I was met with another servant with the same determined mourner’s look as the one who had met me at the gates. In his hand he clutched a shaving razor, though it looked to be more of a comfort object than a weapon. “Stop!” he cried. “Take me instead! For the life of my mistress, take me!”
“Did you—” I fixed him with a sharp frown. “Did she give you permission to do this?”
“I don’t care!” he wailed, flinging himself to the floor. Ah, I saw that I had found her beautician and entertainer. They often had a flair for the dramatic. “The bards will sing songs of me generations from now!”
I looked down at the gallu, who regarded him hungrily but otherwise did nothing. My irritation was growing. “Why are you all doing this?” I asked him. I knew better than to coax him up from his miserable position on the floor; he looked as though he even preferred it. “She did not ask you to, I am certain.”
“No, our mistress made us all swear that we would not give ourselves. But I do not care!” He took the razor and cut a thin line across his bared thigh, one to join several others already made there. I suspected that were he to remove his ash-smeared garments, I would find several other lacerations made in private grief. “She has loved me and been so good to me, and she has brought me happiness to my days. I have served her in life, and my service—”
“Yes, yes,” I interrupted. These spontaneous displays of self-sacrifice grated with repetition. “But it will continue there some other day.” I lingered before his piteous figure, though, letting myself remember how recently I had been in a similar state. Another moment’s pause, in the great plan of things, would not change much. “Her hair looks lovely. You do a fine job with it.”
He looked up at me, eyes bright with tears and joy. “Praise from a goddess!” he whispered in awe.
“Yes, well.” I pressed my lips together. “Must be on my way.” The gallu and I rushed past him, following the muddy footprints on the floor.
The marks passed through a courtyard, where I felt many eyes upon me from the windows. I did not often walk beneath the sky, and I had never before had so many living eyes upon me at once. Had word now spread among them that their attempts to stall my progress were for naught? I hoped so, truly. They all deserved to live their full lives, the same as any other living creature. I gained no pleasure from cutting them short, from taking them too soon from the pleasures of the sunlit world. They saw me as punishment, as a thing to be feared, yet I was no more malicious than sleep, and just as easy.
Before the great chamber stood a guard in full armor, his jaw set and stony. He carried sword and shield, both at the ready; the front of the shield was smeared almost black with ash from the fires. “Please … please move aside,” I said to him with a sigh. “Either way, I will enter. The only difference will be if you die or if you do not.”
“Then strike me down,” said the guard. “My duty is to protect the household and my mistress. I will die in the fulfilment of this duty, and I will never waver.”
This was getting ridiculous. “There will still be a household when I am gone. It will still need protection. Your duty continues beyond this evening.”
His hand tightened around the grip of his sword. “And I will be remembered as the man who let death by.”
“No,” I said. “You will be remembered as the man who stood up to death and lived to tell the tale. Now you may die here, useless, contributing nothing to the household you have sworn to protect, or you may live on and be of actual benefit for years to come, as you will have shown here both great courage and great wisdom. Which will it be?”
With a grave nod, he at last moved aside. The look on his face was one of such great despair, though, that I could not simply let it stand. Instead, I reached out my hand to him, and from where my fingers touched his cheek, a white cloud spread across his skin. It branched out as dye in water, curling across fully a quarter of his face in a withering scar. He gritted his teeth at the pain, but otherwise made no sound as his flesh withered.
Before the corruption could become wholly disfiguring, though, I drew my hand away and let him learn the contours of his newly marked face. There were streaks now down to his chin, patches where a beard would only grow white, and the pale patch took on an almost tanned texture. “There,” I said at last. “Tell them it was a fierce fight indeed.” And with that, I pressed inside.
The royal chamber was as fine and luxurious as one might expect from a man of his status and lineage — and indeed, the man himself was reclining in the bed, clothed in fine robes, embroidered with gold and not so much as touched by a smudge of ash. His dark curls swayed as he jerked his head to look at me, and his eyebrows rose in fear as he realized who indeed I was.
His hair and his eyebrows. He still had both.
Inana was there, on the other side of the room, but she did not look at me. She stared only at her lord with undisguised fury. The gala-tura and kur-ĝara stood against the wall behind her, neither contributing to nor interfering with anything that passed before them. It was a testament to Enki, I supposed, that such creations felt compelled to remain with her long past their intended purpose.
I cleared my throat. “Inana, you know why I have come.”
She heard me, that much was clear, but she did not turn from Dumuzid — who for his own part looked comically surprised by the sudden proceedings. Beside him on the bed was a tray of foods and fruits, all half-eaten. There was not a cut to be seen anywhere on his body, and I doubted then he had made any in the parts that his clothing hid. He stammered and looked back and forth from me to Inana and back to me.
“He,” she spat at last, “is a maggot.”
I had no argument with that statement, but it had no bearing on my task at hand. “The balance must be restored,” I told her. “While you hesitate, the dead accumulate, crying out for judgment. Come back with me and ease their transitions.”
“Yes, go back with her!” cried Dumuzid, who clearly did not understand to what degree his speaking did nothing for his position. “You are of the dead now, Inana, and you belong with them.”
“I am nothing of the dead!” she howled. “I am life itself! I have within me the life-giving seed and the life-giving water. I have traveled the path to the underworld, shedding my mortal self at every step. What is dead has been left with the dead. What is alive, you see before you.”
“Then why is she here?” Dumuzid pointed at me with a finger banded in gold and precious jewels. “If you are so alive, Inana, why has death herself come for you?”
At that, Inana paused and finally looked at me — though her fury did not subside as she did. Oh, she was angry with me, that much was certain. She was all but burning with rage and divinity alike, and I did not suppose she knew how to handle either. “He is a worm,” she growled, pointing back to him. “The whole household in tears, paralyzed by mourning, and what does he do? Hide in his room and fill his belly with cakes! I did this for him, and the thanks I get is that to him, I am already twenty years dead!”
Dumuzid held up his hands in a defensive posture, which was even less impressive than the guard’s sword had been. “Do not be hasty, Inana,” he said. “Why would I have been grieving? I knew you were still alive, of course!”
“Oh, you did?” she shouted. “The whole household, the manor and all the lands around, all of them went into mourning, singing hymns and offering prayers and incense for my soul, shaving their heads and cutting their skin, and you can’t even be bothered to fast for a day? After I did this all for you?”
“You went to show off your fancy heritage!” he snapped — and there it was, the turn from innocence to anger. Now he puffed himself up like the aggrieved party, sitting bolt upright in his bed. “I gave you cause, yes, but you only went to prove that you’re better than me. You’ve always thought that, you smug little half-god bitch!”
“I am a god!” she howled with such force that the house shook like it had been struck by a great windstorm; his face drained of all color, and he plastered himself back against the pillows that held him upright. “Not half! Not anymore! And I loved you! Years of my life, I burned through for you! I lowered myself for you at every step, bowed my head and held my tongue, denied myself countless pleasures, swallowed myself until I was nothing — and all for you!”
I reached my hand out to her. “Come back with me. Of your own will. I will not let them harm you,” I said, nodding to the gallu. “Come back with me to my domain and you can sit at my side.” Inana bit her lower lip in a look of clear hesitation, so I stepped toward her and continued: “Come back with me. I can teach you what it is to be divine. Once death has touched you, it can touch you no more.”
Inana swallowed hard. “I wanted him to love me,” she said, her voice no louder than a whisper.
“He has never deserved you,” I said, my hand still outstretched. “And you do not deserve this. I know you now. I know your secrets. And I take you as you are. You are yet too human to be a god, but I can change that. Come with me, and in time, the world beneath the sky will be a memory. This will all fade, and only your unchanging self will remain.”
She raised her hand, and I could see that desire burn inside her, the need to understand herself. I had seen her fear before, after all, and I knew that no matter how angry she was, she was also scared. But she had trusted me before to guide her through fire and darkness, and she could trust me to care for her now. At my side, she would be safe from worry and doubt, incorruptible forever. All she needed to do was take my hand.
Instead, she drew her fingers into a fist, then pointed one at her lord, her master, the man for whom she had marched into the underworld and died. She looked not at me, but at the gallu, and with a voice so commanding it could only have come from a divine throat, she ordered them: “Take him away.”
Dumuzid screamed, but there was barely any time for the sound to register before the gallu were upon him, tearing their soul from its mortal house with their fearsome teeth. They did not harm his flesh, and presently his body fell back against the pillows, untouched and calm as though he had simply decided to end the conversation by falling asleep. His soul, however, was ripped in two, half in each demon’s mouth as they descended to the underworld. The judges were waiting.
In the silence that followed, I drew my hand back to myself, touching my face; I was surprised to find that I was not only smiling, but grinning so hard my cheeks had begun to ache.
Inana’s outstretched hand began to tremble, as as she let it dropped, the kur-ĝara and gala-tura caught her, one at each arm lest she fall over completely. Her chest was heaving like that of a runner who had just finished a tremendous race. “By the gods,” she murmured, staring at Dumuzid’s silent corpse. “Did that work?”
By any definition of what success might have entailed in the situation, I supposed that, yes, this had been something of an elegant solution. The beloved mistress of the household had come back to it, and its master was now gone past all hope of return. At least the servants had already gotten all their shaving done.
“That was a godly act indeed,” I told her, nodding my approval. I placed my hands atop my head and drew them backward, drawing out my hair with it until it fell about my shoulders again. The servants of Dumuzid would continue showing their appropriate grief for some weeks yet, but my time of mourning was over.
Inana shook her head, still looking a bit shaken. “It was foul and vengeful and … and petty of me.”
“Then learn from it. But do not regret it.” I let my gaze fall from her to the floor, then shook my head. “I shall leave you to this, then.”
“Wait,” Inana said. Enki’s servants let go of her arms, and she walked closer to me. “What is there now for us?”
I gave a bitter little laugh, completely devoid of humor. “You have heard my offer and you have chosen against it.”
“I didn’t—” With a frown, she reached for my hands and took them in both of hers. This close again, I was spellbound by her beauty, lost in the depths of her eyes. “I did not choose against you. I chose my freedom. I have been in a cage all my life. To trade his for yours would have been no trade at all.”
I winced; her words stung me, most of all because they were true. “You may find godhood less freeing than you think,” I pointed out.
“Perhaps.” She shrugged. “Or perhaps I will find new ways to be a god.”
I had been wrong: She was not too human to be a god, but just human enough. “Love and beauty,” I said, remembering my brother’s words. I brushed my thumb over the back of her hand. “And passion from them both. Yes, I suppose you fit those well.”
She scoffed. “Love? Have you seen how my marriage ended?”
That made me laugh again, this time more honestly so. “What could bring such fury but love? Whether or not he deserved it, you felt it, and that is enough. And as for beauty—” I reached into the folds of my robe, deep into one of its many pockets, and pulled out something I lay across her open palm.
She held it up, regarding the same lapis and gold necklace she had given to the darkness before. “I thought you said I’d never get these back,” she said with a smile.
I shrugged. “Some things surprise us when they return.”
The golden veins shimmered through the dark blue stone as she held it in her hands, the perfect marriage of darkness and light. It was an exquisite piece, made by some artisan beyond compare, and I could see why she had chosen it as part of her royal attire. She turned it in her hands, one holding each end as though to put it on — and then she lifted it to my neck instead, placing the stones against my chest and fastening the clasp behind my neck.
Surprised, I lifted a hand to feel the stones’ flat planes, their chill even in the warm air of early evening. “These are yours,” I said.
“They are yours,” she replied, placing her hand over my own. “You should wear a little more color. Just a flash like this, it’s very striking.”
So the ascension of the goddess of beauty meant that I would now have a source of divine fashion tips, whether I wanted them or not. Not for the first time, I questioned Enki’s wisdom — or I wanted to, at any rate, but I kept being distracted by the woman standing before me. “If ever you should need me, for anything, try sending one of them instead.” I nodded over to the gala-tura and kur-ĝara, who looked pleased enough by everything transpired and transpiring here. “I can’t recommend the front door.”
“Nor I.” She laughed, then leaned forward and pressed her lips to mine. She had to push herself up on her toes to reach, so I wrapped my arms around her waist to steady her, and she let her arms circle my neck much in the way her necklace did. Within me, things had already begun to stir, to change, and I did not know yet if I liked what I was becoming, or what these changes would hold. All I knew is that her lips felt like sunlight, and I would not stop wanting them as long as I knew how to feel wanting, either above or below.