When present, it was considered a loincloth; when lost, it is considered fine clothing.
After a leisurely walk and a cake or two, the women found themselves at the outskirts of the market on the far side of the city, with the expansive residential areas on either side. Hundreds of people wove through the lively market each day. Potters, farmers, seers, tailors, builders, and all sorts of artists and food vendors hawked their wares to the countless passersby. An elating and potent blend of sights, smells and sounds carried the market’s energy on the wind.
Qesma grinned wistfully, wiping her brow as she watched the people trade their goods. Despite her years of servitude, she still held a spark in her heart for commerce and the joy of craftsmanship, and she felt that spark burn hotter in lively places like this. The treasury was promising enough, with a high wage and no public interference, but offered little satisfaction for her artistic appetite.
Her new job consisted of counting and weighing gems and precious metals, and not much else. She kept count on a daily tablet, denoting which coffers contained which treasures at any given time. The stifling and irregular bureaucracy of the kingdoms was alive and well in Eridu, though it was a far cry from the misery of slavery.
The worst part by far was the management of her attending slaves, casually assigned to the treasury in order to assist her. They were three women who rose above fieldwork with their accurate memories and their talent with mathematics despite having not a day of education between them. They were professional and quiet, and as it turned Qesma’s stomach to give them orders, she had settled on asking them nicely to do things, though the option to decline her requests was an illusion.
The former accountant passed away before Qesma’s arrival, and his assistants had been set free. She promised herself she would see her ladies freed along with her sister. Slavery was, to her mind, the worst thing one person could inflict on another. There was no way she could ever return to such a life. She would sooner die than live one more day as someone else’s property.
A gentle hand on her shoulder – Enshanesha was looking at her with concern. Qesma realized the comical frown she had been making and laughed, shaking her head.
“It’s nothing, I was just thinking about something.”
“I am glad to have you back,” the priestess laughed. “I doubt I will find Kurzu without your help.”
“Speaking of Kurzu, I have no idea what he looks like. What am I looking for?” She squinted into the crowd, taking in the multitude of new faces.
Suddenly, she thought she spotted the queen’s wretched guard. Her heart skipped a beat and her eyes went wide. She fought the urge to run, and felt a singe of embarrassment as she realized she was, of course, mistaken. She forced a laugh, and found herself infinitely grateful that Enshanesha was still focused on the crowd.
“Ah, I am sorry, you asked me something. Enki knows my mind is elsewhere. What is the matter, dear?” Enshanesha smiled warmly.
Truly this woman was a gift from the gods themselves, Qesma thought. Enshanesha was beautiful, kind, intelligent, genuine – everything Qesma wanted to be. The woman’s presence was at once comforting and intoxicating; it was no wonder she had become a priestess. Once again she shook her head, putting the distracting thoughts from her mind.
Qesma cleared her throat. “I’m just wondering what Kurzu looks like.”
“Right. He is taller than both of us, about the same height as Ruut. Very handsome. His skin tone is a bit lighter than mine – almost like yours, actually. His hair is short and tightly curled, and I think he is trying to grow a beard. He has admired his father’s beard all his life, and now, oh, he is growing up so fast! I am losing my mind with worry.”
The sound of a lyre started up somewhere nearby, and a small crowd began to gather around the musician, a scruffy young man with bandages on his feet and his right eye. Soon a trio of women were singing along with the lyre. They sang of water upon lettuce and of honey upon lips, of trees bearing fruit and of barley stalks strong enough to withstand Ishkur’s spring rains.
The music calmed Qesma’s heart and mind, and she closed her eyes to enjoy the moment. The world faded away around her, and for the first time in years, she knew real peace.
Enshanesha’s hand found Qesma’s shoulder again.
“Qesma, I think I see a girl who knows Kurzu. She is the singer on the left, in front of the lyrist.”
Qesma returned herself to reality and followed her friend’s gaze. The girl Enshanesha referred to was tall and thin, and she sang joyfully with the other two girls, who must have been her sisters as they all shared a similar appearance. Qesma had the strange feeling she recognized this girl somehow, though she knew it was next to impossible. She had spent her Sumerian life in Urim, and before that she lived as a child in Kemet, which was far to the west.
When their song had finished and the crowd had paid its respects to the musicians, Enshanesha approached the girl. Enshanesha blended in easily with the public and did not draw much attention to herself despite being a priestess, one of the most prominent stations in existence. She shared the understated style of her husband, and wore a lovely light blue dress with white beads emblazoned across the neckline. Qesma trailed behind her, more uncertain than ever that she could be of any help.
“Hello, dear, do you have a moment to talk?”
The girl recognized Enshanesha and bowed her head in respect. “Uh, priestess, of course! I have all the time you might need. Is something the matter?” The girl exchanged a look with her sisters.
“I am afraid there is something. Have you seen or heard anything of my son, Kurzu? He and his friends set out a week ago for the Great Hunt and they were due back days ago. I am getting worried.”
“The… Great Hunt? What is that?” The girl was not very good at lying, and she must have known it, giving in seconds later. Qesma smirked at the attempt.
The girl leaned in closer to the priestess, clearly worried someone might discover she divulged the secret rite to an adult.
“How do you know about the Great Hunt? Who told you?”
“I know it is a secret, but I do not have time to play those games right now. Please tell me if you know anything,” Enshanesha pleaded.
The girl sighed and looked around before answering.
“We all met up after the Hunt, but Kurzu’s group didn’t show up. We figured they got lost, or lost track of time. I’m sorry, I have no idea where they are.”
Enshanesha was crestfallen, and her honest face showed it immediately.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, I don’t know where he is. I’ll let you know if I hear anything, okay?” The girl was crushed at being a source of the beloved priestess’s pain.
“It is not your fault, dear. You have nothing to apologize for. Come see me at the temple if you learn anything. Thank you for your time.”
“Thank you, priestess. I hope you find him soon.”
The two women started walking again, when suddenly Enshanesha turned and embraced her friend. The jeweler felt her shoulder grow wet beneath Enshanesha’s face. She was crying. Qesma felt a stone drop into her gut.
“I really thought she would know. I thought…”
Qesma held her tightly and stroked her hair, her heart breaking with every tear.
“I know, I know. You will see him again. The gods are protecting him, Enshanesha. You will see him again, and soon. I promise. Let’s keep looking.”