This is the second of the worlds from All Our Yesterdays
Istari smoothed the clay on the tablet and once again, checked her observations of the stars. The army had camped outside the city for nearly a week. Soon, they would storm the gates. With a sigh, she shut out the cries of the hungry and frightened people. She could do nothing to soothe their fears and she'd given all the food the temple could spare.
She choked back a cry of despair and raised the stylus to mark her findings. She checked her observations against those provided by the astrologers.
"Alas, poor Babylon. Your night has come. War is a part of life. Countries wax and wane like Sin, the moon. Sleep well, my beloved land until the dawning of your new day."
Though she felt tempted to scrape the tablet, she knew nothing could change the approaching time. During her learning days in the temple of Marduke, she had become a reader of the future and a student of the past. Her own chart showed she would leave the city of her birth as a prisoner. She carried the tablet to the main room of the temple and placed it on the altar before the statue of the god.
Lamaru, the youngest of the priestesses, ran from the entrance to the living quarters. "Istari, Ishtar-ishtaru sent me to find you."
Mardu, priestess and kin to the rulers of Babylon, stormed toward them. "Why does she want to see this one? Does she think she can name one who has no family as her successor?" Her fleshy fingers extended into claws. "Istari, you are not fit to serve Marduke. Who knows what your parents were? You were a foundling."
Istari eyed the other woman. Why hadn't she lost weight the way the other priestesses, priests and servants of Marduke had in the days since the siege began? Mardu's lush curves were a mockery.
"Ishtar-ishtaru is my foster mother. Why wouldn't she want her child's presence at her death?"
"She must choose her successor, yet she remains silent."
"As is her choice."
Mardu glared. "We will see who is named Ishtaru. Before another day passes, I will rule the temple and you will be driven into the streets where you belong." She marched away.
Istari released a sigh. At least Mardu would be gone for hours while she searched for kinsmen to gain their support in her quest for power. Those relatives may have fled the city. Even if they pressured Ishtar-ishtaru to name Mardu as high priestess, the city's fate was written in the stars. The king and his advisors were responsible for the trouble. For months, the astrologers and diviners had given warnings the rulers had ignored.
"Don't listen to her," Lamaru said. "She envies your knowledge and your beauty. She wants to be high priestess so she can command reluctant men to her bed. She's always bringing some new slave to her sleeping chambers, but she really wants those of noble blood as her lovers."
Istari frowned. "If she's not a virgin, how will she perform the Tammuz rite?"
"She whispered to one of the others of the ways to appear untouched."
Istari shook her head. Through Mardu, the corruption of the rulers had tainted the temple. But it mattered not. The day of the city and the temple drew to an end.
She scurried down the hall leading to the sleeping chambers where her foster mother awaited death. She paused in the doorway and struggled to remain calm. Ishtar-ishtaru lay on a low bed. Her skin was ashen. Except for an abdomen swollen in imitation of pregnancy, she appeared skeletal.
Bel-mar-tammuz, her foster father and consort of the high priestess, knelt beside the bed. The illness of his beloved had aged him. His noble face was scored by lines and his dark eyes, heavy with grief.
Istari knelt beside him. "Foster mother, I am here."
"And the stars," Ishtar-ishtaru asked. "What say they of the future?"
"Alas, the dark night comes for Babylon."
"And for you?"
Istari sighed. "My fate is to be a captive and to serve Marduke no more."
"Nay, you will honor him in your heart." The dying woman smiled. "Never have I doubted you or your love. Ah, Bel-mar, remember the small girl you found in the market and brought here to ease my sorrow over my barren state?"
Bel-mar touched her arm. "She became the child of our heart and the joy of our life."
Ishtar-ishtaru sighed. "Remember how her big eyes peered into every corner of the temple. Question after question. Always seeking to know what and why."
"We taught her," Bel-mar said. "She learned to read and write before most boys begin their schooling."
"My child, you have given us laughter and fulfillment," Ishtar-ishtaru said. "Would that we could give you the same, but these days aren't for pleasure. Bel-mar, the necklace."
Istari's eyes widened. For the first time in the years since she'd come to the temple, her foster mother's neck was bare. The symbol of her office was in Bel-mar's hand. The temple seal dangled from the single row of beads strung on a metal wire. "I'm not worthy. No one knows my origins."
"Who better than one of the people to serve Marduke in his final hours in Babylon," Ishtar-ishtaru said. "Bel-mar, fasten the seal for my fingers have no strength."
Istari blinked tears from her eyes. "I will treasure your gift and serve the god with joy. Go soon, mother of my heart. Do not linger to witness the end." She kissed the older woman's cheek and fled the room. In the hall, she leaned against the wall and waited for her tears to stop.
When she reached the main room of the temple, Lamaru saw the necklace. "She chose you."
A group of priests and priestesses gathered around Istari. "Is she gone?" one asked.
"She lives but barely."
"What would you have us do?" one of the priests asked. "This is no time for a gathering of the nobles for the Tammuz ceremony."
Istari nodded. "There will be no rite of passage for me. You've seen the chart and heard the prophecies. I would see everyone depart the temple. Hide in the city. The gates will fall by morning and by evening the invaders will hold the temple. I will face them alone for 'tis written in my stars that I will go into captivity."
Though many protested, Istari exhorted them to leave. As she watched the departures, she wondered if she would see any of her companions again. She knelt before Marduke and sent wishes for their safety on the winds.
"Istari, let me stay." Lamaru knelt at the altar. "I have no one and nowhere to go."
Istari nodded. The young priestess was another foundling. A bond of friendship had grown between them. "If I can, I'll protect you. Come, let us take bread, cheese and beer to Bel-mar and sit with Ishtar-ishtaru."
Throughout the night, they kept a vigil over the dying priestess. Of Mardu, there was no sign. Istari prayed her enemy had found refuge with her kin.
As the first rays of the sun brightened the sky, her foster mother breathed her last. Bel-mar rent his clothes and streaked his face with ashes from the fire.
As the day moved forward, the sounds of fighting drew near. Screams and the clash of metal on metal roused Istari from her silent grief. She rose and walked to the door.
"Where are you going?" Lamaru asked.
Istari turned. "Even on a day as evil as this, duty must be done. I have neglected the god and he must be served." She hurried to the main room of the temple to perform the neglected duties. With care, she drew the curtains around the painted statue of Marduke and knelt at his feet to beg forgiveness.
The shouts grew louder. Screams pierced the air. When she peered around the curtain, her hand flew to her mouth. The Assyrian soldiers were expected, but Mardu's presence in their midst was not. The plump priestess stood between two men in the fore of the invaders. Istari stepped into view.
"That's her," Mardu shouted. "Istari, the false priestess."
One of the men strode toward Istari. The other held Mardu against his side. Istari's breath caught in her throat. The warrior was handsome with well-developed muscles. When he seized her arm, she felt as though lightning pierced her core.