Monday, March 31, 2008

New Chapter Excerpt

I said I would have something new to share with you, and I meant it.

The following is an excerpt from the first half of a chapter told from the PoV of Artabanus, royal uncle of King Xerxes. Although it's not my best work (it's a WIP), I still think it's interesting. But I'll leave you--the reader--to decide. Comments are welcome. In fact, I could use some feedback.

Babylon, 483 BCE

The city is dying.

Seven stories below the temple of Marduk a sea of humanity tossed about in helpless rage and despair. The structure that had served as the center of Babylonian religion and politics for centuries would soon be no more. Xerxes has seen to that, Artabanus thought.

He was still in shock. Xerxes, the eldest of Queen Atossa and the most agreeable of her sons had seemed a far better choice as king than the impossibly arrogant and entitled Artobazus, eldest child of all the royal wives and by far the most violent. Three years ago King Darius had come to the same conclusion. Disgusted with his eldest son's erratic behavior, he decreed that Artobazus was no longer worthy of being his heir and ordered him out of Babylon where the prince had been serving as Viceroy. He then had Artabanus and an honor guard of one thousand escort Xerxes north from Susa to the satrap of Babylonia, where the youth would take his brother's place.

That had caused a tremendous uproar in the palace--there were two older boys besides Artobazus in line for the throne--but the king was undaunted. "My son Xerxes is an intelligent and judicious youth. He will make me proud," he told the court. Artabanus had agreed, and for the first time in years had real hope for the future, even as rebellions had raged within the empire. But by the end of that year the king's life was spent, and Xerxes had left Babylon grim-faced and determined, riding hard and fast towards the south to take up the crown of Persia.

He had to hurry. Prince Artobazus was pressing his claim, he recalled.

Artabanus had stayed behind, acting as Viceroy in Xerxes' place. News of nephew's accession a month later came as a relief, especially when he heard that the other royal children--including Artobazus, who had arrived in Susa too late to make his claim--had conceded the throne to him. By the time Artabanus arrived in the capital to pay homage to his new king however Xerxes was gone, marching west to deal with the rebels in Egypt. When he returned home a year later the prince Artabanus had known as Viceroy was dead, and a stranger sat the royal throne, cold and full of anger against the rebellions that had plagued his father and now plagued him.

"I will make them pay," he had vowed atop his splendid throne of gold when heard that the satrap Zopryus had been murdered and that the people of Babylon had risen in revolt. The news had arrived during an audience with Artabanus and other court nobles, and the audience quickly became a war council. "I will teach these fools what it means to disobey a servant of Ahura Mazda and their rightful king!" He had meant every word, and the ruthless destruction of the city he had once ruled so lovingly was the proof of it.

The war in Egypt changed my nephew, Artabanus thought sadly. He is no longer the same quiet, thoughtful boy I watched grow up in Persapolis. It broke his heart to think of it. So instead he watched the deconstruction of Babylon's mighty temple, here in its shadow, atop Nebuchadrezzar's tiered gardens.

A servant held a fringed parasol over his head to protect him from the blazing noonday sun, another fanned him with ostrich feathers, and yet another stood by with a silver tray holding a goblet brimming with chilled wine in case he felt thirsty from the heat, yet he felt cold. He also felt restless, and instead of sitting at one of the couches laid in a circle nearby he stood along the garden's southern wall.

There he watched as men in loin clothes stepped around the remains of broken brick, hurling dozens of ropes over another corner of the temple and then stretching the hemp taunt. The denizens at the base of the processional stairway responded with a wave of protests. They punched and kicked, threw rocks and cursed, but a wall of Persian guards held fast and the tide of people broke upon their spear and shields. Some dropped to the ground. Even from this distance Artabanus could make out merchants and warriors, farmers and beggars. They had all worshiped atop the brick mountain known as the Etemananki, a massive seven-storied ziggurat that housed the gold statues of their gods and much of the city's wealth. The rebellion had cost them their temple, their statues, their wealth... Even their gods it seems, Artabanus thought.

“Jericho fell too,” his elderly Jewish secretary Daniel said quietly beside him. He had been recording the event--at Artabanus' request--but now he had stopped to watch, misty-eyed. “The Children of Israel circled the city seven times and the walls came crashing down, never to be rebuilt.”

The Etemenanki has seven stories. Is that why its temple falls?

"Your family has lived here for generations. This must be very difficult to watch," Artabanus answered carefully. The old man's family had lived here for at least three generations, he seemed to recall. Daniel looked startled. “Years ago my forefathers were dragged here in chains and forced to serve as they did in Egypt. My people suffered under the shadow of this very temple. Then the Lord sent Cyrus to free us. And now the temple that my ancestors were forced to worship in is no more. I feel relief. My people will no longer suffer at the hands of the black-haired Babylon." The secretary seemed to remember himself then, blinked back his tears, murmured an apology and resumed his work. Artabanus felt for him.

His people were not the first to find fault with Babylonia and its fortress-like city. Nations had shed blood over these fertile plains; the Babylonians most of all. It was hard to believe the city was meant for anything but bloodshed and war. No matter where you turned there were gates and walls, garrisons and bridges and lines waiting for permission to get from one side of river that divided the city to the other. There were few places that offered a sense of peace and tranquility here; the famed gardens of Nebuchadrezzar was one of those few.

They were a true wonder, these gardens. Five stories of colorful brick rose high above the city like a rectangular pyramid open to the sky, every tier covered in trees and bushes and flowers fed by water pumped up through an ingenious irrigation system. The intoxicating smell of exotic desert blooms perfumed the air, and birds of all sizes and colors chirped and rustled about the lush green grasses looking for fruit seeds or pinching rainbow-colored flowers for nectar.

Ten years ago when Artabanus served as a Royal Judge he came to these gardens to escape the hustle and bustle of the dusty, crowded streets. The gardens were always a peaceful place, and offered spectacular views: desert to the west, mountains to the east and fertile plains to the north. The searoad leading south was partially obstructed by the Etemananki, but Artabanus had always enjoyed watching people make their way up and down its steps, their eyes shining with religious fevor and their arms full of offerings. Today he had tried to escape the streets crowded with angry mobs and the wails of the people, but of course it turned out there was no better place to watch the end of Babylon than here in this small paradise.

It seems there is no escape for me.

He could not say how long he was there. A minute? An hour? It seemed he couldn't pull himself away. Not until the sun reached its zenith did he turn to leave. That was when a movement to his left caught his eye. Artabanus turned towards it with a worried frown, unsure if it was his own gaurd or a band of angry Babylonians. It was worse. Four stories below a small contingent of soldiers was just starting to climb the gardens' large, brick steps. Their rounded felt hats and pointed caps proclaimed them a mix of Mede and Scythian soldiers. In the middle was a man dressed in Scythian trousers and tunic, covered with gold bracelets and earrings the glinted in the sun. His ribbed, square-shaped tiara proclaimed him of a high-ranking Persian.