Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, settled back on this throne and resisted the urge to sigh. His vizier continued to drone about whatever dull matter of state had preoccupied him this day. It was always something new. Rarely, however, was it something exciting.
Once, being king had meant slaying monsters and battling wild men. But then he had given up his throne and journeyed into the underworld in search of the secret to immortality. Though he had not found the answers he sought, he’d returned wiser than he’d left.
The world had changed in his absence, but Uruk remained, awaiting her king. He intended to be a good one, and to make the most of the second chance fate had given him.
If only it wasn’t so dreadfully boring.
Gilgamesh’s head rocked forward and he did his best to support it with his fist. Despite the tedium, he did his best to listen. It was the least he could do. And yet, even as he tried to focus, he felt something nag at him – a pull on his attentions. His senses, like his strength, were semi-divine. He could hear something approaching, like the breathing of great wings or the scrape of footsteps. The pressure of that approach built in his skull, making it hard to concentrate. His eyes flicked to his sword, resting against his throne.
He was reaching for the weapon even as the doors to his throne room were smashed open with a thunderous boom. Two crackling arrows cut through the air and pierced his robes, pinning him to his throne. Even as he ripped himself free, his attacker stormed into the throne room, her eyes blazing with fury. The crowd of supplicants and courtiers melted away before her divine wrath, fleeing in all directions.
“Traitor,” Ishtar, Queen of Heaven, snarled as she readied a third arrow. Gilgamesh fluing himself from his throne as she loosed the arrow. It passed over his head and split his throne in two. He came to his feet, sword at the ready, bewildered by the sudden attack.
“Have I done something to offend you, my lady?” he called out, exited and confused in equal measure. He’d yearned for something to break the tedium, but an angry goddess on his doorstep was highly unexpected.
In reply, Ishtar charged towards him, her footsteps echoing throughout the rapidly emptying throne room. As she did so, she flung aside her bow and drew the twin blades sheathed across her back. The blades flashed out and Gilgamesh interposed his sword at the last moment. Ishtar continued her attack, slashing and stabbing, driving him back as much through sheer, relentless ferocity as martial skill. His mind whirled as he sought to keep her at bay. It wasn’t easy; Ishtar was a goddess of war, among other things.
His return to the mortal would had not come without cost. A bargain had been struck. The gods of Babylon had promised him that which he most desired. In return, all he had to do was bind Tiamat herself, the mother of the gods.
A simple enough quest, but one that proved to have complications. The world had not been as simple as he recalled, not had Tiamat been precisely the monster of legend. Instead of doing battle, he had chosen another path. One that would almost certainly not please the gods, when they learned of it.
While he had been prepared for some from of retribution, a direct assault on his person had been the last thing he’d been worried about. The gods normally acted through intermediaries. They sent monsters to do their dirty work. They didn’t come in person. Then, Ishtar had always been impulsive. Even her fellow gods feared drawing her ire. There were few lengths Ishtar would not go to, when she thought she’d been provoked. He knew that from painful experience.
He ducked a blow meant to sever his head from his body and retreated. “This reminds me of our courtship,” he said, with forced cheerfulness. Ishtar glared at him, scraping her blades together angrily. “You’re not still mad about that, are you?” he added. She lunged, quicker that he could follow. She was a goddess, after all, and though his blood was semi-divine, he could not match her speed. It was all he could do to keep her at a distance. Going on the offensive against her would be all but impossible.
Ishtar had him at more than a physical disadvantage. Striking her – injuring her – would result only in her fellow gods turning their unwelcome attentions on he and his people. Uruk had been getting along just fine without the interference of the Babylonian pantheon. As far as Gilgamesh was concerned, the gods ought to keep to their domains and leave the day-to-day business of the world to those who lived on it.
But if he didn’t defend himself, she might well destroy both he and the city he ruled out of sheer petulance. Ishtar had never lost a battle, at least not that she had ever admitted. If she was here, attacking him, she intended to humble him at the very least and she wouldn’t be satisfied until she had done so.
Once, the idea would have incensed him; driver him past the edge of reason. But these days, he had a new understanding of the world and his place in it. He had seen what the wars of the gods meant for those who worshipped them. Whoever won, it was inevitably mortals who suffered the most.
That thought was uppermost in his mind when he let his sword dip. As he did so, he hoped he was not making a mistake; if he was, Ishtar would no doubt ensure it was his last. She seized the opening and pressed the tips of her blades to his exposed throat. She forced him back against a pillar and stared at him. Her expression contorted, softened and became neutral. She stepped back. He rubbed his throat and watched her warily.
“I remember you fighting harder, last time,” she said. She looked him up and down, as if trying to recall the last time they’d met.
“I was a fool,” he said.
“Then? What about now?” She gestured with one of her blades. “We sent you back to the mortal world for a reason, Gilgamesh. Yet here I find you, lolling on your throne, without a care in the world.”
“I was hardly lolling,” he protested.
Ishtar waved his words aside and sheathed her swords. “Whatever you were doing, it wasn’t as important as what we sent you to do.” She fixed him with a steely gaze. “Explain yourself. Now.”
Ishtar studied Gilgamesh with a considering eye. Something was different about him. The king she remembered had been a callow creature, arrogant and foolhardy. But the man before her was something else. Calm; disciplined. She found the change unsettling and intriguing in equal measure.
At her words, Gilgamesh drew himself up. “I have nothing to explain,” he said. “You sent me nowhere. We made a bargain and I chose to fulfill it.”
“That is not how I remember it,” she said. There was the arrogance she remembered, but only a trace. She looked away, gazing about her at his throne room. Much less grand than she remembered, but more open. Less like a temple and more like a council chamber.
Once, Gilgamesh had thought himself equal to the gods – or at least deserving of that equality. His people still raised their voices in worship, and burnt offerings. But Gilgamesh himself no longer seemed interested in godhood. She sniffed and looked back at him. “Then, you never did know how to show us the proper deference.”
Gilgamesh didn’t reply. His silence infuriated her. He had been many things, but never silent. His arrogance and bellicose nature had made him a fine tool for her pantheon. She argued against it all the time, believing that Tiamat could only be contained by the gods who had chained her in the first place.
But the other Babylonian gods had been too fearful; too worried about what a clash between themselves and Tiamat might do to the world. They had hoped Gilgamesh would at least weaken the ancient dragon somewhat, giving them direct confrontation.
Instead, nothing had happened. Or, rather, something had happened but they didn’t know what. Things had changed somehow, in some ineffable fashion. It was as if the world had reordered itself without their knowledge or input.
The others were content to debate the nature of what had occurred, but she’d had enough of their inaction. It did not matter if the world had changed, or how. All that mattered was that Tiamat was still free. If the others would not act with her, she would do so alone. It would not be the first time she had been forced to take matters into her own hands.
She cocked her head, looking Gilgamesh up and down. Once she’d thought to make him her consort, but he had refused that honor. At the time, she’d put it down to hubris. She bared her teeth and tugged on his beard; a playful gesture, but a painful one, as evidenced by his wince, “I should tear this city down around your ears, little king,” she purred. “If for no other reason than to remind you who your betters are.”
“I am well-aware of my place in the scheme of things,” Gilgamesh said, slowly. He met her gaze and again, she was struck by the calm in his eyes. Where was the tempest of old, the roaring fire that had so matched her own? In those days, they had seemed two of a kind, both unsatisfied by what had been granted them, both desirous of new conquests – new challenges. But it was obvious he was no longer than man.
Disappointed, she released his beard and stepped back. “Whatever the reason, you have not done as we demanded. Why?”
“Tiamat and I came to an arrangement,” Gilgamesh said, rubbing his chin.
Ishtar laughed scornfully. “An arrangement? You can no more come to arrangement with Tiamat than you can with the sea.”
He smiled. “Then perhaps I should try talking to the sea next, for I seem to have a gift for negotiation.”
She fixed him with a look. “Perhaps I should cut out your tongue and see how well you talk then.” His smile faltered, but did not entirely vanish. They both knew her threat was empty. Her anger had passed, replaced by curiosity. “Explain.”
Gilgamesh spread his hands. “She wished to be left alone. To coexist in peace with this world and the gods who oversee it.”
Ishtar snorted. Tiamat was the very embodiment of chaos. Peace was beyond her. But clearly, she had convinced Gilgamesh otherwise. “She told you this?”
Gilgamesh gestured about them. “See for yourself. Uruk Stands. Tiamat has had many opportunities to attempt to force her will upon these lands, and yet she has not. Her actions speak louder than her words.”
Ishtar frowned. “That she has not attacked you is not proof that she does not intend to do so. Only that she is patient.” She poked him in the chest. “You are a fool to think otherwise, King of Uruk. Tiamat cannot be trusted. She is as changeable as the storm-wind and more ferocious still.”
“Ask her yourself then,” Gilgamesh said, with an air of challenge.
Ishtar glared at him for a moment. Then she laughed.
“Fine. I will.”