Gravemaidens – Kelly Coon

TODAY, THREE GIRLS would be doomed to die an honored, royal death. A coil of dread wound itself around my guts at the thought, but I took a deep breath and focused on the little boy standing in front of me. Getting wrapped up in Palace rituals wasn’t part of my duties, but healing a child was. Especially when his cure meant food for my family. “Open your mouth and say ‘Ahhh’ as if the Boatman were chasing you.” I held his face, which was covered in crumbs. Probably the remnants of a thick slice of warm honeycake. My stomach rumbled, imagining the treat he’d likely enjoyed. Beneath the mess, his tawny cheeks were unusually pale. “Ahhhhhh!” the boy screamed. Smiling slightly, his innocence a welcome relief from my dark thoughts, I stuck the end of a spoon into his mouth to hold down his tongue, angling his head to the morning sunlight to see inside. Behind me, his mother hovered, smoothing her violet tunic and patting her hair, which was fastened into two neat buns above her ears. When she fidgeted, the gold chains looped around her forehead shimmered in the light streaming in from the window. Despite the circumstances, it was nice to see that the mothers who had all the wealth in the city were no different from the mothers in my neighborhood who had none. When it came to their sick children, their hands twisted nervously in the same way.

The boy’s throat was blistered white. I smoothed my hands over his bare back and touched my lips to his forehead to check for fever—an old healer’s trick, since lips are more sensitive than hands. He was slightly warm but not worryingly so. The glands in his neck were swollen, as they should be with an infection, but this child would be able to fight it off. His muscles were strong, his reflexes good, his eyes clear. Unlike the children of my neighbors, he was undoubtedly fed daily with the freshest fruits and vegetables, the finest fish and meats. I swallowed my hurt at the inequity. But it wasn’t this child’s fault. “You’re going to be just fine.” I ruffled his silky hair.

“I am?” He popped his thumb in his mouth and sucked furiously, then withdrew it when his mother looked sideways at him with eyes outlined by thick strokes of kohl. “Are you sure?” “Of course I’m sure!” I took his chin in my palm. “Why do you ask?” “Because the Boatman comes when you’re really sick.” His lip trembled, and the thumb went back into his mouth. I took his other hand in mine. “I’m sorry if I scared you when I mentioned the Boatman. The truth is, he’s not so scary at all. He’s a helper to the gods. Did you know that?” The lie rolled effortlessly off my tongue. He shook his head.

“It’s true. The Boatman is just a man who lived long ago.” I looked around the common room for something to add a note of truth to my tale. A carved-wood sicklesword, one that was, no doubt, modeled after his guardsman father’s, sat atop a braided rug next to an emerald-colored floor cushion. “The Boatman used to be a guardsman. But now he’s a helper. When you die, you pay the coin for your passage and the Boatman scoops you up, puts you into his rickety boat, and paddles you off to the Netherworld, where there are endless parties and games and honeycake forever and ever.” I squatted down to his eye level. “But he only comes if you’re very, very sick—which you are not—or very, very old—which you are not, although you do look much older than you are with these big, strong muscles.” I squeezed his little arm.

He giggled around the thumb in his mouth. Then his eyes grew serious. “Will Ummum be there in the Netherworld when I go?” He looked at his mother, who ran her clean, carefully tended fingernails down her arm. From the direction of the sleeping quarters, an infant wailed. “Yes. Before you go with the Boatman as an old, old, old man”—the smile flickered again—“she will be there waiting for you with the biggest honeycake of all.” My throat constricted as I finished the story, but I forced the sorrow away with every bit of my strength. I stood and turned to his mother. “Do you have any garlic?” “Let me check with the servant.” She called into the other room.

“Hala?” A girl my sister’s age—maybe fifteen years—appeared in the doorway, holding the squalling infant in her arms. She was the child of one of my neighbors. Women of my stature often sent their unmarried daughters to be servants in other people’s households to earn coins or food. “My lady?” she said, her eyes on her bare feet. “Where is the garlic?” “It’s in the bin near the door. Shall I fetch it for you?” “Why do you suppose I asked for it?” The woman crossed her arms over her chest. Hala dipped her head, her cheeks blazing, and retreated with the infant. I took a breath, forcing myself to put on the mask of civility I wore daily when dealing with the ill and their families. “To help ease his throat and take away the infection, mix six crushed cloves in a flagon of warm water and bid him gargle with it.” She nodded her agreement.

“He won’t like it, but if it will help, we will do it.” “Yes, and it will have to be twice a day for three days. By the end of the third day, if his symptoms persist, send for me again and I will bring a stronger tincture.” “Okay. Thank you, A-zu.” She turned, as if to go. “Oh, no, my lady. I am no great A-zu. My abum is the best healer in the city.” No matter what anyone thinks anymore.

“I am merely his apprentice.” “Well, then why didn’t he come himself? Why did he send you?” She looked me up and down. Why didn’t I keep silent? I stared at my dirty toes, encased in sandals that were two years too small. There was no easy way to answer her question. When my mother had passed away a moon ago, he’d lost his will to tend to himself, let alone anyone else. Not only had I taken on the tasks of running the household and caring for my sister, but I’d also been visiting his patients all over the city. As his healer’s apprentice, it was my duty. Plus, we had to get paid. “He was called away for an emergency, my lady, but I’d be happy to send him when he is back if you need him.” I was making a promise I might not be able to keep, but the coins were already in her hand.

If she opted not to pay me, there was nothing I could do, and I had to take care of my family. She blew out an exasperated breath, then looked back at her little boy, who was squatting on the rug, playing with the sicklesword. “Fine,” she murmured. “Take this and be gone.” She dropped six shekels into my hand, pulling away quickly, as if I were the one with an illness. I stuffed them into my healing satchel before she could change her mind. “Thank you, noblewoman. I appreciate your generosity.” I nodded once to the boy and then to Hala, who’d come back with the garlic and the red-faced baby. Right before I closed the door, the woman snatched the garlic from Hala’s hand and yelled at her for not moving faster.

I cringed, thinking of my own sister taking a scolding like that, as I headed quickly toward the marketplace. Thankfully, with the healing practice, I hadn’t yet needed to subject her to a wealthy woman’s whims. I shook my head at poor Hala’s fate. Such was life for those born low and for those like us, cast into poverty after the biggest regrets of our lives. At least now I had the means to buy grain and could be out of the marketplace before three perfectly healthy girls were called upon to lie in the cold embrace of a dead ruler. The Libbu, the marketplace that wrapped around the base of the Palace, pulsed as people from all walks of life streamed in and out of the main gates, buying, selling, and trading. Gold and crimson flags snapped in the breeze atop the merchants’ stalls as sellers called out their wares: hand-woven linens, pots of spices, gleaming fish caught fresh from the Garadun and its tributaries that very morning. Young boys carried flapping ducks by their feet. Others tugged roped rams in from the farms. The aroma of sweet simmering spices— cinnamon, cardamom, cloves—filled my mouth with water as I walked through the gate.

It always felt distinctly alive in the Libbu, despite the fact that we were all supposed to be mourning Lugal Marus’s impending death. As the ruler of our city-state, he was due the respect of our grief, and most believed he was due three Sacred Maidens in the Netherworld. The ritual was supposed to be an honor. But I knew better. For a healer’s apprentice like me, who knew the rigid terror that accompanies death for many people, it was not a day to be joyous. Three young women were going to die. They’d step onto the Boatman’s skiff and shove off toward the Netherworld. I shuddered, though the sun warmed the skin of my exposed shoulders. Those poor girls. They were likely thinking only about living in the Palace, basking in the riches and glory it had to offer.

But when the lugal passed, they’d enter the tomb with him as queens, never to emerge on this side of life again. No thought of those they left behind. What made the town crier’s impending announcement bearable was the knowledge that no one who lived near me in the huts along the wall would be selected, even though the choices were supposed to be based on beauty alone. For the past several generations, the daughters of the rich were always chosen, because their fathers could fill the Palace coffers with silver in exchange for the honor. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on my mission: purchase food for my family, then get back home before the crowd thickened in the Libbu for the celebrations that would begin after the Maidens were selected. A jeweler held necklaces of lapis lazuli and topaz under my nose as I drifted by his booth. I turned away, not being able to afford something so grand, and was nearly knocked off my feet by my closest friend in the city. “There you are!” Iltani grabbed me in a fierce hug, and held me at arm’s length. “Let’s grab some barley and dates and head out to the fields to see that gorgeous farm boy of yours, Kammani. Get into some trouble.

You can run off with him while I distract one of his field hands.” Iltani raised her eyebrows and linked her arm through mine as we dodged a man holding a bleating goat over his shoulders. Heat colored my cheeks as I turned toward her. “He’s not my gorgeous farm boy.” “Oh, please do not deny it. You’re nearly betrothed.” As we walked by a stall brimming with ripe fruit, Iltani plucked a green grape from a basket and popped it into her mouth, much to the merchant’s annoyance. “And besides, you should be grateful he’s still even considering it, since people like this one”—she nodded to the merchant woman, who was staring slack-jawed at us—“want nothing to do with you, despite your abum being the BEST HEALER IN ALU!” “Iltani, be quiet!” As I pulled her away, she eyeballed the merchant brazenly, as if daring the woman to say anything about her theft or her ill-timed comment. The woman didn’t. Despite being born into a low social status, Iltani could get away with murder, because she looked more innocent than she was.

Bronze freckles, like clay flicked across clean linen, lay across her small, upturned nose. Twin dimples appeared in her cheeks when she grinned, as she was doing now. “Honestly,” I told her, “you don’t understand the wealthy like I do. You could be whipped for stealing. Or worse!” We wound our way through the crowd, sidestepping requests to purchase goods I could no longer afford. “Well, if I were as lovely as Nanaea, I wouldn’t have to steal, now, would I?” “She’s here?” My heart leapt. I hadn’t woken my sister to say goodbye this morning before I’d left on my rounds. She’d been snuggled in our pallet, one arm flung across her face, the other curled against her chest. I’d pushed her damp, ebony hair off her cheek, considering it, but after the way she’d whimpered in her slumber the previous night, I’d let her sleep. And then I saw her.

She and two of her friends—new ones, since her old friends from the wealthy class wanted nothing to do with us after we’d been cast down—skipped along, trying on gauzy scarves and copper bracelets under the merchants’ watchful eyes. It reminded me of how we used to play together, running in and out of the freshly cleaned quilts drying on lines stretched from home to home, draped in our mother’s heavy jewels. I thought longingly of those days, free from worry. From heartache. I didn’t care about the wealth they’d stripped from us when we lost our status, although our previous lives had been easier, for certain. Now I only wanted a day I didn’t spend shackled by responsibility. Nanaea, younger than I by only a year, didn’t seem to be bothered by any of it in the least, except at night, when the nightmares overtook her. By day, she was still as free as a child. A child trying to live as though she still had the status we once did, wrapping scarves around her shoulders we couldn’t afford to buy, trying bracelets on her arms she’d never wear in this lifetime again. “Of course Nanaea is here.

Do you think she’d miss the selection of the Sacred Maidens for anything?” Iltani brushed her hair off her forehead, leaving a smudge of dirt. I wiped it off with the back of my hand, doing my best to ignore the flippant way she’d talked about the announcement. No thought as to the terror those girls would experience when they were ensconced inside the black tomb with a dead body, forced to drink poison or be run through with sickleswords. But I didn’t blame her. It was a tradition almost everyone considered an honor. Everyone but me. I shoved away my somber thoughts as the stout town crier huffed by, a trumpet made from a tree root for amplifying his voice wedged under his arm. The Sacred Maiden announcement? So soon? I had to hurry. I turned toward another stall and, out of the corner of my eye, spotted a boy in the town crier’s wake, wearing a stark white tunic with a clay tablet on his hip. A page.

The young boy turned his face to the sun, and the breath caught in my lungs. My brother. “Kasha!” He’d been taken from our home to live in the Palace after my father had failed to heal the lugal’s son, who’d fallen from a Palace balcony and died. It was fair punishment, everyone had said. A son for a son. But it didn’t feel fair. It felt like theft, a crime we couldn’t do anything about. And although we hadn’t been completely restricted from seeing him, as the years had passed, his responsibilities in the Palace, or a diminishing desire, kept him away from us more and more. I missed that little face. I waved to him, trying to get his attention, but he moved through the crowd after the crier, his shoulders thrown back as if he hadn’t been stolen from his family and forced to fall asleep each night without anyone to sing to him.

I quickly inspected a basket overflowing with lentils before my emotions took hold. “Are you all right?” Iltani waved a gnat away from her forehead and squinted in Kasha’s direction. “He didn’t hear you, I think.” “I’m fine.” I swallowed thickly. “I just need to be about my business and get back home. I don’t want to be here when they call the Sacred Maidens.” “Well, good luck pulling Nanaea away from this crowd.” She raised her eyebrows, then looked over my shoulder. Her smile widened into a grin I knew meant trouble.

“Gods of the skies, my friend. Look who’s here.” She nudged me, and I turned. Dagan, Farmer’s Son, stood thirty handsbreadths away in his family’s stall, bartering with a man over a barrel of wheat. He spotted us over the man’s shoulder and sent me a brilliant smile. Over the past several years, I’d watched him transform from a scrawny child with ragged black hair to a thick-chested boy who was nearly a man. I offered him a quick smile, then turned away, my cheeks flushing. Iltani tugged me back around. “You can’t avoid him forever, and why would you even want to? No one else of his stature is going to ask for your hand, and besides, look at him! You could build an entire Palace using the stacked bricks of his abdomen alone.” Iltani plucked a stem of yellow chamomile from a cask full of water next to the lentils and tucked it behind her ear.

He was bare to the belt. Sweat clung like honey to the hard clay of his chest. I blushed furiously and forced my eyes elsewhere. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t care about him, because I certainly did. We’d played together in his barley fields since we were children, tying the grasses into chains and pulling each other around like mules at the plow. His mother had been friends with my abum growing up. Our eventual match was all but guaranteed. And despite us losing our status, he—one of the wealthiest men in the city because of all the land his family owned—still courted me. I was supposed to feel grateful for the favor. Even Iltani said so.

But I couldn’t focus on him. I had one mission and one mission only: care for my family. Today, that meant buying food for them and then getting back to the hut to help my abum make preparations for his patients, assuming he could gather himself enough to minister to them. Nanaea stood nearby at a merchant’s stall with her two friends, giggling as the man made a dog perform tricks for her. “Kammani,” Dagan called, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “You can’t pretend you didn’t see me. I know that lovely face of yours all too well.” A smile tugged at the corners of my lips. I couldn’t help it. Iltani elbowed me in the rib cage.

“Let’s go over there. He has food to sell, does he not?” “K!” Dagan called. “Come over to me. I’ve hardly seen you at all this past moon!” He reached up and tied his black hair into a knot with a leather cord. At my nickname, I turned toward him and caught Iltani’s smirk. “Why are you making that face?” “Oh, I don’t know. That blush along your cheekbones is telling me that you’ve been thinking of Dagan in a way that is not altogether wholesome.” I sighed. “Gods of the skies, Iltani. Silence yourself.

Let’s just go see what he wants.” I did readily admit that seeing him wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to me today, and Iltani was right. He was selling grain. I tucked a wayward strand of hair behind my ear and tried to smooth my worn tunic as we maneuvered to his stall. He was stowing shekels in a bag on his hip as we reached him, and his eyes lit up like dawn when they met mine. His dark lashes accentuated the amber eyes I knew so well. He nodded to me, then reached across the stall and took my hand. “Good day to you, Healer’s Daughter.” He brushed full lips across my knuckles, his beard, just beginning to thicken, tickling my hand. “Such formality.

What’s the occasion?” I smiled, mustering all my resolve to pry my eyes away from his light brown skin and thick shoulders, corded and rippled from working long days at the farm. “Can’t even a bumbling fool like me have some manners in front of a beautiful woman? Two of them?” He nodded at Iltani but grinned at me. “I award you three points for your efforts at flirtation,” Iltani saluted. “Now serve us beauties some food. We’re starved.” Dagan laughed, and my attention fell to the barrels of barley at his elbow, my stomach rumbling in response. I was about to ask for a fair price on them when Nanaea joined us, the copper from three glittering bracelets on her arm winking in the sun. Where in the name of Enlil did she get those? “Hello, Dagan.” She flashed him a brilliant smile.

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