Her name is Mylitta.
“Will you come for me?” she asks her boy. They are sprawled in the grass, under the stars. They’re dressed, though disheveled. Mylitta has chosen to remain a virgin today.
“I will,” he says.
“It’s a long way,” she says.
“I will come to the temple,” he says. “And I will be there first of all the men. And I shall bring you a coin of silver, and it shall shine like the moon, and I shall press it in your hand, and say, ‘The goddess prosper thee.'”
She rolls on her side. She props herself up on one elbow. She looks at his face.
“There are stars in your eyes,” she says, “Elli.”
“Are there?” he says.
“I think so.” She reaches out a finger towards his eye. He reflexively flinches away.
She giggles, and rolls back. “It’s all right,” she says. “I can see them in the sky.”
“heroes can kill monsters.”
The hours of the night pass, and break into the borders of the dawn.
“I saw a god named White Lion,” Mylitta says.
The boy tenses. It’s almost unnoticeable.
“It talked to me about being a hero.”
“Oh?” says her boy.
“It gave me a sword,” Mylitta says, “made of starlight. And I struck at a pillar made of stone, and cleaved it through. And I could hear a roaring in my ears, like a crowd of thousands, all chanting my name.”
“A sword doesn’t make a hero,” the boy points out.
“No,” she says. “It doesn’t.”
“Killing monsters,” he says. “That’s what makes a hero.”
Mylitta moves like a flame, flickering to her feet, and the wind fans out her hair, and her eyes are bright, and her hand clenches at the air as if it wants a sword. “How,” she asks, “would you know that?”
He smiles. It’s a little languid. “Boys know,” he says.
She hesitates. She seems a bit uncertain.
“Do you think you can do it?” he asks.
Her posture slumps a little. She looks towards the city walls. “I can cut through armies,” she says. “I am a swathe of blood and death to them. I can shatter walls. Gods are dust to me, and even the stars will do me honor. Death is easy, Elli.”
“Ah,” he says, softly. “You are a wondrous and terrible thing, my love.”
She sits down with a thump, then flops back onto her back. “It’s not going to be hard,” she says. “Look.”
She holds up her hand, palm towards him. She spreads her fingers. She rests her hand gently on the ground. The earth shakes. The world trembles. In the distance, he hears a great shout of stone, that might have been her name. She lifts her hand. The earth calms.
“Huh,” he says.
He sits up. He spreads his fingers. He rests his hand on the ground. Nothing happens. He lifts his hand and looks at it again.
“You have the advantage of me,” he says. His eyes have a teasing light in them.
She grins. “Today,” she says. “But not tomorrow.”
“Will you remember me,” he says, “when you’ve killed the monster, and the world kneels at your feet?”
“and the monster shall rule over even the gods;
but he shall be as empty as his victims.”
“I will remember, Elli.”
“When great kings come from every corner of the world to pay you suit?”
She nods gravely.
“And even gods?”
“And even gods,” she says.
He hops to his feet. “I should go home,” he says. “And work at my letters. And make myself ready to camp tonight at the temple’s gate.”
“They will chase you away,” she says. She rises. “They will have brooms, you know.”
“I will look them in the eye and tell them, ‘Have you no pity for a young man’s love?'”
“They have no pity!” Mylitta assures him. “They’re priestesses!”
The boy laughs. “Then I’ll have to be sneaky,” he says. “And bear such brooms as I must bear, for love of you.”
They kiss, and he departs.
“the monster’s strength shall flourish,
and in Babylon make his home. . . .”
Mylitta goes to the river. She calls forth a naiad and asks its permission to bathe. When it nods, she strips, and bathes herself, and when she is clean, dresses again in simple clothes. She goes to the temple and watches.
There are hundreds of girls there. Some of them, like she herself, are watching. Most are sitting, in the holy enclosure, with wreaths of string about their hair. Men walk through, strangers, and they study the girls one by one. Each makes his choice. Each throws a coin of silver onto a woman’s lap. Then each takes her hand, and walks with her, beyond the holy sanctuary, and into the groves or chambers.
And in Babylon this thing is sacred.
After a time, Mylitta walks to her friend Ilma. She squats down beside her, careful not to sit. “How are you?” she asks.
Ilma gives her a small smile. “Not as desirable,” she says, “as I had hoped.”
“Is it scary?”
Ilma nibbles at the edge of her thumbnail, thinking. “Sometimes,” she says.
Mylitta makes a face, and nods.
“Some of the girls,” Ilma says. “They’re crying, as they’re led away. Or after they come back. But mostly . . . mostly, it’s just kind of hot, and my butt hurts, and I kind of want to shout at the guys who look at me and then walk by.”
Mylitta straightens, and touches Ilma’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “If it happens today, it’s over with. And if you’re still here tomorrow, we can sit together!”
Ilma giggles. “You won’t be here long,” she says.
Mylitta hesitates. “Long enough to hold your hand,” she says.
“That’s true,” Ilma says. She grins at Mylitta. It’s a happy grin, though there’s a crust of salt near her eyes. “You should get lost,” she says. “You’re scaring away the men.”
Mylitta nods, and drifts away.
Day turns to night. Night turns to morning. Mylitta dresses herself in temple garb. She puts a wreath of string into her hair.
“there is something even the monster fears.”
It is 556 years before the common era. It is summer, and the dawn is bright. Mylitta sits in the holy enclosure. Ilma is gone. Mylitta feels alone.
There are many women in the temple, but there are no men. It is a strange occasion. Mylitta can hear the others muttering among themselves, a sound rising and falling, like a river.
Her boy enters. He walks towards the enclosure. The priestesses and keepers of the temple fall to their knees before him. A chill climbs up Mylitta’s spine.
“Nabonidus,” they say. And, “King.”
He ignores them. He walks along the line. He looks at one woman, then the next, and finally he presses a coin of silver into Mylitta’s hand.
“The goddess prosper thee,” he says.
There are still stars in his eyes. She is confused, and her world is swimming, and the stars seem to dance.
And in Babylon, this thing is sacred.
“You told me,” she says, “that your name was Ellil.”
He takes her hand. He lifts her to her feet.
“It is not,” he says.
“And I am fairly certain,” she says, “that at no time did you mention that you were King of Babylon. For you see, that is the kind of tidbit that sticks in my memory.”
He leads her towards the chambers.
“And if you are Nabonidus,” she points out, “that would make you the monster. This is very awkward.”
“I promise,” Mylitta told White Lion, once.
I will kill him.”
He pulls her into the chamber. He closes the door. He sits down on the bed.
“Do you know what being the monster means?” he says.
“That I’m supposed to kill you?”
He snorts. “Besides that.”
“No,” she says.
“All my life,” he says, like he were talking about someone else entirely, “I have had nothing. Mother emptied me, to make her Harran gods. I have known every manner of horror. I have had to take notes on them, and record what brought me the most pain or disorientation. That was mother’s instruction, so that I could better apply her techniques, later, against your kind. I have also known, since childhood, that in time we would meet, and that you would most likely kill me.”
Mylitta studies him. “I am not that naive,” she says.
“If you are a monster,” she says, “then it is not because you have suffered, but because you have chosen to inflict suffering on others.”
“That’s true,” he says.
Her voice is uncertain now, and small. “It is?”
“I want power,” he says, calmly. “I want to rule the world. And I want you at my side, as my warrior, my consort, and the mother of my gods. You are a symbol of fertility to me. And to achieve my aims, I must empty and break you.”
Her arm snaps straight. Though there is no starlight in the room, a sword flares into being in her hand.
“I can kill you,” she says. “It’s allowed.”
He smiles at her, sad and crooked. “You’ll be the death of me,” he says. “But not today.”
She hesitates. He pats the bed.
“Come on,” he says.
“we are as we define ourselves, whether fairy, fiend, or maid.”
“I don’t have to,” she says. Her head tilts to one side. Her eyes burn. “I’m strong, Nabonidus.”
“That’s why you have to,” he says.
She looks at her hands. The sword fades out.
“You’re right,” she says. She sounds sickened.
And in Babylon, this thing is sacred.
“I won’t give you my heart,” she says. “I’ll do my duty. Like any girl here. Because it’s sacred. Because it’s for me. But I won’t give you my heart.”
“there are stars in your eyes, Elli.”
Her head is burning and sickening with the stories and the promises that have led her here.
The stars are in his eyes.