***Special thanks to Ruthie Dean of Thomas Nelson for sending me a review copy.***
Tracy started her first novel at the age of eight and has been hooked on writing ever since. After earning a B.A. in English Literature at Rowan University, she spent ten years writing drama presentations for church ministry before beginning to write fiction. A lifelong interest in history and mythology has led Tracy to extensive research into ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome and Persia, and shaped her desire to shine the light of the gospel into the cultures of the past.
She has traveled through Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Italy, researching her novels and falling into adventures.
For seven years the Babylonian princess Tiamat has waited for the mad king Nebuchadnezzar to return to his family and to his kingdom. Driven from his throne to live as a beast, he prowls his luxurious Hanging Gardens, secreted away from the world.
Since her treaty marriage at a young age, Tia has lived an opulent but oppressive life in the palace. But her husband has since died and she relishes her newfound independence. When a nobleman is found murdered in the palace, Tia must discover who is responsible for the macabre death, even if her own is freedom threatened.
As the queen plans to wed Tia to yet another prince, the powerful mage Shadir plots to expose the family’s secret and set his own man on the throne. Tia enlists the help of a reluctant Jewish captive, her late husband’s brother Pedaiah, who challenges her notions of the gods even as he opens her heart to both truth and love.
Babylon, 570 BC
My name is Nebuchadnezzar. Let the nations hear it!
I am ruler of Babylon, greatest empire on earth. Here in its capital city, I am like a god.
Tonight, as the sun falls to its death in the western desert, I walk along the balconies I have built, overlooking the city I have built, and know there is none like me.
I inhale the twilight air and catch the scent of a dozen sacrifices. Across the city, the smoke and flames lift from Etemenanki, the House of the Platform of Heaven and Earth. The priests sacrifice tonight in honor of Tiamat, for tomorrow she will be wed. Though I have questioned the wisdom of a marriage with the captive Judaeans, tomorrow will not be a day for questions. It will be a day of celebration, such as befits a princess.
Tiamat comes to me now on the balcony, those dark eyes wide with entreaty. “Please, Father.”
I encircle her shoulders in a warm embrace and turn her to the city.
“There, Tia. There is our glorious Babylon. Do you not wish to serve her?”
She leans her head against my chest, her voice thick. “Yes, of course. But I do not wish to marry.”
I pat her shoulder, kiss the top of her head. My sweet Tia. Who would have foretold that she would become such a part me?
“Have no fear, dear one. Nothing shall change. Husband or not, I shall always love you. Always protect you.”
She clutches me, a desperate grip around my waist.
I release her arms and look into her eyes. “Go now. Your mother will be searching for you. Tomorrow will be a grand day, for you are the daughter of the greatest king Babylon has ever seen.”
I use my thumb to rub a tear from her eye, give her a gentle push, and she is gone with a last look of grief that breaks my heart.
The greatest king Babylon has ever seen. The words echo like raindrops plunking on stones. I try to ignore a tickling at the back of my thoughts. Something Belteshazzar told me, many months ago. A dream.
I shake my head, willing my mind to be free of the memory. My longtime Jewish advisor, part of my kingdom since we were both youths, often troubles me with his advice. I keep him close because he has become a friend. I keep him close because he is too often right.
But I do not want to think of Belteshazzar. Tonight is for me alone. For my pleasure, as I gaze across all that I have built, all that I have accomplished. This great Babylon, this royal residence with its Gardens to rival those created by the gods. Built by my mighty power. For the glory of my majesty. I grip the balcony wall, inhale the smoky sweetness again, and smile. It is good.
I hear a voice and think perhaps Belteshazzar has found me after all, for the words sound like something he would say, and yet the voice . . . The voice is of another.
“There is a decree gone out for you, Nebuchadnezzar. Your kingship has been stripped from you.”
I turn to the traitorous words, but no one is there. And yet the voice continues, rumbling in my own chest, echoing in my head.
“You will be driven from men to dwell with beasts. You will eat the herbs of oxen and seven times will pass over you, until you know that the Most High is ruler in the kingdom of men. To whom He wills power, He gives power.”
The tickling is there again, in my mind. I roll my shoulders to ease the discomfort, but it grows. It grows to a scratching, a clawing at the inside of my head, until I fear I shall bleed within.
The fear swells in me and I am frantic now. I rub my eyes, swat my ears, and still the scratching and scraping goes on, digging away at my memories, at my sense of self, of who I am and what I have done, and I stare at the sky above and the stones below and bend my waist and fall upon the ground where it is better, better to be on the ground, and I want only to find food, food, food. And a two-legged one comes and makes noises with her mouth and clutches at me but I understand none of it and even this knowledge that I do not understand is slipping, slipping from me as the sun slips into the desert.
And in the darkness, I am no more.
Seven years later
The night her husband died, Tia ran with abandon.
The city wall, wide enough for chariots to race upon its baked bricks, absorbed the slap of her bare feet and cooled her skin. She flew past the Ishtar Gate as though chased by demons, knowing the night guard in his stone tower would be watching. Leering. Tia ignored his attention.
Tonight, this night, she wanted only to run.
A lone trickle of sweat chased down her backbone. The desert chill soaked into her bones and somewhere in the vast sands beyond the city walls, a jackal shrieked over its kill. Her exhalation clouded the air and the quiet huffs of her breath kept time with her feet.
Breathe, slap, slap, slap.
They would be waiting. Expecting her. A tremor disturbed her rhythm. Her tears for Shealtiel were long spent, stolen by the desert air before they fell.
Flames surged from the Tower and snagged her attention. Priests and their nightly sacrifices, promising to ensure the health of the city. For all of Babylon’s riches, the districts encircled by the double city walls smelled of poverty, disease, and hopelessness. But the palace was an oasis in a desert.
She would not run the entire three bêru around the city. Not tonight. Only to the Marduk Gate and back to the Southern Palace, where her mother would be glaring her displeasure at both her absence and her choice of pastime. Tia had spent long days at Shealtiel’s bedside, waiting for the end. Could her mother not wait an hour?
Too soon, the Marduk Gate loomed and Tia slowed. The guard leaned over the waist-high crenellation, thrust a torch above his head, and hailed the trespasser.
“Only Tiamat.” She panted and lifted a hand. “Running.”
He shrugged and shook his head, then turned back to his post, as though a princess running the city wall at night in the trousers of a Persian were a curiosity, nothing more. Perhaps he’d already seen her run. More likely, her reputation ran ahead of her. The night hid her flush of shame.
But she could delay no longer. The guilt had solidified, a stone in her belly she could not ignore.
She pivoted, sucked in a deep breath, and shot forward, legs and arms pounding for home.
Home. Do I still call it such? When all that was precious had been taken? Married at fourteen. A widow by twenty-one. And every year a lie.
“I shall always love you, always protect you.”
He had spoken the words on the night he had been lost to her. And where was love? Where was protection? Not with Shealtiel.
The night sky deepened above her head, and a crescent moon hung crooked against the blackness. Sataran and Aya rose in the east, overlapping in false union.
“The brightest light in your lifetime’s sky,” an elderly mage had said of the merged stars. The scholar’s lessons on the workings of the cosmos interested her, and she paid attention. As a princess already married for treaty, she was fortunate to retain tutors.
Ahead, the Ishtar Gate’s blue-glazed mosaics, splashed with yellow lions, surged against the purpling sky, and to its left, the false wooded mountain built atop the palace for her mother, Amytis, equaled its height. Tia chose the east wall of the gate for a focal point and ignored the Gardens. Tonight the palace had already seen death. She needn’t also dwell on madness.
Breathe, slap, slap, slap. Chest on fire, almost there.
She reached the palace’s northeast corner, where it nearly brushed the city wall, slowed to a stop, and bent at the waist. Hands braced against her knees, she sucked in cold air. Her heartbeat quieted.
When she turned back toward the palace, she saw what her mother had done.
A distance of one kanû separated the wide inner city wall from the lip of the palace roof, slightly lower. Tia kept a length of cedar wood there on the roof, a plank narrow enough to discourage most, and braced it across the chasm for her nightly runs. When she returned, she would pull it back to the roof, where anyone who might venture past the guards on the wall would not gain access. Only during her run did this plank bridge the gap, awaiting her return.
Amytis had removed it.
Something like heat lightning snapped across Tia’s vision and left a bitter, metallic taste in her mouth. Her mother thought to teach her a lesson. Punish her for her manifold breaches of etiquette by forcing her to take the long way down, humiliate herself to the sentinel guard.
She would not succeed.
With a practiced eye, Tia measured the distance from the ledge to the palace roof. She would have the advantage of going from a higher to a lower level. A controlled fall, really. Nothing more.
But she made the mistake of looking over, to the street level far below. Her senses spun and she gripped the wall.
She scrambled onto the ledge, wide enough to take the stance needed for a long jump, and bent into position, one leg extended behind. The palace rooftop garden held only a small temple in its center, lit with three torches. Nothing to break her fall, or her legs, when she hit. She counted, steadying mind and body.
The wind caught her hair, loosened during her run, and blew it across her eyes. She flicked her head to sweep it away, rocked twice on the balls of her feet, and leaped.
The night air whooshed against her ears, and her legs cycled through the void as though she ran on air itself. The flimsy trousers whipped against her skin, and for one exhilarating moment Tia flew like an egret wheeling above the city and knew sweet freedom.
This was how it should always be. My life. My choice. I alone control my destiny.
She hit the stone roof grinning like a trick monkey, and it took five running steps to capture her balance.
Across the rooftop, a whisper of white fluttered. A swish of silk and a pinched expression disappeared through the opening to the stairs. Amytis had been waiting to see her stranded on the city wall and Tia had soured her pleasure. The moment of victory faded, and Tia straightened her hair, smoothed her clothing.
“Your skill is improving.” The eerie voice drifted to Tia across the dark roof and she flinched. A chill rippled through her skin.
Shadir stood at the far end of the roof wall, where the platform ended and the palace wall rose higher to support the Gardens. His attention was pinned to the stars, and a scroll lay on the ledge before him, weighted with amulets.
“You startled me, Shadir. Lurking there in the shadows.”
The mage turned, slid his gaze the length of her in sharp appraisal. “It would seem I am not the only one who prefers the night.”
Long ago, Shadir had been one of her father’s chief advisors. Before—before the day of which they never spoke. Since that monstrous day, he held amorphous power over court and kingdom, power that few questioned and even fewer defied. His oiled hair hung in tight curls to his shoulders and the full beard and mustache concealed too much of his face, leaving hollow eyes that seemed to follow even when he did not turn his head.
Tia shifted on her feet and eyed the door. “It is cooler to run at night.”
The mage held himself unnaturally still. Did he even breathe?
As a child, Tia had believed Shadir could scan her thoughts like the night sky and read her secrets. Little relief had come with age. Another shudder ran its cold finger down her back.
Tia lowered her chin, all the obeisance she would give, and escaped the rooftop. Behind her, he spoke in a tone more hiss than speech. “The night holds many dangers.”
She shook off the unpleasant encounter. Better to ready herself for the unpleasantness she yet faced tonight.
Her husband’s family would have arrived by this time, but sweating like a soldier and dressed like a Persian, she was in no state to make an appearance in the death chamber. Instead, she went to her own rooms, where her two slave women, Omarsa and Gula, sat vigil as though they were the grieving widows. They both jumped when Tia entered and busied themselves with lighting more oil lamps and fetching bathwater.
In spite of her marriage to the eldest son of the captive Judaean king, Tia’s chambers were her own. She had gone to Shealtiel when it was required, and only then. The other nights she spent here among her own possessions—silk fabrics purchased from merchants who traveled east of Babylon, copper bowls hammered smooth by city jewelers, golden statues of the gods, rare carved woods from fertile lands in the west. A room of luxury. One that Shealtiel disdained and she adored. She was born a Babylonian princess. Let him have his austerity, his righteous self-denial. It had done him little good.
One of her women stripped her trousers, then unwound the damp sash that bound her lean upper body. Tia stood in the center of the bath chamber, its slight floor depression poked with drainage holes under her feet, and tried to be still as they doused her with tepid water and scrubbed with a scented paste of plant ash and animal fat until her skin stung.
When they had dressed her appropriately, her ladies escorted her through the palace corridors to the chamber where her husband of nearly seven years lay cold.
Seven years since she lost herself and her father on the same day. Neither of them had met death, but all the same, they were lost. Seven years of emptiness where shelter had been, of longing instead of love.
But much had ended today—Shealtiel’s long illness and Tia’s long imprisonment.
She paused outside the chamber door. Could she harden herself for the inevitable? The wails of women’s laments drifted under the door and wrapped around her heart, squeezing pity from her. A wave of sorrow, for the evil that took those who are loved, tightened her throat. But her grief was more for his family than herself. He had been harsh and unloving and narrow-minded, and now she was free. Tia would enter, give the family her respect, and escape to peace.
She nodded to one of her women, and Gula tapped the door twice and pushed it open.
Shealtiel’s body lay across a pallet, skin already graying. The chamber smelled of death and frankincense. Three women attended her husband—Shealtiel’s sister, his mother, and Tia’s own. His mother, Marta, sat in a chair close to the body. Her mourning clothes, donned over her large frame, were ashy and torn. She lifted her head briefly, saw that it was only Tia, and returned to her keening. Her shoulders rocked and her hands clutched at a knot of clothing, perhaps belonging to Shealtiel. His sister, Rachel, stood against the wall and gave her a shy smile, a smile that melded sorrow and admiration. She was younger than Tia by five years, still unmarried, a sweet girl.
“Good of you to join us, Tia.” Her mother’s eyes slitted and traveled the length of Tia’s robes. Tia expected some comment about her earlier dress, but Amytis held her tongue.
“I was . . . detained.” Their gazes clashed over Shealtiel’s body and Tia challenged her with a silent smile. The tension held for a moment, then Tia bent her head.
She was exquisite, Amytis. No amount of resentment on Tia’s part could blind her to this truth. Though Amytis had made it clear that Tia’s sisters held her affections, and though Tia had long ago given up calling her Mother in her heart, she could not deny that her charms still held sway in Babylon. From old men to children, Amytis was adored. Her lustrous hair fell to her waist, still black though she was nearly fifty, and her obsidian eyes over marble cheekbones were a favorite of the city’s best sculptors. Some said Tia favored her, but if she did, the likeness did nothing to stir a motherly affection.
Tia went to Shealtiel’s mother and whispered over her, “May the gods show kindness to you today, Marta. It is a difficult day for us all.” The woman’s grief broke Tia’s heart, and she placed a hand on Marta’s wide shoulder to share in it.
Marta sniffed and pulled away. “Do not call upon your false gods for me, girl.”
Amytis sucked in a breath, her lips taut.
Tia’s jaw tightened. “He was a good man, Marta. He will be missed.” Both of these statements Tia made without falsehood. Shealtiel was the most pious man she had ever known, fully committed to following the exacting requirements of his God.
Marta seemed to soften. She reached a plump hand to pat Tia’s own, still on her shoulder. “But how could the Holy One have taken him before he saw any children born?”
Tia stiffened and brought her hand to her side, forcing the fingers to relax. Marta rocked and moaned on, muttering about Tia’s inhospitable womb. Tia dared not point out that perhaps her son was to blame.
“But there is still a chance.” Marta looked to Amytis, then to Tia. “It is our way. When the husband dies without an heir, his brother—”
The single word came from both her mother’s and her own lips as one. Marta blinked and looked between them.
“It is our way.” Marta glanced at Rachel against the wall, as though seeking an ally. “My second son Pedaiah is unmarried yet. Perhaps Tia could still bear a son for Shealtiel—”
“You have had your treaty marriage with Babylon.” Amytis drew herself up, accentuating her lean height. “There will not be another.”
Tia remained silent. Her mother and she, in agreement? Had Amytis watched her languish these seven years and regretted flinging her like day-old meat to the Judaean dogs? Did she also hope for a life with more purpose for Tia now that she had been released? Tia lifted a smile, ever hopeful that Amytis’s heart had somehow softened toward her youngest daughter.
“Jeconiah shall hear of your refusal!” Marta stood, her chin puckering.
Amytis huffed. “Take the news to your imprisoned husband, then. I shall not wait for his retribution.” She seemed to sense the unfairness of the moment and regret her calloused words. “Come, Tia. Let us leave these women to grieve.” She meant it kindly but it was yet another insult, the implication that Tia need not remain for any personal grief.
Tia followed Amytis from the chamber into the hall, her strong perfume trailing. Amytis spun on her, and her heavy red robe whirled and settled. Her nostrils flared and she spoke through clenched teeth.
“By all the gods, Tiamat! For how long will you make our family a mockery?”