The emperor’s salubrious disposition was reinforced with the paternal joy he experienced as his son and heir Amel-Marduk married the object of his affection, Judahite princess Shelomit, widow of Jehoiachin’s son Shealtiel and already mother to a royal scion named Zerubbabel, ‘Offspring of Babylon’. Only by agreeing to renounce idolatry and adopt the Judahite faith had the persistent crown prince obtained Jehoiachin’s assent. Amel-Marduk merely insisted on his conversion being done privately and kept secret for the duration of Nebuchadrezzar’s lifetime so as not to upset his father’s delicate state of mind, which just lately had regained its equilibrium.
Acclaimed public spectacle enlivened the Processional Way. The extravagant royal wedding and its afterglow buoyed the imperial family’s spirits, but all elation deflated as a flurry of robberies afflicted Babylon, giving rise to ceaseless summer gossip. Without warning, a series of high-profile thefts transpired one after the other, initially within congested residential quarters, then even within the sanctified confines of minor shrines. The sacrilege of pilfering a temple treasury incited countless conspiracy theories. Who in their right mind would dare steal from the abode of a god, even if only a minor deity in the pantheon? A madman! Someone suicidal!
Fanning the flames of scandal was the glaring fact that there were no clues whatsoever and no persons of interest were apprehended by the authorities. The perpetrator proved infinitely more elusive than the usual suspects whose slapdash modus operandi invariably resulted in their capture and amputation. Instead, the city guard conducted overnight raids, nabbing random individuals presumed miscreants. After the standard knuckle-breaking and tooth-pulling was inflicted, a number of forced confessions resulted. Battered men admitted to defaulting on loans and abused women tearfully revealed adulteries and venereal diseases. City prisons stank with overcrowding, but none confessed to the mysterious banditry. Humid, hazy days dragged on, with the brazen knave striking time and again, daringly by day and stealthily by night. Gem-encrusted jewelry, brass lamps, gold lockets, silver pieces—private stashes were burglarized and public caches ransacked. Humiliated city guards stood before their emperor with little to report.
“Is he, perhaps, a ghost?” Nebuchadrezzar derided.
“The citizens we’ve interrogated insist a trickster demon is about, Majesty,” one captain nervously explained. “It would certainly account for our lack of credible leads in the matter.”
Too often had such pretexts been relied on to excuse incompetence. Nebuchadrezzar knocked over his goblet of honey wine, erupting in anger.
“Genies and demons—that’s all one hears of anymore! A cretin misplaces his sandals—a genie at work! A dupe overpays at the grand bazaar—the vendor was a demon in disguise! Are none left to be cuckolded by these creatures? Will Babylon become the mockery of the empire??”
Grasping an iron urn full of frankincense, he tossed it violently at the heads of his officers, hitting one squarely on the noggin and splattering ash over the rest.
“Idiocy!” he roared, his wrath vibrating the tapestries of the Hall of the Throne and echoing through palace corridors. He advanced on his men, towering over cowering frames.
“Triple patrols through every quarter. Post additional sentries outside every temple entrance and on every temple roof. Seal the city gates and bar river traffic effective immediately. I want the capital placed under strict curfew!”
Initially the extra security precautions seemed effectual. For a fortnight not a single ingot of silver or sac of barley went missing. Complacency reintroduced itself into untroubled lives. Chatter dwindled, despite the fact that, typically, nothing had been properly resolved. Tidy explanations were deemed secondary to a return to normality, and with the evident cessation of larceny the citizenry embraced forgetfulness. Hoarders and housewives wronged were intent to make do, so long as the unpleasant affair was concluded. Just as the emperor was fielding petitions from the merchants’ guild and brothel owners’ association, considering relaxing stiff measures, the brash robber struck again, pulling off his finest heist yet.
Esagila itself had been fleeced. Within minutes of the incident, the imperial palace was alerted that the imposing sanctuary of mighty Marduk, chief of the gods—perhaps the most secure facility in all Babylonia—had succumbed to the dastard crook as if a common fish stall. Nebuchadrezzar, along with Esagila’s priesthood, was up in arms. Half a dozen palace guards were required to pry the emperor’s throttling hands from the constricting throat of the city guard commissioner. Calmed by Kashaya, Nebuchadrezzar appraised his inexperienced retinue, some only lately appointed to their posts, and lamented the loss of his dependable aides Arioch, long dead, and Ashpenaz, recently retired to a dainty villa to endure the sundry ailments of old age.
“Cursed are you curs!” he blasted, suffering no fools. “Summon Neriglissar! As of now, Babylon’s under martial law!”
He sauntered in disgust from the great hall to rest in bed and marshal his wits. The violation of Marduk’s dwelling place was a grave offense, punishable by summary execution. The appropriate response from the deity’s nominal chief priest demanded careful deliberation.
Seeing Nebuchadrezzar’s harried frame of mind, a protective Kashaya sat beside him, gently oiling his beard just like she had done as a playful girl. This produced the requisite soothing effect, providing the princess with a narrow window of opportunity.
“Father, I know how troubled you are over the Esagila affair. Clearly, justice must be served. Let me help you.”
“Help me how?” he wondered, his expression vacant.
“You want to find the thief more than anything. I believe the thief will find you.”
Nebuchadrezzar looked up, his mind surfacing from muddled thoughts.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’ve taken the liberty of discussing the matter with your counselors. It seems there’s something of a pattern to the thefts. From each target the culprit extracts its most valuable article.
There remains one major target, one last bastion housing a prized possession, namely the imperial palace…and you. What could be of more worth in all the land than its ruler?”
Nebuchadrezzar swallowed a hard truth. The thought of being kidnapped by some vague figure of this world or another rankled. Kashaya smoothed her father’s wrinkled face, searching it for signs of understanding. For a while there were none, until finally he sat up in bed, his eyes aglow with the fire of former days.
“Make the necessary arrangements.”
The following night in the palace, with extreme security measures in place, the thief was lured onto the premises just as Kashaya had anticipated. Nebuchadrezzar was stargazing atop his rooftop terrace, as was his wont, seeking insights from the mysterious beyond. His subliminal communion with constellations was abruptly disrupted: light footsteps were heard from behind, and as the emperor turned he saw a limber intruder slitting the throat of a stiff palace guard.
“Miserable fiend! How dare you!”
The masked figure dropped the bloodstained dagger, emerging from the shadows to unwind a rope net and spin it in the air above the emperor’s head. Dodging deftly, Neriglissar tore off the imperial apparel disguising him, revealing instead his sharpened spear that he now thrust at the evasive thief’s head, nearly impaling it. The free running assailant’s lightning reflexes suggested an agile young man in his prime.
“Seize the intruder!” Neriglissar barked.
Hidden warriors emerged from side chambers with swords drawn and arrows stretching bows, but the speedy thief was already gone. He vaulted to another level of the multi-tiered roof, barely escaping a shower of arrows that bounced harmlessly off the various sun umbrellas, tables, chaises, and lounges.
Chased by rabid pursuers from one terrace section to another, all the way through and out the lush Hanging Gardens, the wily fugitive launched himself from the palace to the thickly-walled citadel adjacent to it on the western side. He clutched the ledge of the battlement, his body hanging precariously over the distant ground below. His grip began to loosen. In a desperate move, he swung a leg over the ledge, his foot sticking between baked bricks for leverage.
Arrows flew at him as he yanked himself up and over the ledge, but were deflected off the battlement. Neriglissar’s well-placed javelin shot pinned him by the shirt to a wooden guard post, but he easily extricated himself by forsaking the shirt and fleeing round the other side of the citadel’s roof. Feisty warriors bridged the gap to the citadel; the thief flung daggers with lethal accuracy, felling several of them who plummeted from their makeshift bridge into the street below, leaving a wail and dull thud as their last testament. Still, others navigated safely across to the citadel, resuming the feverish pursuit.
Brachiating along a series of elevated wooden beams, the dexterous thief dropped squarely on the roof of the adjacent museum building housing the imperial antiquities. He cleverly swerved in and out amid the collection of surplus statues to avoid detection.
Frustrated warriors threw caution to the wind, bombarding the museum’s uppermost level with intense fire. Fragile sculptures and effigies, ancient and priceless, had their brittle shells shattered to pieces by incoming javelins. The fugitive dived for cover, using his arms to shield his head from exploding ceramics. Archers with blazing bolts set fire to the wooden structure, making the citadel’s rooftop altogether inhospitable.
The thief leapt to his feet, jumping from the museum building to the northern fortress, swiftly followed by warriors closing in for the kill. Jagged daggers gliding through the air found their unfortunate marks, yet the thief remained heavily outnumbered.
Hounded from one end of the fortress to the other, he dashed across the ramparts to the upper turrets of Ishtar Gate, overlooking the bustling Processional Way. He peered down to where tethered horses were rented to arriving travelers, trusting his getaway facilitated.
As he prepared his precarious descent a barrage of arrows assailed him, one of which grazed his ear, drawing blood. He turned to view an elite unit of palace guards stationed on the lower tier of the double gate, directed by Kashaya herself.
Panicking, he scanned his environs for any last-minute escape and, finding none, rushed to the other side of the battlement, hopping over the hurdle just as his pursuers caught up. They watched in amazement as he plummeted onto the canopied stall far below, crashing into the central currency exchange, scattering terrified clerks and silver shekels alike. Dust clouds spewed in every direction. The noise echoed along the broad avenue, unsettling horses, catching the attention of curious passers-by.
A cluster of loitering scamps and street urchins swarmed the fallen fugitive. Just as he glanced up at jeering faces, they were dispersed upon the arrival of Kashaya and her elite sentries, soon followed by Neriglissar and his hardy warriors. Sharpened sword tips pinned down the perpetrator, threatening to penetrate.
“Remove his mask,” ordered the princess.
The thief struggled in vain as Neriglissar tore away his brass guise, exposing his identity.
“Who are you…?” the captain of the guard interrogated, slapping him across the face.
The ensnared offender remained unresponsive.
“No matter. If he’s not mute already, he will be when we’re done with him,” Neriglissar vowed, snapping his fingers for his warriors to bind their captured prey.
“He claims he’s your son,” Kashaya related, hearing Nitokris gasp as she approached the city prison cell with a shaky hand covering her mouth. “Which son would that be?”
In all her life Kashaya had never known Nitokris to show any interest in men, and assumed she was of another persuasion. Nabonidus, whose advances were consistently spurned, had reached the same conclusion. Yet now her half sister stood oddly transfixed by the thief.
“Don’t you remember me, mother? Take a good look. Haven’t I made you proud?” he asked, laughing, displaying his halter and shackles as if badges of honor.
Nitokris turned pale as a ghost. She faced Kashaya, speaking matter-of-factly.
“I had a child once…many years ago…a newborn son I gave away against my will,” she revealed, allowing her tears to fall. “If this is him or no, I—I can’t say for certain…”
“Who was the father?? Why would you keep this a secret???”
“I… I can’t… I was very young, I don’t…”
“You don’t know…? Were you—were you raped? Is that why you never told anyone??”
With all her willpower, Nitokris held her peace, barely able to contain the truth. Some part of her wished to disclose all, while other parts impelled her to suppress everything. Kashaya could see her sibling’s anguish surfacing from some inner abyss, a buried sorrow brought back to life. Pitying her traumatic ordeal, the elder princess settled on sympathy as the best recourse. Still, her words were decisive.
“I’ll consider sparing father the revelation, Nitokris, if you swear to me one thing: whether or not this…individual…is him, your son must never rule Babylonia. Never. Amel-Marduk must be unrivalled as crown prince, and if he remains without a male heir then my son Labashi-Marduk stands next in line. This is the proper order of succession, and their natural birthright. For the sake of the empire, there can be no pretenders to the throne.”
Nitokris discerned the finality in Kashaya’s tone. The situation demanded a snap decision.
“So be it…”
Kashaya held Nitokris in a warm embrace, something she had never done before.
“Take all the time you need,” she offered, eyeing the suspicious prisoner chained in his cell before leaving her alone with him. Nitokris sighed deeply, hardly herself. Although what little she had divulged was honest enough to bare her wrenching vulnerability, still she had reluctantly lied to Kashaya about one thing: in spite of his foreign Bedouin garb and disheveled semblance, there was no mistaking the prisoner’s features.
She gripped the cold iron bars of his cell, gawking at his scrapes, bruises, and torture marks, sobbing bitterly.
“Why, Belshazzar? Why did you do it??”
“So he’d finally pay attention. So that, for once in his life, my father would notice me…”