Babylon 562 BC
Zerubbabel pulled in a shallow breath. His parched throat throbbed. He leaned against the deck rail and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand then shook his sweat onto the galley floor. It did little to deaden his discomfort. He glanced at the fields beyond the Euphrates River bank. Brown stalks protruded from darker brown fields. Dust hovered above the ground as if it was too hot to settle upon.
His thoughts returned to alleviating his own irritation. He could return to the awnings on the other end of the barge but that comfort came with a price. Belshazzar was there, and Zerubbabel had already heard enough of his musings about the day he would become the King of Babylon. It wasn’t that he begrudged Belshazzar’s inheritance for he understood the reality of things. It was simply boring listening to the same rantings day in and day out.
The ship turned slightly, and a sliver of a shadow stretched across the deck behind King Nebuchadnezzar’s figurehead. Zerubbabel strode to the thin, dark streak and positioned himself so the shade covered a portion of his face. It wasn’t much, but desperation knew no boundaries.
With the minute relief, his thoughts returned to Borisippa. He’d stumbled across a scroll written by a man his people considered a prophet. The little he’d read before Nintu made him return to studying Babylonian history intrigued him and his spirit burned. Next time he went home to visit his family, he’d talk to Abba about it.
Water splashed on his forehead. He jumped out of the shadow, then his gaze swept the deck as he backed up to the railing. Another spray landed on the planks where he’d been standing. The rower’s oars. He heaved a sigh, then spread the wetness through his hair and down his neck. For a few moments, he watched the oars keep perfect time to a drum beat. The undisturbed waves in front of the ship caught his attention as they rose and fell in a hypnotic rhythm. Then, the ship charged through them, creating a roaring, frothy whirlpool.
Battle strategies he’d seen drawn on tablets in the palace came to mind, and the river became his imaginary battlefield. The giant eddy the ship created when it sailed into the waves turned into a foreign invader. The ship’s hull he made his own army that fought off the invasion, leaving the enemy subdued and weak. His chest expanded and he threw back his shoulders. “Who can stand against the Mighty Zerubbabel? Only a fool would attempt it.”
Heat beyond the sweltering air swept up his neck to his face. He glanced around. Seeing no one, he returned to his imaginary battle, but before he had time to plot moves, a familiar gold sceptre arose from the turbulence. On its crown, a lion poised and ready to pounce stared at him. He backed away. “What do you want from me?” The claw-shaped birthmark on his temple itched, and he scratched it while glaring at the sceptre.
It wavered, then sunk as fast as it appeared.
He stared at the spot where it vanished. “You’re a coward. You run like a dog.”
The atmosphere electrified the way it did prior to a storm over the marshlands. Zerubbabel shivered. His vision blurred, and the ship rocked beneath him in a way he’d never noticed before. He closed his eyes to shut out the reeling world, and when he opened them, he looked down at his body clinging to the railing.
A silent scream tore from his lips. He lunged and kicked, but an invisible force pulled him farther away. South and west. The endless sand hills and green-framed Babylonian rivers gave way to lush valleys and tree-covered mountains. A warm breeze smelling of flowers pushed against his face. If he were dead, he must be on his way to paradise. But he wasn’t dead, so he must be dreaming, but he couldn’t be dreaming because he was wide awake.
He breathed the sweet-smelling air into his lungs, savoring it. Thoughts of the hanging gardens in King Nebuchadnezzar’s northern palace crept into his mind, and terror swept through him. “Take me back. I’m a ward of King Nebuchadnezzar, and he’ll kill you for this.”
As if in reply, the force picked up speed, hurling him forward. Purple mountains loomed, then as he drew closer, they became gray crags streaked with orange. And he was about to crash into them. His breathing stopped and he threw his arms over his head. The force tightened around him, shooting him upward, as if he were an unwanted bone the mighty Leviathan tossed away. He jerked to a stop then plummeted. So did his stomach, and his head whirled. Once he was able, he looked down. A sparkling, clear lake reflected the bright blue sky. If only he could have a drink, but the force pushed him south, above a narrow river winding among low hanging shrubs and sandy fords until it ended in a white-framed sea.
From there, he veered west, over rocky hills and deep valleys. In the distance, a golden temple stood atop a rugged cliff, and as he drew nearer, his spirit burned. “This is the temple in Jerusalem my parents spoke about,” he yelled to his invisible captor. “Why have you brought me here? Why is it still standing? King Nebuchadnezzar smashed it, then burned what he couldn’t break.”
The force weakened.
Zerubbabel clenched his fists. “Why are you retreating? Come back and answer me.”
The force remained silent.
He considered the strange temple. Compared to the Esagila and the other ziggurats of Babylonia, its size and construction paled, but−
A small cloud covering the sun slid away, and sunbeams streamed onto the temple, sending dazzling lights throughout the heavens.
Zerubbabel gasped. The temple was made of gold. Not gold-colored bricks like the ziggurats in Babylonia, but real gold. His gaze traveled up the two gigantic pillars standing on either side of the front porch to their pomegranate crowns. Jachin and Boaz.
The names came out of nowhere. They were foreign to him, yet he knew with certainty, he’d addressed them correctly.
The force thrust him forward, between the pillars and through an open door. Blackness surrounded him until his eyes adjusted to the lesser light. A candle-lit court appeared beneath him, and he took a deep breath savoring the softly spiced air.
Power filled the room as if King Nebuchadnezzar had entered it, only much stronger. It swirled around him, stirring shameful memories he’d tucked away, embarrassing him a hundred times more than it would if Belshazzar’s sister, Belshalti-Nanner, caught him naked.
He searched for a place to hide until his mortification passed but the force refused to release him. Ten gold lamps stood like sentinels around the room. In the center, a small golden table held twelve loaves. The tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread wafted to his nostrils, reminding him how far he was from home, and his shame ebbed.
He floated forward toward a purple curtain with gold cherubim embroidered on it, hanging at the far end of the room. Three or four strides away from it, paralyzing fear swept through him. He swung his absent arms. “I’ve had enough. Just take me home.”
The invisible captor lowered him to the floor and the horns of a bronze altar seized his attention. Again angry thoughts he’d entertained, and lies he’d told, stalked his mind like a half-starved jackal. His eyes stung. “Stop it! What kind of a god are you?”
Silence roared, and the force holding him captive relinquished its grip. He floated back outside, where thousands of people hunched over beneath huge bundles streamed toward him, pointing to the temple and then to him.
He fixed his sight on an old man leading the group. “What do you want from me?”
The multitude pointed to the temple once again, then faded into the grassy hills. When the last person disappeared, the force thrust him back toward the white-edged sea, over the mountains and deserts to King Nebuchadnezzar’s ship. His body, still clinging to the railing, jerked as he slid back into it. He glanced around. Seeing no one, he looked down at his liquid battlefield. “What just happened?”
He searched for the scepter, but it remained elusive.
“Forget it. I don’t need you anyway.”
Thoughts of all those people streaming toward him returned, and he threw his clenched fists into the air. “Someday I will lead my own army. Mighty and undefeated.”
Zerubbabel spun around and his head dropped. “Nintu. I made the waves into a battlefield and fought the Assyrians.”
“I see.” Nintu’s eyes bore into him in the same manner they did when looking for deception. “With such an outburst, I assume you won.”
The feeling of being caught stealing an extra fig cake swept through Zerubbabel and he rubbed his birthmark as if it should take the blame. “I saw it again.”
The tutor leaned against the railing. “I thought so. But something was different this time, wasn’t it?”
“How do you know?”
Nintu gave a hearty laugh. “Your face is your worst enemy. Now tell me everything.”
“I went somewhere, I think.”
“What do you mean, you think? You either did or you didn’t.”
“I did.” Zerubbabel gripped the ship railing until the ends of his fingers whitened. “Or at least, I think I did.”
Nintu’s lips narrowed into a thin line. “Tell me from the beginning, but keep in mind Mammitu is the only one who gives visions. If you’ve had one, she is about to engrave your name onto the Tablets of Destiny.”
Zerubbabel rolled his eyes. “That’s impossible. I belong to The People of the Book. The king chose me to be educated as Belshazzar’s aide. That’s where my destiny lies.”
A faraway look crept into Nintu’s eyes. “I do not believe that will happen. Belshazzar will be king someday, but I think your destiny lies elsewhere.”
Imaginary spiders crawled up Zerubbabel’s back. He stared in disbelief at his tutor. “Who told you such a thing?”
Nintu rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “Logic.” He smiled as if glad to be back in his own element. “King Nebuchadnezzar is terminally ill and will not live much longer. His son Evil-Merdoch has little interest in the welfare of the Empire, and the Babylonian people will not accept him as their king.”
“How can they not accept him? He is the rightful heir.”
“They have their ways.”
The sound of sandals scuffing across the wooden planks approached, and Zerubbabel looked in the direction the sound came from, grateful for the interruption. “Hello, Belshazzar.”
Belshazzar leaned over the rail in companionable silence. “What are you hiding from me?” he demanded, when the conversation did not resume.
“Zerubbabel saw the scepter again, and we were discussing it.”
Belshazzar shoved away from the rail and glared at Nintu. His brown eyes squinted. “That again?” He turned to Zerubbabel. “You’re just making it up. I’m the second Prince of Babylon, and not even you can take that away from me.” He shook his fist in Zerubbabel’s face.
Zerubbabel stepped away. Reasoning never worked. It just made the prince angrier.
Nintu seized Belshazzar’s arm and pinned it to his side. “Stop it! No one is challenging your position.”
Belshazzar’s lower lip trembled. “That’s not how it sounds to me.”
Zerubbabel inhaled slowly and looked away. Here we go again.
Nintu swallowed, then met Belshazzar’s gaze. “I believe the gods are speaking to Zerubbabel, but your fears of him challenging your position are groundless. Only you, Evil- Merdoch, and your sister, Belshalti-Nanner, have King Nebuchadnezzar’s royal blood flowing through your veins.”
Belshazzar looked unconvinced. “I know that. But how does it stand against something like Zerubbabel’s visions?”
“By paying no attention to them. They have nothing to do with you. All Zerubbabel has seen is a lion-crowned scepter, and until something else happens, we leave well enough alone.”
Zerubbabel caught his breath and looked away. He hadn’t really lied to Nintu, but he hadn’t told him everything either.
His tutor’s iron fingers grasped his arm, forcing him to turn around. “You are hiding something. What haven’t you told me?”
Zerubbabel squirmed. “Nothing.”
“You lie. And it insults me.”
Zerubbabel forced himself to look the older man in the eye. “I don’t mean to. I just need time to sort out what I saw.”
“Perhaps I can help,” Nintu suggested, his voice softening.
“I don’t think anyone can.”
“Let me be the judge.”
“But it doesn’t make sense.” Zerubbabel laced his fingers and pressed until his knuckles cracked. “These visions make me feel like a fool.”
“That’s unreasonable. I would never consider you such.”
Zerubbabel studied his mentor’s pointed face. He looked into the deep wells of Nintu’s eyes, then shared his experience. When he came to the part about the temple and those people calling his name, his spirit burned again.
Belshazzar shot him a hateful look. “It’s the gods. They’re teasing us! They’re prophesying the impossible.”
Nintu’s face mirrored the young prince’s pain, but at the same time, it revealed his stoic appreciation of fate’s unpredictability. He gripped Belshazzar’s slight shoulders, forcing eye contact. “Why try to comprehend what is still beyond our understanding?”
“Well, it’s not beyond mine, and I can.” Belshazzar pushed Nintu’s hands from his shoulders. “If what Zerubbabel says is true, some god is promising him a nation, and that’s impossible.”
Nintu closed his eyes. What could he tell the prince to comfort him when the mysticism surrounding the Hebrew youth baffled him as well?
He walked away from the boys and reclined on a gold couch beneath an awning of the same color. Folding his hands behind his balding head, his thoughts wandered back to when Zerubbabel first arrived at the palace. He belonged to The People of the Book. There was nothing strange about that. Nintu had instructed many boys from that particular sect over the years, and they were all extremely intelligent— but not like this one. He studied the boy’s face. A finely-chiseled nose separated his eyes, above well-defined cheekbones. Both were characteristic of his race. He’s a direct descendant in the Davidic lineage and his father is The Prince of the Captivity, which he will be one day.
Nintu shook his head. No, he wouldn’t think it out, but he was beginning to understand why Belshazzar feared him. “Yes,” he whispered. “Mammitu has chosen this one.”
Startled, he jerked his head in the direction of the intruder’s voice. Seeing the fearful expression on Belshazzar’s face, he swung his legs off the couch and stood. “You are King Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, and are already being prepared to someday govern Babylonia. However, I think young Zerubbabel is also destined to greatness.”
Belshazzar’s eyes widened and his jaws twitched. Then he found his voice. “No! He can’t be. There’s only one king in the world, and someday, it’s going to be me.”
A shiver coursed through Nintu. He forced his mind beyond the physical reaction and willed his voice steady. “There is no point to this conversation. The world is full of twists and turns, things beyond our understanding.”
“You are bypassing the issue because he scares you too. But I refuse to let things like Zerubbabel’s silly visions challenge my position.” He threw his shoulders back and met his tutor’s gaze. “I’m going to keep Babylon the axis of the world, just like my grandfather has.”
Nintu forced a smile he didn’t feel. The boy needed his encouragement. There had to be something he could say to make the young prince feel better. Then it came. “I’m sure you will.” He kept his voice steadier than he felt. “You are strong-willed enough to stand against the most worthy opponent, and a direct descendent of the priests and kings of Babylon. All you need is to believe it, and stop throwing these useless temper tantrums.”
Seeing Belshazzar’s face relax, he smiled. It had worked. Nintu heaved a sigh of relief. “There is no reason for you to keep fretting about Zerubbabel’s visions somehow affecting your life.”
“He thinks they will.”
Nintu drew his brows together and turned to his Jewish charge. “Is that true?”
Zerubbabel shrugged. “I don’t think they have anything to do with Belshazzar. But sometimes they scare me and other times they excite me.”
Nintu waited for an explanation. When none came, he asked, “What do you mean?”
“There are instances when I think they are nothing more than a dream, but other times, everything is so real. Like this afternoon. It was as if someone else was using my mouth to talk.”
Belshazzar glared at Nintu. “See?”
Nintu took a deep breath to dislodge the uneasiness. “How old are you boys?”
“That’s right. Only twelve. Much too young to be thinking on such matters. And if you keep allowing these petty resentments to come between you, they’ll destroy your friendship.”