As the temple boss cursed, he glared in the children’s eyes, pried open their mouths, and yanked at their robes. “Rotten merchandise.” A little girl sagged, and he dragged her to her feet. “This heifer isn’t worth three shekels.”
“Give her to your old cow, Thera. She’ll make her shine.”
The boss shoved the girls, and they stumbled up to Thera by the door. She pulled each filthy head to her shoulder and moaned in her soft, north-desert tones, “Come in, child. Thera’s gonna fix you an’ put food in you. Give you warm water and soap and a clean robe.”
Biah’s eyes narrowed. Was she sheltering them from the storm or welcoming them to the torture chamber?
Thera hugged a girl and groaned. She called through the doorway, “Agathe, this child’s hurt bad. Bring two girls to help her. Give her a bath. Go slow.”
The slaver sidled up to Biah and Ahab and spoke in far north accents like Thera’s. “My father sold that old cow to this temple boss when he was still at the temple in Sidon. Beautiful tart. Had no idea she’d be runnin’ the place for him.”
He put his hand on the bulge of money in his belt. “Her old girls will scrub ’em down and patch ’em up. Hang temple robes on ’em. A few weeks, and she’ll have ’em trained to give a man a proper welcome. That’s old Thera.”
A picture flashed into Biah’s head of puking in the slaver’s face and down the front of his tunic. Instead, he turned and stared into the face of Ahab. What had become of his friend, the prince?
He turned back toward the open plaza. Biah felt no desire to speak with Ahab, the empty shell beside him. But he tried a familiar line. “It’s been at least a month since we let Lavan and Shochar race.”
“Yes, yes, Biah. We’ll have to bring our old rides out of mothballs and see if they still know how to run. But next week I want you with us in Tyre.”
Biah snorted, and a tiny amount of energy returned. Enough to protest. “Thank you, but I prefer to stay here.”
Ahab put his hand on his shoulder. “I need you with me on this, Biah. Jezebel’s father’s got connections. We’ve got to generate more income. I need chariots and troops.”
“I think you know my opinion in this matter.” Biah shrugged from under Ahab’s hand and took a stride to the side.
Two quick footsteps approached, and a hand on Biah’s arm swung him inside the porch. “And I think you know I need my right-hand man to demonstrate a little flexibility. We have a great heritage, and I aim to get it back. Our ancestors sailed from Eilat, and the kings of Edom paid us taxes. We sent forced labor to Lebanon, ten men thousand a month. Israel was once a great nation, Biah.”
“You been talking with your biographer again?” A quick smirk lit Biah’s mouth but faded. Sparring with his old friend held no more joy.
Ahab leaned in nose-to-nose and stuck his finger in Biah’s face. “My father restored some of this glory when he brought Moab under our heel. Now it’s my turn, and to make Israel powerful again, we need to befriend a business leader like Ethbaal.”
Biah backed his shoulders up against a porch column. “So, you want to talk with the King of Tyre about business—not about thirty-seven little girls bleeding at the ankles in your whorehouse. How can suffering children mean so little to you?”
Ahab leaned in next to Obadiah. “Biah, do you have any idea how much Ethbaal makes off his temples? He saw the cash flow when he was a young Asherah boss, and the second he stepped up to the throne, he took over the temple in Tyre.”
Biah gave Ahab a pointed look. “Excuse me, your majesty. But Ethbaal did not ‘step up’ to the throne. He slit King Phelles’ throat.”
“Oh, get off it, Biah.” Ahab waved him off. “King is a dangerous occupation. You’ve always known that. Nadab and Elah only lived two years on the throne, and Zimri was king barely seven days when my father roasted him on his own bonfire. That’s why my bodyguards train every day and scout each situation.”
“And your point is?”
“My point is, Ethbaal knows business. The very next year after he took over that first temple in Tyre, he put his lieutenants into the temples at Zarephath and Sidon. Nobody’s publishing numbers, but he’s stacking bags of silver in his treasury from all three of his temples.”
Biah’s nostrils flared. He held his elbows wide and thrust out his chest at Ahab. “And everyone at this end of the Mediterranean wants to talk about the money King Ethbaal will make from temple number four in Byblos and number five on Cyprus. But no one wants to talk about the stench from the children in your temple here in Samaria.”
Ahab paced and ran his hands through his hair. “Biah, why do you get so—this is good business.”
“My king. I once gave you a quick course in good business.”
Ahab faced him with a blank look.
“Here in this square.” Biah waved his arm at the plaza around them. “Oak trees were growing where you planted this ‘top grade marble.’ Your father was building the palace. You and I stood right over there beside the new palace as it was going up. We were in the King Jeroboam Inn. Remember Merom, the grove manager with ten years at Shiloh? Every tree greener and more olives?”
Ahab’s eyes widened. “Biah, are you still—?”
Biah lowered his voice and pushed his chin into Ahab’s chin. “Yes, I am still Biah. So tell me, did I correct Merom? Tell him he was at Shiloh only nine years? Some trees were brown, with fewer olives? Is that what I said?”
Ahab shook his head slowly and backed away.
But Biah followed with his chin pressed on Ahab’s chin.
“You want flexibility, my king, but you’re talking to a man who refused to hire a grove manager merely because he cheats on his wife.”
Biah pulled back and gave a soft chuckle as he leaned into the pillar. “Ahab, my king, how can you expect me ever to call Asherah anything but bad business?”