Obadiah’s chariot rolled into the Samaria city plaza and stopped at the palace steps. While the driver and four guards carried in luggage, Obadiah and his chief guard reclined against the chariot rail. The palace steps still showed no signs of wear. Bright flowers hung from shops around the plaza, and on the other side of the square, the new Asherah temple raised its imposing facade.
King Ahab jogged down the steps followed by ten bodyguards. He pulled Obadiah out of the chariot and pointed to the temple. “Come, come. I want to show you this marble. It links my temple with the best.”
Obadiah hopped down but paused to address his chief guard. “Supervise the shopping, but pinch the peaches this time, okay? We’ve got a whole day ahead of us inspecting groves, and I don’t want the men griping about the food.”
Obadiah let Ahab lead him across the plaza. The ten guards followed a few steps behind.
Besided the Asherah temple a row of young girls huddled in the alley, yet Ahab patted a column on the front porch. “Good as any in Sidon or Zarephath. Maybe better. We don’t have to be ashamed to entertain guests from any capital in the world. Top grade marble, Biah. Inside and out. Top grade.”
But while Ahab spoke, Obadiah shook his head. He pulled Ahab out of the porch and pointed to the alley. “Come, come. I want to show you this chain. It links these children at the ankles.”
Ahab thrust his hands into his armpits and drew back. “What’s with you, Biah?”
“Jezebel leads you in between pillars of top grade marble, but you deserve to see what enters your whorehouse from the back alley.”
Ahab stepped back and narrowed his eyes. “Some would say you talk treason, Biah.”
“You’re the king, Ahab, so you define treason.” Obadiah pursed his lips and bobbed his head at Ahab. “Or is that one of the decisions you now leave to your queen?” He squinted and locked eyes with the king.
Ahab shifted his gaze to the alley. “What’s so great that it’s got you all fired up, Biah?” He forced a brief smile but defaulted to his quizzical frown.
Steering him by the elbow, Obadiah led the king through the alley while Ahab kept stealing glances behind them.
“There, my king.” Obadiah held out an arm toward the little girls huddled beside the temple. A long chain linked the children together at their ankles. Their sunken eyes held to the ground, and they smelled like dried feces. Obadiah swallowed hard and stroked his throat. He stepped away and cocked his head at Ahab, his childhood friend, the nation’s chief slave trader.
Red gave Obadiah and Ahab a quick glance and spat in the street. He slapped the door again.
A woman opened the door, clapped her hand over her mouth, and scowled at Red.
Red muttered, “Nice to see you, too, Thera. Here’s your new girls.”
She squinted at Red, at the line of girls, and then at Obadiah and Ahab and the ten guards.
Red nodded toward the temple door. “Tell the priest it’s two hundred seventy-three shekels.”
Obadiah clenched his fists. So this was the new reality. Prince Ahab was now King Ahab, and his queen’s Asherah priest dragged starving children to her temple door. Not to put food in their bellies or salve on their sores. But to put silver in Red’s belt. And eventually in Jezebel’s. Obadiah turned and stared at Ahab’s immobile silhouette.
Red angled toward Thera and growled. “Get the priest.”
She ducked inside and slammed the door.
Moments later, the priest stepped out. He gawked at the girls and shot nervous glances at Obadiah and Ahab, but he spoke to the red-haired man.
“You brought girls?”
“Thirty-nine girls. Two hundred seventy-three shekels.”
Ahab gave Obadiah a quick smirk. “Red starts strong, but will he hold his position?”
Obadiah’s neck flamed, and he whirled to face Ahab, every muscle tensed and ready. He should cold-cock his old friend here in the alley. Was he fast enough to grab a spear from the chariot and pin Red to the wall before Ahab’s guards overpowered him?
“Girls.” He hurled the word at Ahab. “Not goats. Little girls made in God’s image.” He snarled. “And you chain them by the ankles.” He shook his head.
Red turned to Ahab. “Glad to see you here, your majesty. I hope you can control your friend.” He gave a glance at Ahab’s ten guards.
Ahab crossed his arms and stuck out his jaw.
The priest shuffled his feet and coughed. “The last string was four shekels each. So, that would be a hundred fifty-six shekels.”
A half smile curled Red’s mouth. “My cousin sold you that string at five shekels each, seventeen Kasran girls. You paid him eighty-five shekels. These come from Tadmor, and the price is seven shekels each. Two hundred seventy-three shekels.”
Obadiah sucked in a quick breath. “Shekels for little girls on a chain while the Lord watches. It’s not just wicked, Ahab. It’s insane.”
The priest stared across the plaza at the palace roof. “What makes you think I need girls? Mine are doing fine.”
What a non-starter. Obadiah gawked at the priest. The man had no compass. No ballast. Red could blow him over, poof, and toss him into a sack. Exactly the kind of man to run a whorehouse for Jezebel. Obadiah gasped and let his shoulders slump. The priest was Ahab on a smaller scale.
Red flicked a glance toward Ahab and sneered at the priest. “The king ordered you to clean up forty girls and get them trained for his new temples in Jezreel and Jabesh. We found thirty-nine for you.”
Obadiah shivered and looked away, back past the guards and up the empty alley. Jezreel and Jabesh, of course. And then Ramoth and Beersheba. Ahab hadn’t the guts to tell him, but what good would it have done. Jezebel’s priests must have planned these temples months before King Ethbaal married her to Ahab.
The priest wrinkled his face up into a grotesque attempt at a smile. “Well then. Let’s see what you brought.”
“First the silver.”
The priest ducked back into the temple and emerged with a bag and a set of scales.
But Red already crouched beside scales and weights. “We’ll use mine.” Red weighed shekels into the purse at his belt, his assistants clicked their tongues, and the children shuffled to the door, clanking the chain on the paving stones.
Red’s assistants cut the clasps from their ankles with hammers and chisels. The chain lay silent, and blood seeped from the girls’ ankles.
Obadiah groaned and sighed again. Where was the Lord when these little ones were captured? Where was the Lord now in their captivity? How could he help these children?
But the priest counted, “Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven. You said thirty-nine.”
“It’s a long trip from Tadmor.”
“I paid for thirty-nine.”
“And I brought thirty-nine. Two didn’t make it.”
The priest cursed Red by the gods of Sidon, and Obadiah spun around on his heel. “Oh, Lord.” He put his hand to his forehead. Somewhere out on the King’s Highway, days or weeks ago, a tiny child got sick and slowed down the others. So, these men cut her out of the chain and left her by the trail. Then another little girl got sick, and they cut her out to die without mother or father. Yet the priest did not curse the evil done to those little ones. He cursed his loss of fourteen shekels.
Nausea rolled over Obadiah. What have we become, Lord?
As the priest 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 priest 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.”
Obadiah’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.”
Red sidled up to Obadiah and Ahab and spoke in far north accents like Thera’s. “My father sold that old cow to this priest 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 Obadiah’s head of puking in Red’s face and down the front of his tunic. Instead, he turned and stared into the face of King Ahab. What had become of his friend, the prince? Was he really the shell who stood here?
“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.”
Obadiah 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.” Obadiah shrugged from under Ahab’s hand and took a stride to the side.
Two quick footsteps approached, and a hand on Obadiah’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 thousand a month. Israel was once a great nation, Biah.”
“You been talking with your biographer again?” A quick smirk lit up Obadiah’s mouth but faded. Sparring with his old friend held little joy.
Ahab leaned in nose-to-nose and stuck his finger in Obadiah’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.”
Obadiah 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 priest, and the second he stepped up to the throne, he took over the temple in Tyre.”
Obadiah 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. “Kinging 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.”
Obadiah’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 stopped and faced him. “Huh?”
“Here in this square.” Obadiah 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 palace 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—?”
Obadiah lowered his voice and pushed his chin into Ahab’s chin. “Yes, I am. 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 looked down.
“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.” Obadiah relaxed and leaned back into the pillar. He gave a soft chuckle. “Ahab. Ahab. How can you expect me ever to call Asherah anything but bad business?”