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08 The portico – 871

The Plaza, Samaria City, Israel, 871 BC

Obadiah’s chariot rattled across the pavers and splashed through the puddles from last night’s shower.

A bluethroat sang hweet-hweet in an olive tree by the door of the King Jeroboam Inn, and its cousin answered from a tree next to the threshing floor.

Biah waved up at King Ahab, who surveyed the plaza from his palace terrace.

Ahab stood, and ten guards stood with him. He strode over to the edge of the terrace and rested his hands on the marble banister while his guards looked over his shoulder. “You’ve got the whole week to take care of olive groves. First, come see my new portico.” He gestured toward the Asherah temple at the other side of the plaza.

The king and his guards descended the still-shiny marble steps and strolled through the brilliant sunshine around to the palace side door where Biah’s driver parked.

Biah pursed his lips. He had not intended to interrupt his week of olive grove inspections with a visit to that miserable temple.

His driver and four guards grabbed their luggage and headed into the palace. The driver stopped at the door. “Anything you need from inside, sir?”

“Nope. I’m good.” Biah waved him through the door. He turned to his chief guard, who stood with his hand on the chariot wheel and his eyebrows raised. “I’ll be right back, okay, Zak?” Biah pointed toward fruit and vegetable stands on the edge of the plaza. “Take care of the shopping. But pinch the peaches this time. We’ve got a whole day ahead of us in the groves, and I don’t want the men griping about the food.”

The chief guard’s eyebrows lowered, and he nodded.

Ahab took Biah by the elbow and guided him across the plaza. “You called that guard by name and asked if it was okay for you to be right back. You should tell him what’s what. He’s not family.”

Biah gave a soft laugh. “Not family? You know how many years we’ve been together? I chose those six men when your father was still king. They stare over my shoulder and advise me about every piece of business. Together we’ve inspected more olive groves than you know you own.” Biah stopped in the middle of the plaza, turned and stared back at his chief guard. “Every day I trust my life to those guys. And the lives of Didi and our kids. They’re my brothers.”

“Brothers. That’s your way. Not mine.” Ahab renewed his grip on Biah’s elbow. “Every day a new batch from the guard pool follows me around.” He lifted his chin. “Anyway, come see this new portico. The marble makes my temple rank with the best.” He moved his hand to Biah’s shoulder and swaggered across the plaza with his ten guards of the day a few steps behind.

At the Asherah temple, Ahab slapped a column. “Top grade marble. Inside and out. Top grade. Good as Sidon or Zarephath. Maybe better. We can entertain guests from any capital in the world.”

Biah swallowed hard and whispered, “Top grade.” He crossed his arms and turned his head toward the plaza entrance. His old friend ignored the humiliation and pain of the girls who “entertained.” Biah cleared his throat and changed the topic. “It’s been at least a month since we raced Shochar and Lavan.”

“Yes, yes. We’ll have to bring our old rides out and see if they still know how to run. But next week I want you with me in Tyre.”

Biah snorted and spoke softly. “Thank you, my king. With all due respect, I prefer to stay here.”

Ahab shuffled around to face him. “I need you with me on this. Your head for business.” He placed his hands on Biah’s shoulders. “Jezebel’s father has connections. We’ve got to generate more income. I need chariots and troops.”

“You know my opinion in this matter.” He shrugged out from under the king’s hands.

Ahab grabbed Biah’s arm and swung him inside the portico. “Why do you act so stiff? I need my right hand man to show flexibility. Think of our heritage. Our ancestors sailed from Eilat, and the kings of Edom paid us taxes. We sent forced labor to Lebanon, ten thousand men a month. Israel was once a great nation.”

Biah smirked. “You been talking with your biographer again?” His smirk faded. The spark in sparring lay cold between them. Could they ever have fun together again?

Ahab pushed up the sleeves of his tunic and gave Biah a curt nod. “My father restored part of our glory. He brought Moab under our heel. He built this city with its plaza and that palace.” He stuck his finger in Biah’s face. “Now it’s my turn, and we need to befriend Ethbaal, a business leader.”

Biah backed up against a porch column. “Please, my king, we’ve been through so much together. I don’t understand how the tiny children who suffer in your temple can mean so little to you.”

Ahab leaned in next to him. “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, so the second he stepped up to the throne, he took over the temple in Tyre.”

Biah raised his head and looked full into Ahab’s face. “Excuse me, my king. But Ethbaal did not ‘step up’ to the throne. He slit King Phelles’ throat.”

“Oh, get off it, Biah.” Ahab waved him away. “You knew Nadab and Elah. They only lived two years on the throne, and Zimri was king seven days when my father roasted him on his own bonfire. My bodyguards train every day and scout each situation because no king carries a guarantee to his throne.”

“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 thrust 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 temple number five on Cyprus. But no one wants to talk about the stench from the children in our temple here in Samaria.”

Ahab ran his hands through his hair. “Biah, why do you get so—this is good business.”

“Business? My king, have you forgotten what I showed you about good business?”

Ahab tilted his head, his face blank.

Biah waved his arm at the portico. “Olive trees grew where you planted this ‘top grade marble.’ You and I stood right over there in the King Jeroboam Inn and listened to the workmen building your father’s palace. Merom, the grove manager? Ten years at Shiloh? Every tree greener and more olives?”

Ahab’s eyes widened. “Are you still—?”

Biah lowered his voice and raised his chin. “Yes, my king. I understand that you need flexibility. But how do you expect me to help you shove little girls into this temple when I refused to hire a grove manager who cheats on his wife?”

As Ahab stared at Biah, his mouth formed a perfect O.

From around the corner of the temple came a loud banging.

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