The merchant Arbituram came with Nigga-Nanna to the house of the scribe Igmil-Sin and bade him write to the Dilmun trader Ea-Nasir.
“Again?” Igmil-Sin clapped for the slave girl. "Bring water, and dates for our guests." His sister would remind him again that his fee for a single letter would barely pay for the dates--but they were the children of a gentleman, and there were forms to observe. "I thought he had your copper shipped, after Nigga-Nanna took your last letter. I saw him myself, last month, and he told me you had been most persuasive."
"If by that you mean I threatened to call in his mortgages, then yes, he sent what he owed me. He still hasn't sent what he owes Ili-Idinnam, so who do you think had to advance him the money?" The girl set a tray before them with cups and an ewer and bowed herself out. "Hold on--when did you see him? He's been at Dilmun since the new year."
"I went on Nanni's behalf." Arbituram snorted. "I know, I know, but he thought I might receive gentler treatment than Gimil-Sin."
"Nanni believes everyone thinks as much of his rank as he does. Crazy old man." Arbituram gave the scribe a speculative look. "Still--I don't suppose you'd be willing--"
"No. Not for any inducement. Even for my father's love for Nanni, I would not go again. It’s a long journey just to be abused at such length."
"Fair enough. That's what I pay Nigga-Nanna for."
He waited for the other to respond to his name, but Nigga-Nanna was still staring after the girl. "Has this room always had two doors?" Nigga-Nanna said. "I must have just assumed that was the linen cupboard. Does it communicate with the kitchen, or the stores?"
"Both, actually; all the rooms on this side of the house connect up via--”
"Never mind the doors. Igmil-Sin, are you ready?"
Igmil-Sin sprinkled water over a shaped tablet blank and smoothed its surface. "I'm listening. Go on."
The merchant took a deep breath, "Speak-to-Ea-nasir-thus-says-Arbituram--you know the drill."
"The usual greeting--Shamash bless your life?"
"Shamash can bugger his arse for all I care. Why have you not given the copper to Nigga-Nanna? That's you, Ea-Nasir, not you-you--"
"--I grasped that part, yes--"
"--moreover, in the five years I've done business with you--"
"Oh, there you are." His near-namesake Imgur-Sin entered the reception room. "Nigga-Nanna, sorry to interrupt your chat, but I need to send a letter."
"I'm taking dictation from this gentleman just now," Igmil-Sin said, as though there was no way Imgur-Sin could possibly have been expected to notice his stylus and tablet. "But if Arbituram doesn't object to speaking in front of you--"
"I don't care who hears this. Where was I?"
"'In the five years I've done business with you--'"
"...I don't even remember where I was going with that."
Igmil-Sin smeared the characters and waited for new instruction.
Arbituram opened and closed his mouth, but the thought remained lost. "Never mind, just tell him that Ili-idinnam says 'The copper that Nigga-Nanna has received is mine,' so he'd better get his shit together--"
be kind enough, Igmil-Sin wrote.
"and give Nigga-Nanna whatever he owes Ili-idinnam. Just add the letter to my account. That’s you, you; you don’t need to write that part.”
Igmil-Sin blanked his face like a new tablet. "Yes, I had surmised as much. Any closing felicitations?” he said, as though he had not already written The work you have done is good.
“Sesame oil,” suggested Nigga-Nanna.
“That’s a new one to me,” Imgur-Sin observed. “Is it some kind of new slang in Dilmun?”
“That’s right--the copper and 20 kur of sesame oil,” Arbituram said. “Give it to Nigga-Nanna, the end."
"Nigga-Nanna, stay a bit," Imgur-Sin said. "I can send you with my letter as well as Arbituram's."
Arbituram took that as his cue to stay as well, leaning back on one elbow and finally helping himself to a date. Igmil-Sin set Arbituram's letter aside to dry, wetted a new tablet, and tallied one letter to Arbituram's account and one to Imgur-Sin. "Just the one letter?"
"For now. Usual pleasantries, Shamash bless you and so on, and ask him to give good copper under seal to Nigga-Nanna."
"How much copper?" Nigga-Nanna asked.
"Well, he's had me issue 10 shekels of silver against it--and you can put that in the letter--so do the math."
"I'm sorry," Igmil-Sin said, "but did you want me to write 'do the math,' or to do the math and write the figure?"
"Never mind that; he knows what he owes me. Or he ought to. Just tell him, out of the kindness of his tiny shriveled heart, to give the copper he owes. I am so fucking tired of this shit. You know what, put that in, too--ask him if he knows how fucking exhausted I am. And that he can pay up when he gets back, that's fine too, just give the copper to Nigga-Nanna so I can fucking sleep at night." He fell back dramatically onto the floor mat.
All the way from the kitchen, Igmil-Sin heard his sister sigh.
There was a splash from the courtyard foot-basin, and Appa stomped into the reception room; in his train hurried old Nanni, still dripping water from the tufted hem of his garment. "Son, I need you to go to back to Dilmun."
"If you need a message carried to Ea-Nasir," Imgur-Sin offered, without rising, "Nigga-Nanna is going for me this afternoon."
"Oh. Well, I suppose he can't make more of a hash of things.”
"I am much obliged to you, Nigga-Nanna," Nanni said.
"Er, rather." There was a pause in which the mention of payment failed to come up. Finally, with a glance at Nanni's white hairs, Nigga-Nanna sighed. "That is, it's my pleasure."
"Appa, my friend, shall I dictate the letter or do you want to?"
"Oh, you do it, you know what to say." Appa lowered himself to the brick bench--the floor was too far for his knees these days. "Why don't you get yourself some new cushions one of these days; seems you're doing well enough. I don't know what you spend it all on."
Nanni had the grace to look abashed. He had had the management of Appa's business affairs ever since they were young men; he knew, if the rest of the company did not, where Ninkala’s divorce payment had gone, flowing like water into Appa’s endless foreign speculations. Appa had swallowed it up, just as he had eaten the silver of her brideprice; and her father-in-law, though he paid the cash readily enough, had taken back his son’s gifts, even the costly copper kettle and other household gear that should have come with her. She had come nearly empty-handed to live with her brother.
Igmil-Sin kept an account for his father’s many letters, but he had long ago ceased to expect payment. He made a tally anyway, and prepared a tablet. “Are you buying ingots on your own behalf?”
“And for the palace,” Nanni said, “and one or two other small charges. The first is for a silver mina’s worth.” It was the first of many, and the smallest--orders followed for two minas’ worth, three, even ten. Arbituram looked suitably impressed and Nigga-Nanna, no doubt worrying about his return journey, was pale; Imgur-Sin, who had come in ranting over a mere ten shekels, was still too wrapped in his own grievances for other men's affairs to touch him.
Wealth flowed through all of their hands--as promises, as signs, as coins. So little of it stayed, or gave any benefit--his father had eaten silver for years and his hunger was unabated. “Father,” Igmil-Sin said, “you should order Ninkala a kettle.”
“A copper kettle. To replace the one her father-in-law kept.” His father stared. “I’m sure, from all of this, you can afford the price of one kettle.” Nanni--bless him--made a small sign of assent. “I’ll just add it to this letter, then.”
“Son, Ea-Nasir’s an importer for the palace, not a street peddler--he’s not going to take the time to buy up a whole lot of kitchenware, let alone one--”
“Oh, I’m already ordering sesame oil!” Nigga-Nanna gave a smile which, Igmil-Sin was beginning to suspect, was not nearly as foolish as it seemed.
“...Right,” Appa finally said. “And one kettle.”
“...of at least… 15 qa… capacity,” Igmil-Sin muttered, though his father knew full well he could write silently when he wished.
Appa’s tablet was, perhaps, not perfectly dry when Igmil-Sin pressed it and the others on Nigga-Nanna, but the dates had run out. "If Ilshu-Rabi’s there, he should be able to read them, and I suppose you know where to hire a scribe if he’s not."
"I think the scribes may be the only people left who are making anything from their dealings with that man." Nigga-Nanna sighed. "Sometimes I wish I'd joined my cousin's construction business like my father wanted me to. He's got all the work he can handle here in Ur."
When they had gone, Ninkala came herself to collect the cups and the tray. "I'll have to send the girl for more dates," she said. "Maybe a bigger sack, if your business keeps thriving."
She didn't mean it as a reproach, but still Igmil-Sin was abashed. "I could ask again about getting an office in the palace, or one of the big temples--I do enough work for all of them, one of them should have some space for me."
"It's your house, brother. If I wanted out of it, I'd make you find me another husband." She gave one of her momentary smiles, so fleeting Igmil-Sin wondered if he'd imagined it, and vanished back into the kitchen.
It was two and a half months before Nigga-Nanna returned, on his own this time. "How was Dilmun? Did you get the k-- ah, everything you went for?"
"Twenty-six minas ten shekels' worth of copper? And the sesame oil, and a kettle? Small chance of that. Completely empty-handed. Sorry. If they'd all asked one at a time I might have got something from him, but as it was he told me to ask for the moon too; I'd have as much chance of getting it."
"If that’s all Ea-Nasir said, you got off lightly."
"Lighter than he did himself. Arbituram's had enough; he's calling in the mortgage on his house. He'll have to sell--or subdivide; his neighbor would take half of his house. My cousin wants me to talk him into that."
"I think you might manage it." Igmil-Sin called for water and dates. "Sit down, by the way. Is this a social call, or can I do something for you?"
"Well, possibly. It's like this, you see. I wouldn't wish for my son to follow me in the Dilmun trade. It's a rotten life, always at sea or far from home. My cousin has offered to take him on as an apprentice, but I've heard him complain enough to know that a building contractor's life isn't so pleasant either, with the heat, and the rain, and the clients. And I remembered what I said about how well the scribes were making out. It’s not a bad life you have, is it?”
“It keeps me out of the heat and the rain, at least.”
“Have you ever thought of taking on a student? Or even a few of them--you could wall this room and the courtyard off from the domestic offices, let a new street door in next to the anteroom--”
"You and your cousin have this whole thing worked out, I see."
Nigga-Nanna shrugged. "We may have talked it over. Think about it, though? I know a few other boys whose parents would pay well to get them started as scribes."
"I'll talk it over with my sister. I don't know about a whole school, but a few boys, perhaps--I’ll think about it."
He had not truly intended to mention the matter to Ninkala, but when she came in to clear the tray she said “Don’t let him charge you for the plaster and whitewash; the girl and I can manage that much on our own.”
“Truly?” Ninkala looked up under her brows. “I mean, you’re all right with this? With boys in and out of your house all day?”
“Brother, you may be spared the heat and rain, but you’re afflicted by clients all the same. If you must deal with fools all day, why not fools you have liberty to correct?”
“It would be a steadier source of income,” Igmil-Sin allowed, “than charging by the letter. But I fear becoming like Ea-Nasir--fingers in so many pots I can’t close my fist on anything.”
“Fear rather what will come of your livelihood when Ea-Nasir retires,” Ninkala said. “He’s kept you in meat and drink these ten years.”
“True,” Igmil-Sin allowed. “I wonder if he has a son he’d like taught to write. Perhaps I could offer a discount.”
Ninkala gave him a severe look, but he kept his face innocent, and in a moment she laughed--the first time in weeks he’d heard her laugh aloud. That alone might be worth doing a kindness to Ea-Nasir. “Fifteen qa,” she scoffed. “Who ever heard of two people and a girl needing a kettle that size?”