Athalia and her mother were on their roof being served breakfast. Though the day was not yet hot, they sat in the shade of a brightly colored canopy. The whole city of Samaria lay spread out beneath them like a map: the old market to the south, the new temple to the north, the watchmen patrolling the wall around it all.
Athalia dripped some honey onto half a roll of bread thoughtfully, pretending to listen. Despite the effort she had been devoting to wearing her mother down, she was apprehensive. How much would it hurt? Hava had said hers didn’t hurt at all. “You can feel the needle sliding through, but it’s not painful.” Lili had her doubts. Hava obviously had different notions of what was or wasn’t painful since she was subject to the occasional beating. Lili herself hadn’t even been spanked since she was a little girl.
“It really shouldn’t matter what your playmates do, Lili. It’s not for the royal family to follow fashions. The people should follow us. When I was a girl back in Sidon… ”
“Oh, but Mother! You’re so pretty! Of course they all wanted to look like you! And I’m so ordinary! It’s just a nose-ring! Everybody’s wearing them! I am twelve years old, after all!”
“But, Lili, you’re not at all ordinary. You’re beautiful.”
Athalia winced as if in pain and said nothing. She was somewhat plain. Maybe her mother really couldn’t see it. She had her father’s stern, square lips and jawline. Her eyes were narrow like her mother’s, but somehow on her face they looked sinister rather than exotic. Her nose really was her best feature. She had seen the way the boys (and lately, many of the men, too) looked at Hava. It wasn’t fair. Hava was only a slave, after all.
Jezebel, taken in, thought Athalia might be about to cry. “Well, look. The priests of Jah would never let us forget it. Why beg for trouble? Your father… ”
“Everything’s always priests and politics with you! Anyway, you said the people should follow us!”
“Don’t interrupt. Your father has been trying for years to form an alliance with the Judeans. That’s what he went to Jerusalem for. And the Jahvist priests practically run the country up there.”
And so on. She could be so tiresome. What did Lili care about Jah or Judah? Her father would get his way like he always did. Nobody ever thought about her or what she wanted. Though, to be perfectly honest about it, it wasn’t exactly clear what she wanted. It wasn’t as if there were any boys she even liked. Still, she certainly wanted to be attractive. Never mind why.
“Who cares what the Jahvists think? They don’t run things around here!”—an appeal to her mother’s vanity; Athalia knew that the priests blamed Jezebel for the growing popularity of the rival cult of Baal. And a bribe: “I’ll go to temple services! Whenever you want!”
“Oh, all right… ”
So Belit, the Queen’s own beautician, came to Athalia’s rooms the next day. Belit herself was not at all beautiful, and her elaborately arranged hair, her heavy eye-shadow, and the face powder she wore at all hours of the day and night did nothing to make her more so. Years ago, as a little girl, Athalia had admired her figure, but now she had grown overweight. Her dress had obviously been tailored to show off her horrible huge breasts.
“So your majesty wishes to be pierced.”
“Please! Belit! Call me Lili like you always used to.”
“But your majesty is now a young woman.”
She certainly didn’t feel like a young woman. She hadn’t even had her first period yet. And as for sex… well, she knew about it, of course: apparently people did it just like dogs or horses. The whole thing mildly disgusted her. And then screaming for hours in agony with a baby. Baal. Which was not to say that she didn’t get a mysterious thrill looking at the muscular legs of some of the soldiers in her father’s bodyguard.
“Well, how do we do this?”
“Sit down over here.” At her dressing table. Belit put a small washbasin between Lili and her small mirror of polished silver. “Have some wine.”
So it was going to hurt. Well, it was too late to back out now. She’d boasted to Hava that she would do it. There was also her mother to consider. She’d get even with Hava somehow.
Belit held the needle over the basin, poured some wine over it, and chanted some ancient prayers. “Hold this rag right here”—over her mouth—”and don’t move.”
It hurt quite a lot. There was a curious sliding sensation between the two layers of skin; the actual pain was only skin deep. Athalia clenched her teeth and tried not to cry.
The pain lasted only a few seconds, and the beautiful little gold ring looked quite striking. But it was still itching three days later when her father, Ahab, the King, returned from Judah. The terms of his new treaty were announced at a state dinner that night. Athalia was engaged to be married.