Ch 1: A Woman With The Heart Of A Lioness

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When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth ... he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti ... - "Esther" 2:16-17, The Bible (NSRV)


Tova lowered the phone and looked at her husband sitting on the couch in the living room, bent over his laptop and muttering as his fingers danced across the keys like Glenn Gould playing Bach. Clear autumn sunshine lit the blue sky out the window behind him and a breeze set the leaves to quivering.

She raised the phone. "Sam's in the middle of a story, coach - can I get him to call you back? Thanks."

Approaching quietly, past the small teak dining set that had belonged to her parents, she was thinking she'd just sink into her father's old tweed wing-back, pick up the volume of her mother's poetry which she'd dropped there, and wait for Sam to return from wherever he was. Then she noticed that the Chinese tea-cup next to him was lidless and empty.

Stealthily she reached for it and Sammy looked up.

"Ah," he sighed, "there's my muse."

For a moment Tova was speechless. Samuel J. Burnside, amateur boxer and professional author, was famous for his fantastic, poetic and testosterone-charged stories of ancient magician-heroes. As far as she knew, his latest story involved Crane of Astartha, a seven-foot goliath whose skill with the sword was so accomplished that he needed no armour.

"Your who?" she asked, brushing a grey-streaked curl back off her forehead with one fine-boned hand.

With his hands poised motionless above the keyboard, he gazed at her appraisingly, his eyes still puffy and a bit red. Alarming purple bruises adorned his square, practical face, but he didn't seem to notice them.

"I'm tryin' to picture you with a weapon - what you think, maybe a sabre? Or how about a two-headed axe? That's kinda feminine, now - a labrys." He nodded and began to type again.

"You're imagining me attacking someone?"

"In defense of your loved ones? Why, hell yes, girl."

"But with an axe?"

"All right, then, no axe. Let's see - you chop some mean vegetables, don't y'all? I've seen that knife of yours. Wicked sharp. Yes! She's a master of the dagger, in hand-to-hand combat. Thank you very much, I believe that will work."

"You're welcome. I'll get you some more tea. And George just called - I told him you'd call back."

Sammy's face fell and he stopped typing again. "I hope you weren't too hard on him."

"I told him I don't hold him responsible for what happened in the ring yesterday. Like my dad used to say, we know you have a mind of your own. And I invited him for dinner tomorrow, if you're up to it - I thought you'd like the company."

"You are one amazing lady, Tova Burnside. Should I apologize again for being so -"

"Let's just leave that for now. So tell me, is the great Crane going through a change of life or something? I mean, all this feminine stuff you're talking about ..."

"No, no - he's going to Persia, where he will encounter a mature Queen Esther - hence your role as muse. She's a woman with the heart of a lioness, the soul of an angel, and the intellect of a Greek ... - who was that guy who invented mathematics - Digitalis?"

"Digitalis is a medicinal plant extract, Sammy."

"You see - she has the wisdom of the earth," he answered, unfazed.

"Okay. Hey, am I going to have to cook meat for your coach?"

"You just whip up one of your savoury vegetarian concoctions and it'll be fine, you'll see. How about that spaghetti with garbanzos?"

"And some sausage rolls?"

A grin brightened Sammy's face, a grin only slightly dulled by the accompanying wince. The cut on his upper lip had not quite healed. "You know we always enjoy a nice sausage roll, girl. Now I better get back."

"Have fun there."

"You know I always do. Now, where was I ... ah!"

Sam's fingers started dancing on the keyboard again as Tova settled back in her chair and picked up her book, taking one last fond look at her husband before letting him go.

Sammy, already deep into his story, was muttering "Ol' Crane's makin' his way to Susa, but he don't know that Esther knows he's comin' ..."

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