They had dinner at a Japanese restaurant over on Yonge Street. Sam mentioned how last year he'd done a book-signing tour of Japan, where his stories were popular, but he gallantly forbore to compare the quality of their repast at Toronto Ichiban Sushi with the cuisine he'd sampled in its homeland.
After they'd settled the bill - Sam was gentleman enough to let Tova pay her share - they stepped out into the early evening darkness and Sam said, "My momma'd never forgive me if I didn't see you home."
"I don't live far, but if you want to walk a bit that would be nice. Is your mom back in Texas?"
"Well now," he'd answered slowly, "as a matter of fact she's buried there."
"I'm so sorry."
"So am I. I was nearly buried along with her. But let's not talk of that right now. Tell me some more about that bookstore you work at."
Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for [the Jews'] destruction, that he might show it to Esther ... Then Esther said, in reply to Mordecai, "Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf ... After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish." - "Esther" 4:8-16, Bible
The banquet-hall was like nothing Crane had ever seen before.
The great warrior had feasted in the opulence of other palaces, where powerful men raised up on golden thrones had sought to win him over at velvet-draped tables groaning with glistening roasted meats and mounds of rich pastries.
He'd been fanned by silk-clad slaves wielding bunches of gaudily-dyed peacock feathers and drunk blood-red wine from jewel-encrusted goblets.
Esther's dining chamber was spartan compared to the halls of his memory - and yet it was a magical place.
It was lit by clusters of fireflies which hovered near the ceiling, and the walls were festooned with blooming vines releasing their subtle perfume into the air.
There were no tables or chairs, but the floor was covered with an undulating green carpet; it wasn't until he took the place indicated, beside a handsome grey-haired man in a purple robe, that Crane realized the carpet was actually alive, growing moss of an unsurpassed softness that cushioned his weary bones as he sat.
The Queen took her place on the ground, on the other side of the purple-robed man, and introduced him to Crane as her cousin Mordechai. Servers brought platters of food to lay before them and then sat among the guests and helped themselves.
The food also seemed to disappoint, at first. The serving platters, of plain olive-wood, were heaped with round, flat breads and a variety of leafy vegetables surrounding pyramids of some kind of savoury golden fritters.
Crane was handed an earthenware mug filled with a clear liquid. He sipped it and found it surprisingly refreshing; it cleared his head and whetted his appetite.
Then, imitating his hosts, he piled the greens and the fritters onto the bread and prepared to wolf it down in his customary manner.
He told himself that this must be the appetizer.
But as he raised the food to his mouth, he felt the Queen's eyes on him and he looked around and saw that his companions had not yet tasted the food they held.
"We pray God may bless this food to our use." Esther spoke the words reverently and the others replied "Amen" and began to eat slowly, appreciatively and delicately.
Although it was against his nature, Crane followed suit.
Thence an exquisite mixture of flavours and textures caressed his palate, releasing fragrances which he paused to inhale. Smoky, spicy and fresh, the food filled his stomach in a way that meat had never done.
To his great surprise, in a short time Crane was sated.
When the platters were empty, the servers arose languidly and cleared them away, returning with bowls of green- and yellow-skinned fruit.
The Queen and several others drew their daggers and began to slice the fruit, revealing glistening red and gold flesh. They passed the slices around to the company.
At the bottom of the bowl Crane noticed some small green leaves. Esther drew out a few of these, handing one to Crane and placing one on her tongue.
Again, the warrior followed suit. He chewed the leaf and experienced a feeling of well-being such as he'd never known course through his veins - and yet his mind remained clear.
What enchantment was this?
"I know you have many questions," the Queen addressed him softly, "but I think it best to answer them in private. We will retire to my chambers."
With a nod to her cousin, she rose from the floor.
The young panther, who Crane had observed consuming virtually the same fare as his mistress (he had foregone the bread and did not seem to care for the red fruit, only the golden one), had his muzzle in the fruit bowl. When he raised his head a green leaf was caught in his fangs.
With a low growl, he took up a watchful position behind Crane as the party left the hall.
YOU ARE READING
Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...