To reach the Queen's private chamber, the two men and the cat followed her into the garden where Crane had first encountered her. Esther walked up to a mass of sunflowers and gently parted their stalks, revealing an open arched doorway.
She led them through into a small room with windows high in the walls. Each window was decorated with faceted crystal inserts so that the light coming in was broken into rainbows which swept across the room in colourful swathes.
Crane was relieved to see that this room was furnished - a writing desk stood against one wall, with a stool pushed under it, and an elegant velvet couch with scrolled ends was set at an angle in the far corner.
To his chagrin, the panther leapt upon the couch and settled down with his head on his paws. The Queen laughed and threw one of the couch-cushions onto the rough-plank floor.
"Take your ease, sir," she instructed him, as she and Mordechai lowered themselves gracefully onto the bare wood and crossed their legs.
With as much dignity as he could summon, Crane nudged the silken cushion aside and sat as did his hosts. Once again his face betrayed his emotion - the floor was surprisingly yielding and comfortable to sit upon.
"We cultivate the Na'im tree with special kindness," Esther answered his unspoken question, "so it gives up its wood willingly, after a long and fruitful life. And our royal carpenter has building secrets which she does not reveal," she added. "But enough of domestic matters. Surely the great Crane has come to our domain seeking adventure. We promise we will not disappoint him."
"I wonder," he ventured, "when Your Highness might be planning to return my sword to me? You will not find it useful, at any rate - it has been spelled to fight only for me."
"Your sword is safe," she replied, "and we have no intention of using it for bloodshed."
George didn't ask for further details about the early days of Sam and Tova's relationship. He was more interested in reassuring Tova that Sam's recent knockout wouldn't be repeated - provided Sam cooperated.
"I'm not trying to get him to give up boxing," she protested.
"But maybe you'd appreciate it," Sam said, "if I confined myself to punching bags, that can't punch me back."
"I appreciate that that wouldn't be very interesting to you. I promised when I married you that I wasn't going to try to change you."
"All he has to do," George put in, "is follow my advice. I have to say it: I told you not to spar with that kid."
"Pride goeth before a fall," Sam quoted humbly. "That kid - young Nicky - was supposed to be my protégé, you know. I guess I'm a better teacher than I knew."
Tova got a sudden chill as she remembered George's call three days ago that had sent her rushing to the hospital emergency room ...
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...