Leaving Mordechai and the panther, Esther led the way back through the garden, past the banquet hall and, through an alcove, up a winding, narrow set of stone steps. As they ascended, it became apparent that they were rising through a tower built of red stone, with slitted windows spaced at regular intervals in the curving walls.
Then both the tower and the windows broadened and there was a view of the citadel and its surroundings, glimmering in the dusk. Finally they reached a landing and Esther knocked on the door before them.
"It is I, lady - with a visitor for you," she called out. "May we enter?"
"The door is open to you," answered a woman's voice.
The voice's tones reminded Crane of sweet music he had heard once, in the mountains, on a still night long ago.
The chamber they entered was spacious, furnished with voluptuous couches, polished tables of inlaid wood, and shelves full of exquisitely carved bowls and vases. Between the open windows, the walls were covered with intricately woven and embroidered hangings.
On a beautifully designed and comfortably padded seat by one window sat a lady, her regal figure draped in velvet robes the same blue as the twilit sky. Her white hair was cut short and it framed her dark, finely-lined face like a halo.
When the lady lifted one hand from the armrest of her chair and beckoned them closer, Esther immediately went and knelt by her, taking her hand and kissing it.
Crane took a few steps towards them and stopped, unsure.
"You may take a couch, great Crane," the older woman laughed. "I am Or-Tikva, chief diplomat of Esther's realm. If she has brought you to meet me, I must assume she wishes you to gain a greater understanding of how she rules. You see, long ago I was known as Vashti - Queen Vashti - until I dared to disobey the king when he ordered me to dance for him and his drunken friends. For this offense they had me cast out of the citadel, to fend for myself in the open lands."
"But was it not Esther who replaced you in the king's favour?" cried Crane, astonished at the tableau before him.
"I neither envied nor resented her," replied Or-Tikva calmly. "And when the old king died, it was Queen Esther who sent riders out to the edges of the realm, and beyond, to search for me."
"But how did you survive all those years?"
"She did much more than survive," Esther answered him. "When my messenger found her, she had no interest in returning to Susa. I rode out myself to meet her, and spent an entire month there with her, convincing her that she was sorely needed here - and negotiating what her new role would be."
"But where was she? What had she been doing?" Crane persisted.
Esther looked up at Or-Tikva, who smiled down on her, her dark eyes enigmatic.
"Tova! Tova? Where are you?"
"I'm right here, Sammy. Hush, you know I'm a light sleeper."
"Could you turn on the lamp?"
"Okay, but close your eyes - it might hurt."
"Can't hurt more than the God-awful dream I was having," he said pitifully. "I thought I was ..." He put a hand to his head. "I thought I had ..." he started again, then looked at his wife, bewildered. "Now why would I be dreaming about that?"
"About Dickson?" Tova guessed.
Sam put his hands over his ears and closed his eyes. "Don't say his name!" he hissed. He opened one eye. "How'd you know, anyway?"
"Who else are you going to have a nightmare about?"
"Well, it mighta been about that kid that knocked me out the other day."
"But Nicky didn't mean any harm. Besides, we were just talking about Dickson tonight, with George - or almost talking about him, anyway."
"Could you please stop saying that name?"
"Sammy, maybe if you'd talk about it, you wouldn't have nightmares."
"This is the first one I've had. Now, I know what would make me feel better - do you think you could make me some of your special tea, sweetheart? You know, the way you do."
"How do you make that sound so sexy?"
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...