A short time later, after his stomach had been settled with a soothing herbal infusion and his body nourished with a rich pottage laced with fresh fruits, Queen Esther eased Crane's mind by telling him more about the success of her ongoing rescue and rehabilitation of abused women and children.
"You are indeed a great and mighty ruler," he avowed. "I am at your service wholeheartedly. Ask of me what you will."
Esther smiled upon him, causing him to reflect that no report he'd ever heard of her beauty had come close to describing it sufficiently.
"You have a long and grueling journey ahead of you," she said. "We will prepare you as best we can. First, my cousin will accompany you to the sacred oasis where the men of the citadel go to cleanse themselves. You will take this with you."
From behind one of the flowering vines on the wall, the Queen retrieved Crane's sword. He received it from her gratefully.
Then Mordechai led him out of the palace and they wended their way between the halls of the citadel compound. Mordechai pointed out artisans' studios - weavers and potters and metal-smiths - and, as they got further from the centre, warehouses full of grain and barns where livestock were housed. Every building was well-kept, and everyone they passed was busy with purpose.
Finally they were at the gates of the citadel, and then they were outside, in a forest of cypress trees. The pines soon gave way to fruit trees, and then to an open place with a pool in the middle.
"The men come here later in the morning," Mordechai told Crane. "We will have the privacy we need, for now."
As they bathed in the cool, clear water Crane listened to a tale that led to a kingdom in the north.
"More than one of the young women who find haven in Susa has reported losing a son or a young brother when they were harem inmates in their own land. They claim that these boys were kidnapped, carried off into the night never to be seen again."
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...