Crane had been thinking, and so he was prepared the next time Merwa opened the window above his face.
"Eeeee! Eeee!" he shrieked, as soon as her vile pink visage appeared. "Eeee! Eeee!"
He thought it a fair imitation of his missing bat.
Her smile slipped down into a frown. "I've left him alone too long and he's cracked up. Oh well," she brightened, "I'm sure I'll find a use for him."
Making the most of his opportunity, Crane smacked his lips and clicked his tongue and did his best to reproduce the muttering sounds he'd heard from his small black-winged friend. Just before Merwa slammed the window shut again, Crane was rewarded with the sound of the flapping of a host of leathery wings.
It would be some time before he found out what happened next.
Meanwhile, his friends and comrades – refreshed, by a good night's sleep, from the confusion of the previous evening – were starting the morning with mugs of flowery chamomile tea brewed from the buds which Ayelet had respectfully collected beside their campsite.
Or-Tikva was telling a story.
"When my brother Rik was a young man," she began, "he travelled to an exotic city in the north-west to learn about their magic with textiles."
"To Malmort?" Lero asked.
"Perhaps. It was certainly not called by that name, but many things have changed since that time. No, the city where Rik apprenticed was called Viebeau, and the king who ruled then was named King J'Suvien, which – as Lero can attest – means 'faithful' in Malmortian."
"It literally means 'I remember'," Lero added. "There are rumours that the new king – the one who conspires with Merwa – is named Oblie, which means –"
"- 'forgotten'," Or-Tikva completed her sentence. "Thank you, Lero, but if you don't mind, I am telling the story."
"You are forgiven. Merwa is not in this part of my tale," she continued rather testily. "I had hoped to pass a few peaceful moments without thought of my unfortunate sibling. Ahem.
"So, as I was about to say, the city of Viebeau was a wondrous place, according to my brother. He travelled home every other new moon and would regale us with stories which were, I thought, of questionable veracity.
"Tall buildings he described, with walls that reflected the light like smooth sheets of water, and parks he claimed were full of huge edible flowers and tame animals, and market places he said sold pottery so thin-walled you could see the shadow of your fingers through it, yet strong enough to hold the boiling-hot beverages they liked to drink.
"He showed us drawings he'd made of men who wore wigs and frills and face-paint, so you could not distinguish them from their likewise-got-up female counterparts. And the music! Rik told us that at any hour of the day or night one could find some public house where fine musicians played and sang, and the audience danced.
"At first I dismissed these reports as the devices of my brother's imagination. But then he began to bring home the fabrics he was learning to weave in that place, and they were so truly wondrous that I had to concede the possibility that the other wonders he described could be true, too."
"Is that where he learned the design for the Queen's tunic?" Lero asked tentatively.
"No, my dear – the many pocketed tunic was designed by my nephew, Yossi, who inherited his father's skill as well as the benefit of his education. But it is only possible to fabricate such a garment because of the specially woven cloth which Rik learned to make in Viebeau. Ordinary cloth would be too weak to hold Esther's razor-sharp daggers; they would slice right through it.
"When Rik returned home from his apprenticeship, he immediately set about teaching us all the new techniques he had learned. He brought seeds that grew into plants we had never seen, and showed us how to process and spin the fibres from these plants. And he gave us new ideas about how we could use the fleece we sheared off our sheep.
"He was also inventive, and – encouraged by his teachers in Viebeau – he had developed ways of salvaging fibres from vegetables, from the parts of vegetables which we had heretofore considered waste, and spinning those fibres into yarn. There was a certain amount of magic involved; they had encouraged his arcane aptitude as well, in Viebeau.
"Of course, as you all know, I have no talent whatsoever for the fabrication of textiles, so my role was that of scribe. I was to set down all the recipes and methods which my brother learned and invented. And I would have relished doing just that, had not Ahasuerus' pimps come to kidnap me.
"By the time I found my way back to my family, my nephew Yossi was already a big boy and accomplished enough in the literary arts that he was able to make a good start on the task which I had been forced to abandon. Yossi was also showing a talent for designing, by then, and I did my best to encourage him as I took my place as his assistant.
"In time I took over the task of documenting my family's craft, leaving my nephew free to let his imagination fly.
"But enough history, for now," she said, stroking the belly of the little bat who lay in her lap with wings folded like a cloak around her. "Ayelet, if you could bring me that satchel which rests by my horse's hooves – I trust you to handle it carefully – then I will show you the 'weapons' which the Queen and I acquired from Rik and Yossi on our most recent visit. Thank you."
From the satchel Or-Tikva removed a small and tightly-rolled bolt of cloth, which she held delicately in one hand. After a moment's hesitation, she scooped up the sleeping bat with her other hand and handed her to the Queen. Esther cradled the beast tenderly until she stopped grumbling, then tucked her in a tunic pocket where she could continue her nap.
"Yossi would be pleased to see her resting there, so," Or-Tikva couldn't help but remark, "as he is trying to perfect a design for a garment which will accommodate a number of creatures of varying temperaments. Each pocket must suit its occupant, of course – he's working on a water-proof material so he can carry his pet goldfish with him – and then the spacing, too, is crucial. One does not wish to see one friend unnecessarily eaten by another, as sometimes happens when he carries his pet cricket and his pet rat."
She nodded to Ayelet's small friend, who sat upon her shoulder as usual. "I do love my nephew. And of course this –" she indicated the fabric which she was gently unfurling "- is my brother's creation."
"I could feel its power, even just handling the satchel," Ayelet whispered.
"Indeed. And we five shall make it more powerful." Or-Tikva held one graceful hand palm-up towards the Queen. "If I may, Your Majesty?"
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...