This was my very first story, the one that started the addiction. Enjoy!
Some might say that being a servant to the King is a tedious job, one that consists of blind obedience; they lament daily – hourly even – for freedom. But I disagree. See, I’m the custodian of women, and that means I’m surrounded by some of the most beautiful women in the entire Kingdom on a daily basis. My latest assignment is probably one of my favourites – my boss, his majesty King Xerxes, is in need of a new wife, and I’m to oversee the preparations of all the eligible females. And, as written in the decree, they are all ‘beautiful young virgins’.
Rumours had been flying for weeks before this, after Va… – after she – pulled that stunt of hers at the last party. We’re not allowed to speak her name any longer. But those rumours were confirmed when servants of the King went out into the Kingdom to gather all those that fit the bill, bringing them here to me. Stepping into the building, I give each girl standing in line a quick once over, taking them in and mentally writing off anyone with the slightest ordinary appearance. The Queen should be the best, both in looks and behaviour.
Slowly, I walk up and down, scrutinising each woman, sometimes pausing to make an inquiry or comment. Out of the corner of my eye, something flashes, and I turn to see what it is. It’s an arm bangle, and as I take in the woman wearing it, I find myself hesitating, a surge of unexplainable emotions temporarily incapacitating me. I don’t like it. She’s beautiful, yes, but she’s not the most aesthetically pleasing woman there, so why would she have caught my attention?
I bypass two others and head straight towards her, revelling in the fear that reflects briefly on her face. “Name?” I demand.
She hesitates, mouth opening without sound, like a fish on land. A sigh of impatience escapes me, and she twitches a little, as though holding back a flinch. “Esther,” she replies, softly.
“From?” Once more, I don’t bother with a full question.
“Susa,” comes the answer. She’s still got that timid posture, but at the very least, she’s able to look me in the eyes, and I am more than a little surprised to find that they are steadfast yet gentle. Many times, I find hatred, disdain, fear, and even the occasional lust – but what I see today is different. It’s pure, like a doe, calm and ever-kind.
Mentally, I take a step back to regard her as a whole, and once again find myself taken aback. There is something unique about this Esther of Susa, and while I can’t quite place it, I have a sudden premonition that she will be chosen. The thought is foreign, pushing its way forward like a troublemaker in the King’s court, and I try to put it to death at once. There should be no favouritism, no impartiality; what if someone else was crowned Queen? I could lose my life if the King thought I was not doing my job properly. Besides, why would I want to get involved with Palace Politics?
I don’t grace her with a reply, instead continuing down the line before sending everyone away to get acquainted with their new home; only one will be our new Queen, but it’s not like the rest will be set free. The King has, no matter what, just scored himself scores of new wives.
That night, I lie awake, inexplicably unable to doze off, and only one person floats through my mind; even when I do manage to sleep, it’s restless, with me drifting in and out of consciousness, the face of the Susa girl haunting my dreams. I cannot figure out what is so special about her.
I’m up before the crack of dawn to start preparations. The women will not be seeing the King until they’ve been thoroughly taken care of; that means six months of myrrh oil treatment followed by six months of perfumes and other trade secrets we have here in the palace. Then and only then will they have their one chance to impress the King – one night in his bedroom. Some might never be called back again, and one lucky woman will be crowned.
To my surprise, I find slaves are not the only ones awake at this ungodly hour; while walking to the harem, I see that strange Susa girl out and about, as though she has better things to do than sleep. Against my better judgement, I approach her. There is a serene look about her, but her expression changes to a guarded one as I near. “Good morning,” she greets nevertheless. “How is the King’s servant today?”
Just like that, my mood also shifts, and I regard her with suspicion. Nobody greets people like that around here, especially not me. I’m the first face women see when they enter the palace, and everyone knows the King has granted me permission to treat them however I wish – as long as they aren’t scarred and are kept as virgins for him. Fake politeness to get what they want from me is common, so naturally I am cautious with her enquiry.
“You wish to be the Queen?” I ask, although it’s more of a statement than anything. I can’t figure out why else she would be so polite.
She shakes her head. “I wish to go home,” she replies, the probity of her words startling me.
“Why?” The question leaves my lips before I have a chance to bite it back. “You could have anything you want if the King chooses you.”
“At what cost?” Her tone is gentle, showing she is not arguing with me, but rather sharing what she thinks. “I would rather be poor and free than have all the money in the world and be stuck a prisoner. There are some things that cannot be bought.”
“You’re stuck here anyway,” I point out, not showing her that her simple statement had gotten to me; taken at a young age from my village, I hadn’t had a choice in what I did with my life. Freedom is but a foreign word, something that I know I will never get and so never bother to think about. “Why not be stuck here as Queen?”
She smiles at that, flashing deep-set dimples at me. “The Queen is but a showpiece; I am more than that.” Esther hesitates, then bows her head in a show of respect. “But if the King’s servant believes otherwise, I mean no offense.”
I don’t comment for a while, instead pondering her words. They hit closer to the truth than anything anyone has told me before, and I know now that my initial assessment of her is right – she is different, and unlike any woman who has ever passed by me. And, as I stand there looking at her, I know something else: I will do whatever it takes to ensure Esther becomes Queen.
“Yes,” I say. “You are right about that. But I believe you would make an excellent Queen.” Having said more than I normally would, I turn on my heels, shielding my face from her. “You should head back to the harem,” I tell her, then start away.
I pretend I don’t hear her reply of “I will,” and instead continue on my path. Already I am mentally going through my tasks of the day, but I can’t shake the words of Esther from my mind. The rest of the day passes in a blur of motions, but one thing is clear – all the other females appear jejune in comparison with her, and my resolve grows stronger. Esther will be Queen.
All intentions of trying to remain impartial dissipates, and I am occupied with figuring out how I can ensure Esther’s coronation. The next day, I pull her aside.
“Have I done something to displease the King’s servant?” are the first words from her mouth, and I smirk inwardly. That means my reputation has already spread to this new batch of women. Good; they are much less likely to try anything funny.
I say nothing to Esther – I know not how to explain neither my emotions nor my actions – and instead simply hand her over to the seven maidservants with me. I have handpicked them for her and her alone, and they have their instructions to make extra sure she has everything she needs and then some. Indeed, I have not only given them the best room in the house, but I have also allocated an extra portion of beauty treatments for her.
There is confusion on her face as they lead her away, and quiet indignation in the other women, but they know better than to question me. The nagging sensation in me dies down now that I know Esther is in good hands, and I continue about my daily tasks satisfied.
The days roll by, turning into weeks, and the weeks into months, until a year has passed. During this time, I have visited Esther only a few times, but keep tabs on her with daily reports. There is a strange man she sees every day, a man named Mordecai, but I question her about it and, while she gives no straight answer, I can tell they aren’t up to anything bad – and so, I let it slide.
But today is different, and I am more nervous than I have ever been. Today is the day Esther gets her one chance to woo the King and impress him so much that he picks her. So far, none of the others had done so.
I pause to knock on her door, waiting for approval before I enter. She is dressed beautifully in a traditional gown. Her maidservants have done an excellent job with her treatments, and her skin is moist and soft; her hair is glossy and healthy; and she smiles with all the grace a Queen should have. Her eyes, though, give away her fear.
“You look wonderful,” I tell her honestly, but it’s something I say to all the females. “Is there anything you wish to take with you?” I continue, following my usual script.
She glances at me, then raises half a shoulder in a semi-shrug. “I don’t wish to choose,” she says. “You know the King better than I. What does the King’s servant suggest for me?”
I blink, yet again surprised by Esther. In all my years, nobody had asked me that before. I take her in once more, racking my brains – and come up empty. There is nothing she needs to enhance her beauty; she has all she needs. I smile at her, this time genuinely and warmly. “Take nothing, then.”
She takes a deep breath, nods. “I trust the judgement of the King’s servant,” she replies. She exhales slowly, seemingly to steady her nerves. “I am ready to go.”
“It’s Hegai.” I surprise myself by giving her my name, but there’s something that’s right about it. “Let’s be on our way, then.”
Esther nods, and I hold out my arm towards her. She takes it, and as I escort her over to the King’s palace, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness. Whether or not she’s chosen, I will hardly get to see her again. Once each female has had her night with the King, they are moved to another house, one I am not in charge of.
At the door of the palace, she hesitates and turns to me. “Thank you,” she says, smiling softly. Her bonhomie attitude shines like a star in the night sky, separating her by a thousand fold from all the other women. “Thank you for everything, Hegai.”
I can do nothing but return her smile. “Don’t mention the previous Queen. Talk about him, but don’t lie either. If he taps his right index finger, it means he’s intrigued; if he plays with his beard, he’s bored,” I instruct, passing her information nobody else has ever received from me. It would, at the very least, give her some advantage. “Now go, Esther. Do not keep him waiting.”
She nods, and I motion her towards the door, watching as she disappears into the King’s chamber, where I am not allowed. She is on her own from now on. I return to my room, but sleep does not find me; I lie awake, wondering about the fate of the Susa girl that has so captivated me. The morning cannot come sooner, and I exit into the courtyards, wondering about Esther’s fate.
To my surprise, many servants are rushing around like there’s a war taking place. It hasn’t been this busy since the last party, and I can’t help but wonder what’s happening as servants rush around me, some carrying large pots to and fro, others leading various animals by the collar or wrestling them into cages, and yet more pulling carts of spices, herbs, and vegetables towards the kitchens. I stop one of them to ask what’s going on.
“Didn’t you hear?” he scoffs, impatiently. There’s a live lamb in his arms, struggling to get free, and he has to raise his voice to be heard over the frantic bleatings. “The King has crowned Esther! He’s ordered a feast to celebrate.”
He whisks away before I can ask him more, but I’ve heard all I need to; I was right. Esther was indeed ‘the one’, and she is now Queen. A runaway chicken flies past, servant running after it, muttering curse words under her breath, but it’s all background noise and motions now. My mind is filled only with the images of Esther, the mysterious Susa girl who is now my Queen. Doing my best to focus on the here and now, I turn to make my way to the women’s quarters; I still have a job to do.
Even as the celebration preparations are underway, a nagging thought at the back of my mind tells me that this is just the beginning.