The delicate rays of the rising sun stained the gauzy curtains of her bed a medley of pinks and yellows, strengthening to a shade of orange that drove away the silvery remnants of night. She lay still, watching the transformation with unblinking eyes, hardly allowing her breathing to interfere with the spectacle. For all she knew, it could be her last.
“My lady,” it was the hesitant voice of her attendant. “Have you awakened?”
She bit her tongue to keep from verbally lashing the woman. Had she slept at all? Yes, she recalled wakening to the sight of the full moon illuminating her balcony. That had been the last time her eyes had closed longer than an instant that night.
“Yes, Shira. Prepare my bath, and be certain to use to the calendula oil. Any other aromatics are at your discretion.”
The woman bowed at the waist and retreated. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and pushed aside the transparent barriers surrounding it, trying to keep herself focused on her task. Xerxes had not summoned her in weeks and her life hung on her ability to make him forget his recent coldness. It was not a role Hadassah the Jew was familiar with playing, but Esther the queen had little choice.
Her servants brought a platter heaped with the choicest fruits of the palace gardens and vineyards as she made her way to the bathing pool. She waved them aside, forcing her lips to smile as she murmured her thanks. Hunger had ceased to be a companion for her, despite the three days of fasting. She would not have stomach for food until her mission was completed. In truth, she had no stomach for the indulgent preparations she was about to undergo – massages and aromatics and the elaborate ceremony of ornamenting her as a queen of Persia.
“Calendula, as you requested, my lady,” Shira said softly as Esther entered. She extended an orange flower to the queen. “I pray the aroma will awaken my lord’s affection for you.”
Esther gave an unforced smile at the concern in her eyes. “Go and prepare my wardrobe. Have my jewels ready for my selection when I return to my chambers.” Shira turned to go, her shoulders drooping. “And fear not, Shira. This day’s outcome is not in either of our hands.”
The bath and massages succeeded in removing most of the knots from her muscles, but left Esther feeling limp and reminded of the many hours since she had last tasted food. She was certain her legs would give way as she paced in her chambers, eyeing Shira’s selection of robes. A deep purple that befitted her royal role and might remind her husband of her role as consort. A delicate pink that caught the golden tones of her skin and according to Shira was her most feminine garment. What would make Xerxes extend his scepter?
It was like the day she had been taken to the king for the first time. Hegai, the head eunuch of the harem, had laughed at her indecision and said that the truth shining in her eyes was enough to captivate any man. Then he had picked up a brilliant orange veil and settled it over her head.
“Xerxes has always been susceptible to the color of love.”
The fiery veil was tumbled in a pile of silks beside the robes. Esther reached for it, the dread slipping from her shoulders as the silk settled in its place.
“Shira, have you the fire-opal and carnelian circlet?”
Shira adjusted the veil then lowered the tiara over it to secure the folds. The opals glinted in the sunlight, contrasting with the deeper orange of the carnelian counterpoint.
“The blue robe, my lady. It will bring the depth of truth to the fire of passion. The king will not be able to refuse you anything.”
Esther looked into the mirror Shira held. Her eyes no longer held the light of hope it had on that day years before. Instead, their depths were seared with the charred remnants of secrets and fear, and perhaps… perhaps a faint flicker of the faith that had once been the core of her being.
The guards were surprised to see her approach. She motioned them to open the door, impatient with their hesitation. They dared not refuse the queen.
The sounds of the hall drifted through the ever-widening opening. Esther stepped forward, eyes trained on the throne. It was time.
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