As Mordechai rode his royal steed, caparisoned with the purple-white-and-gold saddle-cloths that had only lately adorned the mount of his late archenemy, Haman, he sniffed the air, and sighed.
So much blood, so much killing, he thought.
His eyes smarted from the smoke and fires. Poking from a mass of rubble, he saw the remains of a street sign: “Ham edata Blvd,” it read, crazily askew amid a pile of what had almost certainly been the home of a wealthy Agagite, head of the Haman-clan that was dedicated to eradicating Persia of its Jews.
Why did these people hate us so much? He wondered, Never mind: we won; they lost; time to gather our people together, consolidate our forces, and work out a strategy to get this country, this new place where we are now living, into the future.
Reports were trickling in from all over, via messengers mounted on dromedaries, the new carrier-beast which King Achashvayrosh, a fancier of beautiful women, fast horses, and light-footed camels, had incorporated into the Royal Persian Mail Corps:
“Anti-Amalek, Pro-Jewish Forces Triumphant, throughout the Realms of Persia. All Prisoners Slain without Mercy. Awaiting Further Instructions from Palace. What is Your Pleasure, Majesty?”
–Which meant, of course, the Pleasure of himself (or Himself), the New Grand Vizier, he, Mordechai, who now had open and free access to the King—that royal sot!—who spent his days drinking and wenching! Even Esther, who had recently been his Royal Favourite, had been passed over for some new doxy from Persepolis—
“She has Nice Legs,” His Royal Scatterbrain had declared, in Open Court, just the day after His Royal Decree to utterly Annihilate, Slay, and Destroy All Enemies of the Jews—well, there was no telling what a few barrelfuls of his favorite wine could accomplish—and so Mordechai was raised to the High Eminence of actually running the Kingdom—Kingdom? The Entire Realm! One Hundred-Twenty-Seven Provinces, from India to Ethiopia!—and, though new to the task, Mordechai found himself able to break each administrative job into smaller bits, and farm them out to assistants recorder-secretaries—not for nothing had his great-great-grandfather been Royal Scribal-Secretary to King Saul, first King of Israel, who, though hardly a success as monarch, was still a Benjaminite, as was Mordechai. He had inherited his ancestor’s talent for detail.
A rank smell from the ruins rising to his nostrils awoke him from his musings, as his horse stepped delicately around the smashed brickwork and broken glass that littered the street. His personal bodyguard, a detachment from the Royal Immortals Cavalry Troop, kept their spears at the ready, believing that a suspected underground terrorist movement of disaffected and desperate Amalekites might be hiding and preparing arms for a counterattack. Rumors were flying in this Kingdom of Destruction.
As they rounded the corner of what used to be the bazaar, Mordechai heard a thin wailing—had someone’s cat wandered off, fleeing the killing of its owner? He raised a hand, and the Sergeant-Major of his personal guard stopped the cavalrymen who formed his escort. Mordechai moved to dismount, and the Sergeant-Major, his personal aide, leapt to assist him.
“Thank you, Sergeant-Major,” smiled Mordechai, despite the aching feeling he had inside over the death and bloody remains all around him—the Royal Morticians had not penetrated this far, and it smelled like an abattoir in the early-spring sun—“I will walk a ways on foot.”
“We are under His Majesty’s personal orders to accompany you everywhere, Milord Grand Vizier,” said the Sergeant-Major, saluting and half-bowing, “You, Corporal, Private! Smartly, now!”
The four walked past a smashed-in bazaar-fruit-mart front where rotten bananas, oranges, and lemons lay in the noonday sun, covered by a cloud of flies, which rose and assaulted them as they walked past slowly. They entered an alleyway, and the Sergeant-Major placed a cautionary hand on Mordechai’s arm.
“Begging your pardon, Milord,” he said, “I will go in front, to insure Milord’s safety.”
The wailing was getting a bit louder, but whatever, whoever was making the sound, was stopping and gasping, as if short of breath.
“No, Sergeant-Major,” said Mordechai, firmly, “I will go on, before you men. I appreciate your being here, but I trust most in the God who has guarded my steps up to now, and if He has ordained that I meet my end in this filthy alleyway, then all the swords and spears in the Kingdom of His Majesty will not protect me.”
The grizzled old Sergeant-Major dropped his hand, and nodded. He worshiped Ormuzd, the god of Light, but he understood. Ahriman, the god of Darkness, could not touch this man, this Mordechai, this Jew.
They were close now. The wailer, whether cat, or—what? was directly beneath.
“Can you strike a light?” whispered Mordechai.
The corporal took out a flint and steel from his belt, and the private took from his pack a torch which, uncovered, had been dipt in naphtha. It roared softly into flame.
Mordechai looked down. A baby, barely five months old, lay in a pile of half-clean blankets, there on the ground of the alley. Though it was surrounded by trash, it was still mostly clean, as if its mother had dropped it there hurriedly. The four men stood there, staring at it in disbelief, as men will. Mordechai could not tell if it was a boy or a girl. He blinked once, and his mind whirled back to another scene:
A burning building—the Temple—a baby on the ground—Baby Esther—he seized her up, hugged her to his bosom, grabbed the bag of clothes-and-scrolls-and-bread-and-water-jug-and-ran-and-ran-and-ran….
The Sergeant-Major was first to come to his senses. He pulled out his sword, a curved, wicked-looking thing that gleamed in the torchlight, and lifted his gauntleted hand to strike downward.
Mordechai shook off his fog of memory. He reached out his right arm, clad in white samite, to block the blow.
“Hold, Sergeant-Major!” he cried, “How can you kill a baby? What manner of man are you?”
The Sergeant-Major relaxed his arm, and returned the sword to its belt-sheathe. Then, he leaned against the wall, sighed with fatigue, spat gently to one side, careful to avoid Mordechai’s purple cape, looked the Jew right in the eye, and spoke slowly:
“Kill a babe, you say, Milord Grand Vizier?” he said, choosing his words carefully, “Begging your pardon, Sir,” he said, “And knowing to whom I am speaking—I, Arigai ben Shoshanta, a former galley-slave, kidnapped from my own homeland of Athens as a young boy, lashed and starved, and given freedom to do my Majesty’s bidding—I ask permission to speak, Milord.”
“Permission granted,” said Mordechai, coolly. The little bundle on the ground was silent: was it alive or dead?
“Over the past few days, since the star of Haman—if I may mention the late Grand Vizier’s name, Milord—has fallen, and yours has risen—I myself have slain, with these hands (and he held them out before Mordechai), these hands full of blood, how many? I cannot say. I have slain man, and woman, and child, and beast. All in the name of His Royal Majesty.
“And if he asks me again, or if you, speaking in his name, should ask me again, I will go and do the same. So, Milord, do not question me, or these men—“
Here, he pointed at the Private and the Corporal, who stood, stony-faced, but nodded, slowly, there in the alley-gloom—
“And we will do the killing. We will kill them fast or slow, or even torture them, in whatever way you like—“
Mordechai felt the tears welling up—It was all too much, too much—
“Just point us: we will bring the spears; we will bring the shields; we will use the swords—and you can sit in your splendid palace, meanwhile, and sip your wine. We are the tip of the spear.”
He stopped, and stood there, the Sergeant-Major, breathing hard. Mordechai looked at him, bent down, and lifted up the Amalekite babe, in the swaddling-clothes in which her dead mother had wrapt it, just before she was killed. He held it to his chest. It was breathing lightly, and might die, without food. He turned to the Sergeant-Major.
“Sergeant-Major, have you a field ration in your pack?”
The Sergeant-Major nodded.
“Then sheathe your sword—I hope, forever—and give me your flask of goat’s milk.”
“Milord?” asked the Sergeant-Major, puzzled.
“You heard me,” said Mordechai, “I have ordered you to give me food for this enemy—this child. I will feed her. The War is over. It will end here. And now. I am ending it, here.”