Hadassah wandered through the rooms of the harem, anointed with myrrh, swathed in robes of the finest eastern silks, and bored out of her mind. The other women, it seemed to her, were happy enough to rifle through casks of baubles and bolts of cloth, chattering on nothing more important that the depth of the shade of silk compared to the color of eyes or hair. To Hadassah, it seemed they had nothing more than fluffy wool between their ears. Surely there was more to life in the palace of world’s greatest king that this.
Hegai was not much help. He tried to find her puzzles and games to keep her amused, but the girl solved them quickly and without effort. Years in the harem business taught him that bored women are dangerous women. Without anything to occupy them, the ladies of the harem invariably turned on each other for sport. But Hegai liked the one they now called Esther; she was observant and cautious. Nothing escaped her notice, and if that were not enough, she asked an endless stream of serious questions. She wanted to know how the king’s council was chosen and how it worked. She asked about the methods used to get information out to the corners of the Empire. She never asked about the color of the cosmetics and ointments the servants applied, she only wanted to know where they came from and how they were made. Still, Hegai knew it wasn’t enough.
On this day, Hegai led Esther through a plain door on the western side of the harem’s pool, away from where most of the other ladies lounged on divans covered with trays of delicacies beside them. The constant chatter faded as they passed through the doorway and into another world. Songbirds trilled in the trees, and a pair of peacocks paraded on the grassy bank beside yet another pool, this one fed by a carefully constructed waterfall at the far end. There were several couches, a table with two chairs, and a small gazebo away from everything else. Between the birdsong and the gentle rustle of the waterfall, Hadassah thought she was miles away from the rest of the harem. “What is this place?” she asked Hegai.
“This is the queens’ garden,” he replied.
“Where is the queen?”
“There is no queen.”
“Oh. Yes. I didn’t mean to….”
“I thought you would enjoy this place. In the gazebo you will find story scrolls, the kind that queens like to have read aloud. I know you read. You can read here undisturbed. No one will know you are reading.”
Hadassah looked up at Hegai. “You are so kind to me. Why?”
He smiled at her, “Because, Esther, you do not annoy me with empty words and endless requests for honeycomb. I shall come back for you before you are missed.”
Sitting in the gazebo, absorbed in tales of genies and maidens, Hadassah did not hear the soft footfall of other women. It was not until one coughed that she saw them, and jumped up.
Both women were wrapped in exquisite silks, one in black, the other in white. Their hair was completely covered, and their faces only barely visible through the sheer gauze of their veils. “That’s a good story,” said one softly as she lifted the white veil over her head. She was very beautiful; her skin was the color of the chai they drank in the harem, and her eyes were like dark Chinese jade.
The second one lifted her veil as well. She was older, with onyx eyes beneath winged grey brows. “I hope we didn’t startle you.”
Esther shook her head, but said nothing. She was fairly certain the older woman was the famed beauty Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great and this king’s mother. And the eyes of the second….no, it could not be possible. Her own eyes widened.
The green-eyed woman smiled. “Yes, I am Vashti,” she said, answering the question before it was spoken.
“But you are dead,” Hadassah whispered.
“Obviously. I am wrapped in white silk,” she answered with a small smile, and both women gently laughed.
“May we join you?” asked the older woman.
Hadassah nodded, still speechless.
“We come here,” said Vashti, “to enjoy each other’s company in a way we could not when I was queen. As queen, it was assumed I would have an adversarial relationship with my mother-in-law.”
“Why?” blurted out Hadassah without thinking.
The other woman laughed, “Because, child, one would expect a deposed head of harem to be at odds with the new head of harem. Vashti and I, however, have found comfort in each other’s company.”
“I should leave you, then,” murmured Hadassah has she drew her own veil over her head.
“Stay,” commanded the king’s mother. Then she added, “Please. We would like you to stay.”
“Hegai has arranged for you to be here…to meet us. Don’t let him feel as though he has failed. He has great faith in you; he is doing what he knows to be right not just for you, but for my son,” said the king’s mother. She swept past Hadassah into the gazebo and sat down. “Come sit with us, child; you have much to learn if you are to be queen.”
“We are the voices of experience.” The discarded queen took the seat on the other side of Hadassah. “Learn from us lest you repeat our mistakes.”
So Atossa, the mother of Ahasverush, and Vashti, his discarded queen, chose to teach the young girl the secret ways of the palace. And from them, Esther learned how to reach out to the king’s head as well as to his heart.
Thus, it was the wisdom and valor of women united that saved the Jews from Haman.