SEVEN YEARS HAD PASSED SINCE the face of the earth had been stripped of its familiar landmarks. Young forests and other uninhibited plant life were rapidly reclaiming the land. In one small region of the planet, small bands of people lived in the wilds. Within that same area, three underground cities had also survived. Two of these existed peaceably within seventy-five kilometres of each other. The third, three hundred kilometres to the west, was headed by a leader who valued power and wealth above all else. Recently erected over this third metropolis stood a most unlikely structure.
Viewed from the east against the panoramic backdrop provided by the ever-changing waters of Lake Michigan, the Citadel of Shushan was a forbidding presence on the lonely landscape. Indeed, approached from land or lake, it was menacing. The Citadel’s exterior walls were grim by design, comprised of thick, unadorned walls and stout, cylindrical towers.
Stretching out from its southern and eastern walls were the six Fortress Villages with their shared acreage. Each farm village consisted of six family dwellings, four shops, and three barns, solidly joined around a central courtyard. The inhabitants of the satellite villages, few of whom had previous agricultural experience, had been selected from the underground community by lottery. In exchange for raising crops and livestock, they received protection, goods, services, and other benefits enjoyed by Shushan citizens.
The gatehouse that bridged the moat and pierced the Citadel’s outer wall between Village 3 and Village 4 led to a great courtyard with landscaped parks, recreation facilities and a lively marketplace. Rising majestically from the western end of the north bailey was a magnificent castle with a multiplicity of turrets, battlements, rooms and gardens.
A tree-lined esplanade skirting the courtyard narrowed as it wrapped itself around the southern and western faces of the castle. There it passed tall ivied walls concealing the lengthy Servants’ Corridor, the State Apartments, and several charming private gardens.
Because a hunt was now on for a second wife for the General, young women selected for screening were staying in the State Apartments. Chosen from the general population of the Great Lakes Region for their beauty, intelligence and charm, the candidates had been tutored for the past year by master tutor, Hegai. Secluded in the west wing of the State Apartments, they were undergoing training in music, drama, fine arts and court etiquette.
One young woman had already caught the discerning eye of Hegai. The girl pleased him and won his favour. Not only did he quickly provide her with all she needed for her dressing room and her meals, but he gave her seven special maids from among the candidates and transferred her and her maids to a ground floor suite with its own enclosed garden.
And so it was that nineteen-year-old Esther, orphan from Abbeylea, strolled in her cloistered garden alongside the esplanade on that fateful December afternoon. Actually, she was nervously pacing, but she had been coached to convey an impression of carefree strolling even while wrestling with inner turmoil.
And she wasn’t, in fact, Esther, orphan from Abbeylea. She was Hadassah, cousin-ward of Mordecai the Jew of the city of Shushan, but she was sworn to secrecy.
Esther and her maids had been in their suite for the past three months. In this time, Esther, aided by gardeners and in consultation with Citadel biologists, had added her own favourites to the garden. She began with spring plants: blue corydalis, white woodruff, snowdrops, lily-of-the-valley and lilacs. She learned that anemones could animate the garden throughout three seasons with white, pink and purple flowers swaying on long stems. Roses, daylilies, geraniums, delphiniums, and hollyhocks amused her in summer. This year, there had been a lingering fall, and up to a month ago, daisies, asters, black-eyed Susans and cardinal flowers wantonly flouted their beauty.
But on this particular day in early winter, Esther was unable to find pleasure in the garden’s allure. She did not appreciate the contrast provided by cornus alba and dog wood exposing their naked stems of red and purple among the dormant greys and browns. Nor was she impressed by the bright berries of pyracantha and holly nestling among their leaves of shiny green.
Tonight would be her turn to display her charms and talents to General Ahasuerus. Trying to calm herself, she sat on a stone garden bench, pulled her woollen cloak closer, closed her eyes, and reminded herself to breathe slowly and deeply. She willed herself to allow the twittering of birds at the feeder and the feel of snowflakes, caressing her upturned face, to envelop her senses.
Suddenly a coded tapping on the wall alerted her to the presence of Mordecai on the esplanade. She stepped furtively towards the garden wall and stood near an ivy-covered gap in the stonework. Leaves, dead and withered, rustled against her cloak.
“You’ll do well, Esther,” Mordecai whispered. “Remember everything I’ve told you, and know that I am praying for many blessings. Here is the nectar of good fortune. Apply it wisely.” He slipped a vial containing a clear fluid into the wall’s crack.
Esther had been waiting for this vial of alleged good fortune. Still she wanted to scream a blast of outrage at her cousin. He had gotten her into this mess and it was fine for him to tell her how well she’d do. She slid the vial into her sleeve.
“Thank you, cousin,” she whispered tersely, returning to the bench. Breathing deeply and slowly, she sought to again retreat into meditative tranquility.
Soon, however, she leapt to her feet, overwhelmed by a stab of loneliness: loneliness for her homeland and her beloved family and cherished friends. Oh, how she missed her mother! Tzéna always had such wise advice. Then a pang of guilt crept in. Would her mother even approve of such a venture? Certainly Abihail, her father, wouldn’t.
But she had been through all this with Mordecai, and he had reminded her that this was a different world now. He had assured her that her parents would have recognized this as an opportunity not only for personal advancement, which it was, but more importantly, as a means of salvation for her people.
Next she was gripped by fear: fear of her inadequacies, fear of revealing her secret, fear of disappointing Hegai or of letting Mordecai down, fear that the General would think her a foolish little trinket to be bedded and tossed aside as had been the fate of others before her. Why had she let Mordecai and Hegai convince her that she was different?
“Hegai!” she called in terror.
The custodian of candidates, never far away, came swiftly to her side. “What is it?” he asked, barely able to conceal his alarm. Surely she hadn’t managed to injure a hand or wound her perfect skin before this night of nights!
“I can’t go through with this. I’m too frightened.”
Relieved that there was no physical damage, and accustomed to pre-audition jitters from his young apprentices, Hegai intervened smoothly. “Forgive me, my dear,” he said gently. “I have left you too long by yourself in the garden and you’ve caught a chill.”
“No, Hegai. You’ve done everything possible to prepare me, but I am not the person you think I am.”
“Come inside for one of Riku’s amazing massages, some soothing herbs, and a long hot soak in the baths. After that, you still have time for rest and cello practice before getting dressed for your appointment.”
Reluctantly, Esther took Hegai’s outstretched hand. Tenderly he led her from the garden, his little protégé, his work of art. Oh, she was an adorable sprite, by turn spontaneous or wistful, comical or solemn, gifted performer or sensitive listener. Yes. She was his wonderful surprise for the General.
Some thought the General pompous and cruel, even sociopathic. But loyal Hegai counted only his attributes. General Haz was handsome, virile and brilliant. He possessed magnetism and charm that he seemed able to access at will. Hegai had witnessed Vashti bring out the best in Ahasuerus. Esther could do the same.