To set it up: Hadassah has just been brought to the king’s palace at Susa. Esther is sixteen years old. Simple enough. 🙂
“Welcome to the palace of your king.” Harbonah, the tall, beardless eunuch I had met years before, stood on a marble dais and regarded the gathering of girls with wide, impassive eyes. He had not changed much since the day I met him in the bazaar, and I wondered what, if anything, he remembered about me. One thing was certain—he did remember my connection with Mordecai. I’d seen that recognition in his eyes when he singled me out from the other girls in the slave trader’s carriage, and that look was enough to calm the trembling that rose from my core.
This man knew Mordecai, so to him, at least, I would not be an anonymous, throwaway girl. At least one man in the palace knew who I was and that I was loved. Secure in that precious assurance, I found the strength to calm my pounding heart, lift my head, and dry my tears.
Now Harbonah stood in the center of a rectangular area furnished with several couches and large cushions for the floor, many of which were occupied by young women about my age. Trays of fruit and goblets of wine had been stationed around the room, and silent slaves stood against the walls, feathered fans in their hands. Moving their fans up and down in a steady rhythm, they kept the flies and the heat at bay. Beyond this space, in an open courtyard, other girls lounged on cushions and laughed, apparently at ease. They must have been among the first virgins to arrive, and I doubted we would be the last.
Frightened and intimidated by our luxurious surroundings, we newcomers remained silent, but occasionally I glimpsed a timid smile pass from one stranger to another. Most of us appeared overwhelmed, and I wondered what sort of situations my companions had come from. Had they surrendered willingly to the king’s invitation? Or had they been snatched, as I had, with furious force?
“I am Harbonah,” the eunuch continued, “and I have the privilege of serving as your king’s chamberlain. This—“ he gestured to a shorter man dressed in a similar white tunic— “is Hegai, and he is in charge of the palace of the virgins. His primary duty is to make sure you are fully prepared for your night with the king—and that means he is required to see that you are at your most beautiful, most charming, and most eager to please our royal master. I can tell from looking at you—“ his eyes narrowed in a critical squint— “that his job will not be an easy one. You have come from all over the empire, and some of you still have dirt from your father’s farm beneath your fingernails. But never fear, dear girls, over the next twelve months Hegai will transform you into the kind of woman the king appreciates.”
We girls looked at each other when he paused, each of us wondering what her neighbor would look like after a full year of a eunuch’s specialized training. The girl closest to me had skin as black as a midnight sky, wide dark eyes, a graceful frame, and a long, slender neck. She was lovely in a way I could never be, and I wondered if she would be our next queen. I thought her the most fascinating girl in the room, but who could say what sort of woman the king favored?
“You will be living here,” Harbonah went on, “and you are not to step out of this area for any reason until you are called to the king’s chamber. You are now his property, so you are not to flaunt your beauty in front of other men unless commanded to do so. Other men may be allowed to handle the king’s treasures, but some royal possessions are reserved for the king alone. You are among those other possessions.”
My heart constricted at being called a possession. The children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt and Babylon, and Mordecai would not want to know that I had stumbled into slavery as well. He had taught me to be an independent thinker, limiting my thoughts only where the Law of Moses demanded that I rein them in. I had been encouraged to read, to study the Law, poetry, and the history of our people. I knew Adonai created man first and woman after, and I also knew that our people were never to sell one another into slavery . . .
Yet here I was, the possession of a Persian king. How could this have come to pass? How could Adonai allow something that would undoubtedly break the heart of Mordecai, one of his most devout and dutiful servants?
“As part of the royal harem,” Harbonah continued, “you should know who the other women are in case you happen to encounter one of them. The highest-ranking woman in the palace, with a residence outside the harem, is the king’s mother, Atossa. If you should see her, you should prostrate yourself immediately and remain silent unless she addresses you directly. She is to be obeyed without question, and shown due deference. She reigns in any room she enters, and is subject only to the king.”
Harbonah arched a brow and looked around the room as if expecting one of us to argue the point, but no one said a word.
“The second-highest rank would be that of queen, but that position has been vacant for several years. One of you may well become queen, and if the gods smile on you in this way, you will be subject only to the King and the Queen Mother. Do I make myself clear?”
Again he looked around the room, but no one spoke. No one had the courage to utter a peep.
“The king has other wives,” Harbonah went on, “and they fall below the queen in rank. In the king’s eyes, however, they are little more than concubines. Many of them are the daughters of conquered kings, some are the daughters of Persian nobles, and a few are cousins and half-sisters from the royal family. The king has married them in order to strengthen his ties to the throne, and he rarely invites them to his bedchamber. Still, theirs is a life of luxury and ease. Many of you may find yourself envying their sheltered positions.”
I shifted my gaze to Hegai, the shorter man who would be in charge of our house. Why wasn’t he delivering this speech?
“Beneath the wives—” Harbonah tented his hands— “are the concubines. Many of them were gifts from visiting nobles. After your night with the king, you will find yourself living among them in a lovely section of the harem ruled by Sha’ashgaz. You will be able to live a long and happy life as a concubine, and as the king prospers, so shall you. Beg your gods to bless the king, for he is your protector and lord. He may call for you from time to time, you may even bear a son or daughter for him. If it is a male child, do your best to raise the child to follow truth and integrity, and he may become a man of power and influence in the empire. The king gives important positions to family members who please him and prove themselves capable.”
Harbonah peered at us again. “You will each be given a set of rooms, your home for the next year or so. You will also be given handmaids to serve you. You need worry about nothing. Have you any questions for me before Hegai assigns your living quarters?”
I glanced around the room, for a question had occurred to me. No one else seemed inclined to ask anything, but after a prolonged moment of silence, I lifted my hand.
The eunuch’s gaze flashed in my direction. “Yes?”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but as you listed the royal women, you seemed to forget someone.”
His forehead wrinkled. “I don’t see who—“
“Our former queen, sir. Where does Vashti fall in the ranking?”
Harbonah flushed as an uncomfortable silence filled the room and the wide-eyed fly-swatters stopped moving their fans. “Um—“ he cleared his throat— “The royal wife known as Vashti is queen no longer. But she is the mother of our crown prince, so unless the king chooses another heir, she will always be accorded honor in the palace. She is still of high rank.”
“So . . . do we bow if we meet her?”
Harbonah tilted his head, leading me to believe no one had ever asked such a question. “You do not have to prostrate yourself—she is only one of the king’s wives. But you should treat her with respect. And caution.”
What did he mean? I shot a questioning look to the girl next to me, but her forehead was so wrinkled with puzzlement that I wondered if understood anything. What if she’d been brought here from one of the outlying satraps and didn’t even speak the king’s language?
I caught her eye and smiled, giving her an unspoken promise: I would be her friend, and we would help each other through this ordeal.