Esther lay on a narrow but comfortable cot in a large room where dozens of other girls and women slept, whispered, and dreamed. Yet she felt completely alone.
Unable to sleep, she relived the past hours. She felt again the tremor of fear when she had seen soldiers following her home from the marketplace. The dread of hearing their heavy knock at the door. Her anguish when they told her she had been chosen to come to the palace, to the king’s harem.
Everyone in the city of Susa had heard about King Xerxes’ great contest. New girls were being brought from all over the empire to join the harem, and the one whom the king liked best would have the honor of becoming a royal wife–a queen, to replace Queen Vashti, who had been banished.
Yet it wasn’t an honor Esther wanted. She’d even tried to protest, to beg and plead, knowing all the while that it was useless. The soldiers gave her only a few minutes to pack her belongings and say her goodbyes.
Mordecai, her cousin, her foster father, pulled her aside for a last-minute talk. “Hadassah,” he said, calling her by the Jewish name she’d grown up with, “I’m in and out of the palace daily as part of my duties at the king’s gate. The women’s quarters are very secluded, but I will try to send messages, perhaps even see you. Always remember that you are in our prayers and that our God watches over you.”
He paused for a moment. “That is another thing–our God. Hadassah, do not let them know you are Jewish. I know that we Jews are treated well here in Susa, but that may not always be the case. Use your Persian name, Esther. I will pray for you, my daughter.”
And with a last embrace he said goodbye. Cousin Mordecai’s wife wept as Hadassah, her arm in the soldier’s firm grip, went out the door.
Esther thought of her foster father’s closing words, of his reminder that God would be with her. Like all Jews in Persia, she had grown up worshiping the God of her fathers, the God of the faraway homeland she had never seen. But she hadn’t really thought of God as being close, personal, someone who could see her and care for her. Now she hoped He was. She needed that kind of God, and she carefully gathered words to form a prayer to Him before, exhausted, she fell asleep.
The next morning Esther awoke to voices, shouts, squeals, laughter, and arguments. Two dozen women slept in the large room, most of them about Esther’s own age. Most, like her, had been recently captured and brought to the palace.
“I will never see my home again!” wept a beautiful, dark-skinned girl from faraway Ethiopia. “I wish I had died instead of coming here!”
While others added their own strains of homesickness and sorrow, some of the girls had a different attitude.
“I’m glad the soldiers picked me,” said a tiny girl with flaming red hair. “My parents were about to marry me off to a farmer twice my age. What a dreadful life I would have had! Now I get to live here in the palace with every luxury in Persia! We’re the lucky ones!”
“And besides, one of us will become the queen,” another girl spoke up. “Imagine–wife to the great Xerxes himself! Imagine the beautiful palace you’d live in, the servants, the power–and your children would be royal princes and princesses!”
Esther added nothing to the conversation; she just wanted to listen and learn. A few moments later servants began arriving with trays of food.
Esther had just settled herself on the floor with a bowl of figs and a small loaf of bread when a plump man with a kindly face entered. “Good morning, ladies,” he said.
Many of them greeted him warmly. They seemed to like him.
“For the newcomers here, my name is Hegai, and I am in charge of this section of the harem of his glorious majesty, King Xerxes. Now, I know many of you are excited about the chance to serve the king, perhaps even become queen someday. But I must warn you, before you ever go near the king’s presence you have a long and difficult training period to go through. Those of you who have been here for a little while know what I mean. Each young lady will have a personal servant assigned to her who will take her through beauty treatments, through courses in behavior, manners, dancing, music . . . all the skills a young lady must have to be a true ornament to King Xerxes’ court.”
Esther barely managed to suppress a groan.
A girl leaned over to Esther. “It’s not so bad,” she whispered. “We have to spend hours every day at the baths, but at least we can talk and think about other things while the servants comb our hair and massage us with scented oils.”
Esther made a face.
The bright-eyed girl laughed, a warm sound that made Esther smile. She might make friends here. Perhaps, with God and friends, the palace wouldn’t be such a terrible place.
The days slipped by. Esther did make friends. The atmosphere of the harem could be competitive and even nasty, but Esther’s warm personality won her friends, and not only among the girls. Hegai, the official in charge of the harem, became a friend too. One day, several months after her arrival, he took a long, approving look at Esther.
“Hair, clothes–lovely. Walk–elegant. Manner–graceful,” he said. “Quite a change from the unhappy girl I first met. Are you happy here, Esther?”
Esther had to think. She still missed home and would rather have been there, but she was learning to enjoy her strange new life. “I am content,” she said politely.
“You are one of the most promising young ladies I have seen in a long time,” Hegai said. “You have–what is it, one or two slave girls to attend you?”
“Two maids, sir,” said Esther.
“I am going to increase your personal staff to seven maidservants,” said Hegai. Seeing Esther’s look of surprise, he added, “You’ll need them when you move into your new quarters in the north wing.”
“The north wing?” Those were the most elegant and spacious apartments in this part of the harem. Again Esther looked surprised.
Hegai smiled. “Don’t be shocked, Esther. As I said, you are a very promising young lady. I think you’ll soon be ready to meet the king.”
Illustrated by Javier Saltares