Lee Ann Setzer


Hidden: A Novel of Esther

Chapter 1

A silver bell rang, and two serving girls staggered past bearing a roasted pig, almost as richly dressed as its servers. Women all over the room turned their heads to exclaim politely, but Vashti could see that most were loathe to leave their conversations for their assigned seats at the dinner tables. She smiled, a well-practiced smile that could mean anything an observer wanted it to. One must have a feast, but it was these conversations she wanted.

Servants led the guests to their places, smiling mildly as the women uncertainly took their places and studied their dinner companions.

Vashti rose gracefully and studied her guests. This party had been her idea. Rather than inviting the wives of the city to dine with their husbands before the king, she had suggested that the men—and the women—might enjoy the novelty of two separate parties. Of course, she had suggested offhandedly, the women of the palace could join them.

Eunuchs had cleared their throats, lawyers had stiffened, Xerxes had noticed the disapprovals, but he had silenced them with a bland smile before they were spoken. And so Vashti had won a party.

Queen Vashti allowed her stunning smile to light up her whole face. “My dear sisters!” she exclaimed. Young merchants’ daughters simpered; dark-clad women from the House of Crones glared; her former sisters from the House of Women watched to see what would happen next. “The king knows, and I know, how much work and care went into his—” Vashti chose her word with care “—long meeting.” A few eyeballs rolled toward the ceiling, but no actual murmurs broke out. “He wishes to convey to each one of you his greetings, and his sincere thanks.” Another smile, and eye contact with as many women as the timing allowed. “All I ask is that you feast well, and enjoy each others’ company.”

The women from the city looked a little confused, but the palace women, as Vashti had planned, got right to work devouring the delicacy they craved most: information.

After six very long months of entertaining women from all over the kingdom, as their husbands came to negotiate war on the Greeks, this gathering of women from the palace and the city looked almost prosaic. No translators, no confusion over how one might behave in Persia, or over what one’s guests might be routinely expecting. The men have no idea how important the wives’ impressions are. Many an official had gone to his quarters to “think things over” and come back the next morning ready to commit troops, or ships, or supplies, or whatever thing the king had asked of him. And now we have achieved it! A war for the ages! But will the Greeks be properly impressed? Vashti shunted that thought aside for later and drifted from table to table, trying to drop little bridges into conversations that seemed to be flagging. Not many were. The scene is set for perfect conversations: ladies who love to talk, and ladies who can’t hear enough or ask enough questions.

Vashti paused to sip wine so that a serving maid lingering on the edges and discretely following her could approach without interrupting.

“My lady, a message from Mehuman.”

“Oh?” Xerxes had sent his chief eunuch, so the message must be official indeed. He has been influenced, then.

The maid turned toward the door. “They are waiting outside for you.”


The maid promptly rattled off the names of all the king’s chief eunuchs, counting on her fingers: “Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas.”

Seven eunuchs. He is very drunk, then.

Vashti lay a single, long finger on the spot between her eyes where the headaches peculiar to dealings with her husband liked to spring up.

The maid had stayed near the door where the messengers stood. Women of the palace noticed her departure, she was sure, but she still paused one moment to compose herself. Flustered or frightened would not do. Neither would imperious or unreasonable.

She stepped into the richly-hung vestibule between the door and the passage. Seven eunuchs, dressed in robes nearly as resplendent as the king’s, crowded into one side. “Yes, Mehuman?” she asked.

The unlucky spokesman stepped forward. “It is the king’s request that Vashti, Queen of Persia, appear at once before his honored guests.”

“Wearing the crown royal,” said Biztha. Vashti’s eyes widened.

“And nothing else,” said Bigtha. He was the only one who looked like he might be enjoying this outing.

Her mind was racing, but she would not do their work for them. “Oh?”

Harbona, her usual ally in the throne room, added uncomfortably, “The king desires to show the people and the princes your beauty, my queen.”

Zethar added unnecessarily, “For you are very beautiful.”

“Is that all the king and the princes could find to discuss during dinner? You may assure them that the women have so many other things to talk about besides their men.” She turned as if to go, although she knew the interview was far from over.

She had known a situation like this was one peril of holding a women’s party: she would not be present to gauge her husband’s mood, monitor the drinking, and stem disaster. Of course, she did not have much direct control when other men were present, relying mostly on looks and small gestures to Mehuman, the eunuch who shared her views on the kingdom’s welfare. Mehuman was among these who had come to fetch her, but he only shrugged at her sharp look. How had things gone this far?

No, it didn’t matter how—all that mattered was her response.

I could go. Naked. Into a politically mixed room of very drunken men. And no women, she added ruefully to herself. There were half a dozen ways in which this situation was all her own fault. The little headache suddenly bloomed.  Her useless half-brother was in that room, representing her family, but since he had either not managed or not tried to stop this decree, that gave her something else to think about later. Undoubtedly someone would die, defending her honor. And probably the king would have to execute a quarter of his inner staff when the sun rose. How dare you lay your drunken hands on the naked woman I presented for your pleasure! Their families would rise up in protest or rebellion, and if, as usual, Xerxes was particularly unlucky, he could even find himself in the middle of a civil war. When the news reached the satrapies, half a dozen carefully-crafted treaties would dissolve overnight, and the war plan that took six months to hammer out would be destroyed in a week.

I could stay here. He would be humiliated. Outraged. Made to look impotent and ridiculous. Treaties could still splinter. But no one would die tonight.

I could be dead by morning. Either way. But that was one constant of life as queen in Shushan the palace. Vashti had seen other wives drowned, starved, executed outright. Also exiled to the House of Crones, which was why she worked hard to cultivate good relations with that house.

And if I die…? Vashti had held the position of heir’s mother for the four years that Xerxes had ruled so far—since her son Darius was (teenage age). Certainly at least two, possibly as many as five, other women in the House of Women who had sons would be more than happy to assume that position. But would the seven princes who saw the king’s face dare suggest such a thing? If one heir could be thrown over on a trifle, then that would set a dangerously unstable precedent for other heirs to be thrown over in the same way. The crown rested on the right of the Seven to hold it up—together. So perhaps young Darius and his brothers are safe. Or at least, as safe as they ever were.

Vashti quickly examined her own feelings. She much preferred a quiet death in the morning to a public parade and assault right now—but for once her own preferences and the kingdom’s good seemed to line up reasonably well.

Was there another way out? Send another wife? Even worse, invite the men for some kind of private viewing? She shook herself mentally. Too many decisions for a drunken king to deal with. “No” would be insufferable—but he would understand it.

“I have made my decision,” she announced grandly. They all looked startled. Had it occurred to no one that the queen even had a decision to make? “Please inform my honored and beloved husband that I regret that I cannot attend him this evening.”

The appalled shock in those seven smooth faces was almost worth the price she was going to pay for it. “Now, run along gentlemen, and tell your master.” That should give them pause. Whose privilege would it be, to deliver the news? Knowing eunuchs, they would find some way to deliver it together, the way they’d delivered the king’s command.

“But, my lady…” began Harbona, taking a step toward her and making as if to touch her elbow. She quelled him with a glare.

“Is this why all seven of you were sent?” she asked. “To haul me by force into the throne room? Which of you would like to be first to lay hands on the queen?”

Suddenly, no one was looking her in the eye. “My guests are waiting. Please excuse me.”

Vashti swept back into the dining hall and quickly began to mingle among the tables again. These women would, of course, hear a hundred different versions of the story, but she would give them as different a view of the Queen of Persia as she could, while she could.

Chapter 2

It was the middle of the night—probably almost morning, by now, and yet torches burned all over the city. An exceptionally drunk band of the king’s perfumers staggered loudly past Mordecai. He sidestepped their ragged progress, only to splash in a pool of vomit that smelled of fine wine.

Muttering imprecations of a mostly unforbidden sort, Mordecai reached his own courtyard, then pounded on his wooden door until it opened a crack. A tousled, curly head poked out, and the little face under the curls grinned. “I knew from that great pounding it would be you, Uncle—the only foul-tempered soul in the city tonight.”

Mordecai knew the imp observed the one muscle below his right eye that twitched in rebellion when he saw her, but he glared his best and stomped into the room. “Have you had that lamp lit since I left, girl?”

Hadassah blinked innocently up at his folded arms and glowering face. “Oh, no, Uncle, I said my prayers and retired to my bed.” She continued to blink as the silence stretched out between them.

“And then?”

One more blink, then a grin. “And then…I couldn’t not hear the music, so I retired to the roof, instead.” It was his duty as the imp’s guardian to die before admitting the power of that grin—but he also knew she both understood her power, and exploited it.

She coaxed his hands out from his armpits, though he maintained the glower. “Oh, Father Mordecai! It seemed like everyone passed here on the way to the palace! There was even a parade, right in the middle of the night, with flutes and tambors and dancing! You should have seen all the colors!” She looked up at him, and he raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. “Oh. You did see all the colors, didn’t you?”

He extricated his hands and turned to rummage in the bread basket for something wholesome, to compete with the roiling mess of the king’s food in his stomach. Around a hunk of bread, he growled, “A complete waste. Six months of pernicious, corrupt, rotting, putrid excess.”

The creature of light and questions alit on the floor in front of him. “But, Father, my friend’s father that laid the tile in courtyard said it was magnificent! He saw hangings of blue, and green, and white, fastened with cords of purple on rings of silver! And her mother worked a month on the border of just one hanging!”

Before she could beg for a full description, he cut her off. “And what has your friend’s mother to show for that hanging? A copper coin, bread for half her children? At what price the beauty you prize, my daughter? Every Jew that touched that filthy feast is unclean.” He suddenly remembered his vomit-splattered robe and hastily piled it into a corner.

Hadassah frowned, considering, he knew, not his wise counsel, but her next argument. “But Father,” she said, seizing on the thread she felt the most confident of winning, “Everyone said that the wine was approved by the priests, and the drinking was according to the Law. No one was compelled to touch anything unclean tonight—were they?”

“You’d think it was more interesting if they were, girl.” She didn’t bother lowering her gaze. “No, there was drinking if you liked it, and dancing to the heart’s content—for all the hearts that find contentment in that sort of nonsense.”

“Mine!” Hadassah twirled herself around the room, her long curls flowing out behind her. When she’d twirled so many times that Mordecai was dizzy just watching her, she sat unsteadily down in front of him, drunken for a moment like a courtier, but with the sheer joy of being herself. She puckered her mouth in an unsuccessful imitation of his own stern face. “Why does everything beautiful have to be bad, Father?”

Why do all your most important questions have to come when I’m exhausted? Mordecai rubbed a big hand on his forehead. I’m too old for this. “Our Lord made the flowers you love so much, bittah—but he didn’t grind on the faces of the poor to do it.”

“Well, but…” A huge proportion of Haddasah’s sentences began with those two words. “…the king had to have all those parties, so he could plan the war.”

“Had to.”

She wrinkled her brow. “And…it cost lots and lots of money to buy all those cups, and food, and servants, and things, didn’t it?”

“Lots. And he borrowed lots more for all those horses and soldiers and swords and things.”

She flashed him an exasperated look. “And so…he’s sending out lots of money to the city now, and when we beat the Greeks, he’ll bring back mountains of gold and pearls and pay back all the debts, and we’ll be rich!”

Mordecai let her exclamation hang in the air until it faded, wishing he could close his eyes during the dramatic pause and rest. “We,” he finally said.

She blinked. “Persians, of course, Father.”

“We’re not Persians, daughter.”

She frowned, her eyes moving slowly along the arc of her eyebrows, trying to locate the spot in the conversation where he’d turned it away from her point.

“We’re children of the House of Israel, and we touched the unclean thing tonight. All that can come is calamity and death.” He shook his head, staring at the far wall. “Every day we remain, we grow filthier. We do not belong here.”

She moved closer to him. “Oh, Father, you always say that. We’ll leave for Jerusalem first thing next week. All right?”

He grinned unwillingly. “Next week it is.” When had his deepest longing also become their private joke? He touched her shoulder. “See here, girl.” He pointed at the window. “It’s beginning to get light outside. You might as well start the bread a little early, and get on with your busy day!”

She drooped suddenly. “Morning? But I haven’t slept yet!”

“Which is what I’ve been trying to tell you since I got home! To work with you!” Mordecai knew that if he uncharacteristically took to his bed now, she would start the bread, then go back to hers. So he went to bed, so that she wouldn’t be out on the street fetching water until long after all the early-morning revelers had gone their ways. When was it that my whole life began to revolve around her safety? He shook his head. He couldn’t remember—not when he was this tired.

Bright sunlight woke Mordecai several hours later. When he looked in on Hadassah, she was, sure enough, sleeping peacefully. He stayed in the house long enough to bake her risen loaves himself, then quietly left the house.

Mordecai paused in their little courtyard to drink in the still-cool morning air, scented with the newly-blooming flowers on Hadassah’s young myrtle tree. Not so young, now, really—like Hadassah herself. She is twelve so this tree must be…eight. The trunk was getting thick and sturdy, and its branches stretched wider than Mordecai could stretch his arms. They had planted it together when they had first come to Susa. After the death of her parents, and of his wife and son, Mordecai had heard scribes were needed in the royal city. So here they had come, a confused little family of two. The myrtle tree, for which her parents had named her, had been his gift to her. More of an offering, really: I am not your parents, this is not the life meant for either of us, but I will do my best, although it won’t be enough. In the way of children, she had accepted the offering and thrived in his care, because she was young enough not to know any better.

Mordecai closed the gate behind him and stumped down the now-deserted street, snorting through his beard when he remembered why none but the scribes would be working today. “Great foolishness. Nothing good will come of it,” he told a pigeon.

He reached the House of Scribes and greeted similarly blurry and irritable compatriots. Twenty accursed provinces, dozens of blighted languages: 127 pestilence-ridden epistles in all. He gathered parchment—the highest quality, for a missive from the king—ink, and pen and took his place at his low table in the corner by the window.

“Hebrew?” he asked.

“Yours, of course, Brother Jew,” responded the overseer.

“Fine.” He was in a bad mood anyway. Hebrew would be easiest, and most annoying.

Hadassah met him in the courtyard in the evening. “Father Mordecai, you’ll never guess what happened today! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“If I’ll never guess it, how could I have told it to you?” Normally, Hadassah’s chatter revived him, but this wasn’t a day he looked forward to discussing with her.

Ignoring him utterly, she craned her neck out the gate and pointed down the street to the town square. “You should have seen it!” She paused in mid-prance long enough to scrutinize him momentarily. “Well, no, you wouldn’t have liked it. But I saw it!”

“You went to the town square by yourself?”

“No, of course not! My friend Revekah and her mother went, and I went along.” His frown deepened, and she added, “Sara said I could. And I was done with my work, and the baby was sleeping.” Mordecai humphed, which was all the permission Hadassah needed to go on. “Anyway, one of the high couriers came through town, on one of the king’s own horses, just like he would in Babylon or Ethiopia, and and he had a parchment hung with about ten different ribbons…scarlet, and indigo, and this bright bright yellow I’d never seen before…”


“And purple, Father! For a decree to the plain old town!”

“This is the royal city, girl. Where you get these ideas…”

Anyway! You can just imagine, everyone gathered ‘round to find out what was so important, and guess what it was!”

“I know what it was, daughter.” Mordecai tried not to sound as weary of this subject as he felt.

“Oh, yes, I suppose you do.” That gave her pause for half a moment. “But you don’t know what happened! The decree was in the most official possible extra-high Persian. I had to whisper to Revekah what some of the words meant, and there were other people listening to us, because they didn’t know either.” She missed his sharp look, examining her for signs of pride. But she was only telling him about an ordinary event in the life of a girl at least twice as smart as anyone else around her. She screwed her eyes shut, concentrating on capturing a royal courier’s patronizing, far-off diction, remembering to use the syntax and archaic vocabulary of the Old Persian. “Be it known, in every province and in every language of every people, that all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.” Her eyes popped open.

“Father, does that mean big husbands and little husbands both, or rich ones and poor ones, or does it mean to honor them whether or not they deserve it?”

Mordecai exhaled through his teeth and eyed her sternly. “It means that young ladies should not be passing judgment on their husbands in the first place! Who’s been putting these ideas in your head?”

“It’s in the air, Father! Listen.” She went back to her courier-voice. “Queen Vashti, who came not when the king summoned her, is put away, and shall come no more before the king. The king everlastingly and eternally declares, that every man shall bear rule in his own house, and his wife shall henceforth be in subjection to him, with neither contempt nor wrath, but with honor and humility.”

Mordecai sighed. “Yes, the Master of Scribes does have a way with what you call extra-high Persian.”

“And then, do you know what happened, Father?” Hadassah stretched out her hands before her, as if the courier were surveying the crowd. “Everybody just stood there looking at him for a moment. Then, someone snickered.” Hadassah demonstrated by blowing a suppressed snort through puffed-out lips. “Then a few more people snorted, all through the crowd. Then someone laughed out loud, and all of a sudden, everyone was laughing!” She cocked her head sideways at him. “I laughed, too, because it was so funny that everyone was laughing. But, why were they laughingi?”

Mordecai rubbed his sweating neck. “Could I possibly answer that question inside, where it’s cool, sitting down?”

Hadassah even subsided long enough to let him wash his feet and pour a cup of wine. Sara had sent a dish made with rice, peas, and olives. Mordecai shared his substantial scribe’s ration with Sara and her family, in exchange for her cooking it and looking after Hadassah (to the extent it was possible to look after a song on a summer’s breeze) during the daytime. Hadassah had gradually grown from another child under Sara’s feet to a sometime helper and watcher of Sara’s younger children. Sara and her family helped fill the gap that Mordecai, if not Hadassah, felt in the girl’s life.

As soon as they both had bowls of food and hunks of bread, Hadassah started in again. “Why were they laughing, Father? Sara must have chuckled on and off for an hour. ‘Oy, if the king himself can’t get honor and humility, what chance does my poor Dov have?’ she said.” Hadassah frowned. “Revekah’s mother wasn’t laughing, but she was all red in the face, and quiet.”

Mordecai ran a hand through his beard as Hadassah waited expectantly. “I think you could answer your own question, if you stopped to think about it, daughter.” Her mouth opened, to protest that she had been thinking about it, all afternoon, so he went on quickly. “Where do people get honor and humility?”

She wrinkled her forehead. “From people that love and respect you, I guess.”

“Does the king have enough gold to buy those things?”

“Well, no…” She looked at him, but he just looked back. “So…they were laughing, because the king said all the women ought to give something that the men ought to earn. Not just because the king told them to?” She tossed the answer back to him with a glance.

He nodded. The furrows in her brow deepened. “But, it doesn’t seem so funny when you say it that way.” Her exasperated sigh said, And you always do that to me! “Why did the king send out a decree like that?”

“Well, daughter, think about the party last night. Very likely the king was…”

“Drunk,” she filled in promptly, leaning back against the rough clay wall. I’ve set you a better example than that, girl! But, of course the child was observant.

“Now, think about what you saw today, and think about all of Persia.” That was all Mordecai had had the pleasure of thinking about, all day long. The same missive, carried as fast as swift horses could take it, to Scythia, to Egypt, to India—even to Jerusalem. Messages written in his hand, translating the foolish words of an imprudent king, might be all of him that ever saw that holy city’s rebuilt streets.

As Hadassah complied, her eyes slowly widened. “Father, do you think they’ll all—everyone in the kingdom—laugh at the king?”

“Maybe they won’t all laugh.” The nomads in the south, when the couriers could find them, were notorious for trying to fill the messengers with arrows before the message could be read. If the courier managed that, there was still the question of whether the scribes had managed to translate the sense of the message, and whether the nomads chose to appear to understand. Decrees to the nomads were usually limited to collection of levies, and those were in the plainest possible language. Who could predict how those tribes would respond? Mordecai shrugged inwardly. No one was asking for any of their goats. Probably they would laugh.

“But, then he’d look…” She cast around for the right word. “…ridiculous! In front of everyone in the whole kingdom.”

“I’m afraid so, daughter. And what would that mean?” She blinked at him. “Think about what we’ve been preparing for, for the last four years.”

Her mouth formed a perfect “O” for a moment before any sound came out. “Ohhhhh. All that work, to get all those soldiers and ships, and to get everyone to agree. Will everyone tell the king they don’t want to go conquer Greece after all?”

Mordecai nodded once, acknowledging the possibility. “Perhaps. Or else, they’ll go, for their own reasons, but they won’t honor or respect the king.”

Her eyes widened. “You mean, we could lose the war?”

Mordecai sat down next to her and patted her shoulder. “Nobody remembers to mention that we could always lose the war. We should pray that—”

“—that we won’t!”

Mordecai had almost said the same thing, but he amended, “—that God’s will be done.”

Hadassah wasn’t done with the war yet. “So, we could lose a whole war, just because Queen Vashti said no?”

Mordecai pursed his mouth. Here was the part he’d not been looking forward to. “We could certainly have lost the war—perhaps the kingdom, as well—if she’d said yes.”

It was always a little satisfying to come up with an idea that hadn’t occurred to Hadassah. “What?”

How to make her think, without stirring the sewer of gossip or staining her mind… “Remember, Hadassah, everyone was drunk. And having…coarse conversations. Would it have been wise for the queen to go into a room full of men like that? Would it have been safe?”

“Well, no…” Mordecai breathed an inward sigh of relief as her mind made the necessary jumps, without him having to spell it all out to her. “So, really, she was taking care of him? By making sure she didn’t get hurt?”

Mordecai shrugged. “I can’t tell the mind of a queen. Especially one who did not appear before that pack of…well, never mind.”

“At least everyone will know that the queen is loyal and good to the king, so the king must not be that bad, even if he made a bad mistake?” It sounded like a plea for reassurance Mordecai couldn’t give. But he was glad that she’d shifted responsibility from the queen to the king, where it belonged.

“No, I think you were right before. Everyone will laugh.”

She grimaced. “So, now what are we going to do?”

Mordecai laughed. “We’re going to be grateful that the fate of the kingdom does not rest on our shoulders.” He looked at her. “Or had you forgotten that, again?”

She smiled unrepentantly. “But, who told him to do such a silly thing?”

“King Xerxes asked them. ‘What shall we do to the queen Vashti according to law, because she has not performed the commandment of the king?’” Mordecai winced at the memory, even though he’d only heard of the incident, several rooms down from the royal banquet hall, in the room with the other mid-level scribes. “It turned, I hear, almost instantly from a lewd party to a drunken discussion of the High Law of Persia.”

Really?” She sounded entirely too interested in sordid details he did not care to share. And he wondered himself whether the king had been carefully led along by someone interested in making a colossal fool of the king. He shook himself out of that set of thoughts. “Look at this, girl!” he cried. “As usual, you and your worthless cousin have sat about talking until the light is almost gone!”

She started guiltily and swiftly gathered up the dinner dishes. “There’s still time to wash before dark, Father.”

“But no time for me to read the scrolls I brought home, or for us to scrub these smoky walls, or fix the sagging hinges. You’re growing up like the most disreputable bachelor in Little Moab!”

She laughed and kissed him. “Disreputable bachelors don’t have nearly as much fun talking to each other as we do, Father!”

“And how would you know?” he growled.

She shrugged, grinned, and washed dishes.