For fans of The Red Tent and The Dovekeepers, India Edghill breathes new life into the biblical story of Vashti and Esther with her signature historical richness, epic scope, and sweeping romance.
You may know part of the story already, but you only know what history has passed along. The story of how Vashti, Queen of Queens, the most beautiful woman in all the empire, defied the king her husband and so lost her crown. The story of how Ahasuerus, King of Kings, commanded that the most beautiful maidens be sent to his court so he might choose a new queen. And you may know how he set the queen's crown upon the head of the virtuous and beautiful Esther, and how Queen Esther herself defied both king and law to save her people from a treacherous fate.
What India Edghill brings us in Game of Queens is the story of power and treachery, blood and deception, bravery and romance that surrounds the court of Ahasuerus and brings to life two of the most celebrated female heroines in all of history.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
INDIA EDGHILL is a librarian living in the Mid-Hudson Valley in New York. She is the author of three other novels, Wisdom's Daughter, which was a Romantic Times Nominee for Best Historical Fiction, Queenmaker, and Delilah.
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Game of Queens
A Novel of Vashti and Esther
By India Edghill
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 India Edghill
All rights reserved.
The Lion's Den
Somehow, Daniel was not surprised when Mordecai the Scribe came to his small courtyard asking advice and counsel. Having sent his cousin into the snake pit of the King's Palace to become queen or concubine — or nothing, Mordecai now tormented himself.
"You wish to know if you have acted rightly," Daniel said, before Mordecai could speak more than a few words of petition.
Mordecai stared; behind him, Daniel heard a muffled laugh from Samamat. Mordecai's mouth thinned, but he said nothing. To ease Mordecai's mind, Daniel motioned to Samamat, who obligingly vanished into the house. Among the many things Mordecai the pious disliked was Daniel's Gentile wife.
"You are wise indeed," Mordecai said when Samamat had left the two men alone, and Daniel smiled.
"It takes no wisdom to know that a man who's made a fateful decision is troubled in his mind."
"Then tell me — did I act rightly? My cousin ..." Mordecai hesitated, finally said, "She was not willing. I ordered her to put her name into the contest. We parted ill."
"Did you beat her?" Daniel asked, and Mordecai stiffened, affronted.
"No, of course not."
"Did you force her to drink wine until she no longer knew what she was doing?"
"Did you yourself drop her name into the basket?"
"No. The rules —"
"The rules decree that each maiden place her own name in the basket with her own hand." Daniel sighed. "Mordecai, you may have ordered Hadassah to do so — but she herself chose to let her name fall into that basket. I don't suppose you told her why you demanded she enter the contest for queen?"
Mordecai's cheeks burned a dull red; it didn't take any particular talent to interpret that sign. Daniel sighed, and said, with calm certainty, "Well perhaps that was wise. But telling a dream may change a future." Of course, so could not telling a dream. But that was something Mordecai did not need to hear from him now. "Done is done," Daniel added.
"Yes, done is done. But did I act rightly? Did I place too much faith in a dream, and not enough in the Lord our God?"
Daniel sighed. "Mordecai, I am a very old man, and one of the privileges of being very old is that I can afford to tell the truth. And the truth is that no matter what gods we worship, we all cling to dreams and omens and portents to give us hope. And who can say in what form God sends us messages? Are you going to rebuke the Lord for sending a dream, rather than a messenger with a proclamation written in the Lord's own hand?"
For a moment, Daniel thought Mordecai would melt in outrage. "That — that is —"
"Blasphemy? No, Mordecai, it is not. Or do you think the Lord so powerless He cannot chastise me if I displease Him?"
Daniel watched with interest as Mordecai struggled to remain calm. He didn't doubt Mordecai would triumph over his anger; he also doubted Mordecai would choose to truly listen. Daniel's views were too far removed from those of a conventionally pious man like Mordecai.
"You talk like a Persian," Mordecai said at last. "You live like a Persian. And yet — you are right. If what you do is displeasing in the Lord's eyes, it is for Him to punish you, not I."
"You don't approve," Daniel said, and smiled. "Oh, I take no offense — sometimes I don't approve either."
"Then why do you live as you do?"
"Because I can do nothing else and live with a happy heart. And the older I grow, the more I value happiness and kindness over the crueler virtues."
Mordecai shook his head. "Happiness is not a virtue, Daniel."
"No? Perhaps I lived too long in Babylon — or too long here in Shushan, where the gods love lovers."
"That is no way for a good Jew to talk."
"Perhaps I am no longer a good Jew, then. We dwell in Ishtar's city, Mordecai. Sometimes I do not think the Most High rules here."
"Our Lord rules all the heavens and all the earth. How can you — you, who foretold His judgments, whom He saved from savage death — how can you, of all men living, speak so?"
Daniel stared into the dancing blue flames. At last he said, "As I have said, I can speak so because I am old now, and speak my own truth. No one else's — not even God's. If you do not like what I have to say, you are free to leave and seek counsel elsewhere."
* * *
Daniel remained sitting by the brazier long after Mordecai left. He did not often let himself dream, for he dreamed now only of the long-dead past. The past, and those who had gone before him into whatever waited after a man finished with this world. Golden days, when he had been young, and been loved....
Too well loved, sometimes. King Nebuchadnezzar's love had nearly killed him.
But that was not truly love. That was fear and despair and madness. It is hard for kings to love.
More fortunate than kings, Daniel had known true love and true friendship; cherished both beyond pearls.
Arioch. Arioch and Samamat ...
So many years, yet even now the memory of Arioch's wry comments brought a smile to Daniel's lips. The famed night Daniel had spent imprisoned with the king's lions, fierce beasts that had slept peacefully beside Daniel all that long night, so that he had walked out of the cage whole and free at the next dawn.
"You see, Arioch? Faith kept me safe."
"What kept you safe was me feeding those lions enough poppy syrup to keep a dragon snoring for a week. Do you have any idea how much that amount of poppy cost?"
"I had faith in you," Daniel had answered, and Arioch smiled. ...
Daniel never had been able to resist Arioch's smile. Always Arioch seemed to mock himself more than he did others.
It was hard, now, to remember why he had fought so hard against — not Arioch, but himself. What he felt for Arioch was forbidden twice over. Abomination; unclean; if his forefathers knew the pit Daniel had fallen into, they would stone him. Yes, that was the punishment. In Israel, I would be damned for both my power and my love. Fortunately, I dwell in Persia....
* * *
It had been the third and last year of King Jehoiakim's reign; the year Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had swept through Israel and its land and cities had fallen into his hands. Even Jerusalem the Bride had opened her wide bronze gates to King Nebuchadnezzar. The conqueror had returned in triumph to Babylon, taking Israel's treasure with him, including the best-born youths and maidens of the Twelve Tribes. Among that living treasure had been Daniel.
I was so young then. And so self-righteous!
Daniel had barely been fourteen when he had walked behind King Nebuchadnezzar's chariot down Babylon's Sacred Way, between sky-blue walls that led to the Ishtar Gate. Fourteen, and convinced of the utter righteousness of the way of the Lord, and of his own ability to follow the Lord's covenants. If he'd been less stiff-necked, he might not have fallen so hard when faced with temptation — oh, not the obvious lures of unclean food and pagan idolatry. Avoiding those had been easy, and his piety had impressed even the Babylonians.
The temptations of the heart ... Those were invisible snares, catching him unaware.
At first life at Nebuchadnezzar's court dazzled him; a life rich and strange, redolent of sin and power. Daniel had been a beautiful boy, and had found instant favor in the sight of the prince over the eunuchs who had charge of training the new arrivals from Jerusalem in the behavior expected in the court of a great king. He had permitted Daniel and his equally stiff-necked friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to choose their own food, to say their own prayers. He had even permitted them to choose their own Babylonian names. The other three had searched long and hard to find names that would convey they were still good pious servants of the Most High God. Hananiah became Shadrach, under the "protection of the Lord." Mishael decided on Meshach, "drawing with the Lord's power," while Azariah now was Abednego, "servant of light."
And Daniel had chosen Belteshazzar.
One who lays up treasures in secret. Daniel kept secrets, both his own and those of others. Daniel had grown up at the Babylonian court; learned that a shy smile and a soft word about his duty to his own God won him approbation, where Mishael, Hananiah, and Azariah's flat insistence on their own ways in everything but serving the king gained nothing. Since influence ruled in the Babylonian court, Daniel thought it better to garner goodwill.
"Someday we'll need friends and favors," he told his three friends, a truth they hotly denied.
"We do our tasks well. We serve Nebuchadnezzar in the proper fashion. Nothing more can be asked of us," Mishael said. Daniel could not agree, but he did not argue.
At least I avoided the sin of pride. But he had enjoyed the luxury and power that came with being a court favorite. And had remained convinced of his purity of heart, mind, and body.
Until I met Arioch.
It had been one of King Nebuchadnezzar's increasingly-rare calm days, and the king had decided to visit the Temple of Ishtar and ordered everyone in the court to accompany him. Daniel had been swept up in the crowd jostling for position, trying to gain a spot close to the king. After a few useless attempts to drop out of the impromptu procession, Daniel had concentrated on not stumbling. He suspected that if he fell, the courtiers would simply trample him in their rush to convince King Nebuchadnezzar of their loyalty and piety.
Despite the fact that a tunnel led directly from the palace to Ishtar's temple, King Nebuchadnezzar led his followers out the main palace gate, through the Northern Fortress, and swung around to re-enter Babylon by the Processional Avenue. The king strode between the brilliantly blue-tiled walls, ignoring the strikingly lifelike images of bulls, sirrush, and lions set into the blue tile. After this long detour, the king and his followers at last entered the Temple of Ishtar.
As the courtiers filed into the temple, Daniel struggled to free himself from the current forcing him to follow Ishtar's worshippers. Up steps inlaid with white marble doves, between tall crimson pillars — in a moment he'd be swept into the temple itself —
A strong hand clamped onto his arm, hauled him sideways. In the shelter of one of the pillars, Daniel gasped out his thanks.
"Well, you didn't look as if you were passionately devoted to Our Lady of Stars."
Daniel found himself staring into eyes steady and golden as a lion's. "Thank you," he said again. "I can't enter Ishtar's temple. Any Babylonian god's temple."
"Why not?" his rescuer asked.
After a moment, Daniel settled for, "Because my god wouldn't like it." Daniel studied the man who had saved him from angering the Lord. Taller and older than Daniel; the strong planes of his face hardened by wind and sun. Daniel needed no special wisdom to know this man was no courtier, for he wore the dark blue tunic and gold trousers of the king's guard.
"Who's your god, and why is he quarreling with Ishtar?"
"He isn't quarreling with Ishtar — well, I suppose in a sense He is, but —" Daniel looked at his rescuer; saw laughter in his eyes. "It doesn't matter," Daniel said. "Thank you. I'm Daniel, but in the palace they call me Belteshazzar."
"Arioch. Captain in the king's guard." Arioch studied Daniel for a moment. "You're the fortune-teller, aren't you?"
"Not really." Daniel had no idea how interpreting a few simple dreams for some of the palace servants had transmuted into an ability to predict the future. "I can explain what dreams mean. Sometimes, that is. If the Lord grants me that wisdom."
Arioch glanced at the temple doorway and sighed. "Well, your Lord must just have granted me wisdom, because I predict we'll be waiting here for hours. Fortunately, I happen to have brought along these." Arioch pulled a set of gambling pieces out of his belt pouch. "Care for a game?"
"Yes," Daniel said, and held out his hand for the pur.
By the time King Nebuchadnezzar finally left the Temple of Ishtar, Daniel and Arioch had each won and lost great, if illusory, fortunes. In the process, Daniel saw his own future, saw his life entwined with Arioch's.
Impossible. But to the end of his days, Daniel remembered his first sight of Arioch's eyes. A lion's eyes ...
Proud as a lion, too. And as lazy, sometimes. Arioch never saw the point of doing well what didn't need doing at all — "Or at least not by me, Daniel. Not by me."
And then there had been Samamat. Samamat with her brilliant mind and her wide blue eyes, her sun-gold hair and loving heart. Impossible to think of Arioch and not of Samamat as well.
She was a Chaldean, brought from the ancient city of Ur when Babylon's king collected boys and girls as if they were gems. Samamat's skill was astrology. As Daniel knew dreams, she knew the stars. She could read the heavens as easily as she could a scroll, and see futures written there.
One of King Nebuchadnezzar's ill-fated hunting trips bound the three of them together. Arioch was there because he was captain of the king's guard. Samamat was there because the king needed someone to read the stars. Daniel — Daniel wasn't sure why he'd been there, but he'd been ordered to come along, and so there he was, trying to stay on the back of a horse.
The king's hunting parties tended to resemble a rather eclectic army on the march. A mix of warriors, courtiers, courtesans, concubines, and even a few of the king's huntsmen, the assemblage moved at the languid pace of the palanquins carrying the women and eunuchs. Except, of course, when Nebuchadnezzar lost what little patience he had and whipped his horse into a gallop, an action that caused the king's guard to bolt after him and the rest of the horde to mill around aimlessly.
Eventually the entire crowd came to the campsite, and after several hours of chaos, during which the Chief Eunuch announced no less than three times that he would fling himself under the feet of the king's elephants if the women's pavilion was not raised this instant and the Chief Huntsman complained that any animal that wasn't deaf had long since fled, Daniel was able to find the tent assigned to him and collapse onto the bed. The next morning he rose early — the noise from the animals and the guards made that easy — and walked through the tents until he reached the edge of the camp. He stared at the vast forest that lay waiting, indifferent to the fate awaiting it and its inhabitants.
"I wish I hadn't come," he muttered, and whipped around when a soft voice said,
"I wish I hadn't come either."
Daniel found himself staring into very blue eyes. She was nearly as tall as he, and wore a long vest over a tunic and trousers. Glittering silver stars were so thickly embroidered over the vest they almost hid its midnight-blue color. Her hair was cut unnaturally short; it was the color of sunlight and honey.
"You're a woman." Daniel realized it was an idiotic comment the moment the words left his mouth.
"Yes, I am." Clearly she was used to such idiotic comments. "I'm Samamat. I'm an astrologer."
That explained the starred vest and her oddly shorn hair; Daniel supposed she'd left the astrologer's elaborate headdress back in her tent. "I'm Daniel. I — well, I'm in attendance on the court. And the king. When he remembers who I am."
She glanced around. "Be careful. Words carry."
"No one else is awake yet."
"The guards are, and the grooms. It only takes one word, Daniel."
Daniel understood. King Nebuchadnezzar was half-mad at least half the time, and the other half he was over-conciliatory and morose. The court trembled, never knowing which king would summon them: the mad or the sane. A noise behind him — Daniel turned and watched a groom lead a pair of horses past.
"Beautiful sunrise," Samamat said.
They stood watching the sun climb higher into the sky. Vivid blue seemed to arch to forever. "I wonder what the sun is, really," Daniel said. "It looks like a ball of fire, doesn't it?"
"I have a theory about that." Samamat put her hand up to her forehead, shading her eyes against the sun's burning brightness. "I think the sun is just like the stars. I think somewhere someone is watching the sun as a star in his night sky." She turned to Daniel. "I suppose you think that sounds completely mad."
It did sound completely mad, but Daniel managed to not say so. "Well, you're the one who knows the stars. Do you read the sun, too, then?"
"I haven't been able to do that yet. Maybe I'm too close to it." She shrugged; silver stars glinted. "Are you going hunting, Daniel?"
"I'm doing whatever King Nebuchadnezzar commands," Daniel said.
* * *
The hunting party could have been a disaster — it was one of what Daniel thought of as the king's furious days, and even on the briefest of acquaintances he already knew that Samamat might be a brilliant astrologer, but she made a poor courtier — but Arioch had joined Daniel and Samamat once the hunting party raised enough dust to obscure clear vision. And then, somehow, the three of them had become separated from the king's party.
Excerpted from Game of Queens by India Edghill. Copyright © 2015 India Edghill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Book 1: The Lion's Den,
Book 2: The Court of Miracles,
Book 3: Queen of Beauty,
Book 4: Star of Wisdom,
Book 5: Palace of Dreams,
Book 6: One Night with the King,
Book 7: For Such a Time as This,
About the Author,
Also by India Edghill,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed this version of the biblical Esther. I wish Ms India could have followed Bible more. Esp at the end with Haman's family; they were all killed. So is another book on the way about his sons taking over & getting their father's revenge. Biblical Vashti was banished from palace, but this way she got her man & hopefully lives happily ever after. Overall good book I kept wanting to get back to. And now Haman's sons, all 10, revenge? ?
Just read it. You will love it.
Couldn’t put it down!Q