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The night before she is called to the king Esther steps down into clear cool water. The tiles of the pool are slick beneath her feet. She traces their carved lines with her fingertips and dips beneath the surface once, twice. The third time she closes her eyes and holds her breath. In the darkness she sees a crown and a gallows, sackcloth and ashes and costumes of riotous color. In the stillness she hears a wail of lamentation and the singing of a multitude of children. As she rises from the water, she sees nothing but serene blue, hears nothing but her own harsh gasping for breath. She is foolish, she knows. She has done what she has been asked to do, and she will do what she will be asked to do. She has nothing to fear. Tomorrow she will be called to the king.

She is a maiden fair and untouched, precious as a jewel buried beneath the earth, kept apart these long months from the world. Still she has seen enough of the world to know that that will not save her. She has seen enough of the world to know that nothing will save her but her own wit and her own will, her own hands and the burden they can bear, her own voice and the words it will carry.

She has seen enough of the world to know that even these things may not save her.

As she rises naked from the water and steps up out of the pool, she feels the weight of the crown heavy on her head. She feels the boards of the gallows rough beneath her bare feet. In the rustle of her cloak as she wraps it around herself she hears the frantic cries of a desperate grief and the giddy laughter of a raucous feast and her own name in a man’s voice, low as in a bedchamber and raised as in a courtly hall. She does not know which will be her fate. It is folly, perhaps, to think that anything momentous awaits her. She is only a maiden, fair and untouched, like so many who have been called to the king before her.

When she is called she will be ready.

 

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