Jewel of Persia
How can she love the king of kings without forsaking her Lord of lords?
Kasia grew up in a poor Jewish home with more siblings than luxuries. But when a chance encounter forces her to the palace of Xerxes, she becomes a concubine to the richest man in the world. She alone, of all Xerxes’ wives, loves the man beneath the crown. She alone, of all his wives, holds the heart of the king of kings.
Traveling with Xerxes through Europe as he mounts a war against Greece, Kasia knows enemies surround her, but they’re not the Spartans or Athenians. The threat lies with those close to the king who hate her people. She determines to put her trust in Jehovah–even if it costs her her marriage.
Years of prayers are answered when Kasia’s childhood friend arrives at the palace after the war, but even as she determines to see Esther crowned in place of the bloodthirsty former queen, she knows the true battle is far from over. How far will her enemies go to see her undone?
Combining the biblical account of Esther with Herodotus’s Histories, Jewel of Persia is the story of a love that nearly destroys an empire . . . and the friendship that saves a nation.
The third year of the reign of Xerxes
The river called to Kasia before she saw it, the voice of its sweet waters promising a moment of unbridled sensation. Kasia cast a glance over her shoulder at her young friend. She ought not go. Abba forbade it—rarely enough to keep her away, but today she was not alone. Still. Esther was not opposed to adventure, once one overcame her initial reservation.
Kasia gripped her charge’s hand and grinned. “Come. Let us bathe our feet.”
Esther’s creased forehead made her look far older than twelve. “We could get in trouble.”
Kasia laughed and gave the small hand a tug. “That is half the fun. Oh, fret not, small one. My father is too busy to notice, and your cousin will not be back from the palace gates until evening.”
“But the king’s household is still here. It is unsafe.”
“We will only be a moment.” She wiggled her brows in the way that always made her young friend smile. “It will be fun. Perhaps we will even glimpse the house of women.”
Esther’s eyes brightened, and she let Kasia lead her another few steps. “Do you think Queen Amestris will be out? I have heard she is the most beautiful woman in all the world.”
“Only until little Esther grows up.” She tugged on a lock of the girl’s deep brown hair and urged her on. The Choaspes gurgled up ahead, where it wound around Susa and gave it life.
Esther laughed and plucked a lily, tucked it behind Kasia’s ear. “I will be blessed to have a quarter of your beauty, Kasia. Perhaps if I do, Zechariah will marry me.”
“And then we shall be sisters at last.” Kasia twirled Esther in a circle. A merry thought, though it was hard to imagine Zechariah settling down. He was two years her elder, but showed no signs of maturity at eighteen. If anyone could inspire it, though, it was sweet little Esther. Once she grew up, half the men in the Jewish population would probably bang at Mordecai’s door . . . and probably a few of their Persian neighbors as well.
Esther joined her in her impromptu dance, then sighed happily. “I should very much like sisters and brothers. I am blessed that Cousin Mordecai took me in, but having him as a father provides no siblings.”
Kasia smiled but knew she had better change the subject before Esther fell into memories of the parents she had lost. Though three years past, the tragedy could still pull the girl into a vortex of pain. “Any time you want to borrow one of mine, you are welcome. Ima certainly has her work cut out for her today, trying to keep a rein on them in weather so fair. I daresay much of the royal house will be out to enjoy it. Surely we can spot a few of them.”
“And how will we know the queen? Will she be encrusted with jewels?”
Kasia laughed, even as guilt surged to life. She ought to get home and help her mother with the little ones. Soon. Five minutes and she would be on her way, back in ample time to check the bread and sweep the day’s dirt from the floor. For now, she could spare a thought or two to the palace. “She will be decked out in the finest Persia has to offer, surely.”
“Cousin Mordecai says that the king wears jewels in his beard at his feasts.”
She had heard the same stories but widened her eyes with exaggerated shock for Esther’s benefit. “In his beard? What if one were to fall into his soup?”
Their laughter blended into that of the river, and Kasia’s pulse kicked up. The weather was warming again, and when the sweltering summer heats came, the king’s entourage would leave. Kasia could not wait for the change in seasons. Her body may not tolerate it for long, but there was something intoxicating about feeling the sun’s burning rays upon her head. She always volunteered to gather up the barley seeds they roasted on the roads in the summer, and not just to spare her mother the task. To feel it. To be nearly overwhelmed. To watch the world around her quiver in the rising heat and let herself sway with it.
Esther paused a fathom from the river’s bank. “It will be freezing. The snows still cover the mountains.”
Perfect. Kasia grinned and sat down to unfasten her shoes. “We will only step in for a moment.”
Esther sat, too, and soon they tossed their shoes aside and helped each other up. They ran the six steps to the river, where icy water lapped at Kasia’s toes. She shrieked. “Oh, it is cold! Why did I let you talk me into this?”
Esther laughed and pushed her another step into the water. “I? Ha! And you are supposed to be the responsible one, taking care of me.”
“Responsibility begs to be escaped now and again.” She waded out one more step, careful to lift her tunic above the water.
When Esther stepped in, she gasped and leapt back onto the bank. “You are mad, Kasia. Your feet will be ice all night.”
A price worth paying for this freedom slicing through her. How could something that touched only one part affect her whole body? Her feet felt the prickles of a thousand needles that coursed like spears up her legs. A shiver sped along her spine, down her arms, and left her laughing. She turned to Esther, intending to tease her into joining her.
The levity died in her throat. Faster than she knew she could move, she jumped back onto the bank and put herself between Esther and the men that stood a stone’s toss away, watching them.
“Kasia? What are you . . .” Esther broke off, having apparently spotted the men. Fear sharpened the intake of her breath. “Your father will kill us.”
“Hush.” Kasia reached back with one arm to be sure her charge remained behind her. Her gaze stayed on the men. They each had a horse beside them, and gold roundels on their clothing. Bracelets, torcs, gems. A million things that shouted nobility and wealth.
A million things that meant trouble.
She dipped her head, gaze on the ground. Had she been alone, she would have grabbed her shoes and run, perhaps with some vague apology as she scurried off. But she could not risk it, not with Esther there too. What if the girl tripped? Or moved too slowly? Kasia could never leave her young friend exposed to two strangers.
One of the horses whinnied, fabric rustled, and footsteps thudded. Kasia tossed modesty to the wind and glanced up.
The taller of the two men moved forward. His were the more expensive clothes, the heavier gold. He had a dark, trim beard that did nothing to hide his grin. “My apologies for startling you. We should have continued on our way after we realized your cry was not for help, but I was intrigued. You often wade into the river swollen from mountain snows?”
Esther gripped Kasia’s tunic and pulled her back a half step to whisper, “Kasia, just give your apologies so we can go.”
Sage advice, except she doubted a man of import would take kindly to his questions going unanswered. She forced a small smile. “Not often, lord, no. I rarely have the time, and I should not have taken it today. My parents are expecting me home. If you will excuse me.”
The man held out a hand. “Far be it from me to detain you, fair one. But it is not safe for a beautiful young woman and her sister to be out alone. Do you not know that the court is yet in Susa? What if some nobleman concerned only with his pleasure came across you?”
The words ought to have terrified her, given the sweep of his gaze. But his tone . . . teasing, warm. A perfect match to that easy smile.
Her chin edged up. “I expect if such a man were to come upon me, he would try to charm me before accosting me. Then I would have ample time to convince him that his pleasure would be better pursued elsewhere.”
He chuckled, took another step closer. “But on the off-chance that your wit would fail to persuade such a man—there are some very determined men in the king’s company—I feel compelled to see you safely home.”
“No! I mean . . . it is not far, we will be fine. I thank you for your concern . . .”
The man’s eyes narrowed, his smile faltered. “You must be a Jew.”
A logical deduction—her trepidation at being caught with a Persian man would not be shared by a woman of his own people.
Still. The tone of his voice when he said the word Jew was enough to make her shoulders roll back. As if they were less because they had been brought to this land as captives a century ago. As if they had not proven themselves over the years.
She narrowed her eyes right back. “Proudly.” Not waiting for a reply, she spun away and grabbed Esther’s hand.
“Kasia, our shoes.”
“We shall grab them on the way by and put them on when we get back,” she murmured.
A mild curse came from behind them, along with quick footsteps. “Come now, you must not walk home barefoot. Please, fair one, you need not fear me. Sit. Put on your shoes.”
He reached the leather strips before they did, scooped them up, and held them out. The gleam of amusement still in his eyes belied the contrition on his face. He offered a crooked smile, his gaze never leaving Kasia’s.
She had little choice. Esther’s fingers still in hers, she reached out and took their shoes.
Esther pressed closer to her side and hissed, “Kasia.”
The man’s smile evened out. “That is your name? Kasia? Lovely.”
“I will pass the compliment along to my parents.” She would not ask him his. Certainly not. Instead, she handed off Esther’s shoes to her with a nod of instruction.
Esther huffed but bent down to wrap the leather around her feet and secure it above her ankles. Kasia just stood there.
The man arched a brow. “I have no intentions of hoisting you over my shoulder the second your attention is elsewhere.”
“And I would see you prove it with my own eyes.”
He shook his head, smiling again, and backed up a few steps. “There. You can sit and put them on, and you will be able to see if I come any closer. Is that satisfactory?”
Though it felt like defeat to do so, it would have been petulant to refuse. She sat and swallowed back the bitter taste of capitulation. Glanced up at the man and found him watching her intently, his smile now an echo.
Who was he? Someone wealthy, obviously. Perhaps one of the king’s officials, or even a relative. She guessed him to be in his mid thirties, his dark mane of hair untouched by grey. He had a strong, straight nose, bright eyes. Features that marked him as noble as surely as the jewelry he wore.
But it was neither the proportions of his face nor his fine attire that made her fingers stumble with her shoes. It was the expression he wore. Intent and amused. Determined and intrigued.
He fingered one of the ornaments on his clothing, gaze on her. “Who is your father, lovely Kasia?”
She swallowed, wondering at the wisdom of answering. Surely he had no intentions of seeing her home now, of . . . of . . . what? What could possibly come of such a short encounter? It was curiosity that made him ask. It could be nothing more. “Kish, the son of Ben-Geber. He is a woodworker.”
Esther made a disturbed squeak beside her, but Kasia ignored her.
The man’s mouth turned up again. “Kish, the son of Ben-Geber. And I assume he is not inclined toward his daughter socializing with Persians? It is a prejudice I find odd. Are you not in our land? Have you not chosen to remain here, even after King Cyrus gave you freedom to leave? It seems very . . . ungrateful for you Jews to remain so aloof.”
Kasia sighed and moved to her second shoe. “Perhaps. But it is an outlook hewn from the continued prejudice the Persians have against us.”
“Some, perhaps.” The man flicked a gaze his companion’s way. “But most of us recognize that the Jews have become valuable members of the empire. Take Susa for example.” He waved a hand toward the city. “It is such a pleasure to winter here largely because of the Jews who withstand the heat in the summer and keep the city running. We are not all blind to that.”
She inclined her head in acknowledgment. “And some of us recognize the generosity of Xerxes, the king of kings, and his fathers before him, and are grateful for the opportunity to flourish here.”
“But . . .” He cocked his head, grinned. “Your father is not one of those?”
Kasia sighed and, finished with her shoes, stood. “My father has lived long under the heel of his Persian neighbors. Were it not for the size of our family, he would have returned to Israel long ago.”
“Ah. Well, fair and generous Kasia, I thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Your wit and eloquence have brightened my day.” He stepped closer, slowly and cautiously.
Esther shifted beside her, undoubtedly spooked by his nearness. But Kasia held her ground and tilted her head up to look into his face when he was but half an arm away. “And I thank you, sir, for your kind offer to see us home, even if I must decline.”
“Hmm. A shame, that. I would have enjoyed continuing our conversation on the walk back to the city.”
With her eyes locked on his, she was only vaguely aware of his movement before warm fingers took her hand. She jolted, as much from the sensation racing up her arm as from the shock of the gesture.
He lifted her hand and pressed his lips to her palm. Her breath tangled up in her chest. If her father saw this, he would kill her where she stood.
But what was the harm in a moment’s flirtation with an alluring stranger? He would return to his ornate house and forget about her. She would go to her modest dwelling and remember this brief, amazing encounter forever.
A stolen moment. Nothing more.
His other hand appeared in her vision even as he arched a brow. “A gift for the beautiful Jewess.”
That tangled breath nearly choked her when she saw the thick silver torc in his hand, lions’ heads on each end. “Lord, I cannot—”
“I will it.” He slid the bracelet onto her arm, under her sleeve until it reached a part of her arm thick enough to hold it up, past her elbow. Challenge lit his features. “If you do not want it, you may return it when next we meet.”
“I . . .” She could think of nothing clever to say, no smooth words of refusal.
With an endearing smirk, he kissed her knuckles and then released her and strode away. Kasia may have stood there for the rest of time, staring blankly at where he had been, had Esther not gripped her arm and tugged.
“Kasia, what are you thinking? You cannot accept a gift from a Persian man! What will your father say?”
“Nothing pleasant.” Blowing a loose strand of hair out of her face, Kasia let her sleeve settle over her arm. It covered all evidence of the unrequested silver. “He need not know.”
“Kasia.” Esther’s torment wrinkled her forehead again. “What has gotten into you? Surely you are not . . . ?”
She glanced over to where the man mounted his horse and turned with one last look her way, topped with a wink. Blood rushed to her cheeks. “Perhaps I am. He is a fine man, is he not?”
Esther sighed, laughed a little. “He seemed it, yes. But your father will never allow you to marry a Persian. As soon as he decides between Ben-Hesed and Michael, you will become a fine Jewish wife to a fine Jewish man.”
“Yes, I know.” Her breath leaked out, washing some of the excitement of the last few minutes away with it. “It hardly matters. The loss of one bracelet will probably not bother him. He will consider it restitution for our dismay and think of it no more.”
Esther lifted her brows. “But he said he would see you again.”
“Do you really think a man of his station will bother himself over a Jewish girl whose father cannot afford a dowry?”
“I suppose not.”
Kasia looped her elbow through Esther’s. “Come, little one. We had better hurry home.”
Esther renewed her smile. “You have quite the romantic story now. Someday, when you are an old married woman, you can pull out that torc and give it to your daughter along with a tale to set her heart to sighing.”
Yes . . . someday.
Jewel of Persia$4.99 – $15.99
Esther tore through her chest of belongings, tossing away each object to meet her hands. It had to be here. Somewhere, under something . . . she could not have lost her mother’s silver bracelet. Impossible. She rarely wore it, only when she wanted to look pretty for Zechariah. The last time had been—
No. She rocked back on her heels and pressed a hand to her mouth. Three days ago, when she spent the day with Kasia. When they went to the river. She did not remember taking it off again that night.
There was no need to think the worst. It was probably at Kasia’s house, that was all. Surely it had slipped off there, and not in the streets. Or, worse still, at the river.
At her cousin’s voice, Esther scooped up the mass of her belongings and shoved them back into the chest, dropping it shut just as Mordecai stuck his head into her small chamber. He was so tall he had to duck before entering, though otherwise his build was slight.
He smiled. “There you are. I am not needed at the palace today, so Kish and I are going in search of some wood for his next project. Would you like to spend the morning with Kasia?”
Relief settled on her shoulders. “I would like that, cousin. Thank you.” She could ask Kasia if she had seen her bracelet, if perhaps her ima, Zillah, had found it . . . and if she had heard any more from the rich Persian. Unlikely, but worth a question.
She stood and followed her cousin through the house and out the front door. Mordecai drew in a deep breath of the fresh air, closing his hazel eyes as if to better savor it.
Esther smiled. She had never met him before her parents were killed, but in the three years since he took her in, she discovered him to be a man of depths that flowed down to his soul. Not often did he speak up in a crowd, never did he draw attention to himself. But he lived with a whole heart. He seemed to treasure each moment. Each breath of fresh air. Each bird song. It was no wonder he was the one chosen to represent the Jews at the palace. There was no man more respected in Susa.
She could not figure out why he never remarried after his wife died in childbirth five years ago, along with their babe. But at the same time, she was glad. Had he brought a new woman into the house, she may not have appreciated having to tend to a nearly-grown girl like Esther.
That was a selfish thought, she knew. Mordecai deserved the happiness a wife and children of his own would bring him. Besides, his heart was too large to necessitate pushing her aside once he had children of his flesh. He had told her more than once that she was like his daughter, and he meant it.
Just because she had lost one father did not mean she would lose this one.
He smiled down at her and took the first step onto the street. “You have grown again. We shall have to get you some more clothes. Perhaps Zillah and Kasia will help you with that next week.”
“They are always happy to help.”
Mordecai nodded, but his smile faded. It was so out of character for him that Esther stopped. “Cousin?”
He halted too, and drew out a smaller smile. “It is nothing. Only . . . Kish is still considering Ben-Hesed or Michael for your friend?”
“So far as I know. They are . . . cousin! Are you going to ask for her?”
“I . . .” Mordecai blushed—actually blushed. “She has grown into a lovely young woman. Beautiful, but so much more. Tender and caring, with a zeal for life. And she loves you. I know not if she could ever feel so warmly for me, though.”
“How could she not?” Esther tucked her hand into Mordecai’s elbow and gave him her brightest smile. “I doubt she has considered it, but I shall plant a few thoughts in her head.”
Mordecai groaned, but it ended on a laugh. “I do not need my twelve-year-old daughter approaching a woman on my behalf. I will try to find a few moments to speak with her to see if she would welcome further attention from me. If so, then I will speak with Kish.”
Dear, sweet cousin Mordecai. The Lord had surely been watching over her when he led this man to her door after the accident.
Well, she would do what she could to help, no matter what he said. Surely Kasia would forget about any other man when she realized Mordecai was interested in making her his own. She had expressed admiration for him more than once. And to have her dearest friend under the same roof—it would be a perfect arrangement.
They walked the short distance to their friends’ house in silence, but entered to the usual chaos of a large family. Kish bellowed instructions at Zechariah in the wood shop, and inside the family’s space the little ones shrieked and giggled and dashed about.
Kasia’s mother, Zillah, looked up and smiled. “Kasia is working on the bread, if you want to help her.”
“Certainly.” She turned first to Mordecai and leaned into him for a moment. “Have a good morning, cousin. When will you be back?”
“By the midday meal, I imagine. Have fun with Kasia and the little ones.”
“I will.” Smiling first at him, then at Zillah, she headed for the outdoor kitchen at the rear of the house. She found Kasia up to her elbows in bread dough. “Would you like some help?”
“Have I ever turned it down?” Her friend’s grin made Esther sigh. Kasia was so beautiful. Her hair was thick, so dark and rich, her cheekbones pronounced to set off her large almond eyes, and her curves . . .
Sometimes Esther despaired of ever growing up. It took so long. Here she was nearly thirteen, and she still had the figure of Kasia’s eight-year-old sister, Eglah. Or worse, eleven-year-old Joshua. How would Zechariah ever come to love her if she looked like his little brother?
But Kasia—it was no wonder the Persian had been unable to take his eyes off her. No wonder Mordecai had set his heart on her. Esther grinned as she pulled a second bowl of dough forward. “You will never guess the conversation I just had.”
Kasia lifted her brows. “Let me see. You told Mordecai how in love you are with Zechariah, and he promised to speak with Abba this morning to arrange for a betrothal.”
She laughed and bumped her arm into Kasia’s. “No, but a similar topic. Concerning your pending betrothal.”
“Ah.” Some of the brightness left Kasia’s voice. “Not nearly so interesting. Michael stopped by last night, and it was all I could do to stay awake through his prattle. If Abba selects him as my husband, I shall sleep through the rest of my life. Though he is better than Ben-Hesed, and apparently my mysterious Persian will not be returning.”
“As expected. But I have a feeling you need not resign yourself to Michael yet. There is another suitor lurking in the shadows.”
“Oh?” Without so much as pausing in her kneading, Kasia lifted a dubious brow. “And who would that be?”
Esther rolled her lips together and plunged her hands into the dough. “Hmm. I really ought not say. He did imply I should refrain from interference.”
Now Kasia halted and turned to face her. “What a tease! But no matter, there are few enough men you speak with. It must be . . . Abram the butcher.”
Esther laughed. “You think I consider him a better choice than Michael? He is ancient.”
“He is thirty-five.” Kasia chuckled and got back to work. “Surely anyone younger than the king cannot be called old. It is probably against the law.”
A snort slipped from her lips. “Perhaps. They do have some ridiculous laws. But it is someone much better than the butcher. More handsome, younger, and wealthier.”
Kasia’s hands stilled, and her eyes focused on the middle distance. “All that? I must say, I am both intrigued and at a loss. I can think of no one . . . at least . . .” She turned her face to Esther, brows pulled together. “Surely not . . . ?”
Lips pressed together again, Esther wiggled her brows. She half expected Kasia to leap with excitement, giddy laughter on her lips. Instead, she went thoughtful and turned back to her bowl. Not the reaction Esther had expected. Perhaps she should have held her tongue. Oh, Mordecai would be mortified if she had ruined things.
Kasia shook her head. “I thought . . . he grieved so for Keturah. And it has been so long since her death, I assumed . . . .” Her gaze, sharp now, found Esther again. “You are certain? Serious? He is serious?”
Esther could only nod.
Kasia’s eyes went wide. “I cannot grasp it. He is so . . .”
“Yes. He is.”
Kasia used her wrist to smooth back a stray lock. “And I am only . . .”
“You are everything a man could want, Kasia.” Esther drew her lower lip between her teeth as she regarded her friend. “He did not want me to say anything. He intends to speak to you himself before he approaches your father, to sound out your feelings. I wanted to . . . give you time to think about it, I suppose. I would hate to see either of you hurt.”
Kasia drew in a long breath, looking at a loss for what to say. “You need not fear me hurting him, little one. If he is interested, there is nothing to think about. There is no better man in Susa, and I would be honored if . . . and Abba. He would be so proud.”
Esther nodded, though she would have wished for a little more enthusiasm. Perhaps it was just eclipsed by surprise. “Do you love him, Kasia?”
Kasia’s eyes came into focus on Esther’s face. There was no gleam she would have called love, but there was something. Something sure, something calm. “I could very easily, if I let myself consider it. The very possibility of such a union—it is much more than I dared dream. I have so little to offer, and he is so well respected. Although . . . I have heard that he has a pesky daughter. On second thought, maybe I would not want to deal with the little—”
“Ha!” Esther rammed her side into her friend, and they both dissolved into laughter. Satisfied, she sighed. “Well then. Your Persian man has not come to your door, demanding to speak with your father?”
“Obviously not.” Though Kasia rolled her eyes, Esther did not miss the hint of disappointment within them. Ah, well. Mordecai would banish it soon enough.
Esther leaned close. “What did you do with the torc?”
“I am still wearing it. I was afraid the girls would find it if I took it off.”
“Oh! My mother’s silver bracelet—I cannot find it, and the last time I wore it was when I came over the other day. Have you found it around your house?”
Kasia shook her head, concern saturating her face. “I will ask Ima, though. You do not think . . .”
The very thought made tears sting her eyes. “I hope not. If I lost it at the river, I will never find it again.”
“You could.” Kasia leaned over to touch their arms together. “If Ima does not have it, I shall check at the river this afternoon. We will find it, little one. I promise.”
Knowing Kasia would look for it eased the knot of anxiety inside—she could simply smile, and all of creation would jump to help her. A girl could not ask for a better friend, a better neighbor. She would be blessed indeed when Kasia married Mordecai.
Kasia fell to her knees, bent over until she was prostrate, and wished for some extra light. Granted, in the summer she appreciated the protection their roof afforded with its three-foot thickness, but at the moment the way it blocked the sun was more curse than blessing.
Her mother clucked behind her. “Kasia, what are you doing? Searching for dust?”
“No, for Esther’s bracelet.”
“You still have not found it?” Ima sighed. “Perhaps you ought to retrace your steps from the other day.”
Kasia straightened and rubbed at her neck, sore from all the craning and stooping she had done that afternoon after Esther left. “I suppose I shall have to. Poor little Esther. It is the only thing she has left of her mother. I cannot bear the thought that she lost it.”
Ima gave her a small smile and reached out to cup her cheek. “You are a sweet one, my Kasia. Go now, before darkness falls.”
“Do you not need help with the meal?”
“I shall make do. It is for Esther’s sake, after all.”
Kasia smiled at her mother and turned to find four-year-old Sarai standing behind her, thumb in mouth. The wee one removed the finger long enough to ask, “What you looking for, Kas?”
She scooped up her little sister and gave her belly a tickle. “A silver bracelet that Esther dropped the other day.”
Sarai’s eyes went wide. “Silver? And round? Like this?” She traced a circle in the air.
Ima fisted her hands on her hips. “Have you seen it, Sarai?”
The child tucked her head into Kasia’s neck. “I found it in the kitchen. It is safe and pretty. On my doll. It is a belt.”
Ima lifted one dubious brow and reached for Sarai. “Come, little one, let us go get it. Kasia, would you stir the stew while I take care of this?”
“Of course.” She turned and headed outside to the kitchen. Perhaps after the meal she would run the bracelet over to Esther to ease the girl’s mind.
Although the trip would probably not ease her mind.
Kasia drew in a shaky breath as she passed the threshold into the moderate winter sun. Her friend’s news from that morning still rocked her. How long had she known Mordecai? He had always lived in the house three doors away, in a modest part of town despite his wealth. She remembered when he wed Keturah, how happy he had seemed. She remembered the bliss on his face when he shared with Abba that a babe would join them soon.
She remembered the stark pain that etched age onto his countenance when Keturah and the babe died.
Though only eleven at the time, Kasia had wanted to wrap her arms around him and hold on until the pain went away. It had seemed as though nothing would ever ease his agony.
Until Esther. Esther had brought joy back to his eyes, a smile back to his lips.
They were lovely eyes, well-shaped lips. Mordecai was a handsome man, though she rarely stopped to consider it. It had seemed pointless. He had already found his perfect mate, had lost her. He would not marry again lightly. If he spoke for her, then . . .
He loved her. Unbelievable and amazing.
Shaking her head, Kasia grabbed the wooden spoon from its rest and stirred the stew in the large pot over the fire. She saw him more often than any man outside her family, but never had she detected a shift in his feelings. Esther would not have lied to her, though. If she said he intended to speak with her, then he would. Probably soon.
The thought brought her pulse up—until a different set of eyes came to mind. Silly. She shook her head again to dislodge the wayward picture. Mordecai was a far better man to pin her dreams on. He was everything she could possibly want in a husband. Handsome and strong, kind and caring, intelligent and wealthy. Jewish.
The Persian . . . he could not be more wrong for her. He was arrogant, aggressive, surely did not share her religious views. And gone. He had ridden off on his horse and would never enter her life again.
Not her waking life, anyway. Though he had certainly plagued her dreams the past few nights.
She looked up at her father’s voice. His firm, displeased voice. She rarely earned that tone, and hearing it now made her shoulders tense up. “Yes, Abba?”
He stood in the shop’s rear door and glowered at her. “Get your mother and come here. Now.”
When he gave her that particular look, dawdling was not an option. She flew towards the door even as she said, “Of course, Abba.”
Thankfully, Ima was emerging from the girls’ room as she entered. “Ima, Abba wants you and me to go to his shop. Now.”
Ima’s brows drew together. “What is it?”
“I know not, but he was very cross.”
“Probably a problem with the Persians again.” Ima loosed a sigh and set Esther’s bracelet down.“I cannot think why he would need both of us, but I suppose we shall find out.”
They moved together out the back door and into Abba’s shop. The scent of cypress shavings greeted them first, and then the steady regard of three men.
Kasia froze just inside, halted by the weight of those gazes. Abba’s, hard and demanding. A curious one from the man nearest him, a Persian in elegant clothes whom she had never seen before. And then the third . . . was he not the companion of the man she had met the other day?
Her knees nearly buckled. No wonder Abba looked so unhappy.
Ima slipped an arm around her and looked to Abba. “My husband, what is happening?”
He kept his harsh gaze on Kasia. “I think our daughter can best answer that question. Tell us, Kasia. How is it that the king has decided he will take you as a wife?”
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