Actions

Work Header

In the Citadel of Susa, I

Work Text:

These things happened in the days of Vashti-Stateira, the wife of Artaxerxes the son of Darius, the natural son of the first Artaxerxes, Great King, King of Kings, King of Anshan, King of the Four Quarters, King of Persia. In the third year of the reign of her husband the king, a great feast was proclaimed in Susa, and kings and satraps came from all the lands over which Artaxerxes ruled, that they might prostrate themselves before his throne and wish him long life and the blessings of the Wise Spirit upon his reign.

The Queen too, readied herself for a feast, for the great men of the kingdoms travelled, as was the custom of the Persians, with their wives and families. If they were not blessed enough to have been born Persians, the customs of civilization had been made known unto them, so that they brought their chief and best-loved wives and children with them, to eat and drink at the Queen's expense as they themselves would feast at the expense of the King. That the women and children who ate the Queen's sweets and drank her wines and sherbets would be hostages for their husbands' and fathers' good behavior no one felt needful to mention. Why speak of what cannot be changed, or that which will bring shame to a guest?

On the appointed days, the rooms of the palaces were filled with merriment, and the women's apartments were opened to the wives and daughters of the kings and satraps of Artaxerxes' lands, and such sons of theirs as had not yet passed seven years of age, for that was the age at which boys were taken from their mothers' care and brought up as Persian men. Vashti the Queen sat in her private garden, and about her sat the women of the greatest of the kings who prostrated themselves to her husband, their faces uncovered and their lustrous hair gleaming in the sun, for the only males that would come near were the palace eunuchs, and all the women could take their ease on the rich carpets spread out upon the ground.

For six days Vashti smiled at her guests, and bid them eat and drink, and admired the embroidery of their slave girls, while she thought with pleasure of their husbands taking them and departing, once they had renewed their oaths of loyalty to Artaxerxes. No one had dared gainsay his father, a mighty warrior, who had put forward his claim to the throne on the point of a blade, but the son of such a man was a different matter. Especially when the son was jovial and given to laughing a little too long and too hard with his servants, and whose only war in all the three years since he had become the King of Kings had been fought against his own brother. That war had been hard fought, it was true, but it was rumoured that the barbarians who had fought for her husband's treacherous brother had offered the throne to more than one of the great men of Persia when their employer had finally been slain. It was time for such men and their families to remember they should turn from lies to the truth, from treachery to loyalty. Let them bow down to the earth, she thought, and make their oaths before the Wise Spirit, and leave. She called her handmaidens to her and had her son brought in, so that all her guests could report to their husbands how tall the young prince Artaxerxes was, how manly for a boy of six years, how healthy and past the age to die from the illnesses with which demons afflicted babies.

"I will not tire you with the prattles of my other son, who is not of an age to be seen," she said modestly, "nor my daughter."

"Little Darius still plays with a toy leopard like a baby," Artaxerxes said in childish scorn. "I'm sure I didn't when I was four. And Rhodogune really is a baby."

"Hush, now," Vashti said, as the women laughed with pleasure, and exclaimed over her son's lordly voice. She was sure she could hear an argument in the rooms beyond the garden, growing louder and more heated. She kept her face calm and pleasant as the doors opened and Artaxerxes' personal body-servants walked out into the sunlight, their beardless faces carefully composed, their smooth hands already arranging themselves into pleasing positions, as if the young eunuchs had spent some time discussing how best to present themselves and their message. They looked scared, she thought, but they covered it well.

The seven of them weaved their way amongst the couches and chairs laid amongst the sweet-smelling plants, and stood before her. As one, they went down in a prostration almost as deep as they performed for her husband, and rose again, supple and elegant. From the corner of her eye, Vashti noted the eunuchs of the women' quarters watching them coolly, as if judging their performance.

"Greatest Lady, Queen of Queens," one of them said, and a little ripple ran around the assembled women, reminded of their positions. "His Majesty bids you don your royal diadem and come, show his guests your famed beauty."

Vashti sat, frozen. She had not seen the end come upon her, she thought. What did she miss? What had she done, that such an insult was offered to her? The eunuch smiled at her, with pity, she thought, fury beginning to rise in her heart. This was most certainly the current favourite, with his smile like cream and his silken tunic and trousers that a satrap would be hard-pressed to afford.

Do not show anything, she thought. Be calm. You have children. If you must fall from favour, you can perhaps still save them. Smile at him.

"An odd jest," she said, and her voice was bored and did not shake. "But now that you have delivered it, you may go and refresh yourself with the other servants."

"No jest, Lady," the eunuch said, and his voice did quiver. "You must come now."

"I must?"

He prostrated himself again, followed by the others, safely away from the sight of her anger. Are we not all the slaves of the King? the gesture said. She could say the same, she thought. It would give her the strength to get out the door and to beg her husband to spare their children –

As she began to rise from her chair, one of the women laughed.

Shame filled Vashti's heart. She pictured her husband, drunk and stupid with the pleasure of his reign, showing the good things of his palace to his guests: the ivory panels on the walls, the great jade vases, the exotic and beautiful servants. Oh, and here's my queen! Why not look under the clothes, she's even better naked! I'll send my catamite to fetch her! she thought bitterly. She stood up, facing all of them down in her last day as Queen of Persia, and it became clear to all she did not mean to go anywhere. Silence fell throughout the garden, and then the guests got off their chairs and their couches, and prostrated themselves as she came down the few steps of the daïs to where the eunuchs were. The one who had spoken looked up and hurriedly pressed his face back down into the carpet.

"Tell the King I will not come. Do you understand? I refuse to come."

"Lady – Greatest of Queens, I cannot bring such a message – the day . . . the day has been very hot, Lady, the sun has perhaps made you light-headed and at such times people often do not know what it is they say –"

"It is not your place to presume to offer me counsel," she said coldly, and paused as he looked up again. He was crying, which surprised her, his kohl smudged and quite ruined. "Nor is it your place to pity me," she said, more quietly. "You must obey me, all of you. Am I not still the Queen?"

They kissed the ground before her feet and rose, hurrying away. After a few moments more her own eunuchs came and ushered her guests indoors to rest safely out of her presence, and the chief of them came and bowed wearily before her.

"Your orders, Madam? Will you take poison, or hang yourself?"

"Neither," she said. "Have the children hidden well, Hegai. I will wait here on my husband's response."

* * * * * * * * * *

Source: Vashti Refuses the King's Summons, by Edwin Long