A knock came on her door.
Vashti raised her eyes from her book and glanced at the golden door, then cast them down again to look at the hound that lay at her feet.
“It’s your job to keep me from being interrupted,” she said to the dog. “Why aren’t you guarding the gates?”
The hound put his paws over his face and whined.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby about it,” snapped Vashti. “Fine, you lazy, lazy dog. I’ll take care of it myself.”
She set down her book, rose from her throne, and dusted off her robes with great dignity. Then she raised one arm and brought it down sharply. Seven iron gates rose before her, one after the other, barring the path to her throne. She examined her work critically and nodded. Once satisfied, she called out in a light sing-song, “It’s open! Do come in!”
The golden door swung open. In the doorway, standing tall and proud and decked with royal jewels, stood the Queen.
The new queen, that is.
Not Vashti, who was now no longer queen of anything at all, except a bunch of desiccated corpses and their sad, hollow, wandering spirits. Shereally hated this underworld gig. Not as much as she hated visitors, though. She resisted the urge to curse out the new queen and cast her up all the stairs, but only narrowly.
“Sister!” she cried out with thick, false sympathy.
“Can I come in?” asked Queen Esther. “I need your help.”
Vashti’s defensive wall of fake politeness crumbled instantly. “Not even an how-do-you-do? Just barge right in and get straight to asking for favors? Rude. You’re a clever girl, Hadassah, you should know better than to piss off death gods.”
“One God,” said Queen Esther tightly. “Remember the one God thing?”
The Queen of Hell waved her hand airily, flopping down to lounge on her golden throne. “Fat lot of good your One God did you, huh, if you came down here to ask my advice. How many stairs is it these days? Ten thousand? I can’t count that high anymore, I get bored.”
“Can we get to the point?” snapped Esther. “Let me in.”
Vashti sat forward in her throne and said acidly, “You want in? Pay the toll.”
“What the fuck?” said Esther.”You said it was open!”
“Well,” said Vashti, “I lied.” She pointed one ringed finger at the offering bowl that had manifested before the first gate and demanded, “Toll.”
Slowly, Queen Esther reached for her right wrist. She unbuckled a heavy golden bangle and dropped it into the bowl with a clang that echoed around the hall. The iron gate swung silently open. She took a step forward and stood before the second gate, a frown growing on her face. When a second bowl manifested itself at her feet, the frown turned to a scowl.
“How many damn offerings do I have to make, Vashti?” she said, her voice climbing slowly in volume.
“Seven,” said the Queen of Hell flatly. At Esther’s outraged look, she added, “Don’t you read? I thought you people were supposed to be the People of the Book, or some shit.”
“‘You people‘?” said Esther.
Vashti smirked. “You came here for my help, didn’t you? In the underworld, people play by my rules.”
“I swear, Vashti,” hissed the Queen as she unhooked a bangle from her left wrist.
“Watch it, princess,” she said. “Your god doesn’t like His name taken in vain.”
“When did you become an expert on Hebrew theology?” asked the Queen, bending down to slip an anklet off her foot. She dropped the trinket intoa bowl and hopped on one foot to the next gate, already trying to unclasp its twin with her free hand.
“Four down,” said Vashti. “I have a lot of time to read since I was banished from my husband’s sight, replaced by an upstart, and condemned to rot in the deepest literal hell under the earth.”
Esther frowned. She reached behind her to dig under her hair for the clasp of her necklace. “You got away,” she pointed out. “You earned your independence. Isn’t that all you really wanted, in the end?”
“Look around you, princess,” said Vashti dryly.
Skulls were stacked everywhere, and the walls were streaked with nameless gore.
“I see your point,” said the Queen, too softly to hear.
“Your crown,” said the Queen of the Underworld, pointing a long index finger at the bowl before her.
With delicate fingers, Esther disentangled the many golden rays of her horned coronet from their grip on her hair. She lifted the crown and set itcarefully in the bowl, where it promptly slid down from its upright position to sit crookedly at the bottom of the shallow dish.
Only one more gate stood between the Queen and the path to the throne of Hell.
Esther stood before the Queen of the Dead, wearing nothing but a white shift and a white veil. She crossed her arms over her bodice and asked,”What now?”
“One more gate means one more offering, princess,” said Vashti. “What have you got to offer?”
“I’m not here on my own behalf, you know,” said Esther.
“I know exactly why you’re here, Hadassah.”
“Then you know what’s at stake!” she cried out. “How can you be so blasé about it?”
“What do you expect me to do?” asked the goddess bitterly. “You’ve seen what my grand escape looks like; I’m trapped down here. Do you still think I defeated him? Go ask the storyteller if you want to know how to beat a king at his own game.”
“It’s not Xerxes I need to outsmart,” said Esther. “Not this time.”
Vashti raised an eyebrow.
“It’s Haman,” she explained. “He wants to execute my cousin.”
“What have I told you, princess,” said Vashti, “about disrespecting those who have power over you?”
“Look,” said Esther angrily, “I did not bow and scrape and smile pretty for the King for all these years for it to stop mattering now, when I need it most!”
“You’ve learned the truth, Hadassah,” said the goddess. “You have all the power… up until you want to make use of it.”
“What do you want?” demanded the Queen.
Vashti rose slowly from the bone throne and walked slowly down the path, until she stood just before the seventh gate, close enough to reach outand poke her fingers through the iron scroll-work. “I want out,” she said softly. “I want,” she paused for effect, “your wings.”
“The wings of Ishtar, princess,” snapped Vashti. “I know you have them! Where are they?”
“I left them with my other dress,” said the Queen.
Vashti snorted. She raised her hand and brought it down with an audible rush of air. “The wings, princess, or you never leave this place alive.”
“The last gate is still locked,” Esther calmly pointed out.
Even the Queen of the Underworld could not break her own rules. Unless Esther put an offering in the last bowl, the gate would remain locked and she would not truly be standing in the land of the dead.
“Damn you to a thousand hells, you bitch!” spat Vashti.
“You want your freedom, and I want the safety of my people assured,” said Esther. “Between the two of us, I’m sure we can figure out a way to accomplish both those things.”
“The Wings of Ishtar are what I need,” said Vashti, “and a sacrifice to take my place.”
“Haman,” said Esther automatically.
“Excellent choice,” said the queen of the dead. “The King’s most favored advisor. You’ll go far, I can tell.”
“I need him dead,” said the Queen through clenched teeth, “or he’ll never stop hounding my cousin.”
“And you,” said Vashti with an evil grin, “once he figures out you’re related.”
She didn’t rise to the bait. “I have to convince Xerxes to hang the damn bastard.”
“Read him a bedtime story,” suggested the goddess dryly. “I hear that works wonders.”
Esther groaned. “He hasn’t called for me in a month.”
“Looks like you’re shit outta luck.”
But Esther was watching her through thoughtfully narrowed eyes. “I can get him to do the work for me,” she said, “by giving him what he wants.”
“He wants your cousin dead,” said Vashti, but the Queen wasn’t listening anymore.
She snapped her fingers and a handmaiden materialized by her side as though from nowhere.
“Lily,” said the Queen, “the Wings of Ishtar.”
“Bitch!” shrieked Vashti. “You lying bitch! I knew you had them!”
The handmaiden ran her hands down the Queen’s back. Shimmering in the deathly light of the underworld, the golden wings of the goddess Ishtar appeared on her back.
“I leave them here with my trusty handmaiden,” said Queen Esther. “Lily, stand her and don’t move. By no means are you allowed to go anywhere near that gate, that bowl, or that woman.”
Vashti was still muttering furiously to herself.
“Look at me!” ordered the Queen.
She looked up, and her eyes burned with venomous hate.
“When I’ve secured Haman’s death, my handmaiden will give you the wings,” said Esther. “She’ll stay here in your stead, but only until you bring Haman down to replace her. Once that’s done, I expect her to be returned to the palace unharmed.”
“Why shouldn’t I keep her?” asked Ereshkigal. “I’m a goddess, I deserve a handmaiden much more than you do.”
Esther shrugged. “Lilitu is very vengeful. Cross her at your own peril.”
Sulkily, the goddess stalked back across the cavern of skulls and cast herself down on her throne. “Go,” she said, waving her hand in dismissal. “Goget your vizier killed. Don’t bother coming back if you’ve failed, I’m all out of tricks for you.”
“If I fail,” said Esther pleasantly, “this won’t be the place where my soul ends up. Will you wish me luck?”
“Good luck, Hebrew,” said Ereshkigal. “Gods above and below you’ll need every drop of it.”