He was the wisest king in all the land and the queen of the south had come to visit.
She brought her own servants, of course, but I was among those called to wait on her.
However, I did not expect our paths to cross so entirely.
The heat of late afternoon hounded her return from the palaces gardens. Revelation of his majesty’s agricultural ingenuity exalted the queen’s enthusiasm and she had spent the entirety of the day exposed to the sun. Her dark skin, now especially flush, gave cause for her maids to hastily fetch oil, however, I knew of a better remedy.
Father himself was from the south and after long days working the fields, my mother would fetch red vine tomatoes and place thin slices upon the red scorch. Afterwards, his skin wouldn’t feel the heat.
“May I bring something to help m’lady?”
A glance came to me from the chief maid but I saw relief in the queen’s hot face.
“Yes, if you may aid.”
I hastened to the kitchen for a basket of the red fruit. The royal cook obliged me for mother was his right hand. Martin looked out for us ever since we were sold to the royal family. It was a lucky happening after father’s early death.
“Up to no good, little Agita!” He teased. I blushed and hurried back to where the queen lay beneath the breeze of a feathered fan. Linen had swathed her torso and legs it was only her face and arms which needed to be cooled. One by one, I placed the thinly sliced tomatoes on her flushed chocolate skin. The refreshment shone on her face as she drifted into a peaceful afternoon sleep. No doubt, her mind still basked in the joys of aqueducts and irrigation. Half an hour, I tended the queen. My mentor slave Aneet steadfastly worked the fan. Her gentle smile supported me even as the chief maid glared.
Half an hour made all the difference. The queen awoke cooled and refreshed. Immensely grateful, she requested a cool bath to be refreshed before dinner. Aneet and I fetched water until the chief maid shooed us away.
“You did well,” Aneet said. I smiled. “Don’t be surprised if she asks you to wait on her after this.”
“You think so?” I asked. She nodded.
"It’s always that way.”
Still pondering, I carried the used tomatoes to the stables. Surely one of the king’s horses would want them. Hand outstretched, a fine blood mare enjoyed my delights while the afternoon sun blazed down. A squad of officers crossed the courtyard, their beaten gold shields shone like peaceful guardian flames. Finishing my purpose, I made my way back to the guest quarters.
True to Aneet’s word, her highness requested my presence at dinner. I poured her water and wine without looking up as I was trained.
For all his wisdom which earned himself and his kingdom renown throughout the realm, his Majesty had one tricky flaw. It did not matter how many wives entered his house nor how many women filled his harem, there was always room for one more. The palace servants had lost count of the number of his children. It was enough work keeping track of his wives.
Mother taught me quickly when we were brought on: never look him in the eye, never bare any skin above the shoulder within the palace and never ever speak. Unless spoken to of course, but as little as possible even then.
"Give him nothing to make you desire you and hopefully you will be safe.” She warned. “I will not have my daughter become the locked up toy for a rich man’s play.” Her head shook and her hands scrubbed where hasty prince feet had tramped dirt on white marble. “Better to be a poor man’s wife and the queen of your own kitchen than share a life in that hen house.”
Mother’s warnings echoed faintly as I heeded his wisdom during the royal dinner. Question upon question, the southern queen asked and yet the wise king answered them all. I marveled at her insatiable curiosity and his expounding wisdom.
I waited upon her ladyship every day after that. Her chief maid grew to tolerate my service to the queen.
“To her, you are a novelty,” Aneet said. “Much like the aqueducts and the holy temple. Our entire culture.”
“Is that why she has stayed almost a month now?” I asked.
“Well of course! It took her long enough to get here. Do you think she’s going to come back?”
I turned my face towards the fresh flowers we were cutting.
“Father said it took him two months to get here. Although I still don’t understand why I’m part of the cultural novelty when I still get stares for looking foreign.” Stares and scowls I could see in my sleep with my eyes closed. While the people here were tan, my mocha coloring was a shade darker than the rest. I would never be accepted.
"But your family embraced our culture, Agita. Your father took the initiation before he betrothed your mother, yes? And he always made the yearly sacrifice.”
I nodded. “He never told me anything of the land where he came. This was home now.”
“That makes you one of us, Agita. And don’t you forget it.” Her kind words warmed me as she herself embraced my nervous hands. We finished with the flowers and delivered them to the evening room where the queen was waiting.
“Such lovely blossoms.” She caressed the petals with her fingers. “Thank you, girls.”
“You’re welcome m'lady,” I answered. She smiled.
“I will miss these flowers when I am gone, but tell me … your face is darker than these people here, have you always lived in Israel?”
“All my life, your highness.”
“And yet this is not your pure blood. Where are your parents from?”
Her question, innocent and docile enough, sent shudders into the core of my being.
“My mother’s family is of this country,” I answered slowly. “My father came here from outside.”
“Yes, of course,” the queen said. “I have a niece who looks very much like you, only you have your mother’s smooth hair.”
Seemingly content with her findings, the queen returned to the flowers.
“Tell me,” she pondered out loud with eyes closed and senses deeply invested in her blossoms, “would you like to come with me and live in the south?” Her eyes opened and glanced towards me.
I hoped my face did not betray my shock but no doubt it did. The queen was very gracious not to reveal her noticing.
“I … am a slave, your majesty.” My words stuttered within me, as I sensed the very fate of my life shifting beyond my control. “I do what I’m told when I’m told to and endeavor in all things to please the Creator God. Beyond this, I have no choice.”
Her eyes gleamed with pride as if I’d given the right answer.
“Very well, dear child. I shall talk with your master. You are a trustworthy soul and I should dearly love to bring you with me. I would keep you like a daughter.”
She glanced down at the flowers again face solemn as if weighing her words. Then with quiet breath, she spoke them.
“Not all kingdoms are quite so peaceful.”
Afternoon of the next day, I learned my answer. The king and her ladyship were slightly ahead in the garden but by their glances, I could knew I was the topic.
“Why yes, of course,” was the king’s reply. I kept my eyes downturned, waiting for the fullness of his oracle to come to effect.
Two weeks later and we were loading the camels, with my few possessions among them. Mother had had many tears upon her face but that moment she was strong. For sure this would be our last seeing.
Aneet gave my camel driver a cloth bundle.
“What is that?” I asked.
“You will see later.” She smiled. “For now let me look at you.”
We stared into each other’s eyes until every nuance of iris and flicker of thought was memorized and shared between us. We embraced.
“I have no doubt you will do well. Listen much. Speak little. Choose slowly who you can trust. Get a sleeping chamber near her ladyship and you will be safe.”
We locked eyes again.
“Never forget where you are from. Know you will always be a part of my heart.”
I smiled again, tears now dripping. I embraced Mother.
“Making your goodbyes, Agita?” I turned upon hearing the voice of the queen.
“This is my mother, your ladyship.”
Poor Mother’s face could not contain itself. The queen’s eyes softened.
“Please forgive me for taking her.” The queen extended her hands. Mother took them. “But I promise you, I have no one like her in my country. Hazak the scribe is coming with me and it will be his job to teach her writing.”
Mother smiled despite her tears. My eyes watered all the more for Mother could not read.
We said goodbye for the last time that day and I have not seen Mother or Aneet or my country since. There was a small comfort that evening when we made camp and Hazak pulled out the soft roll from his pack.
“Blessed art thou, o Lord our God, King of the universe who created the heavens and the earth.”
I listened to the words of my people and the words of my God and was comforted.
“The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
And so it was, I became a rose in the desert.