The Sad Prince
The girl had been wandering along the dusty road for many days. Her dress was of a yellow to outshine the sun, and was embroidered around the hem and cuffs with cherry-red flowers. Long and burnished was her brown hair, twined and tangled through with small red roses. She carried nothing with her save a thin leather satchel, with a little bit of food inside.
Despite her travelling, the girl was not wearied, and her warm and curious eyes admired everything along the path: from the birds to the flowers to the centipede crawling through the dust, and up again to the wistful white clouds. Everything was a wonder to her.
One morning she turned a corner and came across a ruined town. The town had not fallen recently: the blackened remains of walls stood poking drearily from a mass of greenery like lonely ghosts confined to a prison of vegetation. Roofing beams, shattered and askew, were bound up in moss and ivy and all but indistinguishable from the branches of the trees that reached possessively over them. Dandelions as sunny as the girl’s dress grew tall and proud from cracks in the paving stones, and nodded their heads at her knees as she passed. To her left, a flock of tiny iridescent birds chittered like eager gossips in a seedy bush that filled the whole interior of a roofless cottage. Rabbits burrowed where floors once were, and unknown eyes were round discs in empty windows that fled at her approach. In the middle of the road lay a large wagon wheel ringed in a lazy blue haze of forget-me-nots: now a plaything for purple lizards with transparent wings that buzzed across her path.
The ruins were inhabited with an abundance of life.
But there were no people.
There had been no people here for a very long time.
After awhile, the girl came to the centre of the town where there rose before her a very great and mournful castle. Ivy had strangled most of the towers and parts had collapsed into mossy rubble. The windows were small black voids as though night were sleeping within, though here and there sunlight streamed through oddly shaped cracks in the walls. Once, guards must have patrolled the crenellated walkways, but nothing of them now remained. The huge gates stood wide open.
Seeing that the drawbridge was down, the girl ventured across, rotten wood creaking beneath her sandals. Below her, the moat was filled with a bottomless tangle of brambles.
Beyond the gates lay a courtyard carpeted thickly with brown leaves. The girl picked her way across with rustling steps, looking all around her at the forgotten grey walls. There was a kind of grim dignity to the place, as though the castle were determined to continue standing while time wore it relentlessly down.
She reached a door and pushed it creaking open.
She passed through a cold and empty chamber to another, grander set of doors and entered them as well, to find herself in a great echoing hall with shadows in every corner and a white speckling of bird droppings on the floor. Overhead, a chandelier was adorned with spider webs. There were rugs and tapestries and plump seat cushions which once had been rich and colourful, now frayed and spilling fluffy innards. Only the moths ate dinner here. From far aloft in the rafters, a large grey owl blinked luminous moon eyes down at her. The girl closed the door again with a soft apology and left him in peace.
For the rest of the morning the girl wandered through the abandoned castle, passing lanterns rusted in their brackets and decaying furniture and once, a rusty sword lying on the floor. She was starting to become a little bored with all of the dust, but then she came upon a magnificent door bound with tarnished gold, and thought ah! Here is where the treasures must be kept! Eagerly, she took the handle and opened it.
A man sat in a chair beside a deep-set window. His clothing was of aged but elegant blue velvet and black leather and gold buttons. A long red cloak draped his left shoulder and the arm of his chair, and trailed on the floor.
So astonished was the girl to find a living person in this ruinous building that she didn’t know what to say. The man stared at her, though did not seem surprised by her sudden entry. A slim golden crown sat upon his head, with diamonds that no longer glittered. There were dark circles beneath his eyes, as though a shadow lived beneath his skin.
He stared at her for a long time and then finally said: “You have roses tangled in your hair.”
The girl composed herself and found her voice. “Y-yes,” she stammered, and suddenly remembered to curtsey. “My lord. A cruel lord put them there. He met me selling flowers at a market, and said: ‘Such pretty flowers: a shame you are not so fair. Those roses—put those in your hair.’ His servants did so but I escaped and ran away, though mocking laughter followed me all the way.” She scratched her head. “They prick my scalp…”
“Come here,” beckoned the prince, and bade her sit at his knee. She did so, and with gentle hands he untangled the vines, heedless of the pain or the blood that the tiny thorns drew, and broke not a single hair from her head as he did so. When finished, he tossed the roses out the window.
“Th-thank you!” the girl exclaimed in relief, but the prince waved his hand as though it were no bother, and did not look at the swelling red wounds upon his fingers.
But the girl thought that something more was necessary, so she unclasped a brooch from her bust and offered it to him. It was crafted in the shape of a delicate flower, with petals of rare opal that shimmered with rainbow colours, and a shining pearl at its heart. But the prince looked at the trinket and shook his head and said, “It is not a real one,” with such deep moroseness that the girl sagged and bowed her head and nearly wept, for the lovely brooch she held in her hands was indeed merely a cold, fake flower, and she felt ashamed that she thought it befitting a prince. “Why are you so unhappy?” she ventured after a moment.
The prince was staring out the window with weary despair on his face. “My kingdom is destroyed,” he replied simply. “My people are gone. My family, perished. All I have now is…” he spread his hands sadly, “…nothing.”
“Your castle still stands,” the girl offered hopefully. “Some of the towers have crumbled, but they are covered in living green leaves, and look very beautiful.”
The prince did not reply.
“There are birds living in them! There’s a huge, handsome owl in your hall!”
Still, the prince said nothing.
Suddenly, the girl stood up. “There are many wonderful things still left in the world,” she said. “If I can show you a thousand amazing and beautiful things, will you be happy?”
A frown wrinkled the prince’s face, and he glanced at her then. After a long moment he replied, “I regret that you will not find a thousand beautiful things that will make me happy.”
“But if I can,” the girl insisted, “will you be happy?”
The prince frowned more deeply and finally sighed. “Perhaps,” he conceded. “But they must truly be the most amazing and most beautiful things that I have ever laid eyes on.” And he said the last with a ruefulness and longing that suggested he was thinking of something he had lost long ago.
“Do you promise?”
The prince answered, without hope, “I promise.”
The girl placed the cold flower brooch upon the windowsill and left the lonesome prince to his sad pondering.
For the next two days, the girl walked back along the dusty road that she had followed to the ruined town. At length she came upon a golden meadow that she had passed during her earlier journey. Hitching up her yellow skirt, she hopped over the stone wall and trudged through the dew-sparkling golden blades up a gentle hill. Huge, black fluffy wooligans, as tall as two horses, regarded her with doleful blue eyes as she passed amongst them. But it was not the wooligans that she had come for. On the far slope of the hill was a grey boulder upon which she had sat and eaten lunch a few days previously, and so she knew exactly where to find the patch of exquisite flowers that grew on the sunward side. Carefully, she knelt beside them and dug in the earth with her fingers, until out came a little heart-shaped bulb. Quickly she stowed the bulb in her bag and hurried back over the hill and past the big, black, bewildered wooligans. She waved goodbye to them as she leapt over the wall and raced back towards the castle.
Tousled of hair and flushed of face and heavy of breath was the girl when she burst once again into the prince’s chamber. A warm shaft of afternoon sunlight streamed through the open casement, and the girl thrust her cupped and dirty hands into it and opened them slowly. Before the prince’s eyes, the little heart-shaped bulb split down the middle and a green sprout quested forth. Rapidly it grew and strengthened, shooting out maroon-coloured leaves until finally the bulging head burst into stunning white florescence. As the sun’s rays hit the heart of the flower, they shattered like a prism, throwing rainbow sparks everywhere throughout the prince’s dark, dismal chamber. With them came a sweet, honey blossom scent that eased the worries from the prince’s brow with each inhaled breath.
But suddenly, a grey cloud reached jealous arms to hide the sun. The light faded and the rainbows disappeared, drowned in shadows. The flower slowly drooped and its lovely petals fell wrinkling and curling into the prince’s lap. His face fell with them and he sighed.
“A glorious flower,” he said sorrowfully. “But all blossoms wither and die too soon.”
And he returned to gazing out the window.
Crestfallen, the girl cupped the dead flower back into her hands and left the prince to his sad pondering.
Two days later, the girl returned to the prince’s chamber, though this time she came with a quiet step and closed the door carefully behind her. Her hands were occupied again, and this time they supported a large untidy nest made of rabbit fur, feathers and twigs. Huddled deep in the nest were three soft fat chicks of purest white down, with their little sleepy eyes barely open. Lovingly, she presented them to the prince. His expression softened slightly as he gazed upon them, but he shook his head. “They are indeed handsome chicks,” he agreed. “And they will grow into strong and healthy owls and live long, and be fine hunters. But,” he lamented, “they do not sing.”
And he resumed staring mournfully out the window.
Disappointed, the girl curtsied, took the chicks away and left the prince to his sad pondering.
The girl wandered through the silent, deserted castle and through its overgrown gardens and courtyards, searching for something wonderful that would please the prince. The expression on his face haunted her: she knew that if she could not make him smile then no one would. She could not bear the thought of him sitting there in his lonely chair, forgotten by the rest of humanity, forever miserable. Once, not so long ago, she had been unhappy too, but she had run away and had learnt to appreciate the beauty in all things, even those deemed ugly and mundane.
There were amazing things to be seen everywhere, if you only cared enough to look.
After awhile, she strolled into a small courtyard, trailing her fingers along the mossy stone wall. In the far corner a fine tree caught her eye, of golden-white wood with striking orange leaves. It was a tree full of fiery passion. She regarded it for a moment, then retraced her steps into the long-disused kitchen, found a knife that had not yet lost its edge, and returned to the courtyard to cut from the tree a slender, pale bough. Seating herself on a leaf-strewn wrought-iron bench with her back to the sun-warmed wall, she began to whittle the wood.
For the rest of the afternoon and all the next day, she crafted the wood, giving it a certain purpose and decorating it with elegant designs that swirled around its length. When finally she was finished, she went back up to the prince’s chamber, pulled out a stool, sat down, lifted the hand-crafted flute to her lips and began to play.
She played a special melody, the most secret and beautiful one she knew. Notes as clear as golden bells rang around the chamber until it seemed the very walls were singing. Then suddenly from the window came a fluttering of soft shadows, and at once the room was filled with birds of every size and colour: they winged to the top of the bedposts and the wardrobe; they landed upon the desk and door lintel, stirring up the dust into whirling clouds, they perched upon every item in the room, including the prince’s head.
And they all began to sing.
The birds carolled in perfect harmony with the song, their many different voices masterfully combined to create a song as joyful as morning sun in the clouds, as moving as the breeze through the fragrant forest.
The music gripped the prince’s heart and made his dull eyes shine, and the faintest smile touched his lips. But alas: eventually, the song, as all songs do, reached its end and faded delicately into silence. The birds retreated in the hush until all that was left were a few feathers floating to the floor.
Faded, as well, was the wistful smile on the prince’s face. “A magical song,” he murmured, “which has charmed me. But I regret that there were no words.”
And once again, he turned his eyes to gaze out the window.
The girl sat on the stool for awhile with her flute upon her lap, then quietly left the prince to his sad pondering.
There was a small library in the castle. All of the books were still in their places, sitting in neat rows on the ancient shelves that lined each of the four walls to the ceiling. They were veiled in cobwebs, their titles illegible glints of gold beneath the heavy dust. The room was as quiet and rotting as a forgotten wood.
The girl picked through the books, disturbing families of silverfish as she did so. The pages were brown and spotted with mildew, some so delicate and brittle that they tore even at her gentle touch. Many were so stained with age and mould that they were unreadable, and the subject matter so droning and dry that she didn’t care to in any case. But finally she came across a large tome in a corner by the window, which was mostly intact. Its spine was faded yellow from countless years of sleeping in the sunlight’s rays, but the hidden cover revealed itself to be a brilliant blue. It was a book of fairytales, the stories interspersed with magnificent watercolour illustrations.
Smiling to herself in satisfaction, the girl hugged the heavy book to her chest and returned to the prince’s chamber.
Perched once more on her stool, the girl read to the prince stories from the book she had found. She told him exciting tales of mighty heroes with ivory swords battling vast grotesque armies that covered the whole world; of mysterious princesses with hair of living fire that dwelt in dark, icy plains; of mountains made of solid gold, gleaming fantastically in the morning sun and riddled with caves filled with treasure undreamable; of an island far out to sea where rose a city made entirely of water, and its people made of water also, wearing pearl garments and riding about on flying fishes. And of the great World Serpent, swimming through the sky at dusk on seventy wings, and all of his million scales shining in a different hue, and when he descended at night to rest on the earth, his body carved out valleys, and when his dreams saddened him, his tears gushing forth created the rivers…
And every story, of course, came to an end: some happily, some not, but there was always another to be told. For two days the girl read to the prince, but on the afternoon of the second day, she lifted her head to find him dozing in his chair. Her voice faltered in mid-sentence and she fell quiet. Sighing, she closed the book and set it on the floor beside her.
This time she did not leave the prince, but instead sat sadly pondering herself, wondering what further wonders she could find to show him. If even his imagination could not be set alight, then what more was there? She sat until the sun declined in a fierce glowing ball outside the window and set all the undersides of the grey clouds alight in pink and orange flame.
Amazed, she shook the prince’s knee until he woke with a start, and she pointed at the sunset.
But the prince grimaced and covered his eyes with his hand, and mumbled that he could not bear to look at the sunset as it reminded him of the terrible vicious fire that had ravaged his kingdom and loved ones all those years ago, and started this curse of despair.
So the girl fell silent once more, and felt gloom clenching her own heart.
And she continued to sit, still and wordless as the evening deepened and the orange hands of the sun slipped away, and cold, damp shadow-fingers slithered around corners and out of the mouldering stones until both she and the prince were covered in chill blackness.
After awhile, in the darkest depths of the shadow-drowned night, the girl looked up to see the prince’s sleeping face lit by an ethereal glow. Quietly she rose and walked to the window, and looked out to see the full moon glaring back with one icy eye. Below, the ruined town was a jumble of vague forms sleeping under bush and bramble, moss and vine. She wondered how long it had been since any lantern glowed warmly from the empty, gaping window holes, or since children had run around in the overgrown streets chasing fireflies in summer evenings.
She wondered if it would ever be so again, or if sadness was eternal.
She decided to try one last time.
Turning, the girl gently shook the prince awake once more. He did not grumble or complain, merely blinked at her with tired eyes. Nor did he resist as she tugged at him until he came with a tremendous creaking of bones and wood from his age-worn chair. She steadied him as he stumbled on legs gone stiff and weak from disuse. Even in the silvery hue of the moonlight, she could see that the colours on the back of his garments were much darker than on the front, where the dyes had faded pale. Like the books, she thought, he had been sitting in the same place for a very, very long time…
She led him out of the chamber and along a corridor speared with coloured shafts of moonlight from the broken remnants of stained-glass windows. At the end of the corridor they ascended a long, curving flight of stairs. Many times the prince was forced to pause, gasping rattling breaths, and the girl feared that he was too weak to make it to the top. But with her encouragement he continued, plodding upwards in resignation until at last they reached a draughty, wind-wrecked door. It was so beaten with the ravages of the weather that it was difficult to open; it squealed on its decrepit hinges, but grudgingly permitted them through.
They emerged onto a bare tower-top. The circular space was decorated with a mosaic of pigeon droppings and lichen, and even some grass grew through the cracks. The wind up there blew swift and chill, unhindered by obstructions, free to roam the night. It smelled of dark woody scents from the nearby forest, and threw their cloaks to and fro, and murmured unknowable secrets in their ears.
But none of this was what the girl wished to show the prince.
She gazed instead at the sky.
Above them spread a thousand, thousand, thousand beautiful stars; and more stars beyond them, and more beyond them, until it looked like sparkling crystal dust strewn across the entire ceiling of the world. Even the bright moon had tactfully hidden herself behind black trees, the better that they might view the majesty of the clear night sky.
The prince craned his neck in astonishment and turned round and round, trying to see it all at once, but the universe was far too vast for one person to behold. For a long time he stood gazing upwards. And when he finally turned back to the girl, she saw tears glimmering on his face, and then he began to sob, and sob, so that his whole body was shaking.
Her heart falling, the girl sat heavily on a stone bench at the centre of the tower top, completely at a loss.
But then she saw that he was smiling through his tears.
“Truly,” he choked, “truly this night you have shown me a thousand beautiful and amazing things: so long had I been sitting in my chamber that I had forgotten that the stars existed. But they have been here all the while! They were shining before we were born and shall shine longer still after we are gone. Whatever horrors blight the world below, no matter what despair or evil or worries or mistakes of Man, or disasters of the Earth, the stars will be here always, lighting the sky with ceaseless beauty. For this, I am grateful.”
And the girl gasped then, and leapt to her feet, for as the prince was speaking, he was becoming older. His skin shrivelled like the wilted petals of the rainbow blossom, it became blotched and blemished like the aging books, and his hair grew long and white and wispy as the spider webs.
But he was smiling all the while.
“It is only my grief that has kept me alive for these past one hundred years,” he told her in a feeble but contented voice. “Now the curse is broken and I am at peace. Take me down to my bed.”
The girl did so, helping the prince down the many steps and along the colour-speared corridor, and back to his chamber, and into his musty, antique bed. There she sat and watched him all night, and his eyes glimmered all the while until finally something deep inside them faded away, and they looked like nothing more than polished glass.
The girl felt then a great and heavy despair fill her whole mind and body, so that she could barely lift her limbs. She had not expected the prince to leave her all alone in this cold and desolate castle, where even the memories were unknown to her, and there was nothing but dust.
Slowly and with great effort, as though the darkness were a leaden mantle, she rose and shuffled over to the prince’s vacated chair beside the window. How long he had sat there, in misery and loneliness, and how brief the happiness she had finally given him! She sat down in the chair, settling into the smooth depressions that his body had worn into the wood, her red cloak draped over the arm, and tears slid down her cheeks.
And there she sat, staring out the window, sadly pondering.
Many years passed and in far off parts of the world, some things changed and some things stayed the same, and other corners remained entirely forgotten by civilised folk, like dust beneath an unused cupboard. The ruined town continued its steady decay; the vines and bushes grew larger and more sprawling, small animals scurried fearlessly through the leaves, flowers bloomed in ever more heartbreaking colours and wilted, the trees flashed spontaneously into myriad fiery hues then died. White frost and ice clenched everything in its grip, and then retreated. Rainstorms hammered the grey walls with angry, watery fists, then gave up and moved on. Birds twittered every morning. The sun rose and shone brilliantly in a vain effort to brighten every living thing below, but went to bed disappointed in the evening. The stars twinkled valiantly every night, but no human eyes gazed upon them.
The castle as it slumbered became older and slowly its masonry became weaker, and more holes pocked its walls, and ivy grew to cover every surface. The shadows ran rampant and dust piled deeper, and cobwebs wavered long and listless in the perpetual gloom.
One day two travellers came on horseback to the town, and barely recognised it as a town at first, save for the odd shape of some of the bushes, and here and there a stone or hole that nature would not have cared to carve herself. Intrigued, they chattered to themselves and made notes in a book, and poked around picking up things and putting them down again. Long they studied one of the decrepit houses, with their hands on their hips, and chattered some more, and laughed, and pointed out certain features of the landscape, and seemed quite happy.
Later on, they took out their machetes and hacked through a huge, impassable thicket that that grown up to smother the castle walls. They dragged mossy logs to cross the moat with, for the drawbridge had rotted into pieces and fallen down.
Once inside the courtyard, they were delighted with their discovery of the ancient building, and eagerly explored every room and corridor. Their machetes thwacked in the dimness and echoed like lonely voices in the hallways, and their lanterns glowed on green, slimy stones. Eventually, they came to the magnificent door bound in tarnished gold and said knowingly to each other, aha! Here is where the real treasure is kept! And they shoved the door open on its rusty hinges.
They halted in astonishment at what they saw.
A beautiful princess in a yellow dress sat beside the window. The entire room around her was covered in a heavy grey velvet shroud of dust. In a large poster bed on the far side, they spied a skeleton with a dim golden crown upon his head. A rose vine blooming with flowers rich red as blood crawled through the open casement and encircled the princess and her chair like spiky, living chains.
The princess did not seem to notice any of this, nor did she turn her head to look at the newcomers at her door, but sat with her chin on her hand staring out the window with the most melancholy expression on her face that ever the two of them had seen.
Thinking the flowery prison was the cause of her distress, one of the travellers took his machete and carefully sliced away the vines and threw them out the window.
But the princess still was sad.
“What makes you unhappy so?” they asked her.
The princess related everything that had happened to her, and of the sad prince whom she had cheered with stars but had left her alone in the desolate castle.
One of the travellers clapped his hands together and rubbed them with a contemplative look in his eye. “We’ll show you a thousand beautiful things, my lady!” he said, nudging his companion. “Won’t we?”
“Er… we wi… oh! Yeah, right!” his friend replied, nodding in realisation. Then they bade her farewell and strode purposefully from the room, whispering furtively between themselves.
The princess merely sighed and resumed her sad pondering.
The travellers did not return to her chamber. Days and then weeks went slowly and dismally by, and the princess saw no sign of them.
But she did hear peculiar noises.
They were not part of the natural cycle of life, and kept intruding on her thoughts. At first it was vague rustlings and scrapings, and even sharp cracking sounds, far off. Then it was louder scrapings and thumpings, and all kinds of unidentifiable plinks and plonks and booms; then there started up a multitude of rhythmic ringing noises that went on all day and only ceased at night.
And sometimes little tremors came up through the cold stones at her feet, as though her castle were shivering. And sometimes drifts of smoke went by her window, and she sniffed wood burning, or strangely enticing cooking smells.
And she heard voices. She thought they were part of her imagination, for there had been no people save the travellers and herself in this deserted piece of wilderness for untold scores of years. But they became so loud, and so many, that they refused to be ignored: most of the time they were shouting, or laughing, though she could not make out any words.
Finally, the princess grew restless. Her growing alarm and curiosity overwhelmed her despair, and she rose, creaking and staggering from her chair. Quietly and carefully she shuffled to the door, her feet puffing trails in the dust. She opened it on groaning hinges and peered out.
Two burly men in dirty overalls strode right past her door and continued down the hallway, bearing large planks of new-cut timber on their shoulders between them. Beyond, someone else was inserting new panes of stained glass in the windows, and someone else was halfway through plastering a freshly white wall.
Bewildered, the princess ventured out of her room and crept down the other end of the corridor, and down some stairs. As she went she noticed that the floors were swept clean and the walls scrubbed free of grime, and the holes in the masonry patched with new stone. The dense vegetation that had choked the passages was gone, and sunlight streamed through clear windows. She found one door standing open with a bright haze of golden light spilling out. Looking in, hardly breathing, she saw that it was the library. All the books gleamed like new on polished shelves, with a small reading desk by the window and a plush red rug on the floor, and homely lanterns glowing like warm smiles on the walls.
Dazed, she continued through the castle and found further marvels of restoration, and there seemed to be people bustling around everywhere. They smiled and greeted her as she passed, even though she had never seen them before, and some even asked her opinion on some piece of work. Too shocked was she to offer any more than vague, mumbled replies.
Eventually, she found her way down to the Great Hall.
What she saw there was something she could barely fathom. Gone was the dust and shadows. Gone were the spider webs and moths. Gone were the bird droppings. Gone was the chilly draught that seeped through the stones with an odour of must and mould. What she saw was…
Fires burned in clean and freshly painted hearths on either side of the room, reflecting on the polished floor and long table which gleamed like mirrors. Newly woven tapestries of red and gold adorned the walls and beside them hung fine oil landscapes with the paint barely dry. The huge chandelier sparkled like the thousand stars that she had shown the prince so long ago and below it, a banquet laid on the table so incredible that her forgotten stomach awoke and leapt and grumbled like an excited bear. On the window ledges, brightly coloured pots of the rainbow flowers sat dazzling and throwing rainbows all about the room as they bathed in enormous shafts of golden-white sunshine that flooded through the windows. Throughout the room, people looked up from their tasks and delight beamed on their faces at the sight of her. They poked and tugged at the person nearest them until a buzzing excited murmur filled the hall.
The princess gaped.
And nearly jumped out of her garments as a large warm hand clapped her on the back.
It was one of the travellers from before. “A thousand good and honest folk can work a thousand wonders, eh?” he said cheerfully.
The princess realised that her face was wet and she was having trouble seeing through the flood in her eyes. She wiped at them with her hand. Then someone else came up behind her and dropped something heavy and silken on her shoulders. Surprised, she looked down to see a golden cloak lined with fur. Something slender and metallic pressed against her forehead and she reached up to touch a silver circlet that had been slipped there without her noticing. She opened her mouth to speak, but could find no words to say. All around, people beamed at her with great pride on their faces, some stained with soot or sweat or paint, but all smiling. Again she looked around at the marvellous hall and thought of the immense amount of effort it had taken to restore it from the dilapidated wreck that it had been and… all for… her? More tears dropped from her eyes, but now she was also smiling.
The bottomless well of sadness inside her filled up with warmth.
“Thank you,” she said simply and with all the gratefulness in the world.
Everyone in the room cheered and before she knew what was happening she was being led to the head of the table and seated in a grand chair. “Oh, I forgot to mention,” said the first traveller, “that me and my companion are surveyors and builders, scouting on the behest of our King. This kingdom had lain abandoned for so long that it was annexed onto our lands, and we were sent to find a suitable place for new settlement--”
“Only to find royalty still in residence!” the second man interjected with a wink and a smile.
“I… I’m not… this isn’t my…” the princess stammered, but the first traveller waved away her words. “My lady, anyone who’s been sitting in the same place for so many years has a right to call it theirs, I reckon!” He chuckled. “Any case, our King respects your right to these lands and seeks further ties with you so that both our realms may prosper--”
“He wants to know if he has your permission to rebuild the town,” the other man interrupted, rolling his eyes.
The princess blinked. “I…” The grand hall was forgotten; instead she saw before her eyes quaint houses with smoke curling from the chimneys and children playing in the streets, and vegetable gardens and bright orange lights beckoning in the windows at night. “Y-yes, of… course,” she replied breathlessly, smiling.
The crowd of working folk, who had clustered round close to overhear the conversation, erupted in another hearty cheer, and everyone began to feast, and someone brought out a silver lyre and began to play a merry tune.
A serving maid offered the princess some pale golden wine in a shining cup. Taking it, she began to take a sip and then paused in shock.
An unrecognisable woman looked back at her from the reflective liquid.
She grabbed up a silver plate that was less distorted and stared at her image on the surface. No longer was she the young girl who had wandered into the ruined town so long ago. This face showed wrinkles around the eyes and brow, and there were long strands of grey twined throughout her hair as the thorns once were…
“As regal a princess as ever there was, Your Grace,” the serving maid complemented her upon noticing her reaction, and curtsied, blushing.
The princess looked around the hall full of merriment and life that she had never believed possible, and found that she didn’t mind what she saw in any mirror. She had not sat alone in the castle sadly pondering for as long as the old prince had. She felt impossibly humbled and full of gratitude.
From behind her came a silent rush of air from the rafters and three venerable grey owls appeared on the back of her chair, and blinked luminous moon eyes now and then, and said nothing.