The White Prince

Egret Snow - The White PrinceThe White Prince
by N J Magas

December

The wind hissed through the brittle grass, as displeased to carry the chill as those who had to suffer it. The Takano River followed behind. Resistant to freezing, it snickered naked around the many shoals that broke it. Together they gave voice to the otherwise silent winter, ambiance to the egret court preparing to move to its winter palace.

The tall egret kings snapped orders from their rocky thrones and delighted to watch the lesser birds scatter at their command. First left, then right. Stand in pairs and then in threes. Order by age, and then by height and then by order of who could fetch them the most fish from the sluggish river. Cormorant acrobats darted between the white birds, spreading their black wings wide to designate the line boundaries as the kings dictated them. Before long, the entire court was a chaos of long legs and feathers until no one quite knew what they were supposed to be doing anymore.

One egret stood apart from all the noise with his robes carefully tied around his hips and one leg haughtily drawn up over the water. He was better than the confusion and the squawking; the children of the kindergarten down the river had named him White Prince, because he was the most beautiful bird of all, year after year. He held onto his title with a jealous pride. The kings were named by their greater size, the acrobats by their agility through the water, but there was only one White Prince, and his title set him apart from their plebeian foolery.

Delicately, he dipped his yellow slipper back into the cold waters, and lifted the other foot out again. It was bitterly cold, and the air did a poor job of drying him. The faster the court migrated the better.

He picked his way out of the water to stand on the bald bank. If the children were released from school before the court left they would see him there. What a lovely farewell their praises would make.

A movement on the shoal across from the bank startled him. A vertical rock lifted, cracked and settled again. No, not a rock. It was only the grey foreigner, lifting his tattered mantel over his shoulders before settling back into his beard, his eyes closed, oblivious to the calls to migrate.

The foreigner never migrated. When the weather cooled, he chose a rock and stood on it, and when the egret court returned in the spring, he was in the same place they’d left him. Perhaps he was too old to migrate, or, perhaps he had no court of his own to fly with. The White Prince didn’t know—he’d never asked, and the foreigner never supplied any information. It was likely they did not even speak the same language.

The White Prince stared at the shaggy bird until it melted back into the rest of the grey December scenery, leaving only a black cap at the very top to distinguish him as anything living.

Bored, the White Prince looked away. The squabbling of court was dying down. The kings had had their fun, but everyone was cold now, and eager to be moving. The White Prince spread his wings and was the first in the sky.

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August

In the trees the cicadas trilled the sluggish song of summer. The river, anemic after the end of the early season rains, sweated laboriously between its banks, barely wetting the rocks on its bed. There was no wind; the air was stagnant and wet and itchy with the buzz of a hundred different insects. Together the egret court moved downstream, from secreted spring nesting grounds at the base of the mountains toward the place where the northern Kamo joined the Takano to form the great Kamo River.

The White Prince loved this time of year. While he would miss the school children who fawned over his plume in the dying days of May, the summer palace was a place of vibrance, entertainment and abundant food.

During the day, hundreds of people lined the river banks, eager to admire the striking white birds posing in snaking arcs for their cameras and pencil strokes. When the sun set, the river lit up with lantern light. The people crowded riverside balconies and cafes, performers juggled fire or held acrobatic contests. Others serenaded the river itself.

The court took part in the festivities. They danced in slow circles, debuted the young birds of the season and held breathtaking feats of aerial combat. At night they lined the falls and watched the lamplight drizzle through the water. The whole summer seemed to be a non-stop celebration of life and light, and the White Prince couldn’t wait for it to start.

But the court never rushed with anything, and while the acrobats and the mandarins and the peasant mallards had flown on ahead, the egrets moved at their own pace, which was, to the White Prince’s frustration, only a few steps per hour faster than the foreigner who remained, as ever, fixed to his rock.

The journey south was a dull one, paused by frequent stops and unnecessary micromanagement. The White Prince wandered away from the petty squabbles, to pick through the grasses for any interesting detritus that had washed downstream in the rains. The discarded glass ball of a ramune bottle caught his eye, but when he bent down to pick it up, the grass shivered and broke and a Sika woman stepped out.

He’d obviously startled her—she stopped so fast in place that her fawn tumbled out into the open ahead of her. Her wide, black eyes fixed on him and nothing moved on her except for her slowly rotating ears. She was pretty, for a Sika, dressed in tawny and white satin, with delicate white arches painted on her tan face, which brought out the depth of her eyes. Yes, she would have been very pretty indeed, had be been from Sika himself.

“Well met,” he called to her when the silent standoff became uncomfortable. She started and drew herself up. She said nothing in return. She nudged her fawn ahead of her, back into the tall grasses, and disappeared soon after, with him.

The White Prince watched her go. Terribly rude of her, he thought, but then, the Sika were a strange people, more delicate and frightful than the birds themselves on most days. The White Prince unfolded his wings and took to the air.

Near dusk he turned back toward court. The cicada shrill of day and the cricket chirp of night became, for a brief time, indistinguishable. He landed as an early crescent moon on the river, his neck curved casually back, his white edges reflecting a glowing arc over the water that bled the color out of the sky.

He stepped quickly out of the cold and onto a sandy shoal. There, though he was far  from the rabble of the rest of court, he heard a quiet sobbing. He lifted his head. There was no one around that he could see.

The White Prince stepped nearer to the tall grasses on the shoal where the sound was coming from. The crickets stopped chirping and the sobbing became clearer.

“Hello?” the White Prince called. “Do I address a friend in need?” He craned his neck again, but he needn’t for long. The great heavy head of a Sultan of Sika lifted from the grass. The White Prince drew back in awe at the majesty of his splendid crown. None of his own spring plumes could compare to the towering velvet headdress of the Sultan.

“You do,” the Sultan said. “Oh how great my need is, friend. How kind of you to ask.”

The White Prince had never met a Sultan of Sika. Only their harems came to the river, to birth their children and eat the sweet grass. He made his bow so deep that he touched the water with his breast. This did not seem to displease the Sultan, who knelt on the river bank again so as not to tower so over the one whom he addressed.

“Speak your troubles, great Sultan, and if I am able, I am humbly at your service,” the White Prince said.

The Sultan touched the corner of his eye to his narrow velvet sleeve, gave a delicate sniff and began, “My new bride has vanished.”

“Vanished, you say?”

“Vanished. My other wives say she left the harem early this morning and has not been seen since. She took our son with her. I fear she’s run off to another sultanate.”

“That is terrible, isn’t it? Tell me, Sultan, what does your missing wife look like?”

The Sultan shook out his crown and thought about it. “She has hair like the leaves in October, golden and sampled with sunlight, with a tiny dot of a nose. She steps like a dancer, and speaks like a lark. Have you seen her?”

In honesty, all the brides of Sika looked the same to the White Prince, but he said, “I think I may have, yes.”

The Sultan brightened. “Have you? Oh, would you tell me where? When I find her I am going to give her such a thrashing!” The Sultan snorted into the grass and stood. The White Prince figured it was what she deserved, and didn’t comment.

“I can take you to the spot I found her, this way.” He turned and flapped his wings once, jumped back into the river. The Sultan followed, towering over him.

“Can you not move any faster?” he asked.

“Apologies, great lord, but I am but a small prince. Your size exceeds my own.”

The Sultan tilted his head to consider the justice of the White Prince’s words, and nodded.

“Yes, I see that now. Come, climb upon my back and I shall carry you.”

The White Prince was incredulous. “Sultan, are you certain?”

“There is nothing for it. The return of my wife is worth more than my pride just now. Besides, the light is dim. No one will see us.”

There was truth in that, and with a flap the White Prince settled himself into the lowered back of the Sultan and hung on awkwardly as the great king advanced.

“You know, you are heavy for such a small prince.”

“It is my robes. They have many layers,” the White Prince said, and spread one of his wings to show the many beautiful rows of feather there.

“Ah. Have you considered instead a single layer? I find my own raiment to be quite light and comfortable.”

The White Prince thought about what it might be like to live with only a single fine layer over his skin. “I think I would feel rather naked if I stripped even a single layer, but if I am cumbersome, I will fly.”

“No, you sit. It is getting dark and soon I won’t be able to see you.”

The White Prince didn’t know how anyone could miss something as white as him, even on the darkest of nights, but he said nothing until they came upon the spot he had seen the bride and her fawn.

“Here, Sultan, is where I saw them.”

The Sultan bowed his head, upsetting the White Prince from his seat, and inspected the ground.

“Yes, they were here, but which way did they go?” he asked in dismay.

“I know the direction, but not the place. Perhaps if I search ahead by air, I might find them?”

“Yes, do that,” the Sultan replied. He turned his head north and pawed on the ground.

The White Prince took to the air. He didn’t often fly at night, but his vision was meant for piercing water and so the darkness was not so greatly challenging. It helped that he knew beforehand what direction she had taken. She would likely stick near to the shoal, to keep her fawn hidden in the grass. It would make finding her exact location more difficult, but he knew the general area in which to look.

It did not take long to find her. She and her fawn were curled in an arching cave of river reeds, tucked out of sight. He might have missed them completely, had he not spotted the altogether too early colors of fall bunched in the grasses. Autumn leaves indeed.

He didn’t bother to land. He wheeled back in the air and returned to the waiting Sultan.

“Well?” that worthy asked when the White Prince had landed. “Did you find her?”

“I did, lord. This way, quietly, so that she does not scare.” He skipped forward on the pebbles of the river and took flight again, flying in low circles over the head of the Sultan so that he could follow easily. They reached the bride and her fawn just after the sun had sunk completely behind the western mountains.

“Ellalia!” the Sultan thundered. His bride sat up with a start.

“My lord,” she answered. Her ears twitched from side to side in small, rapid jerks. The White Prince would have expected her to have been more obviously frightened, having run away from her husband and king. His wrath most assuredly would fall hard upon her.

“I’ll have an explanation for this affront, Ellalia. Why have you run away with my child?”

“Run, my lord? I ran nowhere. I came down to the river to eat and got lost.”

“Lost?” asked the White Prince. “The river only runs one way.”

“Yes, but it forks, and both forks look very much the same,” she explained. The White Prince didn’t think so, but then again, he was not a Sika. He had an aerial view. “Why did you not ask for directions when I called to you this morning?” he asked.

“Who called to me this morning? I don’t recall ever having met you.”

It dawned on the White Prince suddenly, and he turned to the Sultan. “She is rather simple, isn’t she?”

“Aren’t they all?” the Sultan answered. The White Prince didn’t think his own kind were simple, but he said nothing.

“Small prince, you have done me a great service. I should like to reward you.”

There wasn’t any reward that the White Prince would like to have but to sleep just then, as it was quite dark. He dipped his head to the water and replied, “Sultan, I need nothing from you, It was my pleasure to help.”

The Sultan bowed in return. “Very well. Perhaps one day you will be in need. It would be my pleasure then, to help you.”

“That is kind of you,” said the White Prince to the back of the Sultan, who led his family away into the chirping of the night.

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October

The north was on fire with momiji and autumn fog where the mountain shed its heat generously. The river however, clung to its warmth with the greed of a mallard after every last tender green thing. The wind above was smokey, and curled at the edges where the coming chill nipped it in the back.

The White Prince stood comfortably in the water with his robes drawn up to his neck. He already missed the summer.

The court would move again soon. The fish had disappeared into deeper, darker pools to wait out the cold weather. The depletion not only made life difficult for the egrets, but it brought the kite hunters further north in search of food.

He saw them more frequently now and it made him rather uneasy. If the egrets owned the river, then the hunters owned the sky. They were impressive to watch as they manipulated the wind, tugging drafts and arcing, diving, spiraling through the air. They had no match for agility, nor for cruelty. The White Prince had seen, two seasons ago, a brown cloaked hunter dive from the sky onto the the back of a duckling. The poor thing had barely enough time to throw up a call of alarm before the hunter had wrested its head from its tender young neck. The sight had left a lasting impression. Even though a prince of his size was of little interest to a kite, the White Prince didn’t trust them. He moved further upstream whenever he saw one in the autumn months. There were, thankfully, none in the sky above him now and he could rest in peace.

The grass beside him parted. A slender black shadow sliced between the blades, his belly to the ground, his head fearfully low. The White Prince looked at him in askance.

“Why do you go so quickly? Stay, chat a while,” he said, pleasant in spirit and tone. The black shadow froze. He flicked out his tongue nervously. He eyed the White Prince with suspicion. The White Prince cocked his head to the side, but couldn’t see anything in particular that caused him alarm. “What is it?” he asked.

“Quiet, you fool!” the shadow hissed.

“Fool?” said the White Prince, taken aback. “That is exceptionally rude of you.”

“I said quiet!” The shadow drew himself into a very tightly coiled rope, close to the ground. “Do you not see that nasty kite in the sky? He has been following me for days!”

“A kite?” The White Prince asked, and stretched his neck up to see. Nothing unusual flew in the air that morning. A handful of sparrows argued noisomely over the bushes, but up in the sky there was nothing but cloud. If the hunters were flying nearby, they were too high for him to spot. “Can he truly see you from such a great distance? I don’t see anything at all, up there.”

“Praises be to the god of legless things,” the shadow said, and drew himself up into a curious vertical line to look behind him. “You’re right, he’s quite gone now.” He sank back down to the ground. “Thank you, sir.” The shadow put his head down to the gravel and stretched out as if to leave in a hurry, but paused and faced the White Prince again. “You ought to be careful, you know. Those kites will shank anything. Even dogs. Even humans.”

The White Prince didn’t think that was very likely, but it was pointless to argue. The shadow was already disappearing into the grass, leaving the White Prince very much alone again.

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December

The wind blew a boundary line between the sky and the horizon. White on white, without the shuttling of dry leaves between them, no one would be able to tell where one ended and the other began. The river bubbled along over its pebbles and occasionally spat at the birds gathered in its shallows. There was so little entertainment in the winter, and soon, even the egrets would be gone.

But as much as the river slurped and sighed in boredom, it was a particularly heated season in the court. Fights broke out frequently among the kings, and the squabbles soon trickled down the ranks until even the princes were scuffling. Feathers were pulled, cheeks were slapped. One prince was even poked in the eye.

For his part, the White Prince wanted to be as far away from the brawl as possible. If he broke any feathers now it was unlikely he’d recover them fully before spring, when the children would return to see their favorite bird. He couldn’t risk getting into a fight.
He’d flown downstream to avoid them altogether, past the foreigner and the kindergarten, just to the boundaries of the Takano River itself. There he settled on a pile of leaf litter to wait out the fighting. The litter, however, wasn’t as solid as he’d first thought. It exploded under him and sent him stumbling back to regain his footing.

“What—”

“Stop! Don’t eat me,” said a leaf.

“I beg your pardon? I don’t eat leaves. Certainly not ones that talk.”

“Not a leaf. Not at all. No, no, no.”

The White Prince bent his neck. Sure enough, the leaf was not a leaf, but a little grey peddler. It was all curled up under its fur coat, enormous round ears like two perfect river pebbles, and eyes as small and black as currents.

“Yes, it seems that you are not a leaf. But I won’t eat you all the same.”

“You won’t?” asked the peddler, stroking his whiskers nervously. He had very long whiskers.

“No, you don’t look very tasty, or filling, but you’re liable to be stepped on, if you cover yourself in leaves that way.”

The peddler looked at the mess of dry leaves around him and moaned.

“Oh, he’ll find me for sure, now,” he cried. He picked up the bits of leaf in his tiny hands and turned them this way and that but they were so torn that he could do nothing with them.

“Yes, yes, for surely sure.”

“Perhaps I could help you?”

The peddler shook his head. “No time. No time at all. I’m done for.”

“Surely it’s not all so bleak. Perhaps in those trees over there—”

“No time! No time!” the peddler shrieked. “He’ll see me. I’ll have to jump. Mouse overboard! Into the drink I go!” And the little grey peddler jumped into the river without so much as a word of good-bye.

“What an excitable little fellow,” the White Prince said, and watched the splay of ripples left behind disappear.

Overhead, a shadow descended. A kite landed with a skip on a rock just off the shore. He threw back his striped cloak and lowered his head to a conspiratory angle.

“Have you seen my quarry?” he asked.

The White Prince took a half step back. He didn’t like the way the hunter leaned toward him, shoulders bunched, as if hoarding power for a tackle. “I have seen a peddler, not long ago, but he is gone now.”

“Which way did he go?” asked the hunter, who tilted his head to listen. Sharp, golden eyes searched the grass, but there was nothing there but wind.

“Into the water. I see him no more.”

“The water, you say? Into the water?” The hunter parted his impossibly sharp beak and made a sound like nails on slate. The White Prince realized with horror that he was laughing. “He says, ‘into the water’.” The hunter threw up his head and chortled to the sky before suddenly turning one eye hard on the White Prince.

“Mice don’t swim,” he said curtly.

“I allow that is a possible truth, however I saw him jump into the river myself.” That stare was unnerving. The hunter didn’t blink. He didn’t move in sweeps and arcs. When he turned his head it simply pivoted on his neck and stopped on spot. He rotated his head this way for a time, staring at the White Prince with one eye, and then the other.

“Impossible. You have him hidden,” the hunter snapped.

“Hidden? I hardly—”

“You mean to keep him all for yourself!” The hunter danced from foot to foot, spreading his cloak out behind him.

“For myself? Why should I want with a peddler? You are mistaken.” The White Prince drew his head up in indignation, immediately thought the better of it and retracted his neck back between his shoulders.

“For yourself, you stranger! You liar! For yourself! I’ll teach you to thieve from another’s territory!” The hunter did a little skip forward and then launched himself at the White Prince’s face. In alarm, the White Prince drew up his wing and stumbled backwards. He avoided a throttling, but the hunter’s knives caught his wing at the second joint and ripped through feather and flesh, all the way to the bone.

In a blinding cloud of pain the White Prince beat his wings to dislodge the hunter. “Oh, off! Oh, get off! Beast! Murderer!” he cried and kicked up his legs to thrash the hunter in the chest. The hunter shrieked a war cry and bit the prince’s leg with such force the White Prince thought the bone might snap in two. In desperation he swiveled his head on his long white neck and with the precision of a natural fisherman, he snapped his beak forward and put out the hunter’s eye.

The hunter shrieked and thrashed his wings about with such force the White Prince feared he might go deaf. They stumbled and tumbled over the river bank several paces, tangled in leg and feather until at last the hunter broke free and took to the sky screaming, “Assault, assault! Villainy and assault!”

The White Prince lay battered and winded on his side. Pain throbbed through his wing and his leg, aching through his breast bone as he struggled to right himself. When he put his weight on his injured leg, he collapsed to the ground again. The limb trembled and would not support him. With his remaining limbs, he pushed himself up slowly and stood—shaking—on one leg.

“Oh, oh, what shall I do?” he sobbed gently. He turned his head this way and that, but saw no one—friend or foe. He was entirely alone. “Oh, what shall I do?” Tentatively he touched his injured leg to the ground, but it hurt so terribly that he dare not put any more weigh on it. He tucked it into his robes instead and drew his head in as well, to cry quietly to himself as his blood drew a ragged red river through his royal white pride.

He woke near dusk to the sound of the peasants quacking out laughter from their roosts on the river.

“The cats, the cats, the cats come, Prince. What shall you do, proud one, when the cats come for your neck?”

The White Prince tucked his head further into his robes and shook—with pain, with fear, with chill. How cruel the world was to have done this to him, he who had never done anyone any harm? To have his life ended, crippled and torn to pieces at the hands of bandits and murderers—oh! It was not the proper, poetic end for a prince. His body ought to lay in the river, surrounded by the petals of spring, mourned in summer moonlight, entombed in winter frost; to be forever white, forever beautiful in the cold, cruel world. That was how a prince ought to die. Yet here he stood, ravaged and bloody, at the mercy of savages. It was too much to bear. Would that they ended him quickly, so he would not have to think about it any more.

“My friend, what luck to find you in such a state,” said someone quite near to him.

“Oh, be done with me quickly!” the White Prince begged.

“Be done with you? I have only just found you again.”

The White Prince lifted his head. The Sika Sultan stood over him, shaggy in his winter vestments, his crown thick and velvety.

“You!” cried the White Prince.

“I,” replied the Sultan.

“Why would you take pleasure in my sorrows, my immanent death, you who I thought was a friend?” It was wretched enough that the White Prince thought he might cry again, but he had no energy for it.

The Sultan smiled. “I take pleasure in the ability to repay one favor with another. No friend of mine will die cold and alone out here. Truly, no friend of mine will die at all, so long as I have a breath to help. Come, come, climb up, I will take you back up river to your court.”

The White Prince lifted his head mournfully. “Would that I could, friend, but I can stand on but one leg. It is an impossibility for me to walk even a few steps. I cannot climb anywhere.”

“Well,” said the Sultan. “Perhaps you could lie in my antlers. Here.” He lowered his nose to the ground, so that his great crown made a very comfortable looking nest for the White Prince to climb into.

He hesitated. It would be terribly indignant, rolling that way. His legs, for certain would be stuck up in the air, and the thought of shimmying around on his back like some shaggy crow, held high where anyone could see him—it was an image that withered what was left of his pride. Surely there was another way.

“The cats come, the cats come to pick at royal bones!” the peasants sang from the river, awkward and out of tune.

That settled it.

“Would you come a bit closer?” the White Prince asked his kingly friend. The Sultan obliged, and despondently, the White Prince rolled in an awkward, painful lump into the sultan’s crown.

“There you are,” the Sultan said. In the river, the ducks fairly fell off their roosts in laughter at the sight. The White Prince closed his eyes and pretended he was dead.

It was a shame and everyone knew it. The entire egret court gathered around him, kings and queens on one side, princes and princesses on the other. He shivered in the water, where he stood on one foot. He could not pull his head any deeper into his torn and bloody mantel. He was a mess, a cripple. He might never fly again. He certainly would not migrate with the rest of court this season, and they all knew what that meant.

“We can’t take him with us.” He heard from within the crowd.

“Even if he heals enough to make it into the air, he’s going to slow us down.”

“He’ll make easy targets out of us all.”

“What if he bleeds on my feathers?”

“He can’t go.”

“He must stay.”

“It is a shame.”

“But if any of us must die, let it be him.”

The White Prince closed his black eyes and hid his tears. What terrible things they said about him, those who he loved and whom he’d thought loved him. He knew just as well as anyone else that he couldn’t fly, that migration for him would be impossible, that he would, in all likelihood, die of exposure out here on the river, but did they have to be so cruel about it? So blunt?

Murmurs of agreement as to his decided fate floated through the court. The kings began to shift nervously. They didn’t care to make such weighty decisions. They gathered the glory of their post, the choice breeding grounds, and the coos of delight from the children when they walked on their majestic legs, heads help proudly aloft. They led the winter and spring migrations, took the first and best pick of fish in the river, and lorded over all the other birds around them, but faced with a true, hard choice, and they crumbled under indecision and flighty sensibilities. Given this much unanimous agreement from the rest of court, it was only a matter of time before they agreed with popular opinion.

The White Prince’s fate was sealed. There was truly no one who cared whether he lived or died.

“I will look after him.”

The court fell silent. Every head turned toward the bearded foreigner, who was as still and stoic as ever before. If the voice hadn’t been so utterly alien, so raw and hoarse from disuse, the White Prince wouldn’t have thought he’d spoken at all.

“Er, what was that?” The nearest king asked, his neck extended to full height, as if the additional altitude would help him uncover the mystery of the foreigner and his proposal. It made him look like a frightened, gangly crane, but the White Prince was in no mood to laugh.

“I will care for him.” The foreigner lifted his head. The plume on his black cap bobbed behind him as he unfolded himself. His robes, which had seemed drab and bleached in his typical huddled stance were surprisingly a deep royal blue when he stretched out. Even his beard was a great deal more silky and imperial when it wasn’t bundled in a knot under his chin.

The court was as impressed as the White Prince. Even the king withdrew his neck in new humility. All these years they’d treated the foreigner like a homeless squatter among them, never knowing they were being dismissive of one who was at least as grand as any one of their own court. There was no doubt among them that the foreigner was royalty in his own right.

The foreign king stepped off his rock and bobbed without hurry toward the gathered court. He walked as if he were a part of the river itself—a vertical grey-blue tributary that arched gracefully skyward.

He was a humbling figure to behold. The egrets of court lived on the river, flashy and proud in their whiteness that defied the will of nature. This foreigner was the river. He needed no compliments to prove his majesty. He was the roll of water over pebbles, the seasonal rains, the spring spawns. As the Great Blue Lord stopped beside the White Prince, the entire court understood the simple truth: they were but a fief in his kingdom.

“I do not migrate,” the Great Blue Lord spoke at last. “The reeds around my rock are warm and safe. I will care for the wounded prince, and see to his safety.”

The murmurs of court which had moments before been cold and judgmental were now curious, even envious. The first time the Great Blue Lord had spoken to any of them, it was to take a protégé, and a crippled one no less. Eyes turned toward the White Prince, bird by bird awaiting his answer.

What choice did he have? He swept his gaze over the court, over birds he’d spent his life with. They looked anxiously back at him. None of them wanted him with them anymore, yet neither did any one of them want the responsibility of saying so. He was an outcast among them. Stripped of rank, of prestige, of kinship, he was alone in the world. As alone as the Grey Blue Lord who had always been with them. The White Prince turned, in careful hops on one leg to the Great Blue Lord and tipped himself forward.

“I am, gratefully, at your service,” he said at last. If the Great Blue Lord was impressed, he didn’t show it. He spread his wings and covered the White Prince with one royal blue sleeve and resumed his sentry on the White Prince’s own humble rock.

When it was finally time for the court to move to its winter palace, many did not even look back at the two figures standing so still they might have been one.

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April

The Takano River trickled with a bouncing excitement down from the mountain, pulling pink petals into swirling eddies of crystal clear water. The school children raced each other down the street to the river bank, each anxious to be the first to see the new spring plume on their favorite bird.

The egret court was as lively as ever. The acrobats held their black wings open for applause after a stirring underwater performance; the mandarins held their heads together, whispering in quiet conspiracy while the peasants quibbled that they should speak louder; the kings kept order with the majesty of their presence, perched upon the shallow falls; and the princes stepped through the water below them, with robes pulled up to their hips, delicately toeing the river bed and showing off their beautiful new feathers for the school children.

“There, there he is, I see him!” said one child.

“No, it’s not. He always has a four feather plume.”

“Well, what about that one there?”

“No, he has red eyes. The prince has blue eyes.”

“But where is he, then?”

The children trotted down the river examining each white bird, but their favorite prince was not among them.

Ahead of them, the first school bell chimed impatiently. With heavy hearts they jogged down the path, school bags thumping on their backs. When one boy happened to drop his lunch box down the gently sloping side of the river bank, he spied in the reeds on the shoal a princely white figure standing statuesque beside a grey-blue vagabond.

“There he is!” he cried, pointing for the others looking down from above. They turned their eyes and squinted. There indeed stood a white bird with four majestic plumes and dazzling azure eyes, but his left wing sagged below the other, and he stood somewhat lopsided on a crimped leg, leaning half his weight on the shaggy grey bird beside him.

“Oh, that’s no prince,” said a child from above. Another threw a pebble down on the one who had pointed out the crippled bird.

“Come on, we’re going to be late.”

The children raced off. The boy picked up his lunch box from the grass and scuttled back up the slope after them. He cast a final look back at the two birds perched on the stone. He was sure it was the same bird; from the proud way it held its head to the delicate way it curled its toes, it was identical. Only its lame limbs set it apart.

“I guess it’s not him after all,” the boy said finally, and ran after his classmates.

The wind sighed in the long grass. The river burped and giggled.

The White Prince said nothing at all.

END

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Home for the Holidays

 

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Home for the Holidays
N J Magas

All her neighbors were already in the streets, but Mariko was still pacing in front of her window, watching their lantern lit outlines disappear into the darkness. Laughter and light conversation trailed after them as the crowds thinned and finally left the cobbled road deserted. Mariko let the curtain fall away from her hand and tapped her fingers against the sill impatiently.

“Hurry up Tetsuyo! Everyone is leaving!”

“Now hold on, I can’t find my hat.”

Oh, just leave it.

“It’s over by the window, next to the lilies.” Mariko poked her head out the door. Stragglers who trickled out of their homes hurried to catch up with the crowd and were quickly lost from sight. If Mariko and her husband tallied any longer, there wouldn’t be a seat for them on the boat.

“I looked there. It’s not—Oh, there it is. Now how did that happen?”

“Do hurry. They’ll be loading soon. I don’t want to miss the launch.”

“We won’t miss it. They won’t leave until they’ve got everyone on board.” Chuckling, Tetsuyo tugged on his faded baseball cap and joined her at her side. He touched his dry lips to her cheek and for a moment, Mariko’s anxieties calmed. Sixty-seven years together, unbroken except for that one period of seven months when Tetsuyo had to leave, and couldn’t bring Mariko with him. She couldn’t have asked for a better husband or a more perfect existence.

“You look lovely,” Tetsuyo said, his compliment, as usual, timeless. It slipped through the years they’d been married to when they first met, under a multicolored night sky exploding with vivid beauty and vitality.

“And you look ridiculous; a cap with a yukata.”

“But if I don’t wear my cap, how will they recognize me?”

“How indeed?” she answered, and patted Tetsuyo’s head on the bald spot the cap had dutifully hidden for thirty years. “Shall we go?”

He kissed her cheek again. “Yes, we can go.”

daimonji

There were many people on the boat, but it wasn’t crowded. However many got on, space appeared to accommodate more. A crowd parted to reveal seats that hadn’t been discovered, or a cabin door opened to an empty lounge. They bumped elbows with a few of their neighbors, but everyone ended up with their own place to sit or stand as to their pleasure.

They cast off in darkness so deep that even the lights of their boat couldn’t illuminate more than a foot of water around them. The air and the water were still. There was no moon to cast a reflection. The only thing Mariko could see beyond the boat were the vague faces of its passengers reflected by lamplight on the water. Insubstantial images of the people they represented smiled and winked up at her in the gentle waves. They were going home.

Their boat slid along on the water silently. The occasional slap of black water against the side of the deep hull splashed clear, cool droplets onto Mariko’s sleeve where they glittered on the navy fabric.

“I’m glad you’re here with me,” Tetsuyo said, and leaned over the railing to peer into the darkness.

Mariko pressed a chuckle between her lips and tapped the broad fan of her uchiwa against her chin. “I couldn’t let you come back on your own. How lonely that would have been.”

“Very lonely, surely.” He looked up and carefully took the uchiwa from her fingers. “You still have this?”

“Of course I do. Sana made it for me. It’s seen a bit of wear, for sure,” she drew her finger over the tiny rip in the paper between two of the bamboo supports, “but it still works, see?” Plucking it back into her possession she flicked the handle and paddled a gentle breeze against Tetsuyo’s face. It fluttered in the white wisps of his hair until she set the fan down again.

“She’ll be in middle school now, won’t she?”

“Sana?”

“Yes.” Tetsuyo turned his eyes back out into the darkness. He’d been gone longer than Mariko. He missed the family that much more.

“Mmhmm. The graduation was beautiful, even with Taiki running around, singing and making a nuisance of himself.” She shook her head. The boy was growing fast. His energy exceeded what could be contained in one five year-old body. Sana had been mortified, but Tetsuyo had his father’s crooked grin and Mariko couldn’t be upset.

“She’ll be dancing this year?”

“They both will.”

“Did you leave her that red chrysanthemum yukata?”

“Of course.” They fell into a meaningful silence, the kind that had been frequent in the months before Testuyo left, and still filled their quiet time with unspoken communication only the two of them understood. It was nice to know he hadn’t changed while they’d been apart. Though she’d never admit it to him, it had been something she’d been afraid of, after he left.

Tetsuyo’s warm hand passed over her own and cupped it. His fingers fell between hers and settled on the torn uchiwa beneath them. Indeed it would have been terribly lonely to make this journey on one’s own. The darkness around them was too cold and impassive and the endlessness of it ate away at the edges of the comfort Tetsuyo offered. It was a great relief, then, when the first vague lights warmed the distant horizon in front of them.

“Oh, Tetsuyo, look, the lanterns.”

The glow gradually dissolved into hundreds of tiny pinpricks of light that swirled in little clusters, like fireflies. These broke apart further as they approached until she could make out each individual lantern. Their boat changed course to follow the source of the lights, and soon they were surrounded by the luminous rafts. Each floating lantern had a name written on it, so many lanterns and so many names that it was impossible that theirs weren’t floating out there around them somewhere.

As the boat gently sliced through the water, the lanterns drifted away, creating a boulevard on either side of them. Their path home was marked in light.

Mariko tilted her head down onto Tetsuyo’s shoulder and watched as the glow on the horizon lightened into the artificial dawn of the city nightscape on the waterfront.

“We’re home,” she whispered, and felt Tetsuyo’s hand squeeze her own.

The boat slid onto the shore without fanfare. It was to be expected; everybody would be in the streets and at the temples, watching the odori and admiring the colorful yukata of the dancers. They didn’t need a greeting anyway. They all knew where they were going. Already the music of the festival floated through the air, guiding them the rest of the way.

“Hurry, Tetsuyo. We’ll miss the children dancing!” Mariko walked down the street as fast as her yukata would allow. It had been a long time since she felt this young, this light, and this happy. In her excitement, she quickly lost Tetsuyo in the crowd. No matter, they were going to the same place. They would meet up again soon.

She skipped swiftly through the night. Each corner yielded another festival. Lanterns strung up in spider silk over temple grounds cast the streets in a welcoming orange glow. The warmth of the August day lingered and suspended festival smells in the air: fried noodles and chicken skewers, octopus dumplings and sweet fried red-bean cakes. They were a teasing temptation after so long.

“Tasty chocolate bananas, only two hundred yen!”

“Treat your lady to shaved ice tonight. We’ve got ten different flavors!”

But there would be time enough for eating later, with her family. Akiko would most certainly be making inari and tamago-yaki and a lovely summer vegetable sampler. She was a superb cook and Mariko hadn’t minded swapping recipes with her, when they lived together.

Children adorable in their miniature yukata ran around her, slapping at each other with their uchiwa, or racing to be the first to discover the cotton candy vender. Their parents meandered nearby, watchful in a casual way, allowing the children to enjoy the colorful, free atmosphere of the events. Mariko smiled and saw her own children in her memory’s eye. She saw the pitcher of cold barely tea tumble from the vender’s stall and crash to the ground before her son’s terrified, apologetic tears momentarily broke the festive mood and brought revelers crowding around for a look at the miniature disaster. How fast time passed. Before she’d blinked her Matsuo was an adult, with children of his own and yet she could still see the ghost of his child-self, red cheeks wet with tears only a mother could hug away.

Quickly now, they were waiting for her.

The night sky suddenly bloomed with color and stopped her on a stone bridge over a lazy canal. A gentle rain of sparks illuminated couples who gathered near the stream to watch.

Young women in bright yukata with flowers in their hair leaned against their boyfriends or husbands clothed in more subdued colors. Under the light of the fireworks however, they all glowed the same vibrant reds and greens and golds. Two buds on a single stalk, pairs who stood together watching the drizzling light.

“Tetsuyo,” she whispered softly, all at once very aware that she’d lost him. Under the booms and pops of the fireworks no one heard her. What if she never found him again? Seven months without him was hard enough, but an eternity without his patient smile and old, tender hands?

She flicked her uchiwa with quick, frantic strokes as she scanned the area for his flat grey cap. The crowds had picked up around her and everyone jostled together on the bridge for the best view of the evening’s fireworks. “Tetsuyo,” she called, louder, but her voice was swallowed up by the explosions above her.

Holding her arms against her chest she pushed her way through the throng, back the way she came. No one noticed. In fact, every gap she tried to squeeze through quickly closed up with another body. “Please, I have to find Tetsuyo. Please let me through.” But the wall of people grew denser, and seemed to grow higher as well. She’d never been a tall woman, but these were surely giants. They pushed her back and back until her thighs pressed against the stone railing of the bridge. She leaned over against the shoves, but there was nowhere else for her to go. Someone jostled her shoulder and nearly sent her over the edge. She held on tightly, but her grip wouldn’t hold forever.

“Please… Tetsuyo.”

“Mariko, down here.”

She turned her head carefully to look down over the railing. There stood her husband, his feet submerged in the trickling stream, his arms crossed over his chest, grinning up at her like he had no troubles in the world.

“Oh, Tetsuyo, there you are! I thought I’d never find you. I can’t get off this bridge.”

“Come on down here, I’ll help you,” he said, and raised his arms to do just that.

“But the water. It’ll ruin my yukata.”

“It’ll be all right,” he answered, and at once she knew that it would be. His presence silenced the booms and bursts above her and made all the pressing bodies disappear. She leaned over the rail and gripped his upper arms. He did the same with her, and lifted her down as though they were fifty years younger.

Her feet touched the water without a splash, but she wouldn’t have noticed it anyway. Tetsuyo held her arms a moment longer before dropping his hands and smiling in a way that made her feel the ghost of his touch as strong as if he still held her.

“I don’t want to be alone again,” she said.

He shook his head. “You won’t have to be.”

daimonji

They reached Kyoto just before eight at night, walking side by side through the quiet streets. The old capital was subdued and dignified, even during the festival. They made their way without hassle through the warmly lit city. Music in the traditional style floated lazily from speakers through the warm night and before long Mariko and Tetsuyo had come upon a large gathering of people.

“Oh, Tetsuyo, can you see her? Can you see Sana?”

“No, not yet, let’s get closer.”

They passed easily through the crowds to the inner ring of spectators. Before them, a two-storied platform had been erected in the centre of a wide school grounds. Lanterns were strung from the top of the platform across to posts, which ringed the gravel field. The music ground out of the speakers at the top of the platform, and to its static recording the locals danced.

Some were dressed in colorful yukata, while others were in their street clothes. They danced both with natural, practiced grace and awkward, out of step jerks, each for the love of the music and of their community.

They moved like the late summer Kamo, gliding without hurry around the platform in three rings. Five steps forward and two steps back, swinging their arms and clapping in time to the music. Children giggled as they mimicked their elders, enjoying the change of pace in the August night.

When Sana and Taiki finally came into view, Mariko’s heart swelled with pride. Sana had grown another five centimeters at least since she’d last seen her, and in the red chrysanthemum yukata, she made the perfect image of young adulthood. She’d complimented her grandmother’s gift with a sunflower yellow obi, red camellias and a gentle rain of white wisteria in her hair. Her every step and clap was perfectly timed with such a look of serious concentration that it might be mistaken that she didn’t actually care for the dance. Mariko knew better. Sana had loved dance since she was very young, and the bon-odori was a special favorite of hers.

Taiki, on the other hand, seemed to want to do little else than make the most noise he could, stomping when he should had been stepping, and noisily slapping two uchiwa together when everyone else clapped politely to the people at the center of the platform.

I didn’t matter. He was smiling, as were his parents dancing behind them, and Mariko found herself smiling as well.

“Tetsuyo, I want to dance. Will you dance with me?”

“Of course.”

Mariko slipped into the line behind her son with Tetsuyo at her side, and positioning her feet, she stepped in time with the crowd, sashaying forward and then back, disturbing not a single grain of sand as she moved. How nice it was to be with the family again.

daimonji

She went home with her son that night. Tetsuyo fell asleep beside her, but he’d always been the sleepy type in cars. She wanted to tell Sana how proud she was of her dancing, but it might embarrass the girl, so she kept her compliments to herself. Instead, she smiled quietly and listened to the chatter of her grandchildren, bringing herself up to date on the family news and gossip around town. Taiki wanted to play soccer, and her son thought it was a good idea. Akiko worried that he might get hurt, but Matsuo pointed out that getting hurt was part of being a boy. Mariko agreed. Skinned knees had never hurt Matsuo any.

That night, as predicted, Akiko laid out a large spread. The children were ravenous from the day’s excitement and were eager to dive into the savory steamed dumplings and fried eggplant. Taiki was four bites into his vegetables before Akiko caught him.

“Taiki! Don’t be rude. Here, give this to your grandparents first,” she said, and passed him a bowl of rice.

“Of course,” he answered, as full of energy as ever. Mariko chuckled and watched him carry the bowl past her in both hands, with an air of importance. He knelt before the family shrine and carefully laid the bowl between the offerings of grapes and strawberries and mangoes. Pressing his hands together in front of his face he jerked a bow forward.

“Please enjoy it, Grandma and Grandpa,” he said.

“We will, Taiki,” Mariko answered but of course, he didn’t hear her.

daimonji

The next three days passed quickly. She picnicked with Matsuo and Akiko, joined the family in prayer at her memorial, followed Taiki as he hunted for cicadas and oversaw Sana in her studies. Before she knew it, it was Okuribi and time to return from where they’d come.

Mariko and Tetsuyo went together with Matsuo and the children to the place where the Kamo forked. The crowd was tremendous and there weren’t a lot of places left to sit, so the children took turns standing and sitting in their parents’ laps.

As the sky began to darken, Mariko said her unheard goodbyes for the year. She kissed her grandchildren on the forehead and watched their smiles glow.

“You’re doing fine, all of you,” she whispered, and then Tetsuyo took her hand. Across the river, the mountains began to catch light. One by one the fire spread in elegant characters to light their way back. First dai, the large, then the supreme truth myo-ho. When the ship lit up on Mt. Myoken, Mariko and Tetsuyo boarded it hand in hand with all the other spirits of the deceased. They leaned over the lantern lit edge and waved from afar to their families as they cast off.

They passed the second dai in the west and then under the toriigata spirit gate and into darkness once more. A few lanterns remained bobbing on the still black waters but the obon—the return of the spirits—had finished.

Mariko leaned her head on Tetsuyo’s shoulder and smiled.

“Next year I’m going to find a way to show Taiki how to dance.”

 

END

The Tower by N J Magas

The Tower TarotDeniz’s hands gripped her brother’s elbow, but his strength was greater than hers and he carried on forward, despite her weight and will in the opposite direction.

“Please, Alp, reconsider. This isn’t wise.”

“You worry needlessly,” he replied with the laugh in his voice that Deniz hadn’t appreciated since they were small children. “It’s a petition, not a revolution.”

“But you know how the Serdar deals with threats. He’ll have you silenced for sure!”

“Me, Deniz? The Serdar and I have been long been friends. We cut through the mercenaries of Gelenek and the tribesmen of Karma to carve out a life here. We shared a common goal for Fert. Once.” His voice trailed as the Tower’s sagging imperial dome broke into view, dominating the flat, awkwardly asymmetrical construction of the streets below. The heavy gold finial slouched to the east over the marble parapets that had been known to slide free in great slabs. One block had even crushed a man, once. The sight of it terrified Deniz, but Alp had never shared her common sense.

“Alp please, think of what happened to Kųs. All he did was question the Serdar’s leadership and the next thing you know the bagum surrounded him in the streets, beat him senseless, and burnt down his shop.”

“I do think of Kųs. And all the others the Serdar has sent his secret police after. But as long as there’s still someone left to raise a voice for the people—“

“They cut out his tongue, Alp.”

“—there is still a chance to speak as reasonable men.” Continue reading

Sixteen Seconds by N J Magas

Spontaneous_Combustion_(843849383)It was a day in March.

The sky was a flat, unimaginative northwest gray. Rain had been pouring for most of the afternoon while Charlotte ran her errands and then, just to be cheeky, wound down to a drizzle and finally stopped when she at last took shelter in the appointed cafe. Why couldn’t the month make up its damn mind whether it wanted to be spring or winter? It was hailing that morning for chrissake and it would be another two months before sunny weather became reliable. March was just a dismal reminder that pleasant weather was still a long way off. It should stop pretending to be spring, already.

The dark roast face in Charlotte’s coffee glowered sourly up at her as she stared into her cup. It was too expensive, too bitter and too hot to drink. She stirred in another packet of honey with nothing else to do. Aidan was late again, surprise surprise.

In her purse her phone buzzed. For a full minute she ignored it, blowing softly on the surface of her coffee, peeling away the heat one layer at a time in between each muffled vibration. Eventually, it gave up and stilled. She waited another minute before bringing her paper cup to her lips, scalding them again. She couldn’t have one victory — not one single victory today! Soaked to her skin by the rain, abandoned by Aidan, pestered by her phone, and burned by the one comfort she could usually count on. She clicked her tongue angrily and thrust her hand into her purse for her phone. Might as well just accept things as there were today. Continue reading