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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.