In the land of his own making, the one that abided in his heart and his head, he was a bard. In truth, he was a rice man, one of the best in Trilenkary, the kingdom of his birth. And he had earned the chance to sell his wares to the royals themselves. There was to be a feast. The celebration would honor a special guest who was visiting the royal capitol, but according to rumor, the five princes would likely usurp the event and the feast would honor them instead.
The rice man was to deliver twelve bags of rice to the royal kitchens. But his true aim was what he meant to do after the rice was delivered. For he meant to pack his fiddle and some songs he had composed so that he might try his hand at playing in the streets of the royal city, like the minstrels and troubadours who played at feasts and celebrations. And so, on the blustery morning of the feast, he set out for the castle with twelve large bags of the best rice from his fields. He took the road outside of the market town, so he could avoid any delays and arrive at the castle before noon. He made good time until he encountered Bill, the pig farmer, who was leading two pigs to market. Bill was a chatty sort and as they were traveling in the same direction, he followed along until his road turned away. Bill and his pigs had slowed the rice man down, but the road was smooth and the rice man continued on his way.
In time, he encountered the blacksmith’s wife, whose husband had passed just the year before. She and her two children were returning home from market, leading a donkey. The kindly rice man stopped to greet them and learned of their poor fortunes in the market and their struggles to endure after the loss of the blacksmith. Moved by pity, the rice man lifted a bag of rice from his wagon and placed it on the donkey’s back. And as they waved farewell, he nudged his dray to pick up the pace, lightened as they were by the loss of one bag.
And so it went again, one by one, the rice man’s bags of rice began to vanish, fallen victim to his kindness. He gave two bags to a shopkeeper to pay a small debt, and in truth the two bags paid the debt many times over. After he entered into the royal city, he gave a bag as a donation to a school he passed, whose children rode ponies up and down the road asking for coin to build a new schoolhouse.
By the time he arrived at the castle, he had only five bags left. And he thought one for each prince would be adequate. He had heard rumors of the other high quality goods being delivered for the feast that night, the finest darkwood chairs and tables, barrels of the beermakers’ best ales, silks of every color beneath the blue sky, foreign spices and dried herbs, fresh fruit from the Everspring Valley, and wagons full of ice from the mountains to the north. The rice man thought the ice was for winter sport until he overheard that it served the dual purpose of keeping perishables cold until the feast and keeping wines and waters chilled during the feast. As he passed into the castle grounds, he smelled the aroma of sweet woods and spiced meats from the smokehouses. He saw several whole hogs roasting on spits above separate fire pits, juices running over already crispy red skin.
He joined the line of sellers and suppliers, and when he reached the front of the line, some castle hands lifted the bags of rice out of his wagon. He was directed to follow so that he may present his “gift” to the princes. In truth, all who brought goods for the feast would be paid from the royal coffers as an ancient law required. The rice man walked into a vast chamber in which sat on five thrones, the five princes of Trilenkary. The rice man followed and after the castle hands deposited the five bags before the throne, he stood beside the stack, right before the First Prince, the crown prince. Following custom, the rice man presented his rice to the First Prince, bowed, and offered his rice to the court. From the corner of his eye, he saw a small but ornate chair placed on the dais. A lady sat on the chair, surrounded by several maidens. The princes’ special guest, he presumed.
The First Prince did not rise from his throne as the five bags of rice were taken away. He rebuked the rice man, pointing out that the princes were promised twelve bags of rice. And the rice man began to fear and chide himself for his folly. The other princes joined their brother in scorn, all but one. The youngest, the rogue prince, they called him. (For he was rumored to secretly practice magic up in the tiny fifth tower, where he kept his rooms.) But he could not persuade his brothers to pay the rice man his due for the five bags of rice. The Second Prince declared that it was kind of the princes to pay anyone at all, as all that grew and thrived in the kingdom belonged to the royals anyway. The Third and Fourth Princes merely ignored the whole proceedings. But the rogue prince spoke words of comfort, or so the rice man hoped, before he was ushered away.
“You fortunes will change,” the rogue prince said, “in three days’ time. But whether they change for the better or worse, it will be for you to choose.”
And that riddle was all the payment the rice man received that day. Dejected, exhausted, humiliated, he left the castle. He had arrived late in the afternoon, after all the stops he had made. And though the bright sun still shone overhead, he hadn’t the will to play his fiddle and sing. He retired to an inn. When he woke, it was deep night. There was song and laughter in the common room. Someone was already playing a fiddle, and drums and dulcimer too by the sound of it. At the castle, royal and noble guests would be feasting. The rice man wondered what dish the royal cooks would make out of his rice. Saddened by the failure of both his endeavors in the royal city, he fell asleep again.
In the morning, he set out with an empty wagon and a heart eager to see home again. He was by nature a jolly and forgiving man. So before the day’s end, resting in his own pallet, he decided not to lament his poor fortune in the royal capitol. Instead of seeking gold from the royal coffers, he would seek a fair price in his own town’s market. He worked his fields, and he spent the evening sitting by the river near his home, singing ballads that he had composed on his little fiddle.
A few nights after that fruitless day in the royal capitol, the rice man returned home to find a sack before his door.
He remembered then the words of the Fifth Prince, who told him of the change in his fortune, and he eagerly opened the sack only to find a large fishbowl within. And before disappointment (with a bit of righteous anger) could set in, the man saw the fish. She—he knew it must be a “she” for some reason—was the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on. She glittered with half the colors of a rainbow, violet and blue and green. Forgetting his anger at being duped with such a useless payment—a payment that would on the contrary cost him, the man took the fish inside.
That first night, he fed her. He did not recognize what type of fish she was, but he tasted the water in her bowl and found it was freshwater. So he returned to the river and gathered and strained tiny river creatures. She seemed to like her dinner. And he named her Iris. The next day, he noted how plain her bowl seemed. When he returned home that night, he brought some river stones and small bits of plants and decorated her bowl. He delighted in the way she swam in circles when he came home and nipped at his fingers when he fed her. At the end of a fortnight, he had bought a large glass basin for her, so she could swim around more freely.
One night, he told her she was his best and truest friend and Iris peered out at him with sad eyes. But then, he brought out his fiddle, and he told her that as his friend, it was her duty to indulge him. And he played a few songs, the last of which was one he had composed himself. It was a poem he’d written when he was young and perfected. One he fancied he would sing to his true love someday. And when Iris swam to and fro after he set his fiddle down, the rice man laughed and guessed that fish had ears after all and that she had not liked what she heard.
The next morning, there was something glittering at the bottom of Iris’s basin. The man noted that it wasn’t anything he had put in there. He reached in and lifted it out and found that it was a silver coin. For a few days, the man questioned this discovery. He examined the coin and found it was true silver. And he watched Iris with curiosity, but she seemed the same. So he used the coin to buy himself some necessities—a few sickles for harvesting, a new pair of boots, and materials to repair a few weak spots in his roof.
When that coin was spent, he found two more in Iris’s basin. And with those he bought a better and sturdier wagon and a second horse. And so they were spent. And then he found three and began to indulge in parchment and quill and inks for his poetry. And he began to save some and spend fewer. But some people in his market town became suspicious of his sudden good fortune, and the next time he went to market to sell some rice, one them of them asked the man how he had suddenly come into such wealth. It was Bill, the pig farmer. The rice man told Bill the story, half in jest, for who would believe him. But Bill the pig farmer did believe. The rice man invited Bill and a few others to his home the next morning to see.
And the next morning, they came and they saw. And while some believed that the rice man had put the coins there and was hiding some fortune he had obtained otherwise, Bill believed the story. One of the others who also believed wanted to cut Iris open to get all the coins but Bill bopped him on the head.
“Remember what happened to that gold-egg-laying goose?” Bill said. “No, we have to mate her, so she’ll produce more little fish who can make silver coins.”
“Or maybe even gold,” said the injured man rubbing his head.
When the rice man realized that Bill and his friends spoke not in jest but in earnest, he regretted how gullible he had been in trusting the wrong townsfolk with his and Iris’s secret. He tried to usher everyone out of his home, but only those who did not believe him left. Bill, the pig farmer, and the few who seemed to be influenced by him stayed. Bill sent two of them off to find and return with a male fish like Iris. And so they did, having found a fish that looked almost identical to Iris, but was a male.
The rice man protested. “He’ll devour her,” he said.
“Let’s hope so,” said Bill, the pig farmer. At last it came to it, and the rice man fought against Bill and his minions. He felt as if he had betrayed Iris in the worst way, sold her to savages, and he fought fiercely, but he was no warrior, nor even a brute. He was overpowered. Someone swiped a knife at him and cut his hand and his arm. Then he felt a blow to the back of his head and all went black.
When next he stirred, he heard whispers.
“He was right,” someone said. And he heard his door slam and he fell unconscious again.
When next he woke, he remembered and he rose and staggered with a woozy aching head toward the fish basin. The twelve silver coins from the day before were gone. Bill and his minions had taken them. And there was, to the man’s horror, a dead fish floating at the water’s surface and a sad and sorry look—if such were possible—in the eyes of the living fish. And the sick feeling in the man’s gut gave way to relief when he recognized those eyes. It was Iris. He reached into the tank with his cut hand before he realized it, to take out the dead fish. He pulled his hand out immediately with a curse for bloodying Iris’s water, but the water remained clear.
And to the man’s wonder, the crusted blood from his hand dissolved away. He watched as the ugly cut sewed itself back together. He felt at the lump on the back of his neck, where he had been struck. It was melting away and with it the pain and nausea. He quickly disposed of the dead fish and returned to Iris.
“Every gift more precious and miraculous than the last,” the man said, tears in his eyes. And Iris swam up the surface and seemed to look concerned. “What have I done in keeping you here? You should be free with your own kind. I have used you to fill my own loneliness. This basin is a prison. And tomorrow I shall free you of it. Today, I beg of you, my friend, to keep me company. One last huzzah.”
And so it was. The man played his fiddle and sang his songs. He wrote a special song for Iris as a goodbye. And he thanked her for her gifts and the lessons she had taught him. And too he thanked the Fifth Prince, who’d seen fit to give such a gift—far more worthy than any payment. The next morning, the man found a last gift from Iris in the fish tank, a bracelet made of tiny seashells colored many colors like Iris. The man smiled at Iris. He thanked her and pulled out the bracelet. It was too small to fit over his hands, so he fashioned it into a necklace and wore it as he took Iris, in her original fishbowl, to the river. She seemed restless and eager and happy. He said goodbye, cast her out, and watched her dart away.
On the way back home, he passed a few of pig-farmer Bill’s minions. When he told them what business he was about, they scoffed at his stupidity for throwing Iris away. As they raced to the river in hopes of catching her, they threw back insults about his childish necklace.
That evening, royal guards came to the rice man’s door and arrested him. When he asked why one of the guards explained that he had been reported wearing a necklace that resembled a bauble one of the ladies at court had lost on the night of the feast over a moon ago.
When the guard asked how the rice man had obtained it, the rice man hesitated then said he had found it by the river bank. The guards assured him that he would not be punished for merely finding the bauble. But the rice man remembered how mean and haughty the princes had been. And part of him feared. But another part of him was curious. For the bracelet was the final gift of Iris and he did not think she would give him something that would bring him to harm.
The guards took the man to the royal castle, not the receiving hall where he’d brought his rice, not to the towers where the crown prince resided, but to the inner rooms of the guest tower.
The rice man was received by a maiden into a vast chamber and taken to a dining table where sat a lovely woman and the Fifth Prince. The rice man remembered the woman. She had been on the dais with the princes. She was their special guest at the feast. The rogue prince presented her as the Lady Penelope, his dear cousin. The prince and the lady listened to the rice man’s story. For he told much of it in the way of the song he had written for Iris. And they believed his story of finding the bracelet. The man wanted to express his thanks for Iris to the Fifth Prince, but the prince swiped a piece of melon from a plate, begged leave of his lady cousin, and swept out of the chamber without a second look at the rice man. There were maidens and matrons and children present in the chamber. But with the prince’s departure, the rice man was the only man present. And he thought he should take his leave as well.
The rice man removed the bracelet from his neck and presented it to her. The lady looked at the bracelet with nostalgic longing, but did not take it.
“There will be time for that later,” the lady said. She bade him sit and eat and talk. She wanted to hear about Trilenkary, for the Fifth Prince and his brothers were distant cousins, and the lady had never visited their kingdom before. In this manner, the man spent many hours, forgetting he was in the presence of nobility—as did the maidens and few children present, who laughed at his antics and were enraptured with the tale of the magic fish—which they made him repeat.
Lady Penelope’s eyes sparkled. “You are a poet,” she said.
She asked for her violin to be brought and entreated the man to sing. He blushed and said he did not sing before others.
And one of the young children laughed at him and said, “For shame to sing alone. Songs were meant to be heard.” And the boy taught the man their songs. And the man sang their songs. And then, he dared to sing one of his. A poem he’d written when he was young and perfected. One he fancied he would sing to his true love someday.
Someday is today, he thought. If my true love is not among these charming maidens today, I cannot imagine where she might be. Even so, I will make this day a perfect joy—or a perfect debacle! For tonight, I am a bard.
And he sang. And as he finished, he noticed the violin was no longer following his tune. And everyone was gaping at him. The man blushed again and apologized profusely for his arrogance. But still they stared, as if enchanted.
Finally, the maiden playing the violin, Calliope, spoke. “There are no words. I will forever hold up the skill of other poets against you, sir. For you are the finest I have ever heard.”
At that they all broke out in applause and hurrahs. And then it was dinnertime and the lady invited him to stay and so he did. Before he left, he remembered the bracelet and as he presented it to her again, Lady Penelope said, “I see it means something to you too.”
“I cannot explain it well, my lady. But it reminds me of a friend.”
“Then keep it, and let it remind you of us as well when we are gone. For you must come back tomorrow and the days after, until you see us off when we leave for our home.”
“Would that you could stay with us,” a little girl said. “For we love you already, don’t we?”
And a general sound of agreement swept the chamber. And the man would have given up his necklace, his heart, and more to stay with those good ladies and their children, to meet their husbands and fathers, who must be equally dear.
“Perhaps you can marry one of our maidens,” a matron joked. “And come home with us.”
“You can marry Lady Penelope,” a boy piped up.
The man gasped. “I can’t do that. I’m a commoner. She’s a lady. I wouldn’t be allowed.”
Lady Penelope scoffed. “Who says? I shall marry whom I will. And how kind of you, poet, not to protest because of my advanced age. You’re more of a gentleman than a landed gentleman.” And all laughed.
And the man returned the next day with his fiddle and more songs, and the next, and on until it was the day of their departure, and he came to say farewell.
That’s when the violinist, whose named was Calliope, came to him and said, “Come with us. As our friend. Our escort, you could say. You have become dear to us and we might languish without your poetry, your very presence.” And the man was flushed to hear such passionate words spoken to him by a woman. The man thought of what he had left for him at home. Nothing but his rice, and there were friends to whom he could leave his fields and house. And he imagined he could grow rice in Lady Penelope’s kingdom after he bought a plot of land with the money he had saved from Iris’s gifts.
He agreed. And in her excitement, Calliope kissed him on the cheek.
And the man raced home for a few possessions. He returned to the river to say goodbye to Iris and thank her one last time.
On the way to the palace, he felt a moment of dreadful doubt. Perhaps it had all been a dream or a trick and there would be no wagons full of friends to take him to a new home. But there they were. And he went with them. And the rogue prince came to wave goodbye to his now-favorite cousin. And the prince winked at the man.
On the way to Lady Penelope’s land, the party suffered hardships of weather and loss of bearing. The rice man befriended the guards, especially the two who’d first brought him to Lady Penelope. He wrote poems, helped tend the children, repair the wagons, and he spoke with and entertained the lady and her merry party. More and more, he sought the company of Calliope. And she sought his. And they fell in love. And though Calliope was as independent as her mistress, she could not resist the man’s sincere and loving entreaty for her hand in marriage.
Some months later, they were wed at Lady Penelope’s manor, with only such friends as had been present when first the couple met—the Lady Penelope and her maids and matrons and their families. And so came the Fifth Prince, and he brought a gift. In a silver box, inlaid with black velvet, was a glittering fish made of fine crystal.
“No precious gems and metals,” Prince Gremio said. “Only glass, I’m afraid. Still, I trust you won’t toss this one in the river.”
Overwhelmed, the rice man—now a married man—embraced the prince before he realized what he was doing. He released the prince, who seemed dazzled.
Lady Penelope laughed. “Solidarity, dear cousin. Savor the taste and come back for more!”
The rice man, the bard, took the bracelet Iris had given him and Lady Penelope had unintentionally given to Iris and he placed it around Calliope’s wrist. Calliope placed around his wrist a band inscribed with tiny fishes and feathers to represent his poetry, the quill with which he wrote it, and the song bird’s voice with which he sang it. And they left their friends to continue the festivities, while they stole away to their honeymoon, she with her violin, and he with his quill and fiddle. And by the river, in the forest, they made beautiful music together.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.