Once, there was a realm where scholarship was much admired and much desired. A trickster fairy appeared one day and kidnapped the king, leaving behind a riddle that even the youngest child in the castle could solve before sundown. The king’s highest advisor presented the answer. The fairy, being bound by his own promise, had no choice but to return the king. But he tried again, and again was thwarted by the learned and agile minds of the king’s subjects. Yet he tried again…
And so it went. But soon the trickster fairy noted that the people had grown so learned that they had forgotten how to do simple things. And their confidence in their knowledge spilled over into arrogance. So the fairy tried once more, unsurprised that even after all his attempts, the king remained unguarded. Only this time, he set for them a riddle that was so simple that they should have solved it before he finished speaking it. And he saw by the glow of knowledge in the eyes of those who heard riddle that they did know the answer. But if any uttered that answer and they were wrong, the king would be lost forever. Such were the terms of the fairy’s bargain.
Thus far the trickster fairy’s riddles had only grown more and more challenging—and invigorating. So for the first time, the people of the realm doubted themselves.
When sundown approached—the time appointed for their last chance to save their king—the fairy returned. The king’s highest advisor begged the fairy for more time, which the fairy was under no obligation to give them.
The trickster had prevailed.
But he was a trickster after all. He took no pleasure in a game that ended so quickly, a victory won so easily. So he allowed them one more day and gave them one more clue, spoken in a reckless rhyme.
Learned scholar, learned child
Manner fierce or manner mild
Your work comes to no avail
Where only fools prevail.
In the kingdom of the learned, there so happened to be, at this time, a fool. She would have been sent away when it was discovered that she was a fool, save that her mother and father loved her very much. Though that love was not enough to overcome their disappoint, and their prejudices regarding their fool daughter’s worth in a kingdom of the learned, they could not bear to be parted from her. She had other charms. Though she did not care for scholarship, she was curious and patient. She loved easily and often—people, creatures, and things—though in truth, that was one of the qualities that made her such a fool.
It was decided that the most foolish course of action was to let the fool solve the riddle and provide whatever answer she came up with to the fairy.
This they did. And the answer was true.
The fairy was obliged to return the king, and with half a heart and a mind to move on to pestering another realm, he began to speak the words of the spell that would release the captured king.
But the fool spoke first.
“Return the man, but not the king,” she said. And if it wasn’t well-known that she was a fool, her words may have sounded like a riddle in itself.
“What is your meaning?” asked the trickster.
“I will take a different reward for answering your riddle,” said the fool. “I will take the sovereignty of my realm.”
The fool was right that the fairy’s bargain allowed such a result. The one who answered the riddle may ask for any reward that the fairy could reasonably grant. While the trickster could not grant the fool sovereignty, the high advisor could.
So the trickster turned to the high advisor and threatened to capture and carry him away instead if he did not do as the fool had asked.
With great reluctance, the high advisor agreed.
Once the king was no longer king, he was free of the fairy’s bargain.
The high advisor advised the fool to marry the man who had been king to make him king again. Thus would all the trickster’s tricks be thwarted, and the fool’s apparent and surprising ambitions would still be fulfilled.
But the fool was a fool, so she did not marry the man who had been king. She replaced him and called herself the sovereign of the realm.
The fool had prevailed.
The fool was crowned and that very evening, she was visited in her study—in which she was not studying but paging through a bark-bound book to appreciate its faint spruce aroma.
There appeared upon the balcony a shadow, and as the fool turned her gaze upon it, the shadow thickened and took the shape of the trickster fairy.
The fool frowned and asked a foolish question. “Have to you come the capture the king again?”
The trickster stood at the threshold, swiping from a nearby desk a polished glass orb swirled with soft colors that had been weighing down a stack of important papers. He sighed as he rolled the orb between his hands. His eyes—a strange dark green—glinted from the torchlight.
“I do not wish to capture the king,” he said, “for he is no longer king.”
The fool frowned again and cocked her head. “But…would he not still make a charming companion? Was it not for his cleverness that you desired him?”
“It might have been so,” the trickster replied.
The fool was not incapable of some degree of deduction. If the trickster was not interested in the man than he was interested in the man’s royal title. And that title was now held by the fool.
“Have you come to kidnap me then and begin your game anew?” the fool asked.
The trickster sighed a deep sigh. “I do not wish to capture you for you are just a fool.”
“Then why are you here, un-good fairy?”
The trickster smiled a twitching smile. “Curiosity.”
“There is a question in your eyes.”
The trickster narrowed his dark green eyes. “Is there?”
“There seems to be, though I may be wrong,” the fool said. “No doubt I am too foolish to read even the clearest of expressions. And certainly too foolish to read the arcane expressions on a trickster’s face.”
“No doubt, but even a fool may stumble upon a chunk of gold on a golden path.” The trickster crossed his arms and leaned against the frame. “You are right, my mind is occupied with a question, a question that has brought me here. Perhaps you can answer it. Or perhaps…”
The fool smiled. “Ask it.”
She was likely not to have any answers for the trickster, but wanted to hear the question. She liked questions.
“Why did you not marry the king? Why do you dare to rule alone and with no knowledge of how to rule?”
The fool smiled brighter, for she had the answer. “Because I am a fool, of course.”
The trickster peered at the fool. “Of course.”
He seemed dissatisfied, but he departed, after first bowing to the new sovereign.
The memory of her encounter with the trickster fairy lingered in the fool’s thoughts as few things did, for she found him to be both handsome and clever.
As she was a fool, the new sovereign decided that she must consult the knowledge and judgment of those who were learned and wise. But because she was sovereign, she decided that she alone must make the final decision and bear any burdens that came of that decision. Any triumphs, however, would be shared, for it only seemed fair to do so.
The trickster continued to visit the fool, and most days he merely stood at the threshold of the balcony and watched her for a few moments. The fool expected that her activities were too dull to hold his attention for longer, and so he would vanish.
Some days he would speak. He would ask her questions about how she was faring in her rule of the realm. She would answer, when she could.
One evening, the trickster observed that the fool wasn’t really ruling, for she was only ever following the advice of her advisors.
“Why do you bother?” he asked.
“I have observed,” said the fool, “when my mother and father brought me to court to witness the wonders of their minds that the king and all the royal advisors were equally learned. The king did listen. But because they were equally learned, they spent much time in considering and arguing about decisions rather than making them. I wondered what it might be like if the one who made decisions only listened and then decided.”
“Ah, but what do you do when there is no accord to the advice that you hear, as there so often is not? Having little strength of mind, do you then follow your heart?” A sneer crossed the trickster’s face, and the fool believed the expression was meant for her.
Being a fool, she was not insulted but rather hopeful at his last words. “Are you suggesting that I have strong heart?” she asked.
“Not at all,” said the trickster, ‘for I do not know the nature and constitution of your heart. But I’ve heard it said, by the learned, that those who rule by the heart rule poorly when measured against those who rule by the mind.”
The fool considered that wisdom of the learned for a moment. “Why make a decision with one part of me when I can use all parts—or as many as I can at least?”
The trickster’s sneer became a smirk. He narrowed his eyes and turned his face to the side, looking at her askance. “Careful, Sovereign, that almost sounds wise.”
But the fool did not heed his words for she caught the look in his eye and noticed the spark of color there, warm orange with tiny plumes of pink. Not like candlelight or torchlight. More like a sunset. But the sun had already set.
“Where are you standing just now?” the fool asked. “For you are not here.”
The trickster’s smirk pulled away from his teeth, and he laughed even as he faded away.
Many knew of the trickster’s trick of throwing his reflection here and there to evade his many enemies. And anyone with eyes to see could have deduced that the sunset reflected in his eyes meant that in body he was far to the west. But to make such a deduction, one would have had to look in the trickster’s eyes.
And only a fool would look into the eyes of a trickster.
The fool felt foolish about not having realized the trickster’s trick until long after he had been visiting her. But she did not know why she should feel foolish. He did not visit for a few nights, and she would have missed him if not for the worries and privileges of rule.
But on the third night, his shadow again appeared at the balcony’s threshold.
They gave each other greeting and then were silent.
Since the trickster did not speak, the fool spoke.
“You did not wait for my answer to your last question,” she said.
She reminded him that he had asked her how she made a decision when provided with more than one wise course of action, especially when those courses might run opposite to each other.
Still the trickster was silent. The fool looked at him, gazed upon his eyes—eyes of a strange dark green—and saw that they glowed with a soft golden light. It was not like candlelight or torchlight, or even this time, like sunlight.
“When there is debate about a course of action,” the fool said, “I ask questions, and if I do not understand the answers—as I so often do not—I ask more questions. After a while, I observed that my habit led me to the same condition that worried me before. Endless debate. No decision. So I acquired a new advisor, young and not quite as learned as the others, and I asked him to alert me whenever my questions strayed from the matter at hand.”
The fool was not so worried about being captured by the trickster, at least not on that night, for it was dark outside, yet his eyes reflected a golden glow from elsewhere. Still, many would have deemed it foolish that she joined him on the balcony. The air was cool, the breeze was soft, and the stars were glittering. Even a fool could appreciate the majesty of such a night.
She stood by the banister, settled her many-ringed fingers upon the stone and gazed up. A shadow drifted beside her.
At last, the trickster spoke.
“You are seeming less and less like a fool to my eyes, Sovereign.”
“Then your eyes are different from the eyes of most, Trickster.”
“This is true.”
The fool blinked and grinned at the stars.
The fool had become enamored of the trickster fairy.
When first she ascended the throne, she did so in the hopes that her mother and father would be proud of her cleverness. She even dared to hope that the deed of becoming sovereign, and the triumphs of her rule, would make her worthy if ever she should desire to pursue a romance. But while she had many fruitless infatuations in her youth, she had never been as captivated by another as she was by the trickster.
She thought that to impress him, she must somehow outwit him. She knew that if she set her best scholars and riddle-makers to the task, their many minds would surely find some trick that would trick the trickster. She had every right to do so by law, for she was sovereign. (But while she was a fool, she was not so much a fool as to believe the true laws were the ones written down in the great archive.)
“Why do you keep visiting me?” she asked the trickster one evening, hoping that he himself would provide some clue she might follow.
“That is a question I have answered already,” the trickster said. “But I will answer it again as you seem to have forgotten. I visit you because I am curious.”
“I think it’s because you want to be the first trickster who understands a fool.”
The trickster laughed. “My dear Sovereign, no one amuses me as you do. But I must tell you. To a trickster, everyone is a fool.”
With that, he vanished as he was wont to do.
And the fool thought upon his words for but a single heartbeat before a bright smile bloomed upon her face.
It was not a smile of revelation. But just a smile of hope.
A fool’s hope.
The fool pondered what kind of trick she could play upon the trickster to impress him. Perhaps she could put him to sleep with poppies. Or invite him to dinner and place a noise-maker upon his seat. Or perhaps, she could give him the same kind of riddle he had given her—one that could only be solved by a fool.
While the fool pondered how she might fool the trickster, she received word from the trickster.
An evening shadow appeared on the balcony, but it was not his shadow. It was a bird, a raven bearing a roll of wood-paper in his beak. This he dropped into the fool’s hand before he winged away.
The fool read the message on the paper. The trickster informed the fool that he was stuck in a trap, one from which he could not throw his reflection and from which he could not remove himself. He required assistance, and asked for hers.
The fool’s advisors advised her not to go. For while the trickster had neither declared nor demonstrated any intention of capturing her, his frequent visits bore proof that she had interested him. And her advisors had noted that she had grown more learned and less foolish during her time as sovereign. Perhaps the trickster was merely waiting until the fool was wise enough before he captured her as he had captured her predecessor.
As well, her advisors reminded the fool that she had no natural heirs and had named no successors. The place where the trickster claimed to be trapped was outside of their realm. The title of sovereign would grant no protection. But the fool assured them.
“I have the utmost confidence in the constancy of my realm,” she said, “for it is full of the learned and the wise. The absence of this single sovereign will be like the absence of a single snowflake on a snowcapped mountain.”
The fool would go alone, so that she did not risk the loss of any great minds in her great realm. This, her advisors pointed out, was foolish.
But as she was the sovereign and had decided, they could give no further argument.
The fool set out to aid the trickster.
When the fool found him, the trickster was entangled in what appeared to be the web of a giant spider. Steadfast silken threads twined around his arms and clung to strands of his shadowy hair.
“I did not think you would come,” he said with a smile, when he saw the fool approach.
The fool returned his smile. “Only a fool would answer a cry for help from a trickster. Is that not why you sent for me?”
“Perhaps, but I did fear you had grown too wise.”
The fool wondered if such a day would come when she would wisely decline such a suspect call for aid. She was glad for the trickster’s sake that that day had not yet come.
“You have arrived more quickly than I expected,” said the trickster. “We have much time, then.”
The fool examined the web. It was extended between the trunks of two great trees whose glossy bark was a warm reddish-brown. The trees stood some ways beside the path that cut through this forest.
“How did you come to be trapped in this way?” she asked. “Such an obvious trap could have been avoided. But it must not be so obvious. I am too foolish to see the illusion that must be woven around this trap.”
“The opposite is so,” the trickster said. “All who have sight can see this trap. But most of those who are learned have learned to ignore much of what they see, or else they would be overwhelmed by the many thoughts that would race and loop through their minds at every little thing they perceived in the world.”
The fool considered the trickster’s words. While she understood their meaning, she still did not understand how a trickster could be fooled. She told him so.
The trickster sighed. “I admit I could have easily avoided the web had I not been distracted.” At these words, he blushed. “I was distracted by thoughts of love.” He gazed upon the fool with his dark green eyes. “Thoughts of you.”
The fool crossed her arms. Her heart skipped a beat, but her mind did not. “Even I am not foolish enough to believe that,” she said.
The web shuddered then. And the trickster widened his strange dark eyes.
“She is coming,” he said.
The fool asked no questions, but stepped forward and pulled out a knife.
The blade cast a silvery gleam in the trickster’s eyes. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked. “Fight?”
“Even I’m not that foolish. I don’t know how to fight.”
“I’m going to cut you out. Be still a moment.”
The fool reached up to cut a single silken thread while careful to keep away from others that floated free, close to her cuff. But she hesitated, for she glimpsed a sight that made her fear she might have fallen into the trickster’s trap after all. Or perhaps that his mind was ignoring what his eyes saw.
At that very moment, the web shuddered again. The fool reeled back. Silken threads snapped at her in a sudden rush of wind.
With a great thud, there landed a great bird.
But as the vast wings folded down and back, the fool saw that the bird was no bird. Only her body was that of a bird’s, a falcon with wings that gleamed in every shade of yellow from gold to butter to lemon to sunlight. Her head and torso were that of a woman. And the hair upon that head was likewise as yellow and gleaming as corn silk.
“Alas,” the trickster whispered. “It is my wife.”
The fool’s heart dropped and cracked from the knowledge. But it did not break. For at the last moment, it was lifted by relief. For now she could abandon her foolish pursuit of the trickster’s affection.
“This is a great sovereign of a great realm” the trickster said, addressing the falcon-woman. “I have begged her aid and she has come. Now I beg of you, wife, to flee before you incur the sovereign’s wrath.”
The fool faced the falcon-woman and noted the size and sharpness of her talons. “I am just a fool,” she said, sheathing her knife.
“You must be, if you’ve come to rescue this one.”
“Release me, wife!”
“Release me first, husband.”
The falcon-woman had not looked upon the fool when first she spoke. But now she rolled her amber eyes toward the fool, who foolishly did not shy from such a fierce gaze.
“Good sovereign, did my husband tell you why I have captured him?” the falcon-woman asked. “It is because I seek a divorce, so that I may be free to wander as my husband wanders. Being a person of honor, I cannot shirk my duties as a spouse, but nor can I fulfill them. I have long been seeking my mischievous mate, but have not managed to find him until now.”
Only a fool would come between quarreling lovers. And so she did.
“Do you not see that you can release yourself?” the fool asked the trickster.
The trickster looked bewildered, an expression that the fool had never seen upon his face before. That bewilderment charmed the fool, but the next expression upon the trickster’s face pleased her.
For the trickster looked upon the spider’s web that was not a spider’s web and saw that he was not trapped at all. He never had been. He could have walked free of the trap at any time. And if his wife had not arrived when she did, the fool would have told him so. For when she came closer, she saw that there were no threads of silk twining around the trickster at all. And so upon his face he now bore the realization of his foolishness.
The falcon-woman began to laugh. “The only trap for a trickster is the trickster’s own mind.”
The fool looked upon the falcon-woman. She too began to laugh. But while the falcon-woman laughed in triumph, the fool laughed in admiration.
The trickster too laughed in admiration, and gazed upon the falcon-woman, his wife, his eyes reflecting a golden gleam.
The trickster’s spell upon the fool—cast not on purpose but by happenstance—was broken, for true love has such power.
And the fool had just experienced true love, only it was not her own true love.
The trickster approached the falcon-woman. “I will grant you what you ask, my love,” he said. “So that we both may wander away from each other, though I hope you will wander back to me when I wander back to you.”
“As do I,” the falcon-woman said, with a sizzling smile.
The fool attempted to step away in silence, and leave the lovers to their foolishness. But they both turned their attention upon her.
“You have rescued me,” the trickster said. “For that I owe you a reward.”
“You see clearly what only tricksters care to see,” the falcon-woman said. “For that I owe you my respect.”
And so, making a fool of the trickster and a trickster of the fool, love had prevailed.
The falcon-woman raised a wing and flicked it. A feather gleaming gold fluttered down and the trickster caught it. He pulled the feather through his hand and when it emerged, the gold was edged in glimmering green, a strange dark green, like the tricksome eyes of the trickster.
He offered the feather to the fool. “They say it is foolish to accept a gift from a trickster,” he said, with a quirk of his brow.
The fool said not a word but extended her hand to receive the green-and-gold feather.
The fool gazed down at the feather and then up at the lovers with a bright smile. Though she did not know it, they were struck by the force that shone from her eyes. The fool had always loved easily. And though she no longer wanted the trickster, she now loved him. And though she had only exchanged a few words with the falcon-woman, she loved her too.
The lovers offered the fool their friendship too, and the fool accepted. The trickster quipped that he would enjoy the favor of being friends with a sovereign.
To this the fool replied that she would be stepping down as sovereign. She too felt that she must wander.
“There is a journey I must embark upon,” she said.
With a feather in her pocket and a heart full of love, the fool bid her friends farewell, and struck out upon her path.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel