Singular Beauty

One day in late summer, Princess Ilanelle of the Isle of Peace decided to take a husband and sent invitations to the princes of the Four Realms bordering the lake. Prince Elgar of Northland could scarcely believe his good fortune. But his invitation hadn’t mentioned that three other princes would be invited. When he encountered them in the courtyard of Moon Castle, his elation turned to confusion, then to hopelessness.

Prince Alathaine of Westland was renowned as a musician, painter, and poet. Roche of Eastland belonged to the wealthiest family in the Four Realms. Brull of Southland was a fearsome warrior, with an empire spanning half a continent. How could Elgar—honest, hardworking, but unglamorous—hope to compare as a suitor?

The princess appeared on a parapet above the courtyard. The legend of her beauty had spread throughout the Four Realms. People said it surpassed even the considerable magical power she possessed as a Daughter of the Moon.

The legend, Elgar decided, did not do her justice.

“I am not acquainted with any of you,” she addressed them. “And since conversation alone is an unreliable guide to character, I feel I must issue a challenge instead—with my hand in marriage as the prize.

“If any of you does not desire that prize,” she said with sincere but unnecessary modesty, “you may, of course, abstain from the contest. I shall perceive no insult.

“The challenge is this: I charge each of you to bring me a gift. It needs not be large, expensive, nor grandiose. It needs only be unique. Bring me something that is the only one of its kind. This challenge will require thought. It will require imagination.” (At these words, Brull’s breathing became audible, ragged. He had clearly hoped for a challenge requiring strength and brutality instead.) “The gift that pleases me most by its uniqueness will win my hand. I shall welcome you into this castle one month from today, at noontime, to present your gifts.”

Elgar’s younger brother, Priod, found him that evening in a black despair.

“Why so upset? It seems to me you have as good a chance of winning the challenge as any of them.”

“Have I? If anything unique can be bought, Roche will buy it. If it can spring from the imagination, Alathaine will compose it. Brull worries me less, but if anything unique can be taken by force from another . . . and where is my advantage?”

Priod grinned. “Behind you, I think.”

Perched on the roof of their stables was a large bird. Its wings were banded gold, red, and iridescent blue. It had a red crown, with gold oblong markings around its eyes. Its breast was white, and it had an eagle’s lethal talons and beak.

“Is it? . . . It can’t be.”

Legend held that once every five hundred years, the phoenix burst into flame and regenerated from its own ashes. But first, it had to migrate from Tarragon, in the Southern Empire, to Rumaki, across the North Sea. Elgar hadn’t realized the migration would happen in his lifetime.

Legend also taught that only one phoenix existed at a time, anywhere in the world. The importance of this fact struck Elgar instantly, just as the phoenix took to the air and streaked away northward, too swift to pursue.

“How good a sailor are you?” Elgar asked.

“Ask anyone.” By reputation, Priod was the most gifted sailor in the Four Realms.

“Good enough to take me across the North Sea to Rumaki?”

“I’m willing to find out.”

The brothers spent an eventful two weeks traveling north. A sea serpent larger than their ship rammed and nearly sank them. On an island where they stopped to make repairs, a family of pixies stole Elgar’s boots and Priod’s sextant. A naval ship crewed by ghosts waylaid them. Later, Priod caught a seaborne illness that caused him to speak in perfect four-part harmony, and his blood to glow with a soft red luminescence, visible beneath the skin.

They spotted an island after nightfall. The locals, observing Priod’s symptoms, hurried them to a sprawling limestone villa near the island’s center. The household roused a young woman, barely twenty-five, to greet the two princes. She wore slippers and a robe over her nightclothes, and the ringlets of chestnut hair that tumbled over her shoulders were disheveled.

She offered them a smile, tired but warm, and identified herself as Ki, the only offspring of the island’s ruling family. “Welcome to Achambra. I apologize for my disarray”—she looked prettier in her disarray, Elgar thought, than most young women at their most carefully arrayed—“but I heard you were princes and . . . not come from anywhere nearby?”

“No, indeed. We’ve been on the sea many days. We come from a realm called . . . well, Northland.” He gestured southward. “Under other circumstances, the name is more appropriate.”

She laughed. “What brings you all this way?”

“We hadn’t planned on coming here. But my brother has taken ill . . .”

“Orchestritis,” Ki identified the illness. “He’s fortunate it hasn’t progressed further. Our medics will know how to heal him.”

Priod’s treatment required that he remain submerged in a tub of breathable, medicated liquid for the next three days. After a few moments’ panicked thrashing below the surface, he made himself inhale the stuff and settled down.

“I admire your brother’s courage,” said Ki. “I required this treatment once, as a little girl. The medic thought it would help to make fun of my fear.”

They gave Elgar a bed for the night. The next day, Ki invited him to lunch. “I’ve discovered that Northland appears in the island’s historical records,” she reported. “We were friends.”

“How is that possible? I’ve never heard of Achambra.”

“Apparently there was a king of Northland, generations ago, who loved to travel. His name was Wainren.”

Elgar counted on his fingers. “Wainren was my great, great . . . great . . . I don’t remember exactly. I never knew he had come this far.”

“Nor had I heard of Northland until last night. It’s a little tragic that a friendship between nations should disintegrate into less than a memory—”

“—because of nothing but distance, and time,” Elgar finished her sentence, and she nodded. “I think we have to consider that friendship rekindled, don’t you?”

She sighed dramatically. “Fairness to our ancestors seems to oblige us.” Her dark eyes twinkled at Elgar, and he laughed.

“What brings you so far from home?”

 “I’m looking for a place called Rumaki,” he began.

“You’ve found it,” she said. “Welcome.”

He almost jumped out of his chair. “This island?”

“This entire archipelago. Achambra is its southeastern tip.”

“That complicates my quest.” He ran his hands through his hair. “What a vast area to search.”

“Search for what?”

“A bird,” he said, “called the phoenix.” Elgar gave her a description. Ki began nodding before he had finished.

“We call it a pingcatsi,” she said. It nests sometimes on an island near the center of Rumaki. One of my ships can take you there.”

“Your ships? I couldn’t. I’ve imposed on you more than enough. Just tell me the way—”

“Nonsense. It’s no imposition; I consider it an opportunity to be a good friend.”

Later, after checking on Priod, Elgar boarded one of Ki’s naval ships. His heart quickened to see her already aboard. “I haven’t been out of this harbor in months,” she told him, and gave the order to cast off.

Elgar soon appreciated how lucky he was to have her as his guide through the labyrinth of Rumaki’s waterways. Each island had its stories, and he stood at the ship’s railing listening to as many as she had time to tell. “I wish we had more time,” they both started to say simultaneously. They got as far as “I wish,” then stopped and smiled at each other, understanding they had shared the same thought.

“I wish I could take you to see my homeland,” said Elgar. “You’re doing all the talking—and I love listening to you, but I wish I could reciprocate.”

She seemed on the verge of saying something, then didn’t say it. Maybe someday we’ll have that chance?

Maybe she didn’t believe that.

A journey of many miles, many days, separated the lands to which they were each tied—not just by personal history, but by royal duty.

Night fell. Ki knew all the constellations, and the myths behind them. Her most charming quality, Elgar decided, was her ability to find wonder in everything around her. Her finger traced a pattern in the sky. “This one is called the pingcatsi,” she said. “The phoenix. It’s a symbol of sorcerers, explorers, geniuses, but also madmen, pariahs.”

She put an arm around his waist and added, “Those whose paths take them far from home, far from comfort.”

Some time later, they retired below decks to their separate cabins and slept.

Elgar woke to find the ship anchored beside a forested island. He and Ki rowed ashore. A faint white mist hung between the trees; a cool prickle teased the skin. Elgar had never seen trees that grew needles instead of leaves. “Is it safe to touch?”

Ki smiled. “Of course.”

They hiked all morning, over hills and along streams. Small animals chittered at their approach. Birds chirped and sang across the forest canopy.

Elgar stopped in mid-stride. “What kind of bird makes that sound?” he whispered. “Listen.”

They stood motionless for half a minute. Something twittered, something small.

That sound?” asked Ki, skeptically.

Elgar shook his head no.

Then it came again: a richly timbred, almost operatic five-note melody.

Ki nodded in excitement. “I think that was it.”

They heard it from the east, the north, the east again, the west. They changed course to follow it each time. By midday, they had achieved nothing but exercise, and an expanded appreciation of the local flora.

They sat down in a small clearing and took food from their packs. Ki brushed damp hair from her forehead. The morning’s exertion had brought a pink glow to her cheeks and a healthy sparkle to her eyes.

Elgar’s mind dwelt on the irony—perhaps the dishonesty—of accepting her help on a quest to win another woman’s hand. He found it hard to let his gaze rest on her face for long.

She noticed his brooding, of course. “What is it?”

“What happens if I can’t find the phoenix?” He hated himself for evading the question.

“Well, you’ve never told me what will happen if you do find it. But if you don’t . . . I imagine your lady will be disappointed.”

He stared at her in shock.

“What else could have driven you so far across the ocean?” She shook her head. “Even in her absence, what hope would there have been for us? Yes, I feel an affinity between us. I believe you feel it too. But you must live in your kingdom, and I must live in mine.”

She took his hand. “You deserve a wife who can walk at your side, come to your bed at night—not one who appears on the sea, fleeting as a thunderstorm, a few times a year. I know you would willingly make that journey every month; so would I. But we’re young and able, now. I can’t imagine that such a marriage would age well.”

He had an impulse to protest, but what protest could he make? He couldn’t abandon Northland. Priod had no wish to be king. Nor could he ask Ki to abandon her island. She studied his face intently. When he finally gave up, a last ember of hope—maybe he’ll think of something I’ve missed—died behind her eyes.

“If I weren’t a prince . . .”

“But you are a prince. And you will have the lady who launched your ship. She must be extraordinary. I won’t see you lose her because—”

She stopped speaking and seized his forearm, looking past him. He turned.

Sunlight filtered through the canopy of branches; the phoenix sat in a complex wash of light and shadow. Its colors shone so vividly that the surrounding forest faded to a monochromatic drabness. It sang again, a brief, perfect aria. The sound filled Elgar’s heart with warmth.

“So beautiful,” Ki whispered reverentially.

Slowly, silently, trying not to give the appearance of motion at all, Elgar reached for his pack. His eyes never left the phoenix; he withdrew his net blindly, his fingers seeking its weighted edges.

The phoenix swooped across the clearing, alighting in another tree. A single feather fell from its tail and fluttered to rest at Elgar’s feet. The bird turned its head slowly, surveying the clearing with a serenity that resembled, deceptively, wisdom.

Elgar readied the net. He took one slow step. The bird, restless, swooped to a different branch and landed next to another phoenix. Disturbed by the shaking of the branch, the second phoenix flew higher into the tree and sang plaintively.

Elgar lowered the net, bewildered.

More birdsong came from behind him. He turned, but saw nothing amid the dense branches. Ki stepped to his side and pointed. “There,” she whispered. As his eyes fixed on the third phoenix, she pointed again. “And there.”

The fourth phoenix had more gold and less red in its plumage. The third was blue all over, a vivid lapis blue, with gold streaks that became visible when it flew.

Elgar sat down on a rock as the phoenixes flew back and forth overhead, their voices joined in splendid music. He picked up the fallen feather—what Alathaine wouldn’t give for such a precious quill—and twirled it between his fingers.

He glanced at Ki, who stood transfixed. Her soft lips were parted, her eyes liquid and dreamlike, all her senses open wide. With the innocence of a child she drank in the beauty that surrounded her.

It was the most perfect sensory experience Elgar had ever known—this is beauty in its pure form—but it was also failure. After weeks on the ocean, after nearly losing his life to sea monsters and spectres, he had come at last to the end of his journey, only to discover that failure had waited there all along.

The phoenix was not unique. It was merely beautiful.

He held the feather up before his eyes; his gaze traced every barb of it. Now it was just a feather; the magic had gone out of it.

He became aware of Ki’s arm, draped across his shoulders. “You can’t bring yourself to put one in captivity?” she guessed.

“It would be pointless. The charge was to bring back something unique in the world. Legend held that the phoenix was the only one of its kind.”

“How did legend say it reproduced itself, without at least a male and a female?”

“I know it must seem naïve. But we were taught that the phoenix burst into flame and was consumed, and rose anew from its ashes.”

“Well, that wasn’t so far wrong. They do have innate magic, they do burst into flame—but the flame doesn’t harm them. It only warms the eggs in the nest.”

“Amazing,” said Elgar. “Devastating, under the circumstances. But amazing.”

Elgar passed the return voyage in quiet contemplation, reflecting on his journey and wondering what gift he might give Ilanelle—not to win her hand, now, but to avoid insulting her.

He arrived home on the last night of his month and hastened to visit Northland’s best cobbler. He asked if a special commission could be completed overnight. The cobbler assured him that where there’s a royal treasury, there is always a way.

Then Elgar went home and collapsed into his own bed.

He overslept.

Elgar arrived at Moon Castle a few minutes late, a sack slung over his shoulder. “We’re glad you made it, sir,” the castle’s butler greeted him, with that perfect ambiguity of which servants are capable. It might have been a satirical reference to Elgar’s lateness, or genuine pleasure at his arrival.

Alathaine presented his gift first. It was a love song of surpassing beauty, which he had spent the month composing.

Roche had brought a chest of coins, gems, and jewelry—unique, perhaps, in its largeness. Following Alathaine’s song, Roche was laboring to turn this item into a performance, counting the facets on each gem, detailing which of his ancestors might have worn each brooch. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. He didn’t so much end his presentation as simply run out of steam.

Then Brull removed a sheet from an object beside him, just over three feet high. Momentarily, Elgar mistook the object for a birdcage and half expected Brull to present a phoenix. It was an oblong globe of wires, mounted in a rune-inscribed wooden base and supporting an identical disc on top.

Brull had combed the vast Southern Empire for a suitable gift and had found this artifact: an enchanted harp, meant to be played from the inside. Pushing the strings apart, Brull climbed in and sat cross-legged.

“One need not know how to play the harp,” he said. “Lay hands on it, and your fingers gain the knowledge.” His eyes drifted closed, and a captivating melody floated from the strings. Alathaine covered his mouth in surprise. Elgar had expected—at best—a heroic tune that suggested grand battles and martial valor. This, though, was the music of inner serenity: a philosopher-poet in a hilltop pagoda, a drink of wine by a trickling brook, a gentle breeze, a waxing moon. While he played, Brull appeared not innocent, not by a long way benign, but undeniably at peace.

He finished playing and climbed out of the instrument. He explained that the music aided in meditation, focusing the mind. Further, the aging process stopped while the harpist played. There were also reports of clairvoyance and precognition, though Brull could not speak to their reliability.

Brull took a single step backward, like a soldier falling back in line after inspection. He stood at relaxed attention, exuding purest confidence.

The room’s attention shifted to Elgar.

Everyone knew that the burlap sack over his shoulder must contain his gift, but he would allow them to wonder about it for now. “This year,” he said, “marked the once-in-many-lifetimes migration of the phoenix from south to north—and I’m sure I needn’t tell anyone here that the phoenix is the only one of its kind.” He could sense the other princes staring at his sack—he couldn’t possibly have a phoenix in there.

“Connecting the bird with your challenge required no great imagination. The same day you called us here, the phoenix landed on the roof of my home. I couldn’t capture it then, but I resolved to track it, with my brother’s help, across the sea to Rumaki.”

Elgar told her the story of his travels, at great length. In later years he would refine and polish the narrative, but it held together well for a first telling. He emphasized the wonders he had seen: the exotic creatures, the infinitely varied beauty of foreign lands, the allure of the sea. He fancied that now, perhaps the princess was imagining herself aboard his ship, traveling at his side, as he had imagined her there during the outbound voyage.

An inexpert storyteller, he lingered longer than he had intended on the dangers of the trip, on Priod’s seamanship and courage, and on the generous help he had received from Ki of Achambra. Finally, his tale came to the island of the phoenix, and to the glade where his quest had ended.

“You obviously didn’t find the phoenix,” Roche blurted, overcome by the suspense, “or that would be a birdcage in your hands and not a sack. Why not admit it and be done?”

Elgar produced the phoenix feather from inside his tunic and traced a broad curve through the air with its tip. Roche and Alathaine let out audible gasps; even Ilanelle might have held her breath for a moment.

“For two weeks,” he said, “I traveled with the certainty that the phoenix would earn me your hand—would be more unique than any music, or jewels, or sorcery. Then I came into that clearing and found the phoenix . . . and three of its kin.”

He allowed a silence to hang for a moment, and the silence roared.

“Even the phoenix,” he said, “is not unique. But oh, my lady, the phoenix is beautiful. Its plumage brighter than these jewels, its song sweeter than even my esteemed rival’s renowned voice. If your charge had been to bring you something beautiful, I should certainly have won your hand.”

“The lady did not request something beautiful,” said Roche, pedantically. “She requested something unique.”

“If my journey taught me anything,” said Elgar, “it taught me the name of the one unique thing in all the world. I’ve seen only a small sampling of what’s out there, but that glimpse contained wonders greater than I had ever imagined. In all my traveling, though, I saw only one thing that had no equal—and that was the world itself. Taken as a whole, in all its infinite variety.”

“Do you propose to give the lady the world?” Brull heckled. “You are not prince of the world.”

“My shrill rival speaks true,” said Elgar. “I cannot bring the world to you, nor offer it to possess. But with your consent, I can bring you to it. I offer you the world to see.”

From his sack he produced a telescope, and bade her come to the window overlooking the lake. He stood beside her as he pointed down to the waterline, toward his ship docked there. “I offer you my ship to travel in. I offer you these boots.” From the sack, he produced a fine pair of lady’s boots. “And I offer you my service as guide, traveling companion, and protector.” He knelt reverentially before her. “These are all you will need, to journey as far and wide as your heart desires.”

Then, because he was no performer and lacked that sense of when to leave a climax alone, he added, “If the boots are the wrong size, m’lady, I can provide other boots.”

The other princes erupted in derisive laughter. “A boat?” Roche screeched. “That boat is unique in no respect, save perhaps its leakiness! We all have ships—though none, I daresay, as fine as the ships of Eastland.”

“Boots?” Alathaine hooted. “My unique talents must pale in comparison to these . . .”—there was simply no adjective contemptuous enough—“boots!”

“All mockery aside,” said Brull, “many lands won’t open their ports to a ship of Northland. Even promising to let her see the world is more than you can deliver. Protection. Hah! If Northland were worth conquering, we’d see how much protection you could offer!”

The threat was an empty one, and Moon Castle was the most absurd possible place to deliver it. Elgar replied calmly, “I have no wish to compare the strength of our armies, nor the size of our genitals, on this island of peace, sir.”

“How dare you?” Brull drew a dagger from concealment and lunged at Elgar. With his first step he tripped and fell, arms outstretched, rendered harmless by the magic of the castle. His dagger skidded across the floor, and he found himself unable to rise until twelve of the princess’s guards had arrived to escort him from the island.

“He provoked me!” Brull protested as they dragged him away. “Unfair! We all know that my gift was the best! Unfair, unfair!”

“Hold,” said Ilanelle to the guards. They stopped dragging Brull, though they remained close around him.

“Your gift is unique,” she said, “though not to the degree you may imagine. I do own a magic harp—I made it myself when I was twelve years old. And there are medallions and laurel crowns enchanted to aid in meditation. It wouldn’t be a difficult exercise to combine the two.

“But there’s a larger difficulty. When I issued the challenge, I placed no restrictions on how the gifts were to be acquired. I didn’t specify that theft and murder ought to be avoided; it seemed self-evident. I won’t ask you if the previous owner of this item is still alive.”

Brull’s hasty attempt to make his face unreadable answered unmistakably.

“It’s enough to know that this item had an owner. I couldn’t accept this gift without becoming an accomplice in the wrong that was done to her, or to him.” She looked into Brull’s eyes and saw that he understood. Then the guards led him away.

“Then there were three,” Alathaine drawled.

“Oh, I have made my choice,” said the princess. “I choose Elgar.”

Alathaine’s eyebrow lost its arch.

“Butbutbut,” Roche babbled, “I can offer you a bigger boat! And finer boots! What is unique in these items?”

“In the items, nothing,” she answered. “The thoughtfulness of his gift is unique. Really, Roche, what gift does one expect from a wealthy prince? Riches. It was the easiest answer—after I said that the challenge would require imagination. Nor is it any great sacrifice for you. If you pitched this trunk into the lake, you would still be the richest man in our corner of the world.”

Alathaine piped up, “What about . . . what about . . . ?”

“Your music is beautiful,” she answered, laying a hand on his cheek. “If ever a man loves me as much as you love your own music, I shall be a lucky woman indeed.”

“That music was written for you,” he wailed. “Thought and feeling went into it!”

“Yet that effort is not wasted,” she replied. “The next woman for whom you play it will surely be swept away—for I perceive your lyrics will apply as well to her, whoever she may be, as they do to me.”

The princess picked up the boots Elgar had given her. She asked a servant to bring two chairs—one for herself, and one for Elgar, if he wished. No chairs were summoned for Roche and Alathaine, and they understood this as their cue to leave.

Ilanelle kissed him before she sat to try on the boots, and he, a little dizzy after his rush to the island and his impassioned presentation, forgot to kiss back. She smiled knowingly but asked, “Is something the matter?”

“I must admit,” he said, “the boots seemed an inspired touch last night, but when I saw the gifts those other princes laid before you . . . I would have been content to know I hadn’t insulted you. I think no man has ever traveled farther to win a woman’s love and returned empty-handed. I can’t help feeling like a uniquely inept, uniquely unworthy suitor.”

“I wouldn’t say that you returned empty-handed.” She grimaced, interrupting herself. “These boots are awfully snug,” she said, reclaiming her foot with a pop.

She walked barefoot to the window. “You could have given me boots, and a ship, and promised me a lifetime of travel on the same day that I issued the challenge. But it would never have occurred to you. You would have found the idea as ridiculous as those other princes did.”

“You’re right,” said Elgar. “I think I would.”

“You see? You didn’t come back empty-handed. You are changed.

“And changed in more ways than one,” she added, turning to face him. “Your story was a gift respectfully given, so I paid it my fullest attention . . . and I fancy I heard even what wasn’t said.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I offered only one prize in this contest, and assumed one would be enough.” She looked radiant, a contrast to the rueful tone of her voice. “Now, I see I must offer you a choice: my hand in marriage . . . or an enchantment that few people, to my knowledge, know how to create. I can give you two magical doors, which would allow instant passage between your home and—well, I expect you would install the other one in a certain palace in Rumaki.”

Elgar said nothing. All along, he had steered his mind away from any comparisons between Ilanelle and Ki. It would have been unfair to both of them.

Ilanelle still seemed nearly as untouchable to him as she had at their first meeting, from atop the parapet of Moon Castle. He had not shared so much as an afternoon’s leisure with her, never mind the climactic moments of a quest, or a night at sea under the stars. But in fairness, he had to entertain the possibility that he might come to love her as much as . . .

. . . as he already loved Ki.

Ilanelle smiled gently. “What a pitiful sight. The dilemma is evident upon your face. How to refuse a woman’s love, but accept the gift she offers.”

Elgar opened his mouth to contradict her, but she spoke over him. “I promise you,” she said, “this is not a test. You won’t offend me. Take the gift.”

“But what of you? You were less than kind to those other princes.”

“Your brother is a prince, is he not?”

“Priod? Well yes, he—”

“It would have been unkind of me to pit the two of you against each other in competition. But there’s no longer any conflict, and I would very much like, if nothing more, to meet him.”

“I hope that meeting goes well. I would be proud to call such a wise and generous woman my sister.”

“Thank you,” she said. “And I hope the next time you visit the phoenixes, your delight in the moment won’t be damped by my little challenge.”

Charles Schoenfeld