The Middle Prince
by Dean Francis Alfar
part 1 of 2
IT IS BELIEVED that the heirless Sultan of Sulu, when he dreamt that his end was near, expressed an old man’s wish to have a son and see him grow. The Sultana, who was as barren as an empty mirror frame and wracked with guilt, called on anyone who could help make her dying husband’s desire come true.
She had done this before, several times in fact, summoning every holy man and imam, all the doctors and chirurgeons, storytellers and wisewomen, admirals and tailors, weavers and hermits, merchants and owners of nightingales, as well as, later, all manner of bakers, soldiers, traders, vagabonds, janissaries, scalawags, popinjays, and inventors of fabulous lifelike toys from within and without the Sultanate, across the Sea of Sulu to islands nearby and far — all to no avail.
This time she made certain to invite the invisible powers of the welkin above, the secret warders of the groves, the spirits of the weave, the intelligences of words and oaths, the weeping dugong of Coron Island, the dwarves of the scattered mounds, as well as any free-willed jin, ifrit, lamia, sirocco, tiq’barang and elemental of Hinirang who could conceivably help.
She did this in a variety of ways: by blindfolded courier pigeon; with golden anklets attached to newborn salamanders; with engraved notes wrapped in silk of glorious colors encased in polished lacquer boxes buried near graveyards at midnight; with clever vials whose liquid sediment spelled out the entreaty when shaken; by burning vetiver-infused flax in freshly-turned fields; with gargantuan rocks that formed letters in barren sands; by pleading in the ears of the deaf; and by forcing scorpions with minutely inscribed messages on their carapaces into empty bottles before these were corked and hurled into the sea.
When not a single envoy arrived, the Sultana choked back her quiet tears and decided to do something herself.
This is what she did: she took a knife of unburnished bronze, heated it over the dying embers of a stolen fire, and cut herself three times, enough to draw blood and cause her to swoon — once across her thigh, once across her arm, and once across her breast. The blood from her thigh she kept in an earthenware jar, which she then buried in the royal atrium. The blood from her arm she kept in leather flask that once held fine olive oil, which she suspended from the kitchen rafters. The blood from her breast she caught in glass thimble, sealing it with beeswax before hiding it in her armoire.
Convinced that what she had done was sufficient, the Sultana told her husband that he would be a father soon. The Sultan was so enveloped by the joy of anticipation that he leapt from his sickbed and danced with the Sultana, to the delight and applause of the royal household.
In due time, the Sultana gave birth to a son, whose skin was as dark as earth on a moonless night. The Sultan marveled over his ebony son and showered both mother and child with kisses.
The following year, the Sultana gave birth to another son, who arrived in the world smelling strongly of olives. The Sultan was delighted to be a father of two fine boys and declared a tremendous celebration that lasted for a month and a day.
And finally, the next year, the Sultana gave birth to the youngest son, whose complexion was so fine and delicate that one could almost believe he was a creature of spun glass. The Sultan was so happy that he died on spot, leaving the Sultana in charge of the realm until the eldest prince came of age.
NOW IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED, the people of the sultanate began to notice an odd occurrence. Every building that they put up, whether house or temple or seraglio or tent or stall or quay, had a distressing tendency to collapse upon itself. It was never anything that happened suddenly, but even the most unobservant citizens noticed the gradual destruction, and there came a time when very few old structures, like the palace, and absolutely no new ones were left standing.
The people, who were left with no homes, workplaces, shops, mosques, or inns, grew tired of living in the public open parks and esplanades, exposed to the wind and the sun and the moon, and with much anger took their case to the palace. The Sultana listened with helpless dismay at their complaints, promised them a solution forthwith, and sent each away with bottle of wine from the royal cellars and a goodly selection of dates, figs, and honey cakes. She then summoned her sons, all the members of the royal household, the Puissant Lord Commander of her army and her ancient Vizier to see what could be done.
The members of the royal household suggested dividing what structures remained between all the people and having the royal family move to another island. The Puissant Lord Commander of her army suggested an imagined menace to divert the attention of the people. The Vizier, who had dreamed about this meeting years before when he was still a hairless boy, said that the only way to return the lost integrity of past, present, and future buildings would be for someone to go across the Celibate Ocean, survive the beautiful terrors of the Deep Waters, find the island of the Coral Crone, steal her most cherished possession, and immediately return to the kingdom.
The eldest prince volunteered to sail that very day. The Sultana embraced him and commended him for his courage. She told him that he would make a fine Sultan when the time came.
The youngest prince, beautiful and possessed of a fragile bonhomie, sang rather than spoke that he too would undertake the quest, for if one had a good chance, what more two? The Sultana gingerly held him in her arms, kissed him carefully on the forehead, and told him that she was certain he too would succeed.
The middle prince expelled a fatalistic sigh, and regarded both his brothers and mother. “Well,” he said in a resigned tone, “I suppose I’ll try as well.” At which point his mother embraced him, commented on how supple his skin was, and wished him luck.
Before the three princes left, the Vizier gave each of them a tiny wooden cup that could convert any liquid it held into fresh water, as well as a fine inner robe with gems sewn into the inseams, and the following words of advice: listen to the animals, help those you can, and show kindness to all you meet.
The eldest and the youngest princes set sail in their respective ships, leaving behind the middle prince, who took his time checking his ship’s inventory of supplies at the tattered remnants of what once were the quays.
THE MIDDLE PRINCE did not really want to go off on the quest. His love was of stories — the tales held in the large collection of books and scrolls in the palace library, as well as the occasional interesting anecdotes told by travelers who had graced their court when they still had buildings of interest to foreign visitors. He preferred to read and imagine things, the outside world holding little appeal to someone who had already walked the entire world in his head.
But the reason he didn’t want to go, the real reason, was that he knew that he, as the middle brother, had no hope of accomplishing the quest. In most stories he read about situations like this, the two elder brothers invariably failed because of a combination of vanity, pride, cowardice, greed or envy; and were transformed into pigs or some other equally lowly creature; were enslaved for years on end; got lost until they became old men; were cursed; blinded by a variety of sharp objects; turned to stone; or run out of the kingdom with only ravens and hungry jackals for company.
It was usually the youngest brother who would, by dint of his compassion, helpfulness, and humility, succeed — helped along the way by cunning old women, faithful wide-eyed dogs, rainbow-hued fish or grateful ants, who would do whatever was needed to be done, solve the quest, and win the princess (and, if there were three princesses to choose from, he would get the youngest who, of course, would prove to be the fairest, cleverest, and most interesting as well).
His destiny sickened him, but the middle prince resolved to find a way not to fall into the trap of how things invariably turned out. But deep in his heart he doubted one could fight doom when it was spelled out so obviously, so repetitively, by all the stories he had ever heard. He seriously questioned if one person could change the way of the world.
So with nothing more than a meticulously supplied ship and a half-fervent, half-dismal desire to prove the stories somehow wrong, the middle prince sailed into the Celibate Ocean. His only consolation was that if there was a princess involved, either of his brothers could have her, because his interest did not lie in that direction — for princesses who marry princes become sultanas in due course, and he did not like his mother all that much.
THE CELIBATE OCEAN proved to be just that, endless and virginal, and within a few days the middle prince lost sight of his brothers’ ships, each of them borne by winds insistent on taking them in different directions. He stared at the empty expanse, sometimes blue, sometimes bottle green, sometimes broken by a peculiar iridescence, and moved inexorably towards the horizon.
Already he was struck by a profound ennui, missing the comfort of the palace library, the smell of old books and the ability to pace around. Within the confines of his laden one-man vessel, he was forced to stand if he wanted to stretch and extend a leg or an arm over the prow if he wanted to break the monotony of his position.
Tired of the monotony of water and the dull churn of the sea, he decided to try talking to the fish, remembering the Vizier’s advice to pay heed to the animals which was irrefutably backed up by all the tales he’d read.
The sea was filled with fish of all sorts; some swam just below the water’s surface, others jumped and suspended themselves for a brief instant in the sunlight, and a few moved slowly underwater, vague shapes that intimated terrible splendor.
“Fish, fish,” the middle prince said, “Have you any words for me?”
The unexpected cacophony of responding voices caused the middle prince to almost fall overboard in surprise: gasps and gibbers and hurried exhalations, half-drowned gurgles and gill-slapping exclamations, bubbling, splashing and rhythmic staccatos — innumerable voices, big and small and in-between. He could not understand any single one.
“Wait, wait,” he said, adjusting the turban under the helmet that had slipped down his head and caused him temporary blindness. “One at time, please. One at a time!”
And at once there was silence. It was as if the sea stopped moving and everything, every fish and cloud and wave, was fixed in time. Thousands of pairs of unblinking eyes regarded the middle prince.
“You would listen to us all?” a sinewy flash of silver asked suddenly.
“Why, yes,” the middle prince replied.
“To each one of us?” A pair of dun-colored eyes loomed from underwater.
“If it’s possible, I’d like to,” the middle prince replied.
“Are you sure you’re not looking for anyone specific?” a marlin asked gently.
“Not really. Well, unless only one of you has good advice to give.”
“We all have good advice to give,” another fish told him. “But not to just anyone.”
“I’ll listen to anything any of you is willing to tell me.” And the middle prince told them about the nature of his quest and how he had come to be in a one-man boat in the Celibate Ocean and how he felt that he was doomed to fail even if he listened to fish, which he still wanted to do.
One of the fish, a shiny bass, intimated that he had recently tried to assist a dark-skinned man in a similar boat, but barely escaped with his life when the man tried to skewer him; and how he’d had a better time with a kind young man who looked like old glass. To that man he’d given proper instructions to circumvent the hazards of the Deep Waters. To the cruel one, the fish had given directions that would bring him to the direst of perils.
The middle prince shuddered at the thought of his poor eldest brother’s destiny but was unsurprised by the success of his youngest brother.
“Well,” he told the gentle bass, “I am neither of my brothers. Will you help me?”
“Certainly,” the fish replied, “If you can tell me what it is you have there that smells so good.”
“Oh,” exclaimed the middle prince, suddenly embarrassed about his lifelong olive scent. “I have all sorts of food here for my journey. Would you like some?”
The bass happily nodded and the middle prince was about to give him an olive when he noticed all the other fish watching him.
“Would you all like some food?” he asked the assembled masses.
Once more, a chorus of dissonant cries greeted his words. The middle prince thought quickly, looked at all his stock, and determined that if he was left with nothing to eat, then he was left with nothing to eat — he was condemned to disappointment anyway. And if he was right, if he was kind and generous and selfless, then perhaps he had a chance to circumvent destiny.
Copyright © 2006 by Dean Francis Alfar