refreshed by her nap, and fortified by a cup of tea, the comtesse, as she had promised, began her tale.
marie, now a little more accustomed to her mistress’s casual manners, leaned back comfortably in her chair.
the fire crackled behind them.
once upon a time there was a beautiful young princess.
she lived in a faraway castle at the edge of a faraway sea.
everybody in the kingdom loved her, because she was so good and beautiful, and looked forward to the day when she would become queen.
but before she became queen, she had to marry a prince.
until she was old enough to marry, her stepmother had acted as regent, with the counsel of the royal wizard.
because the princess was so good and obedient, she promised her stepmother and the royal wizard that she would marry any prince they chose.
they arranged for the princess to marry the seventh son of the emperor of heaven and earth, who lived in a castle on the shore of an even more faraway sea.
the day arrived. it was a bright and sunny day , not too warm or too cool, with a few white clouds and with a pleasant breeze.
a stage was set up on the dock where the princess, her stepmother, the royal wizard and other officers and handmaidens of the court could look out over the harbor and await the imperial armada which was expected to accompany the prince.
the princess was arrayed in a simple yet tasteful sky-blue gown, with a single red flower in her hair.
all the peasants and servants and dwarves and seamstresses and milkmaids and little shopkeepers in the kingdom had been given the day off to come down to the harbor to witness the arrival of the new prince.
other, more enterprising citizens set up booths from which they could sell drinks, pastries and other wares to the crowd, and, they hoped, to the horde of sailors and imperial functionaries who would accompany the new groom.
suddenly a single ship appeared on the horizon.
a single ship, unaccompanied by any armada. or at least by any armada yet visible.
the crowd, which had been quite loud and merry, grew quieter. a few stray bursts of laughter and drunken song still floated over the water.
the ship entered the harbor. the breezes had died down, and the water which the ship cut through was calm and dark.
“perhaps,” the royal stepmother observed to the royal wizard, “this is not the prince at all, but another ship altogether, which has chanced to arrive on this day.”
but her hopes were dashed when the ship stopped in the middle of the harbor.
the ship dropped anchor and raised the flag of the empire - a small flag, but clearly the white, black, and gold flag of the empire of heaven and earth.
as the apprehensive royal party and perplexed citizens watched, a small boat was lowered.
the boat was occupied by a mere five figures. one standing tall in the front, two others seated on either side of him, and two sturdy fellows who began plying the oars with smooth. powerful strokes which quickly brought the little craft within sight of the royal stage.
though she had confided her hopes to no one - as she had no one to confide them to - the princess had dared to dream that her prince would be - a prince - young, handsome, courteous, civilized, with perhaps just a touch of fire in his chiseled face and deep eyes.
but a glance showed that it was not to be. the figure standing in the boat had an upright imperial carriage, and was dressed tastefully enough ( though in dark clothing not to the princess’s fancy or what might be expected of a joyous bridegroom ), but in no other wise seemed to conform to her hopes.
in fact, he did not have the face or form of a human at all, but those of a wolf.
the boat struck the shore. alighting by himself, the wolf-prince ascended the steps of the royal stage.
the princess, the stepmother, and the other members of the entourage, trained from birth to courtesy as they were, had recovered from their initial shock and presented their visitor with faces of truly royal politeness.
the stepmother stepped forward. “the kingdom of y————— greets you on this happy day, prince johan,” she declared smilingly. she curtsied. “i am the dowager queen j—————, at your service.”
the prince nodded. “greetings, madam. i am indeed prince johan, come to add this wretched little town you are pleased to call a kingdom to my collection of such.” he sighed, and fastened his gaze on the princess. “and this, i presume, is the bride.”
the princess bowed. “i have that great honor, my prince.”
“you look a proper wretched little milksop,” the prince replied. “perhaps i can make something of you.” he sighed again. “more likely not.”
turning away without waiting for an answer, the prince looked out at the assembled crowd, which had started to buzz restlessly. “and what is this rabble?”
“they are your loyal subjects, come to welcome you,” the stepmother ventured.
“have they nothing better to do? do they not have work to keep them out of mischief?”
“indeed they do,” the stepmother answered, a little less confidently. “but a holiday was declared today. since your arrival was so eagerly expected.”
“ah,yes,” the princely wolf replied. "but peasants, no less than princes, should be wary of eagerness. do you not find it so?”
the stepmother considered her answer carefully. “eagerness is not something we are much accustomed to. here in the kingdom of y———— , one day has always gone on pretty much as the one before.”
“at least,” the royal wizard added, “until today.”
“and who are you,” the prince asked him, “that you speak to me without my leave?”
“i am h—————, the royal wizard, at your service.”
“i have no use for wizards. and i am not to be spoken to without permission.” the prince gestured out at the crowd. “have these people dispersed.”
as he spoke, the two attendants who had had ridden to shore with him ascended the steps and appeared before the royal party . they stood upright, but had the visages of nameless beasts. they wore dark, rough clothing, but carried no weapons, at least none visible.
a youngish man separated himself from the royal party and walked boldly up to the prince.
“may i speak?”
“speak, but first identify yourself.”
“i am the count g—————, the royal chamberlain.” he neglected to mention that he was a particular favorite of the stepmother and owed his position to her. “you speak boldly, my lord, and are quite ready to give orders, despite the fact that your nuptials with the princess have yet to be performed. may i ask with what confidence you do so?”
for the first time, the royal party heard the prince laugh. it was not a reassuring sound.
“you are a bold fellow, at least. you wish to know the source of my authority, do you?”
“i realize you have the empire behind you. “ answered count g————. “but is the empire here?”
for answer the prince turned and pointed across the harbor.
suddenly, dark-sailed ships , dozens of them in a line. appeared on the horizon.