The Prince Who Loved Roses.
Once upon a time, in a kingdom renowned through all the lands for the green of its hills and the blue of its sky, there was a young prince. He was handsome, with hair as black as coal and eyes as blue as deep water. He was clever, although his cleverness was more the cleverness of careful thought and kindness than of blazing intellect and study. He was in all ways and all things as a prince is meant to be, and his parents were glad of him, because they knew that when their story ended, he would be ready to take up where they left off. The kingdom would be cared for. Do not think for a moment that his parents did not love him, for they loved him very much, but the concerns of kings and queens must be forever different than the concerns of people like us, and they worried for their land as much as for their son. The prince knew well what was expected of him, and he bore his destiny without complaint. Indeed, it seemed that never had any prince been more prepared to live up to expectations, and if he was other than expected in one small way, well. No one questioned it.
For the prince, you see, loved roses. Now, it may seem seem natural that a prince of a farming kingdom would love his garden, and indeed, that much is true, but he did not love carrots or potatoes or the things he could grow for his own table, which would have been understandable, and would have caused no whispers among the court. The prince loved roses, impractical roses, thorn-stemmed roses with their soft-petaled flowers and their peerless perfume. They had no purpose but to be beautiful, and the prince swore, to anyone who asked, that beauty was its own reward.
Because the king loved his son, he sent messengers to all the surrounding kingdoms, asking whether they might have roses that did not grow outside their borders. So it was that by the eve of his seventeenth birthday the prince had a garden unmatched in all the world, where roses of living ice grew beneath the sheltering leaves of roses that had been bred to twist and twine their way up the trunks of the world’s tallest trees, where roses that could not bear the touch of darkness blazed like the very sun itself, daring the night to fall, separated by a screen of silver from roses that glittered like stars and could not bear any light brighter than their own. He had roses of fire and roses whose roots gripped water like it was soil, roses so transluscent that they seemed carved from wind and roses that could be seen only in the moonlight, when they would reveal themselves as dark holes cut from the world. People traveled from all over the world to walk in the prince’s rose garden, and it became a popular place for lovers to walk as they had certain conversations, and made each other certain promises, for nothing, you see, inspires a lover’s heart like a rose.
When the sun rose on the prince’s seventeenth birthday his mother, the queen, called for her handmaids and bid them dress her in her finest gown. They brushed her hair and pinned it up with emeralds and sapphire, for those stones were common in their country; they scented her wrists and throat with rosewater. Thus prepared, she walked the long length of the palace from the room she shared with the king her husband until she reached the tower of the prince, her son, who she loved more than she would once have believed she could love anything. As she walked, she smiled, for the prince was near to becoming a man now, and would need to begin preparing for the pleasures and pains of manhood.
“Good morning, my son,” she said, opening the door to his quarters. “Good morning, and happy birthday; I have come to discuss the matter of your marriage.” Then the queen spoke no further, for she saw that her son was already gone from his bed. The windows stood open, and through them she could see him in the garden below, silver shears in his hand, walking among the roses.
The queen sighed, for she was a good mother, and she knew her son well, but still, she had hoped that this was going to be easier than it seemed determined to be.
When the queen reached the garden, she found her son kneeling beside one of his more common plants, a sweet kitchen rose whose perfume was strong, not subtle. “My son,” she began. “Good morning, and happy birthday—”
“Look, mother,” he said. “There has been a rabbit at the roots of this rose; you see here, and here, where the creature has gnawed the stems? It must have been a very hungry rabbit, to come here and dare the thorns when there are so many more tender plants to feast upon.”
“Rabbits are strange creatures, and not to be trusted,” said the queen. “It is your birthday. Or have you forgotten, in your concern over rabbits and roses and other things not befitting a prince’s attention?”
The prince, as I have said, was clever, and knew when he had roused his mother’s ire, although he was not entirely sure what he had done, for he began every day with his roses, and he considered a rabbit in the garden to be well worth worrying about. “Mother?” he asked, straightening. “Is something wrong? I have not forgotten my birthday, nor could I have, since the entire palace has spoken of nothing but for the past week.”
“Did it occur to you to wonder why this birthday, of all birthdays, was of such great concern to your people?” asked his mother, measuring her words carefully, for fear that she might lose her temper.
The prince shook his head. “I have been tending my garden. The roses from the ice are blooming well this year, and I thought I might be able to send a bouquet to the princess of that kingdom, to thank her for the gift.”
Relief washed over the queen. “A bouquet is an excellent beginning,” she said.
The prince frowned. “It is also an excellent finish, mother. I have no other roses that would bloom so well in frozen soil.”
There was a long silence between them then, as the queen searched for the words that would make him understand why she had put on such a lovely gown to wake him, and why she had come down to the gardens without changing her clothes. But ah, subtlety is an art for subtle times, and with a prince who, upon the morning of his seventeenth birthday, cared more for rabbits than for princesses, she felt that subtlety was perhaps an art best left abandoned.
“It is time for you to marry,” she said. “You are a prince, and one day will be a king, and kings do not grow roses. They have gardeners, and they smile to know that the work has been properly divided between noble and common hands.”
The prince felt his mouth go dry, and the perfume of the roses all around them seemed suddenly too strong to be borne, like it might overwhelm him. “M-marry?” he said. “But mother. I am not in love.”
“Love is not as important as lineage,” she said. “This weekend, there will be a ball. All the princesses in all the lands we know will be there, and one of them will be your bride. Take heart, my son, for you have met them all already, through their roses. Perhaps there will be one you find to be even fairer than her flower.” She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Happy birthday.”
Then she turned, the queen who had forgotten what it was to be a princess, and what it was to love something you were told belonged to other hands than yours, and she walked out of the garden, leaving her son, the prince, alone.
The prince watched after his mother for a time, unsure of what to say, before finally, he turned back to the bush he had been tending when she arrived. For roses do not know of birthdays, and they do not care whether the hands that tend them belong to prince or pauper. All they care is that they are tended, and that their needs are answered. The prince moved through his garden like a man asleep, and from every bush he took a single flower, until he held a bouquet as bright as day, as black as night, as cold as ice, as hot as fire, as solid as a forest, as thin as a wind, and as liquid and inconstant as the sea. He carried the flowers back to his room, where he set them in a vase beside his bed and went about the business of being a prince who was having a birthday.
We could follow him through his lunch, through the celebratory dinner, and through his parents speaking, ever speaking of the grand ball that was to come, but you do not want that, do you? Those are dull, uninteresting things, and there are better secrets in this story, if you will simply let yourself pursue them. So instead, we will move forward through the tale to see the sun set and the night fallen, and the moon riding white and distant in the deep black of the sky.
The prince had always been fond of the moon, for it bloomed like a rose in the heavens, dwindling to a bud and then bursting into full flower over the course of the month. He dreamed of someday coaxing his various roses together to produce a single rose as bright as the sun but with the pale light of the stars, as cold as ice but burning always with an inner light. He dreamed, in short, of making himself a moon, planted and perfect and living in his land.
That night, after his duties were done and his parents had left him, the prince went to his window and looked out on that ever-changing, ever-constant moon. His room smelled of roses, all the perfumes mingling together until he thought he could almost smell the promise of that one perfect rose, his moon-rose, which existed only in his dearest dreams.
“I am very lonely, and I do not know what to do,” he said. “I do not long for the company of princesses, for they are very nice, but I have met so many of them, and none of them have touched my heart as you have, or held my eye as my roses have. I cannot marry my roses, and as I cannot marry you, I do not know what will happen next. I could choose a princess, wed her, make her my queen…but I fear I could never love her, and I fear also that she could never love me, for there is no princess in the world who would not see that my heart was not hers. I am tired of disappointing my parents, but I cannot marry without love. I am tired of expectations. I am tired of everything, and I do not know what to do.”
That night, he slept in his room that smelled of a dozen different roses, and he dreamt that the moon was a girl in a gold and silver dress, with silver roses in her hair. When he woke, he was at peace, and he felt that everything would somehow be as it was meant to be. What’s more, and to the great surprise of his parents, he had found in himself a great enthusiasm for the ball that was to come, and he threw himself into the preparations with a furor that no one quite believed. He cut roses by the hundreds for the garlands and the maidens’ poseys, and when the day arrived, it found him dressed in his finest clothes before the clock could even strike noon.
At last, his parents shooed him from the palace, ordering him to take a walk in the garden while they finished the preparations, for the prince was very much underfoot, and was not actually much use when it came to tasks such as the folding of linen and the polishing of flatware. So into the garden he went, into the smell of roses…and the sound of small, sharp teeth gnawing through a woody stem. Cautiously, the prince crept toward the sound, and knelt to see a white rabbit in the process of devouring a kitchen rose.
The prince cleared his throat. The rabbit froze.
“There are other things that you could eat, besides my roses,” he said. “I would appreciate it if you would go and eat them, and let my garden be.”
The rabbit hopped cautiously out into the open, studying him, until finally it said, “You sound like the prince, but you do not look like him, and the roses tell me that the prince has not been here in several days. I do not believe this is your garden. You cannot forbid me to eat it.”
The prince was not accustomed to being argued with by rabbits, and frowned. “I assure you, I am the prince,” he said. “There is a ball tonight. I have been preparing.”
“Ah,” said the rabbit. “Well, if you will feed me, I will tell you a secret.”
“Why do I need a secret?” asked the prince. “I have a ball. Do you have a ball?”
“No,” said the rabbit. “But I have a secret, and you do not. If you feed me, you could have a ball and a secret, which any sensible man would agree is better than a ball on its own.”
The prince laughed. “What a strange and stubborn creature you are! If I feed you, will you stop eating my garden?”
“If you feed me, and invite me to your ball,” said the rabbit.
“Ah, but you can only come to my ball if you wear a fine gown and finer shoes, and if you do not chew on any of the table arrangements.”
“That is fair,” said the rabbit. “Now feed me.”
The prince, who was humoring the rabbit more than anything, took his silver shears and moved among the roses, clipping the largest flowers from each bush, until he laid a great armful in front of the rabbit. As for the rabbit, it fell upon this offering and one, two, three, every leaf and petal was gone.
“Here is your secret,” said the rabbit. “You must ask no questions, you must push no suits. But she loves you, and she will come.” Then it ran into the bushes and disappeared, and although he searched until his men came looking for him, the rabbit was nowhere to be found.
But oh, there was no more time to think of rabbits, or their secrets, because it was time for the ball to begin—and what a splendid ball it was! Every table groaned with food, every surface was polished to a mirror-sheen and decked with roses, and as the prince stood beside her parents on their thrones, the princesses began to arrive. They were beautiful and strange and wondrous fair, and none could be called the fairest of them all, for they were so different, and so miraculous. The princess of the daylight kingdom gleamed like her roses, and lit up the room with her laughter. The princess of the ice was pale and lithe and left frost behind in her footprints, and when she spoke, her wit cooled tempers and soothed sore egos.
Any one of them would have made a glorious queen, and the prince knew that as he danced with each of them in their turn. They were beautiful and wise and strong, and he could not marry them, because he could not love them, and they deserved better.
The last to arrive was a princess with hair the color of moonlight. She wore a gold and silver gown, and all the other princesses frowned when they saw her, not in the way a person frowns at something they do not approve of, but in the way a person frowns at something that they do not quite remember, that they might have seen once in a dream and then forgotten, for there are things we cannot truly know in waking.
The prince went to her, for it was his duty to go to all the princesses at his ball, and she smiled at him, and everywhere there was the smell of roses. And they danced, oh, how they danced, the prince and that princess of an unknown land, who claimed no kingdom, who brought no heralds to announce her name. And if she was not so brilliant as the princess of the daylight or so clever as the princess of the ice, not so determined as fire nor so strong as wood, there was still something in the silent slide of her steps that called him.
In time, he forgot what the rabbit had said, for she was so beautiful, and she was so perfect in his arms. “What is your name?” he asked.
Eyes cast low, the princess shook her head. “Do not ask,” she said.
And the prince was ashamed, for he had done what he had been bid not to do. They danced another time around the room, and the smell of roses was stronger still, all the roses mixing, until he smelled his impossible rose, the one he had never been able to grow. The urge seized him again, and before he could stop himself, the question was in the air between them: “What is your name?”
“Please, do not ask,” she said.
They danced a third time around the room, and the moonlight through the window was the color of her hair, and everything was silvered and still.
“What is your name?”
“Three times asked and three times refused,” she said, and pulled her hands away. Then she kissed him, fleeting as the moon on water, and she turned, and she ran out of the room.
The prince ran after, but she was already gone, and he found himself in the middle of his garden, alone, still in his finery, with princesses and parents left behind him. He heard a footfall and whirled, heart leaping…but it was only the princess of the kingdom of fire, standing in the dust, looking at him gravely.
“What did you say to the moon to make her run?” she asked. “Did you insult her honor? Did you break her heart? The moon is my friend, and you are a handsome prince, but handsome princes are more common than friends.”
“The moon. You danced with her for so long, and you held her so closely…did you not know?” The princess stared at him. “You did not know. You fool. You held the moon in your arms, and you let her slip away.”
And the prince knew what had happened, and what he had done, for everyone knows that you should not ask a lady a question she has already refused to answer. He looked down into the dirt at his feet and saw the footprints, delicate as any lady of the court’s. He saw the point where they dwindled into the marks of a rabbit’s paws, and were gone.
“I am in love with the moon,” he said.
The princess of fire, who knew well how much havoc the moon could cause without meaning to, said nothing.
“How can I be in love with the moon?” He looked up at the sky and found it empty, no white moon hanging there like a promise; but there was a new perfume in his garden. He followed the rabbit-tracks, and the princess of fire followed him, until they came to a rosebush he had never seen before, one whose flowers glowed softly silver, whose perfume smelled like the perfume worn by the strange girl who had claimed no kingdom, who had run when he asked her name.
“Ah,” said the prince, and so great was his grief that the princess left him then, for there is nothing to be said to a man who has broken the rules not once, not twice, but three times, and who has let his true love slip from out his hands.
The prince did not return to the ball, or to his bed, or to his palace; he has not returned to this day, and those who know the story say he left that very night with a bundle of moon-roses on his back and with hope hiding, burrowed deep, inside his heart. They say he is still roving, looking for a white rabbit that will ask for food in exchange for a secret. He hopes it will tell him the secret of finding the moon, of holding her hand and asking her to dance. He will not ask her name.
There are those who say that one day, he found her, and that his love was enough to change the heavens. But that is another tale to tell.
Now rest, my dear, and be at ease; there’s a fire in the hearth and a wind in the eaves, and the night is so dark, and the dark is so deep, and it’s time that all good little stars go to sleep.
Four Princesses Who Sought the Moon.
Once upon a time—which is a country all unto itself, my darling, for it contains years and days and hours that we have yet to touch upon or explore; it is a wild place, full of dangers and wonders, quests and choices—there was a glacier. We have been there before, you and I, and so you must know that on that glacier was a kingdom, carved from ice and sustained by clever magic. And oh, the cleverest of all the souls who dwelt in this ever-frozen kingdom was their princess, whose hands were cold, and whose hair was the color of the deepest ice of winter, which keeps its secrets even from itself. She was a glad thing, this princess, for all that she had not always been. She had learned to smile only recently, and her laughter was still the gladdest sound that any in the kingdom had ever heard, for they had lived so long thinking that she would never laugh at all.
Now, this princess worked very hard, for the spells which sustained her kingdom and its people were cast and powered by the royal family. She had few friends, either inside or outside the palace, which is a sadly common state for princesses, for who can understand their troubles? But always there was one friend that she could count on, one sweet and constant companion who would never leave her lonely. Every night, she would go to her room, and sit on the balcony of her great, wide window, and smile her sweet and new-found smile for her dearest, oldest friend: the moon.
It is the nature of moons to wax and wane; they are inconstant things, never showing the same face two nights in a row. So it was that the princess did not think it strange when the moon vanished from her sky, for all that she had believed the crescent moon of the previous night to be a trifle thicker than it normally was before a disappearance. The moon would return to her. The moon always returned.
But three days trickled by like meltwater down a glacier’s face, and the moon did not return.
The princess did her best to keep her spirits up, but as another day passed, and another, her laughter faded into silence and her smile withered like a snowflake in the sun. For if even the moon could not love her well enough to stay and bear her company, then how could any other friend that she might hope to have be true?
Soon, even the king and queen could see that their princess was fading. They came to her, survivors of their own stories, and asked, “What can we do, oh darling daughter, to spare you from this pain? You are our love and our light and the proof that love endures, even in the cold. How can we bring you back to us?”
The princess was clever, even with her heart on the verge of breaking. She knew how these stories were meant to go. So she stood as straight as her sorrow-laden shoulders would allow, and said, “Give me supplies for a week. Give me good shoes, and give me a map to the place where I should least have cause to wander. Give me your blessing, and let me go. The moon is my friend. The moon needs me.”
It is a hard thing for kings and queens, to have their daughters stand before them as women grown and ask permission to begin a questing story. Questing stories are not like princess stories, you see: questing stories have costs, and sometimes those costs are more than we can bear. But they had not come to their happy endings without struggle, and they knew what was asked of them.
“Here are all the things you have asked for, and my bow besides,” said the queen, who had been a huntress in her time, before she traded silver seas for frozen walls.
“Here are all the things you have asked for, and my harp besides,” said the king, who had been a messenger and a thief in his time, before he traded stolen silver for a golden crown.
The princess, who did not know the stories of her parents, and did not want to—for such is the wild heartlessness of the young, who must always and ever be the first ones to love, or lose, or set out on a quest to find the moon—took such gifts as she was given, and thanked her parents softly, and turned, and walked away.
She did not feel the cold, for she knew her kingdom’s clever magic better than anyone else in her parents' lands. She did not hunger, for she had made her choices well. She did not feel burdened by any of the things she carried. The princess walked, and her only burden was hope. She had walked for the better part of a day when something moved in the snow ahead of her. She stopped, hope looming huge and hungry in her heart, for she had made this journey before. “Hello, rabbit!” she called, and hoped—how she hoped!—to be answered.
But it was not a rabbit that appeared out of the snowswept fields; it was a girl of the princess’s very own age. Her hair was long and golden, bound back in knots like a rabbit’s ears, and her plain white dress was far too thin for the everlasting winter. “Is that my name?” she asked. Her accent was unfamiliar to the princess, who had heard so many visiting dignitaries come and go. “I do not think it is my name. Who are you? Where am I?” She stood, and her legs were unsteady, like she had been newly born. “Is it always this cold?”
The princess, who still had little skill at speaking with strangers, stared at her. The girl with the rabbit-ear hair stared back. They might be there yet, staring in silence, if not for the snow beginning to fall a little harder. The strange girl sneezed mightily, and fell backward into the snow, so that she became nothing but bare feet sticking into the air like an accusation of misbehavior.
The princess blinked. The princess smiled. And then, to her own amazement, the princess began to laugh.
“Oh, this will not do, this will not do at all!” she cried. “You’ll freeze before I even know your name!” Quick as an arrow, she ran to the stranger, crafting one of her kingdom’s clever spells with the motion of her fingers and tossing it over the rabbit-girl like a fisherman’s net.
The stranger sat up, wiggling her nose to stop another sneeze, and straightened up experimentally. “I am not cold anymore,” she said wonderingly. “What did you do? Who are you? Where am I?”
“This is the Kingdom of Ice, where it has not thawed in a thousand years,” said the princess. “I wove a spell of warmth to keep you from taking ill, for the cold is not kind to strangers. My name is Ami. I am the princess here, as my mother was before me. One day, all this land will be mine to keep and care for. But right now, keeping and caring for one stranger in the snow is quite enough!”
“It is very strange, is it not?” The stranger stood, still unsteady, and smiled at her. “I thank you, Princess Ami of the ice. My name is…I am not sure of my name, only that it is not ‘rabbit,’ although that seems good enough for now. So you will call me Rabbit, and I will call you Ami, and I will be very glad indeed that you have found me.”
Ami was accustomed to many things, but not to the open-hearted smiles of golden-haired girls who seemed happy as all the world to meet her. Her kingdom had not thawed in a thousand years, but it felt as if some small and unneeded vein of ice in her heart, which had survived all past adventures, finally allowed itself to break and melt away. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “I brought food enough for myself and a friend, but it seems the friend I was expecting has not come.”
“Then I shall be your friend instead,” said Rabbit firmly. “And I am always hungry.”
Together, Ami and Rabbit made short work of a good meal, and began to walk again. Rabbit talked without ceasing, asking questions, pointing to things that struck her as worth pointing to. And Ami found that she was not bothered by this new facet to her world, because in seeing her kingdom through Rabbit’s eyes, she saw it again for the first time.
As they walked, the air began to warm, and the ground to soften under their feet, for the ice that kept it hard was melting. Ami frowned. She had never seen mud before, and yet here it was, appearing in great patches between the drifts of snow. Twice she stopped to re-cast her clever spells, hardening the ice enough to let them continue walking. Finally, she let the spells go altogether, and concentrated instead of keeping Rabbit—who was less careful than she could have been—from sinking into the mud and being lost forever.
On they walked, until they came to the very edge of the kingdom. The land beyond was swathed in smoke and swaddled in ashes. Ami stopped, for she was afraid. Rabbit, however, gave a glad cry and ran on ahead to a clear, clean pool of water, surrounded by white-petaled flowers with blackened centers, like craters on the surface of the moon. “Come on, Ami!” she called, dropping to her knees, heedless of what the mud might do to her thin white dress. “The water is delicious.”
Ami started to step forward, only to stop again as two black-winged birds slashed down from the sky like knives, trailing ash and soot behind them. “Who dares to cross the borders of my kingdom?” demanded a voice. Ami raised her head, all but frozen in her fear, and saw a girl her own age standing at the edge of the burning land. She had hair as black as soot, and eyes as dark as ash, and as Ami watched, the two black birds came to rest upon her shoulders.
There are ways that introductions between princesses should go, rules to be followed and diplomacies to be observed. Ami knew them all. Rabbit knew nary a one. “Hello!” she called gladly, still on her knees in the mud. “My name is Rabbit. Her name is Ami. She is a princess, and I am her friend, and if this is your water, it is very tasty, and if it is not your water, it is still very tasty, and you should try some.”
The stranger—who was a princess in her own right, here in this kingdom where the land burned eternally, and where children were fed on ashes and fire—had encountered many trials in her time, and knew the answers to many riddles. She did not, however, know how to deal with Rabbit. She turned her eyes on Ami, questioning without speaking a word.
Ami found her voice then, and said, “I am the princess of the Kingdom of Ice, and I am here because this is where my quest has led me. I am searching for the moon. She is my friend, and when she last disappeared from the sky outside my window, she did not return. I miss her, and am worried for her, so I am seeking her even now.”
The princess of the burning kingdom frowned. “But that is why I am here,” she said. “I am the princess of these lands. When last I spoke with the moon, it was here, at this pool. She came to me as a white rabbit, and she left me when I needed her most, and she is missing from my sky as well as yours.”
“Then we must travel together,” said Ami. “Surely two of us can find the moon more quickly.”
“She does not count me, for I have yet to even find myself,” said Rabbit gaily, wiggling her toes in the water. “But what is your name? We cannot call you ‘princess’ all the time. It does not suit you.”
“My name is Rei,” said the princess of the Kingdom of Fire imperiously, “and I have not said that I will come with you.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Rabbit, with a smile as bright as all the fires that have ever burned in all the kingdoms of the world. “You will.”
They sat for a while by the waters of the pond, while Ami found the clever spell that would let her walk across the Kingdom of Fire unmelted, and let Rabbit walk across the Kingdom of Fire unburnt. Rei’s crows scolded them all until they found their feet and began to walk again, into the eternal coals of the ever-burning land. Here, too, Rabbit found delight in her surroundings, crying out with joy again and again, until even Rei was forced to smile at the beauty of her kingdom. On they walked, and on, and on, until they came to a place that even Rei did not know, where the ground cooled beneath their feet into hard-baked clay before softening into rich dark soil. Then, as if by magic, a line of mighty trees appeared, their trunks so tall that they seemed like nothing more nor less than a mountain of leaves and branches.
Rei, who had never seen a tree that was not burning, stopped and stared. Ami, who had never seen a tree that was not carved from ice, stopped and stared. Rabbit, who had never seen a tree, continued on, until she stood in the shadow of the great oaks, laughing with delight.
So brave was her laughter, and so great was her delight, that Rei and Ami felt the slightest touch of shame at their own reluctance. They ran to join her, and the three sat beneath the trees while Ami spun a clever spell to keep Rei’s fire burning even in shadows, and Rabbit ran to gather blackberries, fresh from the vines.
She was reaching for a particularly large, ripe berry when a hand closed around her wrist, and a puzzled voice said, “You are not a bird, to steal my berries all unknowing, and you are not a kitchen girl, to pluck them for our pies. Who are you?”
Rabbit blinked wide blue eyes at the hand sticking out of the bush, and said, “I am Rabbit, and only Rabbit, but you are a bush that talks, and I am very much impressed by that.”
The hand did not release Rabbit’s wrist, but pushed her back, and became a hand attached to an arm, which became in turn an arm attached to a young girl with hair as brown as bark and eyes as green as new spring leaves. She blinked at Rabbit. Rabbit blinked back. For a moment, the two stood in silence, which is how many good friendships begin: with confusion, and with a wary assessment of who is more likely to pull away and run. Then came the sound of a bowstring being drawn, and of a branch bursting into flame, and the stranger looked past Rabbit to Ami and Rei, who stood side by side, their weapons at the ready.
“I am the princess of these lands, and I do not wish to fight you,” said the stranger, still more puzzled than anything else. “Why do you threaten me with arrows and with flame?”
“Let our friend go,” said Rei. “Rabbit has done nothing to you.”
“Yes, I have,” said Rabbit helpfully. “I have stolen her berries and called her a bush, which I am sure is a grave insult in this land, as she has not released me yet.”
The stranger let go of Rabbit’s wrist. “I am not insulted to be compared to a bush; bushes are good growing things, and the forest needs them. Sadly I, too, have needs: I need to gather berries, for I am about to go on a long journey, and will need food to see me safely through what lies ahead.”
Rei, who had always had a talent for seeing what would often go unseen, frowned, and asked, “Have you misplaced the moon?”
“Yes,” said the stranger. “How did you know? She was my friend when I had none, and has stood by me all the days of my life, but now she is missing, and I fear she may be hurt, for what else could keep her from my skies? I must find her. She has cared for me. I will protect her as best I can, forever, as repayment.”
“We are looking for the moon as well,” said Ami, lowering her bow. “We have food, and we have each other, and we would be glad for you to join us, for it seems that Rabbit likes you, and while she may be silly, she makes me laugh, and she has not led us astray yet.”
“A rabbit helped me once…” said the strange new princess. She straightened, standing taller than any of them. “My name is Makoto, and I will be glad to join you on your quest.”
“That is good, for I like friends, and it seems that all my friends are to be the moon’s friends as well,” said Rabbit happily. “Now may we go back to picking berries?”
They did pick berries then, for a time, and came to know each other a little better. Oh, that we could take the hours to recreate the bonds of friendship, braiding them each over each, so that they would hold us all as safe and close as they held those four girls in the shade of that great wood! But once upon a time will ever and always be deeper and wider than now; now is limited on all sides, and must always ever fade into the shadowy face of then. So I will tell you this: that while they did not love each other yet, as sisters, they cared for one another as friends before they gathered their bundles of berries—for those girls who were of flesh—and their bundles of sticks—for Rei, who was of fire, however well she might at times conceal it—and started on again.
They had walked for a day and a night and a day again when Ami stopped, and said, “This is wrong.”
The others turned to look at her. “What do you mean?” asked Rei.
“It should be night now; the day has gone on too long. But still the sun is shining, and the dark does not descend.”
“That explains why Rabbit has been sleeping for these last few hours,” said Makoto, her arms looped under Rabbit’s legs. Rabbit snored on, her own arms looped around Makoto’s shoulders, dreaming whatever dreams are reserved for girls who wear their hair like a rabbit’s ears, and are always hungry, and are never full.
“No,” said Rei. “She does that because she’s lazy. Where are we?”
“This is not my kingdom,” said Ami.
“Or mine,” said Makoto.
“It’s mine,” said a strange new voice. They all turned to see a girl with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky leaning against the trunk of a nearby palm tree, arms folded, watching them. “And as it is mine, I believe a better question would be ‘why are you here’? Not that I did not enjoy your company before, you see, but I did not ask you here, and we have borders for a reason.”
“We have never met before,” said Makoto, stepping between the stranger and the others. She shook Rabbit a little, hoping the other girl would wake and free her hands.
Rabbit did not wake.
“At the ball? Where the prince with all the silly roses danced with the moon, and spurned us all, which really. The moon can have him, if he was so blind as to miss our loveliness.” The stranger frowned. “You.” She pointed to Rei. “You ran after him. I watched you go. There is power in being seen as the silly, careless one; no one cares where you might be looking. You told him the moon was your friend. I was going to look for you, but I did not know the way. Are you truly telling me not one of you remembers?”
Feeling faintly ashamed, although they could not have answered why, the others shook their heads. The golden princess sank to her knees, shoulders sagging.
“Then all is lost,” she said. “If we cannot remember where we last saw the moon, then how are we to find her? How are we to ever bring her home?”
“Don’t be sad,” said Rabbit, lifting her head from Makoto’s shoulder. “All is not lost. If you met once, and now you have met again, how can all possibly be lost? Things wax and wane. Stories become truths become stories. I have never met the moon, but it seems that if she loved you as you have all loved her, you will find her. The world is too well-mannered to behave in any other way.”
The golden princess looked up. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I am Rabbit, and I am hungry.” Rabbit squirmed until Makoto stooped to put her down. “These are my friends, and they are all princesses in their own lands, while I am only ever silly Rabbit, who has to be fished from ponds and pulled from trees. What is your name?”
“I am Minako,” said the golden princess, and climbed back to her feet. “I am the princess in these lands, and I am coming with you.”
They looked at one another and smiled, and for a moment there was a feeling of sublime calm shared between them, like they had found the final piece to a puzzle that none of them had set out to complete. Five faces; five smiles. Five parts to make a whole.
You may leave them there, if you wish; you may turn and walk away from our five brave girls, leaving them standing in the sunlight forevermore. Such adventures they will have, with their magic and their weapons and their friendships! Such trials and such triumphs, and all while searching for the moon, and all outside the bounds that edge this story. You do not need to follow them down darker paths. Close your eyes, my love, close your eyes and go to sleep, and let their story be unfinished. Let them be happy. Let them go.
But such is not to be their fate, is it? You are too awake; the story has you, and you will have it, drop by dreadful drop. So come, then. They have walked while we were speaking, and we must hurry if we are to catch them on the road…
They walked, our five brave girls—save for the times when Rabbit was carried, but we will not begrudge her that, will we, for Makoto did not begrudge the carrying of her—until it seemed that there was nothing to the world but walking; that they had never been princesses, never lived in any lands but the ones through which they traveled. They ate and slept and walked, Ami re-casting the spells that kept them from freezing or burning or withering in the darkness, Rei lighting fires every night with the faintest brush of her fingers, Makoto finding ripe fruit on barren trees, and Minako charting their course by the movement of light. In time, even Rabbit began to droop, her laughter pressed out of her by the journey. Until at last, they came to a great wall of thorns, and could walk no further.
Blackberries are sharp and thorny things, as are thistles, and roses. But this wall was sharper than any of those things, with thorns the length of a man’s arm that bristled with smaller thorns of their own, until the entire unbroken expanse was nothing but thorns piled upon thorns. In front of the hedge was a rock, and on the rock sat a man, rumpled and covered with thorn-briar scratches, a single white rose held in his hand. He looked up at the sound of footsteps, and stood, a frown upon his face.
“Has my mother sent an army of princesses, then, to fetch me home to her?” he asked, and his voice was small and weary from disuse. “I will not go. I saw the rabbit here, once. The moon sleeps in the castle beyond.”
“Do not think so much of yourself, prince,” said Minako. “We are princesses, but more, we are friends come in the name of friendship to save the moon and set her back into the heavens, where she belongs. You are not of our concern. Stand aside, and let us pass.”
“I would do so gladly, but nothing passes here,” said the prince. “I have tried to climb the wall a thousand times, and a thousand times have I failed. Even the rabbit has not been able to find a way back through the thorns to me. The moon is trapped by these thorns, and none of us shall save her.”
“You have failed,” said Rei. “We have not.”
“Not yet,” said the prince.
So wrapped were they in the ancient dance of argument that none of them saw Makoto walking toward the thorns like a woman in a dream; none save for Rabbit, who ran to her, and grabbed her hands, and said, “No. No, and no, and no again. Mako, do not do this. We can find another quest. We can find another story. You have carried me, and laughed with me, and been my friend. Let me be your friend. Forget the moon, and love a rabbit in her place.”
“I do love you, Rabbit,” said Makoto, and pulled her hands gently free. “That is why I must do this. I promised the moon my protection, and what sort of friend would I be if I broke my word? Only wait a little while, and we will be happy together. I will bake you so many pies that your belly will ache. I will carry you forever. But first, I have to keep my promise.”
Makoto placed her hands among the thorns, and oh, how it hurt her; a thousand knives, a thousand splinters, could not match the pain she felt as she forced her fingers tight and reached deep inside herself for the first gift the moon had ever given her, nestled close against the knowledge that she would never have found that gift without the rabbit who stayed so white, even amongst the mud and loam of the forest. She allowed herself one glance back at Rabbit, in her white dress that never stained or tore, but stayed somehow clean, no matter what. And then she called the lightning down, and the heavens split in two, and all the world was electric green and burning from within.
Makoto did not scream.
When the smoke and ashes cleared, the wall of thorns was gone, and Makoto with them; the others found Rabbit sitting at the very edge of where the wall had been, her arms wrapped around her knees and her face buried against her legs. “It is not worth it,” she moaned. “Turn back, turn back; it is not worth it. Let the moon become a story. Let the world move on.”
“Come, silly Rabbit,” said Rei, and pulled her gently to her feet. “You will have to carry yourself now. There is no one here to do it for you.”
“I remember the ball,” said Ami abruptly. “I remember you.” She looked to the prince. “You danced with a woman…”
“I danced with the moon,” said the prince.
Ami, who remembered the face of the woman who had fascinated the prince so, all through that long-forgotten night, said nothing. But she shed a tear for Makoto, who had been brave, and the ground froze where it fell.
Minako, meanwhile, had run ahead, refusing to let Makoto’s sacrifice be in vain. So it was that she was the first to find the next barrier: the wall of mirrors, that blurred and split the light, and left no clear passage. They were slick as glass, and reached to the sky, blinding in their brightness.
The others walked to join her, and looked in awe at the wall, which seemed unbreakable. “What are we to do now?” asked Rei, who had little experience with mirrors not smeared with soot and ash.
“We could throw rocks at it,” said Minako.
None of them saw Ami walking toward the wall like a woman in a dream; none save for Rabbit, who ran to her, and grabbed her hands, and said, “No. No, and no, and no again. Ami, do not do this. You were my first friend. You loved me when I had nothing, not even a name. We can find another quest. We can find another story. Let me be your friend. Forget the moon, and love a rabbit in her place.”
“I do love you, Rabbit,” said Ami. “That is why I must do this. Without the moon, I would never have learned what it was to be a friend, and without those lessons, I could not have loved you. Only wait a little while, and we will be happy together. I will teach you all the stories I know. I will laugh with you forever. But first, I have to save my friend.”
Rabbit looked at her sadly before releasing her hands. Ami smiled and touched Rabbit’s cheek with her cold fingers.
“Rabbit is a good name for you,” she said. “But it is not, I think, the name that suits you best. I remember.”
Then she turned to the wall of mirrors, and reached deep into herself for the most clever of all her clever magics, nestled close against the knowledge that she would never have mastered it had she not first learned the lessons of a rabbit who stayed so white that it was like the snow on which it ran. She allowed herself one glance back at Rabbit, in her white dress like the snows of the kingdom they had left so far behind them. And then she called the frost, and the world turned cold, and everything was frozen blue and the sound of shattering.
Ami screamed. But in the end, what loving heart could blame her?
The sound of screams drew the others like moths to a flame. They ran, but the cloud of ice was already gone, and Ami with it; they found Rabbit standing frozen where the wall had been, staring blank-eyed into the distance. “It is not worth it,” she said. “Turn back, turn back; I am not worth it. Let the moon become a story. Let the world move on.”
“Come, silly Rabbit,” said Rei, putting an arm around her shoulders. “You will have to lead yourself now. There is no one here to do it for you.”
“I know you,” said the prince.
Minako, who knew that this was not the time, shushed him and turned to look ahead, for she knew the way of stories, and knew that this was not the end. So it was that she was the first to see the next barrier, the wall of shadows, so dark and so dense that they seemed to have no ending. And she sighed, for she would have liked to belong to this story for a little longer; she had always hoped to find the white cat who had attended on her birthing, and ask him why he had done it, and ask him why he had left her. But there was no more time, and a princess always knows her destiny.
“Darkness is not so bad,” said the prince.
“We could throw rocks at it,” said Rei, and turned to share a smile with Minako…
…but Minako was gone, walking toward the wall like a woman in a dream. Rei shouted her name. Minako did not turn, and somehow Rabbit was there, grabbing her hands and saying, “No. No, and no, and no again. Mina, do not do this. We cannot go on without you, when we are already so few. We can find another quest. We can find another story. Let me be your friend. Forget the moon, and love a rabbit in her place.”
“I do love you, Rabbit,” said Minako quietly, as she pulled her hands away. “That is why I must do this. Without the moon, I would never have learned to be anything but beautiful, and beauty is not the strongest foundation for a friendship. Only wait a little while, and we will be happy together. I will tell you a thousand jokes. I will join you in a thousand games. But first, I have to earn my happy ending.”
Minako, who came from a land without darkness, stepped forward into the shadows. They were hungry; they grabbed for her, trying to obscure her light. She reached deep into her heart for the light that had been hers for all the days of her life, and allowed herself one glance back at Rabbit, in her white dress like the whiskers of a white cat who had come, and gone, and never given any reason.
Minako had always believed in making a good exit. She smiled, winking at Rabbit, and shouted, “I know your name, Rabbit! I have always known you! In the name of—” And then the dark crashed down, and the light rose up to meet it, and everything was so brilliantly bright that it seared away all the shadows of the world. For one brief instant, everything was clear. Everything was known.
Rabbit put her hands over her face and wept.
She was still weeping when the others reached her. Rei held out her hand…and stopped, looking at the wall of unbroken ice in front of them. Through it, she could see the outline of a castle. There were no pathways around. There were no tunnels through.
“I see the shape of the story now,” she said. “We were all of us only ever the brave companions. But it is not your story!” She whirled on the prince, who loved roses, who loved the moon. “Do you understand me? If this story is not mine, then it is hers, not yours. I do this for the sake of our friendship, and for a white rabbit who drowned because she loved me. I do not do it for you.”
The prince—who was a better man than some might think; he loved well, if not wisely, and never wished ill on any living soul—nodded. “I will care for her. I will see her to her story’s end.”
“Good.” Rei turned to Rabbit. “Silly Rabbit. Do not cry. You were only ever a dream, and a beautiful one. But dreams end. Even when the dreamer does not want them to.”
Rabbit uncovered her face. “What…?”
Rei shook her head and walked toward the wall. She did not walk like a woman in a dream; she walked like a woman wide awake, eyes open, chin up, ready to burn the world if that was what was needed. Rabbit ran after her, grabbing her hands and saying, “No. No, and no, and no again. Rei, do not do this. If you ever loved me, do not do this. We can find another quest. We can find another story. Let me be your friend. Forget the moon, and love a rabbit in her place.”
“I do love you, you stupid Rabbit,” said Rei, and her fingers were like coals; without Ami, all the clever spells were winking out, one by one, leaving Rei’s fires to burn unbanked. Rabbit squealed and pulled away. Rei continued softly, “That is why I must do this. If I kept you as you are, kept you for myself, I would be selfish. I would be undeserving of your friendship—of your love. Only wait a little while, and you will be happy. Without me, which is a bitter pill to swallow, but happy all the same.”
Rei placed her hand against the ice and closed her eyes. She did not look back at Rabbit; she did not need to, for the white of her gown was burned into Rei's heart like the white of the shining moon. “Burn,” Rei whispered, and the wall burst into flame. Everything was golden and blazing, and when the fire died and the smoke cleared, there was only Rabbit, Rabbit and the Prince, standing alone in front of a castle carved from gold and silver stone.
“They left me alone,” Rabbit whispered. “What use in coming all this way, if they were only ever going to leave me alone?”
“You are not alone,” said the prince, who knew her now; knew the curve of her cheek and the tilt of her head, even if they were not exactly as he remembered.
Rabbit looked at him dubiously. “What is your name?” she asked.
“Mamoru,” he said, and offered her his hand. She hesitated before sliding her fingers into his, and together they walked through the open castle door, and up the long and winding stair beyond.
They walked so long that it seemed there was nothing to the world but walking, and they came to know each other on the stairs. Until at last they reached the top, and their narrow world opened up into a bedchamber. In that chamber, a bed; and in that bed, a girl with silver-gold hair tied up like a rabbit’s ears, wearing a white dress that seemed to glow all on its own. Her eyes were closed. Rabbit looked on her, and was afraid.
“The moon,” whispered Mamoru, and took a step toward her.
But there was Rabbit, clutching his hand, holding him fast. “No,” she whispered. “No. If you do this, I will die.”
“You are here because she is sleeping,” said Mamoru. “You will live.”
“Is a dream truly alive when the dreamer wakes?” Rabbit looked at him with wide and earnest eyes. “Only one of us can stay. But maybe…” She pulled her hand from his. “Maybe she can dream another dream.”
Mamoru looked at her. Then, slowly, he nodded, and leaned down to kiss her forehead. Rabbit smiled, and stepped away, walking to kneel beside the bed of her sleeping self. What she whispered into her own ear is something that no living soul can say, for when the whispered stopped, the moon opened her eyes, and Rabbit was gone as if she had never been.
Tangled in bedclothes, the moon sat up, looking dazedly around herself, and said, “I had the strangest dream.” She stopped when she saw Mamoru. “You found me.”
“No,” he said. “You found me first. May I ask your name?”
“Serenity,” she said, and there was the sound of voices from the stairs, and Serenity smiled to see Mamoru’s confusion. “All sacrifice should be rewarded,” she said. “Even the sacrifices of a dream.” And she rose from her bed and moved to join him as they waited for the princesses to run, arms open, back into the story. They would have many adventures after that, and there would always be something laughing in the moon’s heart, for it is difficult to forget, even through serenity, what it is to be a Rabbit.
But that is another tale to tell.
Now rest, my dear, and be at ease; there’s a fire in the hearth and a wind in the eaves, and the night is so dark, and the dark is so deep, and it’s time that all good little stars go to sleep.