Once there was a prince of Ruyastan who was born in secret and hidden behind a false wall with a nurse to hush her and soothe and give suck. The prince and her nurse lived in narrowness for ten years, reading and watching the world through a crack no bigger than a needle. During those years, the dowager queen hunted down and killed, for jealousy, every one of the prince’s half-brothers and cousins, carelessly begotten in cities and villages and forgotten apart from notes in the royal genealogies.
But the prince’s mother had died in giving birth, and the crabbed old genealogists who pried and listened never learned of it. So the prince’s name was never written, and she survived.
After a decade of the Queen’s hunt, the cities and villages of Ruyastan cried out over the blood spilled, blood of farmhands, shoemakers, and councilors who never dreamed of their noble parentage. A mob rattled the palace gates with cannon and scythes until metal bent and mortar cracked.
But the Queen knew the mazes of power better than the taste of her own teeth. Clad in ashes and cloth-of-gold, she emerged on the palace balcony.
Spreading her hands, she proclaimed amnesty and pardon for those guilty of descent from her dead sons. Cozened by her honeyed words, the crowd subsided and dispersed.
This was all the Queen desired, though she was careful not to laugh, for sweet words aside, death could not be undone.
But one year and one day after the Queen’s proclamation, the prince’s nurse gave the prince clothes without patches to wear, pinched her chin for courage, and led her out of hiding. They walked across the city, the prince open-mouthed and speechless, turning her head this way and that.
At the palace gates, the last coins in the nurse’s pockets, applied to the proper palms, brought them into the presence of the Queen.
Before the amber throne, in whose depths floated husks of ancient insects, the nurse recounted the night that the Queen’s youngest son had spent with the provincial governor’s daughter. She presented a ring and a letter as proof.
But these were hardly needed, for the prince’s eyebrows, drawn like bows, were the same as her father’s, and his father’s, and his.
The royal smile soured. The prince stood blinking at the brilliance of the still, silent court.
Then the Queen arose from the throne and clapped her hands, and all the court, thawing, acclaimed the long-lost prince.
She owed the nurse great thanks, the Queen said. From this day forward the court would have the care of the child, to raise her as a proper prince of Ruyastan, for she, the Queen, repented of her thoughtless war with blood and brood. Family was family; blood was blood.
Thus was the prince immured in the palace, a larger yet more stifling prison than her hidden room. She was given tutors and hawks and lily-white hounds and horses as yellow as beaten gold. The nurse had raised her wisely, with sighs and truth, and so the prince knew to expect death in every cup, in every dish, and every night, after she blew out the lamp and cried herself to sleep.
Sometimes the Queen showed her the condescension one shows to dogs, and sometimes the Queen gibed at her clothing, or her countenance, or her character, as one kicks a dog lying in the way.
The prince’s only solace was in hunting, when she could ride out fleeter and faster than the servants who followed her, and with the strength of her arm bring down a brace of ducks or rabbits for the palace cooks. She would ride as far as she dared, whistling down her hawks, until the palace looked as small as a stone set in the white crown of the royal city, and the woods closed dimly around her, loud with birdsong.
By law, since the Queen was a dowager and not of blood, the prince was to succeed to the throne on her sixteenth birthday.
That date approached more swiftly than anyone wished.
Four days before she turned sixteen, the prince brought three fat pheasants to the kitchens. The oldest cook stopped her with a floury hand and said, her voice breaking, “The Queen has commanded me to make halwa for your birthday dinner. Just enough for you, and just as you like it, with pistachios and cream.” Then she covered her face with her apron and burst into tears.
The prince kissed the part in the cook’s iron-gray hair and said, “I thank you for it—I would rather no one else.”
In the morning the prince arose and saddled her favorite horse, who was pale as butter and swift as sunlight, and rode until the horse’s flanks were feathered with foam. Then she lay in the shade of a sycamore to eat the mulberries in her bag.
“Here, you, give me some!” said a voice in the tree.
An old man sat on a branch above her, swinging his legs and twisting his beard. The prince tossed him the bag of mulberries, and he caught it and ate handful after handful, spitting the stems into her hair.
After a courteous silence, the prince inquired, “How did you wind up in this tree?”
“I climbed,” the old man said, around a mouthful of mulberries. “Here I fish for the carp of vengeance, which swims through these waters every twenty-five years. Those who’ve seen it say its scales flash red.”
The prince spied a fishing rod balanced among the branches, an unbaited hook dangling from its line.
She said, “I wish you luck with your fishing.”
“And who are you to wish me luck, O Prince Who Weeps? You have none to give away.”
“You may know I am a prince,” she said, “but who calls me the Prince Who Weeps?”
“Your hawks hear you,” the old man said, “and hawks talk, and pigeons gossip, and finally a sparrow tells it outside my door.”
“It is true,” she said, “although I am sorry it is widely known. Then again, it will not matter much in three days.”
“What happens in three days?”
“If I live, I turn sixteen. When I am sixteen, I may claim the throne. But on the eve of my birthday I am to be poisoned with a dish of halwa.”
“You have good reason to weep,” the old man said. “I must admit that I myself occasionally indulge.”
“And who do you weep for, good father?”
“A wife and children.”
“You’ve lost more than kingdoms.”
“I have. But there are better remedies than weeping. Fishing is one, and so I fish. Riding is another. So you must ride.”
“Where shall I ride?”
“Half a day farther,” the old man said, pointing with his fishing rod, “to where the earth cleaves in two. That is the Valley of Wounded Deer, which is a wonder worth seeing before you die. Here is a pill that will uncover to you the language of animals for an hour. Use it well.”
He tossed the bag down to her, and in it the prince found a round black pill that reeked of bitter herbs.
“Thank you, kind father,” she said. “May all my luck, little as it is, go with you and your fishing.”
She rode onward through the dimming forest, until her horse tossed and shied at the brambles braided black before them. Then the prince dismounted, hobbled her horse, and proceeded on foot, pushing the thorns back with bare hands and dagger.
After hours of struggling through thicket and thorn, the trees seemed to suddenly part before her, their interstices filling with stars. The prince had but a moment to notice the starlight before her footing gave way, for in her weariness she had not attended to where she was going, and she tumbled down a steep slope on a billow of scree.
At the bottom of the slope she unfurled into a heap, groaning. Then other cries of pain rose out of the darkness.
“Who’s there?” the prince said.
No one answered.
In the dusty starlight she perceived great shapes among the trees, shifting and sighing, and her blood ran quick and cold within her. But as the stars turned, and no wild beast stalked her, and no teeth tore, her heart settled and slowed, and finally, exhausted, the prince slept.
When she awoke, bruised but whole, the sunlight that broke through the trees showed her a small valley rich with moss and brown bones.
Three deer dark as leaves in winter lay grievously wounded beneath the trees. Their breaths came forth in soft white clouds. One had bloody gashes along its side that scabbed and cracked and opened to show bone. One had seven arrows buried in its flanks. And one had a golden collar around its neck and a marvelous tree of silver and gold, finely wrought with fruits and flowers, set between its antlers. The weight of that wonder pinned the deer’s head to the earth.
The prince stared, then recalled the old man’s gift. The black pill’s taste was loam and silence, and its odor filled her nose and mouth.
The bleeding doe raised its head as she approached.
“What kind of place is this?” the prince asked the doe.
Its voice cloudy and confused, the doe said, “This is the Valley of Wounded Deer, where we whose deaths are unfinished come to die. No one enters without a wound, and by the bones you see, no one departs in the same form. Only as seeds and birds and songs do we pass from this place. But you are not a deer.”
“I am weary and hunted like a deer,” the prince said. “This valley is lovely and would be a fine place to die.”
“But you are not a deer,” the doe said again.
“I am a prince and can judge for myself,” the prince said. “You are badly wounded—how came you by this harm?”
“Men,” the doe said. “Hunters like yourself, with dogs. They were slow and stupid, but not slow and stupid enough.” Its eyes were deep as wells and gleamed with sorrow. “Princeling, hear me. The ways of wolves are kinder than the ways of men.”
It turned to lick its ribboned flanks, as well as it could, and spoke no further.
The prince came to the deer transfixed by arrows.
“From whose quiver did these come?” she said.
“Hunters like yourself,” the hind said. “Their aim was poor, but not poor enough. So you see me now. Listen, princeling. The ways of ravens are better than the ways of men.”
And the hind said no more, but looked at the prince with reproach.
The prince walked on, thinking on what she had heard, until she reached the buck that wore a golden tree.
“Beautiful one,” she said, “how came you to this place?”
The buck could not move its head, though the muscles of its neck strained and shivered, and tears pearled in its eyes.
“I lived in a king’s parkland, and it was his pleasure to capture and ornament me thus.”
“Then you know the injustices of kings and queens,” the prince said.
“That I do.”
“Like the others, you have suffered through no choice of your own.”
“On the contrary,” the buck said. “I could have hooked the king’s eyes on my horns and torn them out. I could have fled farther than men could reach, rather than dwell in his demesne. But I bent my head to him, because the ways of men and the ways of wolves and the ways of ravens are cruel, but the ways of God are perfect and beyond our understanding.”
“Does a creature like yourself know God?” the prince said. “I have had tutors and mullahs and before them the simple faith of my nurse, which was more persuasive to me than all of these, but even now I am not certain that I know God.”
“In every mouthful of green, in every drink of cool water, in the velvet of our antlers and in our deaths is the name of God inscribed.”
“Well,” the prince said. “God or no God, all I want is a peaceful and private death, far from the jeers of my enemies.”
“You will not find your desire here. God gave this valley to the harmless things. It is not meant for you.”
“Then what is meant for me?” the prince said.
But the buck only gazed at her, dumbly and without comprehension, for the hour of language had come and gone.
Wondering and amazed, the prince picked her way out of the valley. She found her horse grazing among the trees. For a long moment, holding the bridle, she looked back.
“I could strike the Queen first, with my dagger concealed on my thigh,” the prince said. “Some of her courtiers would come to my aid, for their hearts are full of hate. I could take the throne by force. And that is the way of wolves.
“Or I could flee as far as this good horse could carry me, and wait for her people to revolt. Then we would return in triumph to trample her bones. And that is the way of ravens.
“But what is the way of deer?”
The prince considered the matter, her heart as heavy as chased gold. Then she mounted her horse and spurred it toward home.
No tears wetted her face, but with a cold cheer she rode through the wood and through the city. All who marked her passage thought her brave, and they grieved in their hearts, for they knew their Queen.
It was evening when she reached the palace, where all the lights burned hectic with final preparations.
“How good of you to come back for your birthday,” the Queen said, her eyes cold. The prince saw that the Queen had hoped and feared that she would flee—hoped, for then the throne would be hers without question, and feared, for the prince might then someday return.
The prince bowed silently and went to her chamber, where she did not sleep but knelt all night in prayer. And in the morning there was lightness as well as sorrow in her heart.
She walked in the garden and admired the flowers as if she had never seen them before, bid a pleasant morning to the cooks at their fires, and fed and made much of her horse and hawks and dogs.
“There is beauty in this place,” the prince said to herself. “But it was never meant for me. God gave it to the great and powerful, and I am neither of those things.”
Soon, too soon, the appointed hour arrived. The prince bathed and dressed and was escorted with fanfare to her birthday banquet. Every kind of dish that the realm could produce was spread before the court: rice studded with sultanas and jewels of meat, spitted larks and stuffed nightingales, fish in cream and fish in wine, skewered goat and boiled geese, boar and venison and lamb.
“All of this is in your honor,” the Queen said, waving her ringed fingers over the repast. “Tomorrow you shall be crowned, but today you are still a prince. So tonight I have the privilege of spoiling you.” She tore off a leg of swan and drained her cup, then gestured toward the prince. “Go on, eat—eat!”
The prince took a moon of bread and ate a dry morsel.
“What, you won’t eat?” the Queen said. “So fastidious. So kingly. But I see that we lack your favorite dish. That must be remedied at once!” She clapped her hands, and the servants brought forth a single bowl of halwa.
The Queen smiled.
“My beloved prince, dearest and sweetest of grandchildren, say that you’ll taste what we’ve prepared for you!”
Up and down the table, courtiers flicked glances at each other, lips twisting with knowledge, amusement, and pity.
The prince looked at the Queen, bowed, and ate until the bowl was clean.
“If you will forgive me,” the prince said to the Queen, who was rubbing her hands together and chuckling, “it has been a long day, and I will withdraw. But do not let my absence trouble you or lessen these festivities.”
“Graciously said!” the courtiers cried. And they carried on feasting and roistering as if the prince had never been.
The prince returned to her chamber and stretched out upon her bed, waiting for death to creep over her. His touch would be cold, she thought, and painful, and then she would feel nothing at all.
• • • •
In the morning, to her astonishment, the prince awoke.
She looked out the window at the sunlit city, then walked through the empty palace to the banqueting pavilions. The silk tents fluttered like flowers in the morning air. When the prince saw what was beneath, she was for many minutes unable to speak.
The Queen and her court sprawled among the broken meats, their tongues swollen and lolling. Half-eaten fruits softened and browned. Where wine had dried as black as blood, flies clustered and combed their claws.
“What’s this?” the prince said. “How could this be?”
The old cook rushed in and flung herself down.
“It was my doing,” she cried. “Kill me, and me alone!”
Behind her came the other cooks, shuffling and whispering, eyes round. At last one of the scullions said, “She rallied us all. A shame and a pity to help murder the last prince, she said, and a waste of good food, too. And which of us has not felt the Queen’s heavy hand? So we sauced everything with poison and put the cure in the halwa. If you kill her, you must kill all of us. And even that will be fine, because you will be King.”
“We’ve already baked the pastries for your coronation,” the old cook said, still flat on her face. “Only we told the Queen they were funeral cakes. So our deaths will not be an inconvenience.”
“Enough,” the prince said, pulling the cook to her feet. “Hasn’t Death had his portion, and more? None of you will die. But neither will I be King.”
“And why not?” the cook demanded.
“Because you would be a better King than I,” the prince said. “Because I have no heart to rule over anyone, not even a beetle. And because the ways of God are better than the ways of men, better than the ways of wolves or ravens—indeed, they are the best of all.”
She clasped the cook’s cracked hand. “You’ve prepared the cakes for your own coronation. I will see you crowned, and then I shall take bread and mulberries and go out into the world.”
“But where will you go?”
“Where God grants to me to go.”
“And what will you do?”
“What God gives me to do.”
Then the prince said no more, but bowed to her King.
The Queen and her courtiers were buried swiftly, with lavish honors and a minimum of grieving. By evening the cook sat upon the amber throne.
The prince in the meantime dressed in the cook’s castoffs and set out on foot. She walked, light as a deer, through city and country, only stopping once, where an old man tended three graves by the road.
“Did you catch your carp, good father?” she inquired.
“I most certainly did. It was a feast fit—begging your pardon—for a King. Here, you can have your luck back.”
“It seems I do not need it.”
“Then I’ll keep it. The luck of a prince is not given every day. Go in peace.”
“May peace find you as well.”
He looked down the line of graves, over which the ferns were beginning to grow. “Perhaps it will,” he said.
Onwards the prince went. Time unbraided its stars, and the earth spun, and she was all but forgotten. But every few years, word came to the Cook-King of a beggar whose joy blazed like a meteor, or an itinerant teacher whose words fruited in the mind, or a stranger who went gleaning and singing through the fields, and the King, who had few secrets, allowed herself a secret smile.
Many years later, in a nut-sweet autumn, there came halting into the Valley of Wounded Deer a hart hoar with age, muddied and scarred by living, its antlers pointed like a crown. The hart couched low on the yellowing grass and sang a soft, consoling note. Had you understood the language of deer, you might have heard it say: “The ways of deer are better than the ways of men, but the ways of God are perfect.”
Then the hart closed its eyes, and the only breath in that valley was the wind’s.