Comes the Prince
There was a suitor, once. He was a prince of Ea, who came to Gont in search of a bride. His name has since grown into a Gontish legend, and older folks laughingly bestow it on the island's more idealistic and romantic youth, those who are foolish about (but not with) love. It's an affectionate appellation, but also a rather impatient one, to be known as a "second princeling."
His story goes like this. Tales had traveled to the court of his father, the King of Ea. They told of a White Lady, a girl of great beauty who had helped the mage Sparrowhawk bring the lost Ring of Erreth-Akbe back from the barbaric Kargish lands. Pretty minstrels sang the stories late into the summer nights, as their long fingers plucked the strings of golden lyres.
The stories charmed the prince; he had never seen a pale-faced woman. He imagined that they were lovely beyond compare. The mysterious lady began appearing at night in his dreams. The dreams always ended with her singing, and a flock of white birds flying out from between her coral lips.
The prince despatched messengers and spies. Some returned with incredible tales. The White Lady was a shape-shifter, they said, and had transformed into a gull and flown from Havnor. Some claimed she was one of the mysterious dragon women. Others insisted that she had perished on Havnor of a broken heart, tormented by the treachery she had committed against her native land. But the majority returned with a simpler tale: she was on Gont, they whispered, the ward of the mage Ogion.
With the king's consent, the prince outfitted a ship and sailed forth with jewels and courtiers. It wasn't a long journey to Gont, but impatience gnawed at him every moment of the voyage. He couldn't wait to behold his beloved; and he'd always dreamed of an autumn wedding.
He arrived at Gont on a fine morning in late summer. The sky was a clear, bold blue, and the wind gusted, whipping the waves into whitecaps. A crowd gathered as he docked, and the people of Gont watched with curiosity as the prince and his entourage disembarked. Such fine personages seldom visited their shores. But the prince merely smiled at them. "I have come to make the White Lady my bride!" he called out cheerfully, puffing his chest. The crowd laughed, but he thought they did so only in joy. He sent a servant to approach an old woman, who told him how to reach the house of the Mage Ogion, Tamer of Earthquakes, in exchange for some small coin.
The prince and his entourage of courtiers and servants then began the journey up the mountain of Gont. The prince rode his favorite stallion, Herral, and held his head high and proud. He couldn't remember being so happy before. They rode all morning and into the afternoon, the horses snorting and tossing their tasseled heads as they trudged higher and higher.
The procession eventually came to a modest wooden house on the outskirts of the town of Re Albi, where a girl was weeding a vegetable garden.
The prince's heart skipped a beat. This girl must be one of the White Lady's maidens. Her skin, though rosy from the sun, was paper pale. She'd seen their approach and was waiting for them, one hand shading pale eyes. They were strong hands, he noticed, and clumps of dry soil clung to the long fingers.
"Hello," she greeted them, her face solemn and her voice puzzled. "Who are you? If you're looking for the Lord of Re Albi, you've taken the wrong road."
This prince started. Never before had a stranger addressed him so boldly. And the girl's eyes made him uncomfortable. They were too light and stared directly at him, rather than being politely downcast as they should be.
Still, he dismounted with a flourish and the help of a duke. "Lady," he said, bowing grandly. "Doubtless you belong to the court of Tenar, the White Lady. I've come to your island on a most desperate – and yet thrilling – quest. I am the second son of Rynalth, the King of Ea. I desire an audience with your Mistress, who, Morred willing, will soon be my wife and life's companion. Would you kindly take me to Mage Ogion, whose permission I desire before seeking your mistress's hand?"
The girl neither moved nor spoke for several seconds. She stared at him from under lowered eyebrows, fiddling with a strand of black hair. Then she grinned. "Ah," she said gravely. "You are madly in love with the White Lady then?"
"Oh, decidedly," sighed the prince in rapture.
"Well. If that's so, I shall fetch Ogion at once, and tell him that another one has come."
The prince shuffled his feet, uneasy. Another one? Surely, his heart's lady had waited for him to come to her? He watched the girl with woebegone, beseeching eyes. He expected her to go behind the house and return with a golden mare, which she would mount in order to lead him to his lady's castle. But instead, she merely bowed and then entered the house. "Father," he heard her say. "We have…a visitor." He wasn't sure, but he thought he then heard laughter.
She reemerged with an older man at her side. The man wore a brown cloak and held an oak staff in one hand. His face was still and dark. The deep eyes went first to the prince's face and then flicked behind him to take in the many courtiers and servants accompanying their master. "Ah," he said simply.
The prince plunged forward. "Oh, great mage," he cried. "I am a prince of Ea, and I have come to your fair land to seek the hand of your ward, Tenar of the Ring, in marriage. However, I desire your permission before addressing your daughter on the matter."
The mage Ogion placed his hand upon the shoulder of the girl. "Yes," he said. "My daughter Tenar here has told me as much. We welcome you, prince."
The mage's words gave the prince a shock unlike any he had felt before or since. He looked at the girl again, baffled. She wore a brown skirt and tunic, both of which had seen better days. Black hair, long and uncombed, hung down her back. Her posture was good and correct, but also somewhat distant. He could see now that her manner was indeed somewhat imperious, but there was no corresponding graciousness to temper it. Her feet were large but did look as if they knew how to dance…dance wildly, he thought in a panic.
The eyes though, staring steadily at him, were the worst. They contained laughter, to be sure, but they also held sadness and even a little bit of cruelty. And the prince cared only for laughter.
The girl – no, Tenar – curtsied. "I apologize for meeting you clad so plainly, highness," she said. "And I have no…ladies, though I guess you could say I did at one time. You see, I am a girl of Gont now, and I live as the Gontish do. I wore a princess's dress but once, and then it was naught but illusion."
The prince rallied himself. The years of royal training he had received demanded no less. "And yet you look perfectly…healthy," he replied, unable to provide any other word.
A smile flickered over Tenar's face. "You're very kind."
The mage dropped his hand from his daughter's shoulder and leaned upon his wizard's staff. "You are welcome here, highness," he said. "But I regret that I cannot offer you accommodation. My house is small, with beds only for my daughter and myself, and little floor space to sleep upon for a company as great as yours."
"Oh," the prince said, disappointed. He had hoped at least for an evening of entertainment: jugglers, minstrels, and even, perhaps, a talking bear.
The captain of the prince's ship stepped forward. "Worthy mage," he said. "Do not trouble yourself. We brought tents and provisions and can provide for ourselves. All we need is a place to make camp."
"Oh, the open space there should do very well." The mage waved one hand to a nearby field of grass and buttercups. "I do worry about the chickens, though. They sometimes get loose at night."
"Chickens!" The prince blurted.
"Oh, yes," said Tenar solemnly. "The coop needs repairing badly." She turned to the mage. "Perhaps I should do it next week, father?"
"Thank you, my dear." The mage smiled upon her.
The prince shivered.
Ogion now turned and looked at the prince in patient expectation. The prince, however, said nothing, now fascinated by the piglet that was sniffing around his boot. "Well, lad," the mage finally said, voice gentle. "I believe there was a question you desired to ask of me?"
The prince's gaze snapped up. He scrambled to recover himself and managed to choke forth the appropriate words about love, beauty, passion, and honour. A father's permission too, of course, for he believed in tradition.
Ogion smiled and nodded while listening. When the prince's logorrhea subsided, the mage spoke again, briefly but plainly.
"I do not speak for my daughter. Say what you will to her. She'll answer as she pleases."
The prince turned to the girl and mumbled a request for permission. Tenar's eyebrow quirked in response, and she looked thoughtful for several seconds. Finally: "Yes, highness, I suppose you may ask me to marry you, if that's what you really wish."
The prince flung himself on one knee before her and blurted out unceremoniously the elaborate proposal he had prepared and labored over weeks before. Tenar listened patiently and did well to keep the smiles from her face.
"Highness," she said after he had finished. "That was lovely. I especially enjoyed the part where you likened both my eyes and the burning fires of your heart to the stars in the heavens. It was like poetry. I think, however, having had less time than you to ponder the magnificence of our union, that I must request the evening to think the matter over. Can you wait for an answer till morn?"
"Aye, lady," the prince replied, completely miserable.
The camp was pitched, and the prince spent the evening visiting at the house, sitting by the fire with the mage and his daughter in their one room house. Ogion spoke little, but Tenar politely asked the prince questions about his home. She was sincerely curious, having traveled little, but soon learned that the prince's knowledge of his own country was limited to what he had seen on royal hunts and excursions. He seemed more interested in describing the grandeur of his father's palace than anything else. Tenar, naturally always a little nervous about fine houses, was disappointed. Nevertheless, she told him little things about Atuan in return: the sage that blossomed there during the summer, and the western desert wind that always smelled of spices.
The prince retreated to his own tent as soon as courtesy permitted, where he huddled sadly against a sudden summer downpour that had blown in from the sea shortly after midnight.
He departed the following morning (the chickens hadn't gotten loose after all). Before he left, Tenar took him aside. She had given his offer considerable thought, she said gently. She'd heard of his greatness. He was a worthy prince, and the proposal he'd made her was very honorable. But his very greatness made her hesitate, for she hadn't been royal even in her own homeland, and her concern for his position and respectability overcame even her love for him. Indeed, it was her immense love for His Royal Highness that led her to reject his very tempting offer
Equally polite and correct had been the prince's reply. He understood her scruples and honored her for their expression. He would always consider her the jewel of his heart. Her rejection of his hand had shattered his fondest dreams and wishes. But if that was her opinion of the matter, he was no man to importune a reluctant maid into marriage. She curtsied, and he bowed over her hand, his lips bestowing a chaste kiss upon her fingertips.
He then departed Gont hastily, eager to travel to the next island. One of these blasted rocks, he thought, must contain a princess worthy of his devotion. He was determined to return home with a bride. Preferably, the lady in question would be pleasingly plump, with copper brown cheeks and rosy lips. She would not be someone who studied him with pale eyes that looked like lanterns burning forever in the darkness. He dreamt of those eyes for many years afterwards, and the dreams were never pleasant.