Impossible Task

This is a story that has been around the block and back and then around the block again. I can understand why it doesn't sell: it has a "Lady and the Tiger" ending for one thing (ironically enough, I've always hated "Lady and the Tiger" endings, but since I know how my stories end, it's okay when I do it); for another, the story is rather substanceless; there is really no big A-HA (just a little a-ha). To make it work, I would have to invest a lot more into the psychology of the characters.

Which isn't going to happen.

But I do like it. One of the earliest experiments I did with writing (way back when I was a teen) was changing all the heroes of fairytales to villains and all the villains to heroes, which shows that I had a proclivity for anti-heroes fairly early on. This story was written in my 20's, not my teens, but it reflects that reverse characters approach.

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Alfred was an arrogant prince, so the princess, Polly, set him an impossible task: "Find the emerald of Terano." And the arrogant prince, Alfred, went away, swearing to do the impossible to show her, to have her. He would.

He was an angry, young man. He bought a boat and hired a crew and sailed away, and that, Polly thought, is the last of him, thank goodness.

Alfred never returned. Sulking in his castle, Polly thought. Ah well, pride proceeds the fall.

Prince Robert, Polly's next suitor arrived. He was handsome and nice, terribly nice. Polly gave him a much easier task than Alfred's. Robert returned within a month. He presented his prize, a flower from the Forest of Malino. The prime minister declared it authentic. Wonderful. Polly's insides wrapped themselves around her heart in ecstasy.

Robert proposed a visit.

"I would love to see your country," Polly said, feeling some gushing was appropriate.

"I would love for you to see it," said Robert, and it was settled.

Robert's councilors greeted Polly effusively. Such a pleasant young woman, they said. Such a splendid couple you and Robert will make, they said. Such a profitable match, they did not say, but Polly agreed. Her prime minister was pleased.

Robert and Polly drove through the countryside and boated on the lake. They swam at the beach and strolled in the evening down half-hidden walks.

O wondrous days. O fabulous hours.

Calamity arrived in the guise of a shadowy man named Marcus. He trudged into the sitting room where Polly and Robert sat tête-à-tête.

Marcus was Prince Alfred's servant. Marcus wanted news. Did they know where Alfred was? Had they seen him since he left for Terano?

"He stayed here on his way," Robert said. "I haven't seen him since."

Polly, numb and agonized, shook her head.

"We look," Marcus said. "We will continue searching."

He departed, as endurable and ineffable as he had come.

Polly said, "I should never have given Alfred such a difficult task. What if he died in Terano?"

"He knew the risks," Robert said.

"I should have given him an easier task."

"He would have been offended. Remember, I met him, Polly." Robert smiled. "Most impulsive."

"I feel guilty."

"You must allow for his choices."

He diverted her gently with talk. He spoke intelligently about history, politics and his family. He had an aunt who never left her house because she feared her beauty would overwhelm the populace. He had a cousin who trained bees. Polly laughed and forgot Alfred. She and Robert picked a wedding day.

Marcus again marred Polly's serenity. He approached her on the path along the river when she was alone.

He said softly, "Please, princess, for Alfred's sake, visit the last cottage behind the shops," and was gone.

She slipped out the next day. Robert was meeting with the council of ambassadors to discuss the merging of his and Polly's countries: the implications of trade, policy and what-not.

Polly wore a cap, coat and pants. She tiptoed down the back stairs through the empty kitchen and across the cobbled yard. A stable hand said, "Hey, young man, where are you going?" but Polly didn't stop. She sprinted out the stable gate and down the street to the village.

How lovely not to see it from the carriage. Women bustled in and out of shops, swinging their baskets and laughing great, big, belly laughs. "Hello, Mary. How's that lazy, good-for-nothing husband of yours?" "Let me tell you. You haven't heard nothing yet." And little boys, their hands outstretched, "Please, sir. Ah, please sir. Just a penny," until the big, angry mamas pulled them away, "What are you doing? Begging? You ain't no beggar."

Everyone was talking about Polly and Robert. "That young princess, now, she seems pleasant enough. Good enough for our Robert. A nice girl. The prince sure does love her."

"Not too pretty, but I never did trust good looks," said the grocer's wife, but the drunks coming out of the tavern, knew better and sang quavering songs about Polly's beauty. Polly fled, ears burning.

She found the cottages through an alley. They overlooked a narrow road behind the shops. They were pretty houses with friendly windows and cluttered yards. White socks, yellow shirts and shorts with holes in the pockets dragged soggily from the clotheslines. Dogs and cats gazed limply from behind fences. A few children clung to the gates to watch Polly pass.

She thought the last cottage untenanted. It was such a sad house with drooping gray colors, but, "Pardon," said a voice, and a man limped around Polly and opened the gate. He carried a small bag of groceries. He set it down to relatch the gate, and she saw that his right hand was crippled, all the fingers frozen in a fist and the thumb gone.

Such a sad, little house and a sad, old man.

He looked at her across the gate. She saw he was not old. His face was ragged with scars but rather grand for all that. He was still so arrogant was Alfred.

"Good-day," Alfred said, but Polly said his name.

He quivered into immobility, gripping his groceries.

Polly opened the gate and took his arm. He averted his face.

She led him inside and made him tea. "Was the task so dangerous?" she said. "I did not know. I did not mean to bring you harm, Alfred."

He rested the teacup on his knee, said to the carpet, "I found the emerald, Polly. I told you I would," and he smiled.

"What happened?"

"You are going to marry, Robert, Polly?"

"Yes."

"Don't ask me. Go back to the castle. Tell Robert you had a good time seeing his
village. Go."

"Tell me." She stood before his chair and lifted his face to her. He winced. "Tell me."

"Robert stole the emerald."

"I don't believe you."

He shrugged. "Good. Don't. Leave me be."

"I can't believe you would let him."

His mouth curled grimly. "He bound me at night. He locked me in his dungeon. He did this to me," raising the broken hand, and she put her hand to her mouth.

"He wanted to marry you. He said I didn't deserve you. Said I wouldn't know how to care for you. Said he was rescuing you from a terrible fate."

"Why are you here?"

"I escaped from the dungeon. I couldn't go home," his face to the carpet again, "not like this, not--" hunching his shoulders, "broken," because he could not bear humiliation, had never endured it well.

"Or to me," she said.

"Especially not to you. It was not just your land I wanted, Polly."

"Come with me to the castle."

"No," standing, backing away from her.

"I said I would marry you if you found the emerald. I promised you first. I must ask Robert if he took it," while Alfred shook his head.

"I'll drag the council of ambassadors to your doorstep," she said, furious with his pride, furious at her thoughtlessness.

I never looked for him. I never wondered.

So she brought Alfred with her into the assembly hall where Robert sat with the ambassadors, who rose in astonishment at Alfred's face. She told Alfred's story.

"Of course I never wounded him," Robert said. "Polly, you know what he is like."

"Never a liar," she said. "I never heard him called a liar."

"Over so great a prize," Robert said to the ambassadors, "what man would not falter and fall," condemning himself as well as Alfred, and he added quickly, "Alfred's temper--his refusal to accept defeat--is well-known."

"Perhaps, Prince Robert," said an ambassador, "you would allow a search of your possessions," and for the first time, Robert's confidence wavered while Polly thought, I never saw: Robert's pride, as overweening as Alfred's, that must obtain what it wants, not with feats or declarations but with honeyed words and sweet messages.

"Polly," Robert said. "Polly, I love you," while Alfred stood cold and aloof at her side.

She touched him lightly. He responded: a quiver of warmth, an unclenching of muscles.

"Polly," Robert said, "I did it for you. I took the emerald for your sake. I think," to the ambassadors, "I can fairly say that I won it."

"Surely," said an ambassador, "it matters how you won it," and the ambassador from Polly's country said, "The princess asked that it be brought to her. Neither prince has completed the quest."

They turned as shouts rose outside the assembly room. Marcus rushed through the doors followed by six guards. He carried an object, wrapped in cloth, in his hand.

He said to Alfred, "I found it in Prince Robert's room."

"No," Prince Robert cried, rushing forward, but, "Give it to me," Polly shouted, and Robert dropped back.

Marcus looked at Alfred. Polly looked at Alfred. He stared across the room at the wrapped emerald, he stared at Polly, the greatest prize he could ever have won.

He said, "Give it to her, Marcus."

So Marcus gave it to her, and she held her choice in her hand.

"Which prince do you choose?" said the ambassador from Alfred's country, curiously, not at all reproachfully.

She considered, and she felt, of a sudden, that the emerald was only the brief, illusionary image of choice, that she had never been bound by her tasks any more than Robert and Alfred had been bound to achieve them, that yes and no lay at her disposal, of a surety.

Which will you choose?

And she weighed the question in her mind as night closed in on the room and servants came in to light the lamps.