The sky looked angry, Viralei thought, as she gazed at the scarlet sunset. Normally, she preferred the sight of day’s beginning to that of day’s end, and had wished more than once that her bedchamber’s picture window might have been built to face the east, not the west. But she was glad enough of the view this evening; never before had she witnessed a more brightly blazing horizon.
An unseasonably cool breeze drifted in through the window, giving the princess a chill. If she wished to continue to enjoy the scene, a shawl would not go amiss. She turned to retrieve one from her wardrobe, then stopped with a short cry of astonishment: directly behind her stood a strange, stony-faced woman.
“Who are you?” Viralei gasped.
“I may answer you that if you answer me this,” the woman returned. “Who do you think you are?”
Despite her unease, the girl’s chin lifted proudly. “My Royal Highness, Crown Princess Viralei of Carillon, of course.”
The woman did not so much as blink. “And does that excessive title give you leave to do as you have done?”
“Done?” asked Viralei, confused. “What have I done?”
She cried out again as the stranger’s form changed. Her woman’s curves tightened into the trim figure of a youth; her shoulders were brushed by silken hair the color of sunrise; her eyes flashed from green to gray to the blue in which she was arrayed. In a lilting tenor voice, she said, “Perhaps this will ring a bell?”
“Yes, I remember,” said Viralei. Why should she not? It had been but a few hours before.
She had given a song to the crowds for their midspring festival. Her speech alone was enough to hold them enthralled, and her singing was bliss beyond measure. The performance was followed by adoring silence; the silence, followed in turn by the strum of lute strings; and close behind the strings – audaciously close behind the princess – came a voice.
“I’ve heard tell of you, Princess, from kingdoms away,
Yet I feel that my ears have heard naught ‘til this day,
When your sweet song my ears heard here; truly I say
There is nary a voice
Would not pale when compared to yours,
The princess continued on her way, neither slowing a step nor sparing a glance. But her pursuer, resolved that she would look at him, boldly placed himself in her path, keeping pace with her, stride for backward stride, and singing the while.
“’Tis sure one such as you will have several suitors;
Has my lady yet found not one who will suit her?
Perhaps can be found yet one suitor to suit:
Pray consider the troth
Of a bard fallen hard for you –
At last, the princess stopped. The minstrel halted, too. Regarding his beaming face with her impassive blue eyes, she asked, “What is your name?”
“I’ve told you,” he answered. “Gant-o’-the-Lute!”
Coolly distinct, she told him, “That is not a name. That is nonsense. What is your name?”
The minstrel’s expression went slack, and he gaped silently for some seconds before half-whispering, “Jackillen.”
“Jackillen,” Viralei spoke, “you disappoint me. You are far from the first smitten musician to throw a desperate song at me, and it would be too much to hope for that you’ll be the last.” She raised a hand to obscure a yawn before concluding, “One would expect a little more originality from a minstrel.”
This her final word on the subject, the Crown Princess of Carillon stepped around the frozen figure before her and continued on her way, certain she would never lay eyes on him again. But now, by some magical means, here stood his likeness before her!
“I don’t understand,” said Viralei, mesmeric voice trembling as she cringed beneath the gaze of the shape-shifting stranger. “What has he got to do with…?”
“He is a minstrel,” the woman’s voice spoke cuttingly through the young man’s lips. “As a daughter of Carillon, you know what that means. Music is everything to one such as he; and as you embody music as few have before you, it is only to be expected that his kind will nigh on worship you. Perhaps it is a tiresome burden you bear; I do not choose to judge on that score. But weariness is no excuse for heartlessness, Viralei, anymore than is your royalty. Do not think that because you are a princess and that boy but a rover that you may abuse him without consequence?”
“All I did—” Viralei began.
“All you did,” snapped the woman, a woman once more, “was cut that young man to the quick. All you did was serve him the greatest string of insults possible: Disappointment to the one he loves; desperate, unoriginal artist; performer who left you yawning. Well, Princess, we shall see how you like it when your songs are met by yawns of their own.”
The room suddenly a-swirl with a biting wind, the woman pointed a finger at the princess and incanted:
“Lulling tones from form of gold,
With strings be bound, and skyward go,
‘Til he greater than he who is greater than you
Will all, with a true lover’s kiss, undo.”
Viralei tried to scream, but the wind blew the sound right back into her throat. She began to raise her arms, thinking to shield her face from the violence of the air, but all thought vanished as a tremor of pain shot up through her body, arching her back, throwing her hands up and behind her in an elegant pose which belied her agony. The wind tightened around her, held her captive, then abruptly ceased, but still she could not move. For bound in strings and gold she was: The princess transformed into a magnificent harp. She stared, wide-eyed, at the witch woman before her.
“What have you done?
Oh, please, set me free!
I’ve done nothing worthy
Of such cruelty!”
Said the witch, with a tired wave of the hand, “Neither had Gant-o’-the-Lute.”
And in an instant, both she and the princess were gone.