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Tue STORY OF THE ELDEST PRINCESS AS. BYATT ONCE UPON A time, in a kingdom berwen the sea and the ‘mountains between the forest andthe desert, there Ived a King and Queen wid hoes daughter, The eda daughter pale and quit, the second daughter wae brown, and ‘cave, andthe third was one of the Sabbath daughters ‘who fae bonny and bright and. good ent ar, of whom eaything end nothing ws expected, ‘When the elds Pinéess was bor, che sky was a sped bing, covered with very large, lay, seep-cry ite ou. When the second Prince snr tommy thre were geey and reamy ate ale streaming a get speed seros he ble ‘And'whon te third Princes vas born, ti sky was a pefecy Glee plane of sche, wih nota coud s be ssn go hat youmight dink the Blue was spangld ih pol tough this was aniston. By theme they were young women, things had changed sho ewe ant ee a fey ust dnged with eagreem and seaweed green, Late here ‘ere aswell or the santo dawns where the hy was Sack frel-puckored and underwater dappled wich lime green and toule-reen and othr greens too, malachite and Jase, And Sen they were maa gil the een colours Doked and freed a land te ey ay Tong tng om Bronorgreens through emerald %0 pet opaprems wit Nin off inthe ety Jae the people stood fhe seer sd Bel with their mous open, ards oh a ahh 2 tones of admiration and wonder. Then ane day a small gel said to her mother that there had been no blue at all for three days now, and she wanted to sce blue again. And Ret other told her to be sensible and patient and it would blow ‘over, and in about a month the sky was blue, or mostly blue, bur only for afew days, and streaked, ominously, the people now felt,.with aquamarine. And the blue days wcee further and further apart and the greens were more and more varies, vung atime when it became quite clear that the fundamental colour of the sky was no longer whac they stl called sley- bluc, but a new sky-green, a pale fla green somewhere between the colours which had once been apple and grass and fer. But of course apple and grass and fern looked very different agsinse this new light, and something very odd and dimming happened to lemons and oranges, and something mote savage and hectic’ to poppies and pomegranates snd ripe chillies. ‘The peopie, who had at first been entranced, became res: tive, and, a8 people wil, blamed the King and che Queen for the disappearance of the blue sky. They sent ceputations £0 sk forts return, and they met and mocrered in angry knots inthe Palace Square. The royal couple consulted rach other, snd assured each other tht they were blameless of preening, bout they were uneasy, ab ic is deep ia human nacure 10 suppose human beings, oneself or others, t0 be responsible for whatever happens. So they consulted the chief ministers, the priests, and a representative sample of geicraly, witches and wizerds. The ministers said nothing ‘could he done, "hough a contingency-fund might usefully be setup for when 4 course of action became clear. The priests counselled patience and self-denial, as 3 general sanative: measure, bstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce ‘The generals supposed it might help to attack thele neigh: bours to the Ease, since it was useful to have someone else fo blame, and the marches and battles would distract the people, Th ‘witches and wizards on the whole favoured a Quest er powerful and generally tacieura wizard, whe had sd very litle, but alwwaye succesfully, in alice of 3 State, came out of his cavern, and said that someone must be sent along the Road through the Forest seross the Desert ‘and into the Mountains, co fetch back the single silver bird and her nest of ash-branches, The bied, he added, was kept in the walled garden of the Old Man of the Mountains, where she sipped feom the erystal fountain of life, and was guarded by a thicket of thorns ~ poisonous thorns ~ and an Interlaced ring of venomous fiery snakes, He believed that advice could be soughe along che way about how to elude their vigilance, but the only advice he could give was to keep +o the Road, and stray nether in the Forest, nor inthe Desert, notin the rocky paths, and always to be courteous, Then he ‘went back to his cavern. ‘The King and Queen called together the Council of State, which consisted of themselves, cheie daughters, the chief min ister and an old duchess, 10 decide what to do- The Minister advised the Quest, since that was a positive action, which ‘would please the people, and not disrupt the state. The second Princess said she would go of course, and the old duchess went to sleep. The King said he thought it should be done in an orderly manner, and he rather believed that the eldest Princess should go, since she was the first, and could best remember the blue sky. Quite why that mattered so much, 0 one knew, but ie seemed to, and che eldest Princess said she was quite happy to set out chat day if that was what the council believed was the right thing to do. So she set out. They pave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water bottle somegne had beoughe back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and Pomegranates, which did nor last very long. They all gathered at the city gate to wish hee well, and a trumpeter blew a lear, silver sound into the emptiness ahead,-and a minister produced a map of the Road, with one or two skeechy pat shies, especially in the Desert, where its undeviating track tended to be swallowed by sandstorm ‘The eldest Princess travelled quickly enough along the Road, Once or twice she thought she saw an old woman ahead of her, but this gure vanished at certain bends and slopes of the path, and did not reappear for some time, and 4 ‘hen only briefly, so that it was never clear to the Princess whether there was one, ofa succession of old women Ieee ef they were indeed, or she was indecd an old wenn or old women, she, oF they were always Wry fa ahead Sravellng eeromel fase. ‘The Forest stetched along the Road, Pale green glades long itsedges, deeper rides, and dark tangicdpaches beyond these The Princess could hear but not see bine calling. and clatering and croaking im: the tees, ae casional bute sled bre out ofthe gles tovara the Road, busy small scarlet ones, lazily swooping macneges bive ones, and once, a hand sed warspure ee ae ‘netng film of wings with two golden eyes Is sie eae the lower wing. This ereature hovered over the Reed, wed seemed t follow the Princess for several minutes but kong er crossing some invisible harrier between Foret snd ood ‘When ie dipped and turned back into the dappled lige ct the trees the Prices wanted to go fie it to walk rete grass and moss, and Knew she must not She felts kee hungry by now, although she had the ince wate She began to thnk. She was by nature «reading, not a teavelling peices, Tia meant both chat ake eajoped kes oe Striding solitude inthe fresh ai and that she hed eae areat many storie inher spae ines including ever cone about princes and princesses who ‘et out of Queae. What they all had in common, she thos co herself wuss pawesn in which the two elder sisters oc brothers, seo sok ea deity, failed in one way of another; and were tote Sone, oF imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sec ema sescucd by the third royal petion, who tid eeegtting Sea restored the fist and the second, and full she Geese She thought she would not like to waste sven yore of hee belt i a statue or prisoner i could be svosdes She thought that of course she could be: very vigil and very courteous to all passeseby ~ most eldest pian failings were failings of courtesy of ovensonfdceee There was nobody on the Road to whom she could be as courtcons except the old woman, of women, bundling along, {fom ume co time along way shead. “he thought, 'am ina pattern {now, and T suspect Thave sno Bower fo bre iy and Tam going © meet a est and fal ‘Rand spend seven years as @ sone. Iii Bureaed hor so much that she sat down on a com ‘venient large stone at the side ofthe road and began co weep. “The vee seemed to speak to her ina thin, creaking ry jon of voles ‘Let me out, We said. T'cannoe get out” Ke Stinded rele and ang ° “The Princess jumped up.-Who are you? she cred. ‘Where “Vm tapped under this stone, buzzed the voice. ‘T cannot act out: Ral sway the stone ‘The’ Prncess por her hands gingerly co the stone and pushed, Pinned undemeath in & hollow ofthe ground was pido iange and dosty scorpion, waving angry pincers, and Somerset cashed in the al "Did you speak?” “Tpdeed T das Iwas screaming. I t00k you an age ro hear sme. Your predecessor on this Road sat down just ere rather Recely when L was cooling myself in this good crack, and ached my tail 38 you see" Pinched Jeg have enable to help said the Princess kecpng a safe distance “Fae Seepion did noc answer as twas trying to ris il and'move forwards, It seemed to move with pay arching Ja body and collapsing agai, buzzing crosl to ise “Can help? asked the Princes. "Tip nos fupposs you are sled in healing wounds uch as mine "You gould lift me to the edge of the Forest where I smight bein the path of someone who can heal me, if she ‘rer pases thie way ngnncT sppene sow ace tearing blindly Song the Road ike al the ces SP on a Ques, f find the tinge silver bird in er nest of asvbranches: ‘og could put me on lege dskles, and gt on your way, then, expect you are in a huey” "Fhe Princast looked about for s dodkleat, wondering 16 whether this irescible creature was her fist test, which she ‘was about to fail, She wiped up another tear, and plucked a particularly tough leaf, that was growing conveniently in Feach of the Road. "Good," said the Fierce litle beast, rearing up and waving its legs. “Quick now, I dislike chis hole extremely. Why have you been exying? “Because [tam not the princess who succeeds, but one of the two who fail and T don’e see any way out. You won't force me to be discourteous to you, though [have remarked that your own manners are fat from perfect, i thar you have yet to thank me for moving the stone, and you order me hhere and there without saying “please”, or considering that Jhumans don't like picking up scorpions” ‘She pushed the leaf towards it as she spoke, and assisted je onto it with a twig, a8 delicately as she could, though it ‘wriggled and snapped furiously as she did. She pat it down Jn the grass atthe edge of the Forest “Mott scorpions,” it observed, ‘have better things 10. do than sting at random. If creatures like you stamp on us, then ff coutse we retaliate. Also, ifwe find utselves boxed in and Afraid, But mostly we have better things 10 do.’ Ir appeared to reflect for a moment. ‘If our tails are not erushed, it added ‘ona dejected nore, “Who is it” the Princess enquired courteously, ‘who you think ean help you?" "Oh, she isa very wise woman, who lives atthe other side of the Forest. She would know what co do, but she rarely eaves home and why should she? She has everything. she might want, where she is. If you were going that way, of ‘course, you could carry me a litle, until Tam recovered. But ‘you are rushing headlong along the Road. Good-bye "The Princess was rushing nowhere; she was standing very sill and thinking. She said: “Tknow that story to0. I carry you, and ask you, but will ‘you not sting me? And you say, no, it is nor in my interest to sting you. And when we are goiag along, you sting me, lthough we shall both suffer. And lask, why did you do that? And you answer ~ itis ray narure. ”