Some years ago now, and looking at this picture I realize just how many years ago, my daughter’s class visited to our local zoo. I was with them (we always went on these adventures together) and she had kind of surprised me by going over to sit on this bronze tiger. As soon as I took the picture, an idea came to mind of a girl and a tiger prince.
The idea grew, and I eventually wrote it down a few years later. I am still only on it’s second draft, so you will most likely find a typo or two, and perhaps some rough edges that need smoothing. But still, I think it is well enough along for me to share it with you. Unfortunately, no sketches to yet.
The Tiger Prince
There were once two young women, one as different from the other as the sun is from the moon.
One young woman, Naomi, was the daughter of a great sea captain. She had traveled the world ‘round on her father’s ship, from the icy fjords in the north to the dune edged seas in the south, and was well known for her bold fearlessness.
The other, Oriane, was the daughter of a prosperous merchant family. She was sweet natured and possessed a generous heart, but was also shy and terribly timid.
Even in looks, they were quite different. Naomi’s hair was dark and wild, her skin kissed golden by the sun. Oriane’s skin was the palest cream, and her heavy gold hair hung in a sleek braid to her knees. They were opposite in nearly every way, save their eyes. Both had clear, blue-gray eyes.
They met aboard a ship as Oraine journeyed towards a distant land; the very same ship which Naomi’s father captained. The two young women soon became fast friends, much to everyone’s amazement. And by the end of the voyage, they were closer then even two sisters could be.
One night, just before they were to put into port, they sat in Naomi’s cabin, as they often did in the evening. But on this night, unlike all the others, Oriane seemed to be not herself. Concerned, Naomi asked what it was that was troubling her.
With a great sigh, the merchant’s daughter confided in her friend, confessing that her once powerful family was no longer as well off as they once had been. In fact, their fortune was all but gone, and she had set out on this journey with what was the last of her family’s money in the hopes of helping improve their situation.
She told Naomi about stories that had reached her homeland, stories of a cursed prince. These stories promised numerous riches to whomever could unravel the mysteries of the prince’s curse. So Oraine’s father, desperate to avoid ruin, had sent a letter to the king of that distant land, the very land towards which they now sailed, in the hopes that his daughter might succeed where others had failed. And in doing so, save her family from its fate.
Now Naomi could see her friend’s determination to do what she could to help her family. But, she could also hear the tremor in her friend’s voice, and feel the shaking in her hands. So she offered to go with Oriane, promising to help in any way she could. She assured Oraine that between the two of them, they could figure out any curse!
That very night, Naomi went to her father the sea captain, and told him of her plans to accompany her friend. Her father agreed, having learned long ago that his daughter was quite capable and certainly able to make up her own mind. And in fact, he thought the whole adventure might be good for her. So the next day, when they put into dock, he saw them off with practical advice and well wishes. Arm in arm, the two young women left the ship.
Waiting on the docks for them was a lovely carriage drawn by four white horses, as pale as moonflowers. It carried them down beautifully paved streets, past busy markets filled with all sorts of wondrous sights, and laughing children waved as they drove past.
Eventually they came to a glorious palace on the edge of a vast lake. Its walls were built of the palest sandstone, and inside it was open and airy. Soft curtains hung in the doorways, and fountains tiled in brilliant colors filled the halls with the soft murmurings of falling water.
Upon their arrival, they were met by a kindly steward, who brought them to a garden terrace that overlooked the shining lake. There they were met by the king, who invited them to sit with him, as he ordered that tea be brought.
The king was hail and handsome, and spoke kindly to them as they sat eating delicate little cakes and drinking spiced apple tea. He smiled often as he fed a tiny golden bird who sat quite boldly on his shoulder. Still, for all his graciousness, there was a cloak of sadness that hung over him; which seemed to add a gauntness to his cheeks and shadows to his eyes.
They talked all through the afternoon until the sky darkened into twilight. As the shadows of dusk began to gather on the vast lake, an island appeared from nowhere. It seemed to take shape from the very air itself, much to the amazement of the two young women. On its shore was a palace, with elegant glass-domed rooftops and walls lined with graceful arches.
It was then that the king told them of his son, the prince, who was spirited away on the very day of his birth. He had been taken to the very same island that they saw before them, and to the king’s knowledge had been there ever since. The island appeared for only a few hours every day, at dawn and at dusk.
When the young women asked if any had traveled to the island, the king told them that many had tried, but all had failed. The bridges they had attempted to build met with disaster, and every boat that had tried to sail the lake’s waters had been plagued with ill luck.
Oriane reached out her hand to comfort the king.
“You have not seen or spoken to your son in all these years?” she asked.
“I have only seen him through the lens of a spyglass,” admitted the king. “And have only spoken to him through letters delivered to the palace each day.”
“Delivered by whom?” Naomi asked boldly.
“A very curious messenger whom I do not doubt, but if I were to tell you who it was, then surely it would be my sanity that you questioned.”
The king, knowing the reasons why they had come, ordered a suite of rooms prepared for them in the palace. The rooms were spacious and lovely with two bedrooms, a sitting room and a wide door which opened out onto a balcony, overlooking the lake.
It was there they would sit everyday for breakfast, beneath an arbor draped in wisteria. They would sip warm chocolate tea and eat buttery pasties while they watched the giant water lilies rise up from the lake. The young women marveled as lily pads the size of small boats unfurled themselves over the water’s surface. Their flowers like a forest of small trees as their pale pink petals opened wide in the morning sun.
Gigantic fish slept in the water lilies’ shade; their golden scales glittering and flashing deep below the surface of the tea-colored water.
It was no small wonder why boats did not venture out onto the lake; few would survive a single swish from those mighty tails.
When the sun reached midday, the water lilies would fold their petals and the lily pads would curl themselves back up. The fish would awaken, their giant golden bodies making the water eddy and swirl. The island itself would be lost in the dazzling light off the water, disappearing, not to be seen again until that evening. Then it would reappear in the dusk’s silvery shade, bringing with it a truly wondrous and terrifying sight.
It strode down the street below their balcony, with a coat like fire; a prince among tigers. He stood nearly as tall as a horse, yet to their utter amazement, none of the people on the street seemed to be afraid of him as he passed them by.
At the first sighting of him, Oriane nearly fainted with fear. But Naomi continued to look on in wonder as the great beast stepped up the edge of the water, and gathering his haunches beneath him, leapt easily across the whole of the lake.
For days the young women watched and debated on how Oriane could reach the island. In that time, Naomi became good friends with many of the servants who believed her to be the handmaiden of the golden-haired merchant’s daughter. That was how she came to be in the kitchen so often where she learned the most interesting things.
According to the cook, who was an authority on such matters, it all happened on the very day of the prince’s birth. She remembered well how a tigress came right up into the palace and took the baby away.
The butler, who was listening as he polished the silver, insisted that she remembered wrong. He was sure that it had been in the evening, not the morning, that the tigress had put in her appearance.
However, both agreed that the prince had not set foot on the mainland since. And that it was from that day on that the island had begun to vanish for a time each day and night. The lake becoming a place where ships dare not sail.
It was also at that time that the queen vanished, leaving the king to mourn both his wife and his son.
Almost every morning the little golden bird, which they had first seen sitting on the king’s shoulder, joined them as they ate. It would sing and chirp in the most soothing manner and the young women would feed it crumbs from their plates. On the seventh morning, as Naomi told Oriane about what she had learned in the kitchens, she saw the little bird do the most curious thing. It plucked several leaves from the wisteria that grew all around, and placed them in a row along the stone balustrade. It chirped and hopped from one leaf to another, and back again. Its peculiar antics gave Naomi an idea.
Turning to her friend she said, “You know, those lily pads remind me a bit of floating docks. Like the ones at the port where you came aboard my father’s ship, do you remember? You came across those handily enough, I think you could crossover the lily pads just as easily. In fact, I am sure you could!”
Oriane did not agree with her friend. She remembered how terrified she was to step out on those docks. How they shifted and bobbed beneath her feet. But she was determined to do what she could to change her family’s fortune.
“I can but try,” she said.
So they quickly dressed her in a flowing silver dress, over top which they added a sapphire coat. They put pearl slippers on her feet and a jeweled belt about her waist.
Naomi braided and pinned her friend’s long golden hair before covering it all with a hat and veil. The veil fell down to the young woman’s breast, covering her face and her hair, as was the custom of her people when a young woman went unchaperoned to meet a potential suitor.
Together the two young women went down to the lake shore. Oriane took a deep breath and gingerly stepped out onto the closest lily pad. When it stayed steady under her foot, she took another step. Confident that it would hold her, she smiled back at the sister of her heart, then with feet as light as a butterflies, she continued along the water lily road to the prince’s island.
Naomi kept vigil for the rest of the morning. At midday, just before the lily pads were about to begin curling up to hide from the hot sun, she saw her friend returning. Even from far away, Oriane’s happiness was unmistakable. The merchant’s daughter almost danced down the leafy path towards the shore where Naomi waited.
“It was wonderful!” Oriane exclaimed, her smile radiant, as she leapt lightly to the shore and hugged Naomi.
Arm in arm, the two young women walked back to the palace where they sat beneath the wisteria for the rest of the afternoon as Oriane told Naomi of her meeting with the prince. In fact, she could not stop talking about him! For it seemed that, at least in Oraine’s eyes, he was all the things a prince should be.
But, as the afternoon waned so did her happiness. The curse had not allowed the prince to tell her more than she already knew. However, he could tell her that she would have to come to him every morning and return each evening if she was to have any hope to unravel the mysteries of the curse.
So needless to say, as the time for her to return came closer, Oraine’s worry grew. Hadn’t they already thought this whole week past about all the ways she could possibly cross to the island? And it was only this morning had they thought of the water lily road, an option that was not an option now. She couldn’t stop the sense of despair that was beginning to grow in her belly.
Naomi hated to see the unhappiness in her friend’s eyes. Yet, no new ideas came to mind no matter which way she looked at their dilemma. Even she began to feel a little desperate as the sun sank lower in the sky.
As the evening light grew thick, covering the land in golden honey, Naomi saw the tiger in the distance coming towards them. He was walking down the road as he usually did, a living flame in the sun’s dying light. Children were running up to him as they sometimes did, laughing as they made a game out of seeing who could touch his tail first. Suddenly, she had a bold idea.
“My dearest friend, I think I know how you could return to the island, but you would have to be very brave,” she said excitedly. “Every evening at dusk, the tiger makes his leap to the island, and I have no doubt that he could carry you with him.”
Oriane looked at Naomi and her heart quailed at the idea. Tears filled her eyes as she gripped her hands tightly and trembled.
“I want to!” she said. “I want to be brave, and I did my best crossing the lily pads this morning. But, I am not like you, sister of my heart. It may have seemed like a small task to you, but it took all my nerve and I have no more.” The tears were now chasing themselves down her cheeks in silvery rivers. She looked as if her tender heart was crumbling to pieces.
Naomi had no wish to see her friend so heartbroken, and she wanted her to succeed in her quest to help her family. An idea flashed into her mind like a lightning bolt. She took Oriane by the hand and lead her hastily to their room.
“There may still be a way,” she said. “Quick, give me your gown and slippers and veil. I will ride on the back of tiger for you! Then when I return, I can tell you all that I find.”
Concern and hope warred in Oriane’s face as she quickly helped Naomi into her gown.
“But, how will you get back,” she asked, fearing for her friend. She would rather her family’s entire fortune lost than lose this woman she held so dear.
But Naomi laughed, for this was just the kind of adventure she loved.
“Have no fear!” she said as she put on the pearl slippers and pulled the veil over her dark hair. “I am sure I will find a way. And don’t worry, we will rescue your prince!” She waved, and rushed out onto the balcony as Oriane watched from behind the bedroom door.
Naomi hoped that the tiger had not already passed them by. But as luck would have it, the great tiger was just walking by on the street below.
She already had one slippered foot on the balustrade when she called out boldly, “Pardon me, master tiger, but I need your help!” And with that, she leapt from the railing to land on the street beside him, her gown and veil fluttering behind her like sapphire wings.
The great cat stopped, and looked at her with golden-green eyes. His head stood as tall as her own, and for the first time in her life, Naomi wondered if perhaps she had been a little too bold.
“Please,” she said contritely, “It is very important that I go to the prince’s island. Would you carry me with you?”
The tiger nodded his head once, and laid down so that she might more easily climb onto his back. When she was seated he rose up smoothly and Naomi felt as though she were back on a ship at sea because although she might, with luck and skill, be able to ride such a powerful creature, she surely could not control him.
In a few long strides he had brought them to the water’s edge. Naomi felt the strong muscles gather beneath her, then suddenly, like tightly held springs let lose, the tiger leapt, carrying them out over the dark lake. On and on they went, as though they flew on the back of the evening wind, until they landed on the opposite shore.
The tiger did not stop, but continued to carry her to a small courtyard where night-blooming jasmine grew and moonflowers hung in curtains on the walls. There they were met by the prince.
He was every bit as handsome as Oriane had described, with hair the color of midnight and curious eyes; one of which was the palest gold and the other as green as clear jade. Both were filled with kindness.
He offered his hand to Naomi as she slid from the tiger’s back, and led her to a room lined with tall arched windows that overlooked the lake. At its center was a table, where he offered her a seat most courteously. He then went over to a large cupboard, and opening it, took out gold-edged dishes filled with dainty rolls and sugared fruits which he placed on the table in front of her.
Once all the dishes were on the table, he sat across from her and they ate. All the foods offered had been conscientiously prepared so that she would not have to remove her veil to eat. It showed a thoughtfulness that in Naomi’s experience was uncommon. And she thought that this prince would be a perfect match for her friend, should they decide to wed.
However, Naomi was surprised at how shy the prince seemed. From the tales Oriane had told, she had expected someone of a bolder nature. But perhaps he had seemed bold to someone of her friend’s more gentle ways.
By the time they had finished eating, it was obvious to Naomi that the prince was well read and possessed an inquisitive mind. He asked her questions about the world beyond the island as they strolled through the gardens with their glass-domed ceilings; and shared with her all the things he had learned from the books he had read and his study of the stars.
She, in turn, told him of the wondrous sights she had seen and the strange skies she traveled under. In fact, she was enjoying the conversation so much that she had forgot that she was supposed to be Oriane, and not herself. But if the prince had noticed any difference, he was too polite to say.
They talked until just before midnight, then returned to the courtyard where she had first arrived. There, he bid her goodnight, promising that the tiger would arrive soon to carry her back across the lake.
As promised, the tiger appeared moments after the prince had left. He carried her back across the lake, and right up into the palace itself. There they parted company. Naomi watched as the tiger headed deeper into the palace, and then suddenly she knew just who it was that brought the king his letters.
When Naomi returned to their rooms, she found Oraine waiting up for her. She shared with friend all that had happened and everything that was said during her visit with the prince. They talked the night away, sleeping only a few hours before the morning sun lifted its shining head into the sky.
They ate breakfast quickly, heading down to the shore as soon as they were finished to wait for the water lilies to unfurled their leafy path.
And so the season passed in much the same way. Naomi would often help in the kitchen while Oriane was away visiting with the cursed prince. And when Oriane returned, she would sit with the king to share his midday meal. She would tell him of his son, and he in turn, would tell her stories of himself, so that she might share them with the prince.
This was how they learned about the queen and her sister. It seems that both had been powerful enchantresses whom the king had met in his travels. The king had fallen in love with the eldest, but when he and his would-be queen announced their decision to marry, the younger sister flew into a rage. It seems that she too had fallen love with the king, unbeknownst to him. She cursed their union bitterly, and soon became so consumed by jealousy that it turned her into a twisted, ugly thing; a fearsome hag who believed herself betrayed by her sister.
It is also how they first found out about the magic cupboard.
One day, upon her return, Oriane told Naomi of the most delightful cake that she had eaten while visiting with the prince. It was light and fluffy, covered with delicate cream frosting and fresh strawberries.
Naomi remembered the cook placing just such a cake in the great wooden cupboard in the kitchen that stood in the kitchen. However, she never remembered anyone taking back out. Which begged the question, how did the prince get his food? Curious, Naomi proposed a test to see if it had truly been the same cake.
The next morning, she was down in the kitchen as she usually was, when Oriane visited the island. Naomi watched as food was put into the cupboard. And when the cook stepped away for a moment, leaving the cupboard door open, Naomi quickly placed a small spray of wisteria next to one of the cakes. She turned the plate so that it would not be easily seen. Then she waited.
The cook returned, closing the door firmly after she had added a warm pot of apple tea.
Naomi stayed in the kitchen longer than was her custom. She saw no one come to take away the food that had been placed in the cupboard. In fact, no one opened the cupboard at all.
At noon she returned to their rooms. And soon after Oriane arrived, the spray of wisteria tucked in her jeweled belt.
They talked for the rest of the day as they often did. Oriane confirmed that the spray of wisteria had been beside the cake which had come from the cupboard. She also showed Naomi another flower, a beautiful orchid, which she said the prince had given to her. She happily recounted the tale of how the prince scaled the rocks near a waterfall they often visited (the island being much larger than it looked from the shore) just so that he could give it to her. She went on to praise his fearless nature and adventurous spirit.
This made Naomi think back to her own conversations with the prince. They had been interesting and varied. And she had often thought that the prince would make a wonderful husband for the sister of her heart (and though she might not admit it, for herself as well). However, she never would have described him as having an adventurous spirit. Nor could she see him giving her a flower such as the one he had given Oriane. She felt that the flower he gave her would more likely be something like meadowsweet or marsh mallow. A flower whose beauty was subtle and its virtue deeper.
“You know, sister mine, if I did not know better, I would say that we were talking about two different men.” Naomi ruminated. “The prince whom I have spent these many evenings with is interesting and deeply read. He has a thirst for knowledge, and is captivated by the tales of my travels. However, I would not say that he has an adventurous spirit. Nor would I call him bold, but rather I would tend to think him reserved. Tell me again, is your prince tall, with night dark hair and a generous mouth?” she asked her friend.
“Yes,” said Oriane, “and his left eye is as bright as a gold coin, while his right is a clear jade green.”
“Huh, curious,” Naomi said, “because I would have sworn that it was his right eye that was gold and his left green.”
“Could that be a clue to the curse?” Oriane wondered.
“Perhaps,” Naomi agreed. “If we could but see him together, I think all would be made clear, for it is not by a person’s look that you truly know them.”
So the two friends devised a plan, and that very evening they set it into motion. Naomi left to meet the prince as she usually did, riding on the tiger’s back as he flew across the lake.
Meanwhile, Oriane, cloaked and veiled, carefully hid herself. When she thought that all the servants were elsewhere, she followed the instructions given to her by Naomi, and crept down into the kitchen. Heart pounding with fear, she opened the cupboard to found it empty. Carefully, she folded herself up inside, then steeling her nerve, closed the door and waited for she knew not what.
No sooner had she closed the door, then she heard voices. It wasn’t the cook or one of the other servants, but her friend’s well-loved voice and another that she had just recently come to also hold dear… no, that was not quite right. The pitch and timber were the same, but the manner of speech was not one she was familiar with at all.
As carefully as she could, she cracked open the cupboard door. The room she looked out onto was familiar with its tall arched windows looking out over the moon-silvered lake. And there before her was her dearest friend talking with the prince. It was in that moment, Oriane realized that her friend had also fallen in love.
Anxious butterflies fluttered in her stomach, as she listened as the sister of her heart talk with the prince that she, herself, had come to love.
But the longer Oriane listened, the more the butterflies settled. There was no doubt that this was not the bold prince she had come to know. And when she heard Naomi begin to speak of the curse, she quietly slipped out of the cupboard.
“My prince,” Naomi said, as they stood watching the moon on the water. “I believe I can solve the riddle of your curse. If I am right, than this land has not one, but two princes. Your mother, being a powerful enchantress, changed her shape. She was the tigress that carried first your brother and then you across to this island. She then became the little golden bird who stays by the king and sings to him most lovingly. And I believe she did it all because she was afraid of what her sister’s curse might call down upon your heads.”
“Right in one, you clever, clever woman!” He said as he picked her up and spun her around. The prince’s smile was as bright as the morning sun as he looked up at her.
“Yes, well done,” said a voice that both musical and light.
The prince set Naomi’s feet back down on the ground, but kept her hand clasped firmly in his own.
Where once they had been alone, there was now an elegant woman in the room with them; and it was she who had spoken. Her hair was as dark as the prince’s and both her eyes were a bright and shining gold. There was little doubt in Naomi’s mind that the woman standing before them was the lost queen, mother to the man now holding her hand so tightly.
The queen gave them a beautific smile.
“You have indeed solved the curse’s riddle and as such are entitled to the fortune promised you. But, if there is more that you seek, and by the way that you hold my son’s hand I must guess there is, then the curse must be broken.” A look of pity washed over the queen’s face. “Though I wonder what the sister of your heart, as you, yourself, call her, would say if she were to see you holding the prince’s hand thus.”
“I would wish her well, with all my heart,” said Oriane, stepping from beside the cupboard; where up till then, she had been watching as things unfolded. “Even if she were holding the hand of the man I love, but thankfully she is not.”
Without hesitation Oraine crossed the courtyard to where the great tiger waited in the shadows. There was not the slightest tremor in her hands as she bravely placed them on either side of his fierce head and looked up into his eyes.
“The one I love is here,” she said.
“Are you sure, child?” the queen asked.
“I am,” said Oriane. “For it is his heart I know, not the shape he wears.”
And with that, a man now stood before the golden-haired merchant’s daughter. Truly, he did have the same look as the prince who stood next to Naomi. Though seeing them together, it could be said that Naomi’s prince, the younger of the two (if only by a few minutes), stood just a little taller while Oriane’s. Though her prince, the elder, had just a touch more breadth in his shoulders.
This second prince picked Oriane up and spun her around, much as his brother had just done to Naomi, smiling up into her face.
“Brave and beautiful! For all your protestations, I knew you had a strength within that you did not see,” the elder prince said.
“How can you say ‘beautiful’ when you have not seen either of us?” Oriane asked shyly, for it was true that both she and Naomi were still veiled.
“Just as you said you knew my brother,” said the younger prince from where he still stood beside Naomi. He turned to face her. “For it was not your looks we fell in love with.”
At that, both young women lifted their veils, smiling up at their princes.
The princes both changed back into tigers, for they were their mother’s sons, and now that the curse no longer bound them, they could change at will. With both Oriane and Naomi on their backs, they leapt across the lake with the little golden bird following close behind them.
When they all came before the king, the queen, still in her guise as a golden bird, she asked him to name who she was. He did and she became herself again.
The queen had been worried that he would be angry at her, for having to have endured all that he did.
She need not have feared, for when the king saw his lost wife before him, their sons at her side, there was no room for anger in him, nor sadness either. All of that fell away as soon as he eyes rested upon them.
Like his sons, he hugged his wife, and lifted her from her feet to spin her around in his joy, and the elegant queen laughed and laughed.
It was not long after that the two young women, Naomi and Oriane, became sisters in truth, marrying the princes they loved.
Her family’s fortune saved, Oraine and the eldest prince stayed at the palace with the king and queen, for although she had found that she was indeed fearless, she still preferred her adventures to be small.
Naomi and the younger prince, however, chose to return to her father’s ship where they went to see all the places that the prince had read about. But they visited often to share their tales with those they held most dear.
And what about the queen’s sister, one might ask. The sister whose jealousy had twisted her so much that the queen feared for her sons? The very one whose curse led to all the events about which this tale was told?
Well, it is said that someone found her heart and she herself got the ending she deserved… but that is another tale entirely.