Have I told you that Tainaron has a prince? As a foreigner, I was unexpectedly offered the opportunity to attend his reception. I asked Longhorn for advice as to how I should dress for the occasion and what behaviour was expected. I felt his answer was vacuous, and did not help me one bit.
'You can go in whatever you like,' he said. 'You can ask whatever you want.'
And then he added: 'It's not important, after all.'
'Not important?' I was astonished. 'Do you just go there as you are, straight off the street, and say whatever comes to mind to the prince?'
But he did not give me any more clues, and I went there by myself, in my best dress of course, but distinctly nervous.
The prince lives in the middle of the city, in his palace, which is surrounded by a moat. The drawbridge was down, and there were no guards to be seen. People were going in and out, and no one paid any attention to me. I had been given a piece of paper, a promissory not which I tried to proffer to some of the passers-by whom I guessed to be members of the palace staff, but no one wanted to accept it; everyone just waved their hands vaguely: 'It's not necessary.'
'Where does the prince hold his reception?' I asked three different times, and it was only on the third occasion that I was directed to the right place; but no one bothered to come with me as a guide, and the corridors along which I walked were empty. Through doors that had been left open I saw various different rooms: tambours, halls and stairwells, new colonnaded corridors and courtyards where landscape gardens had been built with pavilions, artificial lakes and bridges.
The prince received visitors in the tower at the heart of the palace, in the donjon. I saw him from a distance from the dim passageway on whose stone floor my shoes tapped alarmingly noisily.
The door to his reception room was wide open, and I could not see anyone else in the vicinity.
The salon was oval in shape and small. At its centre was a single chair, on which the prince sat. The room was very high, in fact as high as the tower, so that the prince looked as if he were sitting at the bottom of a well.
I stopped before stepping across the threshold, for I did not know how I should approach him. He sat motionless, but seemed to be looking me straight in the eye. He was vary old and frail. The way in which the light fell around him and on to his domed head from the upper windows made the vision desolate and melancholy.
I think I stood there for a long time, anxiously, but just as it began to seem to me that the prince was sleeping with his eyes open, his forelimb rose in an encouraging gesture, slowly and ceremoniously. I stepped into the room.
'Your highness,' I began, 'I have come....'
'Yes, yes,' he interrupted me before I had time to begin. 'It's perfectly clear. You can ask whatever you want.'
I had prepared many kinds of questions concerning both domestic and foreign policies, trade links and tax reform, but at the moment they all fell out of my head.
'May I ask, may I ask,' I mumbled, 'how you are?'
This was, of course, completely inappropriate, I understood that myself. But I could not get anything else out of my mouth, and I looked at him, dumbly, waiting for him to rise and announce that the audience was over.
Strangely enough, he seemed on the contrary to be engrossed by my question, as if it were completely apt for that time and place.
'As to my health, I have nothing to complain about,' he said, in such a low voice that I had to lean forward to hear. 'But I am worried about my ears. There is a murmuring in them all the time. Or else a ringing, of a little silver bell.'
And he suddenly shook his head, so that the fluffy blue collar that surrounded his neck hissed and rustled.
'And then there are the nights, they are definitely too big. They have grown larger and larger since the princess left, and the princess left thirty years ago, in her prime. You will not believe how small they were when she was still here. This small!'
He stretched out two of the downy pincers of his forelimb for me to see: they were almost touching. I looked at them with polite interest and nodded.
The prince leaned backward in his chair and spoke now more audibly, as if with greater warmth: 'When the princess had died, I often went into the city incognito, in strange armour. I stood by the bridge and did not let anyone by without inspecting him or her thoroughly from head to feet. But I never saw the princess again, for I should have known her in any disguise, even if she had been through the most comprehensive of metamorphoses, that you may believe. For the images of shared secrets had remained in the princess's eyes, and they, at last, would have revealed her immediately, but in the uninterrupted flow of oncomers there flowed only the loam of strange memories....'
And the prince's voice fell. I suspected that the audience should have ended long ago, and it tired me to stand before me as the only hearer of his ancient yearning. No one came to fetch me away, and in the palace there was a soundlessness as if there were no one else there.
'Do you know why we have been forgotten?' the prince whispered unexpectedly, and his choice of words surprised me: why that 'we', it was not really right in this situation, and why did he lower his voice in such a familiar way?
'Because it is all the same to them,' the prince whispered, 'what I do now, where I go or what I say, everything is permitted now. Do you understand?'
'No, I do not believe it, your highness,' I said hesitantly, but his forelimb crooked and beckoned me closer.
I bent obediently toward him and came so close that I thought I heard the little silver bell he had mentioned, as well as the scent of some bitter herb. Then he whispered into my ear: 'In reality, I am no longer the prince.'
He drew away to see the effect of his words on me. I can say that they did not really have any effect. I was convinced he was speaking the truth. Only thus did the emptiness and indifference which I had encountered in the palace - and earlier - make sense.
'I see you believe that I....,' the prince said heavily. 'But do not worry, that is not the case, not in the least. Know this: times change, but each is only one time of many. So what; it can be changed, like a change of clothes. Today I still sit in my palace. But often I ring my bell for a long while and no one comes. My shirt still bears the arms of Tainaron, but the wine which is brought to me is no longer of the same quality as before. So what. For tomorrow I shall be in exile, or my body will lie in that landscape garden on the little wooden bridge and the national guard will have pierced it with newly sharpened bayonets.'
Now he finally rose to his feet - I had been expecting it for a long time - and I realised, with relief, that the audience was over. I bowed respectfully, and when I turned, I saw only my own footprints in the heavy dust that completely covered the stone floor of the donjon.
Their solitude proved to me with complete clarity that no one had visited the room for ages, and that the prince himself had not left it.
He was a lost cause.
Eric von Hippel
Erik S. Raymond