The kingdom of Messenia faces a crisis when Princess Damanti loses her smile.
PLACED 2ND IN MAY 2010 ROUND OF "Invalid Item"
A hush descended on the courtroom when King Valcour, ruler of the Mediterranean Island of Messenia, entered. A tall and lean man, the King was famous for his sprightly gait and cheerful disposition, but today, the creased lines on his brow and his drooping shoulders were a mute testimony to the turmoil in his mind.
“The news isn't good,” he addressed his courtiers. He shook his head sadly at the anxious faces. “Princess Damanti has still not smiled.”
Sad sighs rose in the room. The Prime Minister cleared his throat.”What do the physicians say, Your Highness?”
“They agree it is the work of an evil wizard. But who?” his voice trailed.
Defense Minister Palos came forward. “I wish to state something, Your Majesty.”
The King nodded.
“What I will say may sound ridiculous, but since we have tried everything else, I see no harm,” Palos started.
“Come to the point, Minister,” interjected the King.
“In our prisons we have a young miscreant by the name of Roland. He was arrested at the same time when the Princess stopped smiling. The guards have reported that he claims he can lift the spell on the Princess,” the Minister informed.
“And how may he do that? What is his profession?” asked the Prime Minister.
Minister Palos grimaced at the question and fell silent for a few moments. Clearing his throat, he started again. “He is not one of us, but a foreigner from Alexandria. He professes to be a sorcerer and says that he cast the spell on the Princess,” Palos mumbled.
A wave of shocked gasps rippled through the gathered mass of courtiers as they exchanged angry glances.
“Why was he arrested, Minister?” the King asked, suppressing his temper.
There was again a pause before Palos spoke. “It was the Princess’ command.”
“I'm afraid I don't understand,” the King persisted.
“The Princess wanted a magician to entertain her friends. Her maids heard of Roland and presented him before her. They say that impressed by his skills, the Princess asked him to name a reward. The foolish man produced a rose from thin air, kneeled before the Princess and said…”
The King's voice reflected his annoyance at these pauses. “Said what, Minister?”
“I'm afraid, Your Highness will not like it.”
Finally, anger unveiled, the King directed, “Out with it!”
“The foolish man said that he did not seek anything. He had traveled from Alexandria to see the Princess where news of her beauty had reached. He offered the rose to her and praised that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen,” Palos said.
“And for this the Princess had the man arrested!”
“Yes, your Majesty. And rightly so!”
King Valcour struggled to maintain his dignity. "Oh? And what is so right about that?"
"How can an ordinary man refuse a gift from the Princess? How can he have the audacity to praise the Princess' beauty in her very presence and offer her a rose?"
All the courtiers and ministers listened to this conversation with rapt attention. Various voices were heard in support of the Princess’ decision.
“How dare he!”
“He deserves to be punished!”
The King raised his hand, ordering everyone to silence.
“I'm dismayed with the Princess' arrogance. I'm no less surprised that men of wisdom such as you support and indulge my daughter's haughtiness. Remember, that if you do not lend her the right counsel, how would she ever become a just ruler of her people? Just because she is a Princess doesn't allow her to play with anyone's life. Present the young man brought before me immediately. The Princess is summoned,” declared King Valcour.
The fetters restraining Roland clanked rudely, as he was led into the courtroom. The King observed his swarthy features and proud demeanor. His face bore no signs of guile, and he regretted Damanti's poor judgment. His astute observation did not miss the tender gaze that Roland cast upon the Princess, who appeared ugly and plain as her intractable malaise had robbed her beauty.
“I've heard your story, Roland. On behalf of my kingdom, I can only beg your forgiveness. You're a foreigner and we should treat you with respect and hospitality,” confessed the King before the packed courtroom.
“It is my honor to stand before a King whose thoughts are so noble.” The magician's voice was calm and confident. The King marveled his courage. It could only emanate from some deep-rooted goodness.
“I have a request, Magician. My daughter is ill and we believe you can cure her.”
“I'm no physician, My Lord. But it is easy to see that the Princess suffers from a malady which only she can cure.”
“And that is?”
“She has to eschew her arrogance and vanity. The pall of gloom on her face is born of these vices. No medicine on earth can cure her.”
“Watch your words,” threatened the Defense Minister.
"Minister, please! Young man, can you do something for my daughter?"
“And what will be my reward?”
“You may name your wish and it will be fulfilled,” declared the King.
“I want my freedom.”
“That is anyway yours because it was wrong of us to arrest you in the first place. Nay, young man, ask for anything else. Gold, diamonds, maids, horses.”
“I would have asked for the Princess' hand had I not known her better, but now I know how futile it is to live with a woman who is so harsh and cruel,” Roland spoke. The King was shocked with his disparaging tone.
A group of soldiers stepped forth with raised swords. The King halted them with a wave.
“Watch your words, young man. I know my daughter is in the wrong, but she is still the Princess,” Valcour said. He looked at her from the corner of his eye and saw her tremble.
“If you're afraid to hear the truth, Your Majesty, I can do nothing to help her. I would rather spend my life in the arms of a plain woman, but one whose heart is full of kindness and love.”
“You speak too much!” barked Palos.
“Throw him into the dungeons!” screamed a voice and a loud chorus of support followed.
The King saw a tear trickle down his daughter's eye. The foreigner was doing nothing to help matters, but he had no other hope. “So what reward do you seek?” he asked, motioning the courtroom to be quite.
The Prime Minister stepped forth. “I'm afraid you give too much liberty, My Lord.”
“I know what I'm doing, Minister,” retorted the King.
The Minister stepped back. “I'm sure, Your Majesty.”
“I seek my freedom. You've to guarantee me a horse and rations for my journey to Alexandria. Nobody should follow me.”
“You'll have what you want irrespective of whether the Princess is cured or not.”
“Do not be in haste, My Lord. I need three more things!” Roland stated.
A din again rose in the courtroom.
“He will ask for riches!”
“He may ask for the kingdom!”
“The first thing I seek is a lock of the Princess’ hair.” Roland's calm voice stunned the room. A scissor was produced and a piece of the Princess' raven black hair was cut and handed over to the sorcerer. She winced at the proceedings.
“The second thing I wish to have is a piece of the Princess' nail.”
“I'm not an animal to be exhibited and sold,” Damanti protested.
“I'm sorry, my child. I cannot heed your request. May the wish be fulfilled.” The King ordered. He could sense the annoyance in her voice, the first signs of her normal previous self returning.
A knife was brought and a piece of Damanti's manicured nail was cut and given to him. This time the tears cascaded down her eyes in a torrent. She looks sad, but at least looks human, unlike her lifeless face which I saw for so long, the King observed.
“Finally, I seek a drop of her blood.”
“The wish is granted,” announced the King, observing the expression on her face.
A physician pricked Damanti's finger tip and put the drop of blood in a vial. Roland took charge of his three gifts and faced the King. “Where is my horse and the rations!”
Roland's chains were removed and he prepared to leave the courtroom.
“May I ask what you plan to do with these three items?” King Valcour was amazed at the softness in his daughter's voice. She hadn't spoken like that with anybody for a long time.
“I will use my powers to create another woman who is as beautiful as you. I will breathe life into her body and instill love in her heart and then I shall marry her,” Roland said. The King's observant eyes didn't miss the sadness in Roland's voice as he uttered those words.
“Why did you allow him to leave?” asked the shocked courtiers in unison after Roland galloped out with his belongings.
“Because we had no right to imprison him,” answered the King.
“But he insulted the princess and made her cry!”
The King shook his head. “I'm sorry that not one of you has the judgment to understand what he did. He made the Princess aware of her mistake. She cries out of remorse, not because he insulted her. He has cured her,” he explained. He walked up to his daughter and caressed her hair. She buried her face in her hands and wept.
“It's okay, my darling. I hope you've realized how foolish it is to be vain about your beauty. Remember, that you're a Princess and are responsible for the well-being of your subjects. You cannot misuse your powers,” he counseled the sole heiress to his kingdom.
“Will you forgive me, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, my child. If you promise to change.”
“I promise,” she said with a feeble smile, the first in many days. The entire courtroom cheered lustily.
“Papa, I want to apologize to him.”
The king's delight knew no bounds when his daughter addressed him informally. It had been many days since she had called him so.
“Well, I know that my daughter is an expert horse-rider and he couldn't have gone far. He did say that he should not be followed, but I think he won't mind if you follow him,” he cajoled. His heart brimmed with joy when her eyes sparkled with goodness and innocence.
He faced his courtiers again. "The Princess has been cured. Let the celebrations begin."