Changeling by Carole McDonnell. A Griots Story.
Lacking beauty, regal will, or imperious bearing, Iyoke the third daughter of Queen Mizaka, was mocked as a cuckoo’s egg. Fat and squat, with a round face that smiled too lovingly on everyone, she was deemed a child of some lowly warrior of peasant stock. However, Queen Mizaka’s virtue was renowned throughout all the kingdom of Tentuke, and Iyoke was kind and good-natured. So mockery and rumors faded, although they did not entirely die away.
The time came for Queen Mizaka’s three daughters to be married, and for Iyoke Prince Hans was chosen. His was a lowly northern kingdom – distant and small, and he was the least of his father’s sons. Marriages were also arranged for the other princesses as well. Sembele the beauty --the eldest and whose beauty even the sun blushed to look upon-- was betrothed to Crown Prince Jaejoong of the large eastern kingdom. The middle daughter was Nunu. Not as beautiful as her older sister, nor yet as ugly as the youngest, she was nevertheless a princess. Quiet and reserved, with skin the color of rich earth, she wore her plaited hair like a wreathed crown upon her head. She was promised to Prince Biodun third in line to rule a large southern kingdom. Portraits were exchanged –letters too. Iyoke waited through Winter rains for Spring sun to arrive. Not the world’s sun, the soul of the universe, but Hans, her sun, the sun of her heart.
Life renewed itself and Spring flowers bloomed. But love played with hearts. Prince Hans arrived with pomp and retinue, his hair fairer and wilder, his eyes bluer, his smile sweeter than Iyoke had ever imagined. In the palace’s richly embroidered ebony halls, he gathered love as farmers gather windfall. He gathered Sembele’s love. And because Sembele was beautiful, her hair falling in thick braided rivulets along her shoulders, her skin black as the night, he returned her love to her and cast Iyoke’s aside.
Iyoke removed her silken gown and replaced it with the hemp tunic of the common people. All day, many days, she wept in her chambers.
“Plain, I am,” she told the wind. “And not like Sembele, lithe, graceful, and regal. “A changeling, they say, of peasant stock with no royal forbears. Yet, Hans loved my simple heart once. See here, his letters. In portrait, he saw my lumpish forms. Yet even then, his gentle words helped bind our souls together. Yet this very soul he saw not when he arrived and his eyes looked on this body. With no painter’s skill to aid me, my ugliness turned his love away. Companion Wind, tell my sister, ‘Sembele, Dark Beauty, you who are so beautiful, you who have the love of great princes, and can choose from many great and powerful princes, return Iyoke’s only love to her.”
The wind brought the message to Sembele but returned to Iyoke with no answer.
Meanwhile, Prince Jaejoong --Prince Jaejoong more beautiful than all the men and women of all the kingdoms of the world-- understood the power of love. Rejection had no power to wound his heart, but the insult irked his father. The old king called his allies together. Trade was disrupted, imported goods refused, exports ceased. Queen Mizaka sent appeasing gifts. King Wung Li relented, and the cast-off prince was called from foreign shores. Prince Jaejoong was ordered to attend the wedding of his former betrothed that all the world would know King Wung Li could both punish and forgive.
At Sembele’s marriage: scarlets and velvets. Silks, satins and linens. Pearl-decked pillows, alabaster jars of spices and perfumes sent by princes from distant lands. After a marriage feast of seven days, Sembele set sail for her husband’s kingdom, her sisters, and her royal parents accompanying her, there to fulfill another seven days of feasting.
The waves roiling, the stars in their height dancing, Jaejoong and Iyoke both being cast off, Prince Jaejoong found Iyoke at the prow of the ship. “Still weeping?” he asked. How joyous and bright of eye he was! “Your tears will overwhelm the sea. Let your sister have Hans’ love.” He indicated the rolling waves all about. “So strong is Love, as strong as death. Such love your sister has for Hans --I have no doubt it would uphold us if we chose to dance upon the seas.”
Iyoke turned her tear-stained face to his. She smiled but said nothing.
“I will tell you a secret.” The Crown Prince laughed then leaned low to whisper in her ear. “The people of Hans’ country are a proud people. Passionless, and indifferent. Haughty above all other peoples. Believing they have all good things, they are content, desirous of nothing.. Among such arrogant and cold people, how could such a one as you live? But there, Sembele will thrive. Like a vine transplanted to its true and native soil.”
The wind blew his long black hair wildly across his face, but Iyoke glanced at the roiling sea, silent.
“Something more,” he continued. “I loved a servant girl in my father’s palace. One whose kind heart was as lovely as yours. For this crime, the king sent me to live in Hans’ country, that I might forget my love for a common girl. He hastened to betrothed me to your sister, Sembele, a princess I would have gladly loved for her portrait soon adorned my chambers. I wrote her, but she answered me not one word. From shyness or pride, I did not know.”
“Sembele finds letters tedious,” Iyoke said, and turned her face from the sea to the smiling prince then toward the festive wedding songs. “She believes that words and eyes must meet at the same time.”
“Ah!” The prince grinned, then winked. “Perhaps she should have said so. My heart would not have hurt as much as it did. It would not have waited in vain, or I would’ve fought the winter winds and the tides of the Cape, arriving in haste at her side.”
“Indeed,” Iyoke said, “much would have been different if you had hastened.”
“Perhaps. And yet, even so, I found joy at that time of desolation.”
Iyoke looked into his eyes and wrinkled her brow. “Did you?” she asked, sadly.
“The couriers brought letters to Hans from you. That good prince is a man of action not of words. I feared you would be as hurt as I was, a voice sent on the wind searching for a response. Therefore I asked Hans to give me permission to answer your letters.”
“And what did I write of?” she asked him.
“Of hearts, of beauty, of stones, and twigs. You wrote of whatever took your fancy. Without pretense, without guile. So lacking in purposeful charm, they were charm in perfect essence.”
Iyoke broke into tears, joy and sorrow intermixed. She looked back toward the cabin of the ship where Hans danced with his new bride. “So, it was you I loved?” she asked Jaejoong.
“And I who loved you,” he answered. “Iyoke, we two cast-off ones have each other. Do we not already know each other’s hearts?”
So, to the surprise and joy of all, Jaejoong Crown Prince of the far eastern lands -- a kingdom quite large, and greatly feared-- married Queen Mizaka’s ugly changeling daughter.
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