Prince of Exile, 10

We rode through the afternoon, ever higher, and at the crest of the mountain range, in a little sheltered space beside the pass, we found another traveler sitting beside his campfire. The Prince rode up to him and asked, “What is the ultimate truth?”

“Damned if I know, Prince. Get down and eat.”

The Prince grinned at the apparition who sat so casually beside the fire. He was skinny and ragged with a body much scarred, but insouciant humor danced in his eyes.

The Prince stepped down and walked up to the fire, extending his hands to the warmth, and said, “If you have no wisdom, how will you pay for my company?”

“I’ll tell you a story.”

“Good,” the Prince said, seating himself and reaching for the stewpot. “Stories are better than wisdom, and sometimes better than food.”

“But never,” the stranger suggested, “better than women or wine.”

The Prince shook his head, unconvinced, and said, “That would depend on the woman.”

“You have already heard my story!”

“I have heard all the stories, but never mind. Tell me again.”

*****

“This is the story,” the stranger said, “of Mara and Isus . . .

“There once was a young woman who could not tell truth from fantasy. She was loved by her parents, but no one could love her half so much as she loved herself. She felt that she was beautiful. She felt that she was a princess, stolen away in her infancy and given to peasants to raise. She felt that a fine knight would come to take her away. She felt that somewhere in the wide world there was one man – but only one man – fit to be her mate and that when he came into her life, he would fall passionately in love at the mere sight of her beauty.

“I do not know if she was beautiful. Had she been truly stunning, she could not have matched the visions she had of herself.

“She spun tales of glory about herself and told them to her parents. Surely she knew at first that they were fantasy.  But her parents indulged her, laughed with her, praised her imagination, and never forced her to see what was true and what was false.

“Ultimately, she met a young man who was passing through her village. She fell in love with him, not truly knowing what love was. She took passing affection and a bit of lust and built, on that foundation, huge cathedrals of imaginings of what their love would be.

“The man was not a liar, but he was no more truthful than any other man. When he spoke of love in those moments while their bodies were locked together, he did not expect to be taken so seriously. But Mara had no judgment, only illusions. To her, their passion was like the first man and woman. He was too kind to voice his disappointment that she was a clumsy virgin, and in the kindness with which he held his tongue, she saw a love so deep that it struck him dumb.

“In the morning, he was gone. And she was pregnant, although it took her a month to discover it. more tomorrow

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