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Be like the Rose

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Once upon a time a good merchant and his wife had three children. Their eldest son became a great soldier and sent them home much money from his pay. Their daughter, who was born next, became a great scholar and an abbess and brought them much renown. But their youngest child, another son, born when his older brother was already a man and his sister already a novice nun, seemed likely not to turn out as much of anything.

He had no interest in the sword or in weapons or in horses. He did not read books except of stories and poetry, and only in the vernacular. He followed after his mother as she managed the household and when she took time to embroider and paint. Secretly he helped the maids in the kitchen and the gardener in the garden, until his father caught him and scolded him for his behavior.

He was a strange and lonely youth, but one day the elderly gardener, who was about to retire, came to him with a thing wrapped in worn silk. "This is in thanks for your help, lad. Once I used to play it sweetly, but my fingers have lost the knack. Perhaps you can teach yourself to play it. Just don't let your father catch you." He handed over the thing in silk and walked slowly away.

The mysterious gift, unwrapped, was a thing in an even more worn and battered leather case, and when the youth undid the clasps and opened it, he found that it was a lute. It was old, surely, and yet seemed beautiful to him, without any wear or damage. He drew a finger across the strings, and the sound was sweet and thrilling. It was richly carved, and the head of the instrument bore the face of a beautiful woman crowned with roses.

The youth hid the lute away in his bedroom and took it out only when he was alone, in his bedroom at night, in the neglected gardens on rainy days, in the kitchen where the cook and the maids liked to listen and would not give him away. He taught himself to play it, with slow patience, and learned to accompany the maids as they sang, to remember and play songs he heard while visiting other wealthy households, and to compose his own songs, with words he wrote down but rarely sang aloud.

He might have whiled away his hours in that way for a lifetime, except that one day the cook took him aside and said, "Lad, you should know that your parents want to marry you off."

He blinked at the cook and her kind, worried eyes. "Whatever for?"

"Because you are nearly a man and you look to inherit your father's business, but you've no head nor heart for it. Your mother is seeking out a girl with a good dowry who's clever with numbers, someone who will run the business and your life and make it look like it's all your doing."

The youth decided he had no stomach for this business, either, and after a little pondering, he decided to seek his fortune as a minstrel. Telling no one but the cook, who knew better than try to stop him, he put on his sturdiest boots and travelling clothes, packed a few books and much food, and set out on a full moon night with all the coin he had and his lute on his back.

He made his way along the high road to the nearest town, stopping after the sun rose to eat and drink from what he carried. Then he went into town when the gates were opened, found the market square, and spread out his cloak on the ground between the well and the bakery. He set down his instrument, opened the case, and left it open when he took up the instrument and began to play.

He sang and played throughout the morning, as the sun rose high and the air warmed and the marketplace filled with people. He sang songs he had learned from the kitchen maids and songs he had heard at rich men's tables and songs he had written himself. Sometimes he played songs without words that spoke of all the thoughts in his head for which he had found no words, only melodies and harmonies. By the time it was past noon and he was hot and thirsty, he found coins scattered all about his lute's case and his cloak, more than enough to buy a good lunch at the tavern and rent a room for a few hours' nap.

He played again in the evening, in a square nearer the mayor's house, and earned fewer coins but more golden ones. He paid for a meal and a room overnight in another tavern, but in the morning, he moved on, seeking the adventure of walking and playing his tunes in another town.

He went to a larger town and once again took up his lute in a market square. Again he was favored with coins, and he noticed that here people stopped to listen longer and sometimes sang along when he played a tune he had learned from someone else. Again he bought lunch and took a nap at the inn, and in the evening, a wandering piper joined him, playing harmonies and sometimes singing them, too. He divided the evening's coins with the piper and they bought one another a drink, but the next day, he once again moved on.

The next town was larger, large enough to be called a city, and he heard talk of the capital there and the doings of the court. Yet he did not prosper nearly so well as he had in the smaller towns. There were far more minstrels about, and unlike the friendly piper, they claimed their own spaces and did not wish to share. He was tired from walking and seeking by the time he found a place to perform, and it turned out that no other minstrel had chosen that spot because it was near to a famous brothel. Many people went by, but few paid him any attention; the men scurried by with their heads down and guilt in their looks, while the women murmured amongst themselves but gave him no money.

It cost him dear to buy his dinner that night, and he slept on the street near the brothel rather than spend for a room. The next morning he left the town, determined to try his luck in the capital.

The capital city where the king had his court was further away than the merchant's son had reckoned. He slept two nights on the road, eating hard bread and cheese he had bought and drinking but little, before he reached the city. It was larger and more crowded than he had imagined, and he was soon lost and bewildered in its winding streets, which all seemed to go uphill.

It was nearly sundown when he came to a gate that stood ajar and smelled the perfume of roses. Not knowing what else to do, he slipped into the garden without opening or closing the gate, drawn by the fragrance of the flowers and the sound of running water. He followed the sound to a fountain deep within the garden, where he filled and emptied his flask three times before he had quenched his thirst. Sitting on the fountain's rim in the near-darkness, he ate the last of his bread and cheese and then fell asleep on the soft grass, his head resting on his lute within its case.

He was awakened first by the sun shining into his face, and then by a shadow that passed between him and the sun. Opening his eyes, he sat up and looked up in astonishment at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

Her hair, flowing unbound over her shoulders, was as golden as the sunlight itself. Her eyes were as blue as the sky and as all-seeing. Yet her skin was as dark as the rich, moist earth of the garden, her lips a deep red like the petals of the roses all around them.

"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Her voice was fearless, low and commanding.

Quickly he scrambled to his feet and bowed to her. "I am but a poor musician, lady, come to the city to make my fortune. I saw an open gate at the end of my journey and came in, because I was tired. I drank from your fountain and then fell asleep here. If I have offended you, I beg your pardon." He sank to his knees before her.

"You saw the gate open, you say?" The lady sat down on the rim of the fountain. "Prove that you speak the truth, then. Take your instrument and play for me."

The young man ran his hands through his hair, straightened his clothing, and did as he was bid. He tuned his lute with care, played an air without words, and then sang a song about a lady within a rose garden which he composed on the spot. The lady smiled at him, then, and he blushed to see it.

"Very well." The lady went and plucked a blossom from a nearby bush, a delicate pink rose bare out of bud. "Keep this token with you, and you may return here this evening. I bid you go forth now and play for others as you have played for me."

"Thank you, lady," he said, and taking his bag and his lute, he went out into the city.

It was still very early in the day, so he was able to break his fast at an inn and then find a place to perform. He played throughout the day without growing weary, singing his song of the lady in the rose garden many times and earning many coins from listeners. At last as the sun was descending the sky, he gathered up his earnings, bought dinner and a bottle of wine, and began to make his way back to the rose garden, as best he could remember it.

He was not at all sure that he knew the way back or that he returned by the same streets on which he had left it, but there was the half-opened gate with the rosebushes growing just inside. Again he followed the sound of the fountain to the heart of the garden and found the lady sitting and waiting for him upon a fine chair, with a table and two goblets before her.

He offered her the wine and filled the goblets, and she drank with him. The wine was better than anything he had ever drunk at his own table, making him feel its strength despite the food in his belly. He sat at the lady's feet and told her of things he had seen that day: of a little boy who juggled with surpassing skill, a dog that had been taught to dance and wore a little hat and a fancy collar, an illusionist who pulled coins from behind people's ears and swallowed fire and sang through a mouthful of ale.

The sun set, and the lady's eyes gleamed violet-blue in the dimness. "You may sleep here tonight," she said. "Go forth and make music tomorrow, then come back to me with a gift at day's end. I will have food ready for you when you return." She pulled a white rose from one of the bushes and laid it in his hand. "Sleep well." And she glided away into the night.

The musician slept peacefully in the thick grass by the fountain, neither too warm nor too cool, lulled by the music of the falling water. The next day he did as he was bidden--he did not think to do otherwise--and roamed the city making his music all day. When at last he was too hot and hungry and thirsty to continue, he purchased a punnet of beautiful golden apples and began to wander uphill, not minding too much how he went. Soon enough, his weary feet led him to the garden gate. It was closed now, but it opened to his touch, and he staggered with the last of his strength toward the fountain.

Again the lady was waiting for him. There was a chair for him as well as for her, and a larger table spread with food--roast chicken, a green salad, new potatoes with butter, and a white wine. They ate together and he told her of things he had seen that day: of birds in a cage for sale that whistled as sweetly as he could sing, of an old cart-horse sinking to its knees when beaten, of a dog that begged food from him but snapped with yellow teeth when he tried to stroke it.

"Where is my gift?" the lady asked, when they had finished their meal. He presented her with the apples, gleaming golden under the rising moon. She took one and gave it back to him, then took one for herself, and they ate the sweet fruit together as day turned into night.

The lady rose and touched the young musician lightly on the cheek. Her touch felt cold as a snowflake, hot as a flame, and he shivered all over. Smiling, she smoothed his curling hair back from his face and tucked another rose blossom over his ear.

"You may sleep here for one night more. Go forth and play tomorrow; bring back your earnings to show me, and I will tell you what I desire of you."

"Yes, lady," he said softly, and trembled when she kissed him on the mouth.

In the morning when he woke, he drew the rose from its place over his ear. It was a vivid red, dark as blood, and there was a redness on one of its thorns that he knew was his own blood. Not caring, he replaced it in his long hair, took his instrument, and went out into the world.

That day he found himself near the palace, singing and playing for marching soldiers and hurrying nobles. They were far less generous than the other folk of the capital had been. He had to stop playing when the king came out onto a balcony and made a speech, which was written down and posted on doors and walls and lantern-posts. He played again after the speech, but before he went back to the lady's garden, he took a copy of the speech from a post and hurried away with it, so that he could read it at his leisure.

When he reached the gate of the garden, it was closed, and locked, and did not open to his touch. His heart pounded in fear, but he thought for a moment, then took the flower that was still in his hair and touched it to the lock. Then the gate did open, and when he stepped through, it swung shut behind him.

The fountain still ran, and the lady waited there again with a meal for them to share. He spoke little as they ate, troubled by what he had seen and heard that day, and distracted by how beautiful the lady was. He noticed as if for the first time how intently her gaze rested on him, how shapely were her dark bare feet on the grass, that her arms too were bare and her red velvet gown like no other fashion for ladies that he had seen.

"What did you earn today, young singer?" she asked, pouring him a third glass of red wine.

"Not much, lady, for the rich and powerful seem not so generous as the weak and poor." He placed his little bag of coins on the rim of the fountain beside them.

"And what else did you bring from your hours in the city?" The lady's eyes gleamed in the twilight.

The musician brought out the poster of the king's speech from inside his jacket. It was growing dark, yet he had no trouble seeing the letters. "The king made a speech today, and this poster has the gist of it. It says that the sea on the other side of the mountains is rising, and the people of that nation are coming to invade us and take our city, as their own homes will be drowned. It says also that they will bring a terrible plague which will destroy those of us they do not kill outright, and that we must defend the city and drive them off with fire and sword."

He was sick at heart, reading these words, but the lady seemed not to care. "Here is what I desire of you, fair singer. I would have you for my own lover, to live with me always. Here in the garden you would be safe from all the turmoil of the world, and when it is clean of the follies of men, their buying and selling, warring and killing, we may return to it again. But you must choose now whether to stay or go, for if you go, now or in the morning, the gate will not open for you again."

The musician went to his knees and bowed low before the lady. "I would stay with you, and sing and play for you, and be your lover if that is your desire."

"It is my desire. Is it truly yours?" She lifted his chin with one finger, so that he must look into her eyes.

"It is, my lady."

They lay together that night in her own bed in her chamber, hung about with silks and strewn with rose petals, red, white, and pink. Three times the moon rose and shone through the window as they took their pleasure of each other, and when at last they quitted the bed, the lady led her musician to the top of a tall tower. "Look at the world you have left behind," she said, taking him out onto a narrow terrace.

He looked east and west, north and south, and the world was changed. Fires burned in the north, and the sea covered the land west and south, and the hills to the east were barren of vegetation. He wept at what he saw, thinking of his parents and the cook and the maids who were now all gone. The lady stroked his hair and smiled a little.

"You know not how many years passed while we dallied together, nor how many more must pass until the world blooms again. Come, let us eat and drink."

They went down to the banqueting hall, and the musician ate and drank with his lady, met others of her court, and heard music of such beauty he was almost ashamed of his own poor skills. But the court listened politely to his songs and stories, and when the lady took him to her bed again, he forgot all else in the joy of their union.

Then after a long sleep, he was awakened by the lady, who led him to the terrace on the high tower again. "Look now," she said, and he looked east and west, and north and south. The waters had receded; the mountains were greening again, and the fires to the north had nearly burnt out. He saw figures moving about the land that might have been animals or men running like animals.

"Another day and a night, as we reckon things here, and it will be safe to go forth again. But come, let us eat and drink, and then I will show you our library."

So they broke their fast together, and then descended the tower and went to the library of the lady's palace. It was the greatest library the musician had ever seen, with texts in many languages, and scores for works of music, and paintings and statues surpassing anything he had ever known. With attendants to show him about and to explain things and fetch books for him, he forgot all about his lady and became engrossed in studying the stories and songs he found there, copying things and ordering them copied. Then after many hours he started guiltily, gathered up his papers, and went seeking his lady, who was waiting for him outside the library's doors.

She laughed at his stammered apology. "I have not waited on you all this time, my love, but returned when I knew that you were finished."

They dined together and talked of his studies in the library and then retired to bed together. After they had made love once, the musician said, "You called me 'my love' before. Do you love me, then?"

"I do," she said, and kissed him. They made love a second time, and as they lay together after, his curly head upon her breast, she asked, "Do you love me?"

"I do," he said, and turned to kiss her, and they made love a third time before falling asleep.

In the morning, before rising from the bed, the lady said to her lover, "Will you do me a service then, beloved?"

"Anything, my lady," he replied.

"Let us break our fast first."

He did not inquire further, but broke his fast with her and then followed her to the top of the tower. Without being told to, he looked north and east, south and west. He saw that the waters had gone down, the fires had gone out, and the land everywhere was covered with new growth. More people than when he had last looked were on the move, and he could see small towns rising again. He knew then what his lady desired.

"You want me to go and sing to them. To tell them stories of the times before, and from the books in your library."

"Yes, to teach them songs and stories, and to take seeds they may plant, for flowers and for fruit, for herbs and for spices. Go forth and help them, but when you are weary, return to me and take your rest a while. You will always find the garden gate open and have a place at my side."

So the next morning, the musician kissed his lady good-bye, and he went forth with packets of seeds in his satchel, his lute in his hand, and the lady's roses in his hair for token. Long and long did he wander the earth, singing songs and telling stories, teaching what he knew, giving away and scattering the seeds entrusted to him. And when he was weary beyond bearing, he turned back and set his heart on the rose garden, until he came to the hidden gate that none else could see and found it standing ajar.

Then he followed the sound of the fountain into the heart of the garden, and saw there his lady sitting on the grass with two small children playing beside her, one with golden hair and dark skin like her, the other with dark hair and fair skin like himself, and knew that she was their mother and he was their father.

He knelt down beside them, and kissed his lady, and the children knew him and embraced him.

"Did you leave the gate open?" said she.