In a prosperous country where fairies and men still lived beside one another, there was once a king who had three sons. The two older ones were everything a king could want in princes: upright, diligent, attentive to their duties, and honorable in every way. The oldest was set to inherit, the middle to be a great duke and adviser to the first, and the king was in every way satisfied with them.
But the youngest, oh, the youngest! The king had tried to have him raised in the same manner as the elder two, but something had gone terribly wrong, and the youngest prince was not at all like his brothers. He was diligent, so far as it suited him – but the moment he tired of study, nothing could induce him to remain sitting, and he ran wild about the palace. He had the semblances of honor when in court – but when not under the king’s eye he broke his promises, insulted the character of others, and showed himself to lack integrity. He was impatient with both man and beast, striking his servants and his animals when they did not obey him exactly, and he was discourteous in both speech and manner. Worst, he was ungenerous, and though the king provided him with any manner of riches, he hoarded them jealously, and would not part with a single golden cup of it.
This distressing behavior continued for years, and worsened as the prince grew. His older brothers looked on in concern, and the king as well, for how could he, in good conscience, trust the rule of any part of his kingdom to such a prince?
The queen, though, had a plan. She was of a mixed line, her mother being fairy and her father being human, and so in her blood ran the fair folk’s love for pure and perfect justice. The prince’s failings had long rankled her inhuman side, and she thought perhaps to test the prince, and if he failed, to teach him a harsh lesson.
So she explained her plan to the king, and he agreed reluctantly, for he did not want his son to fail. That autumn he sent the young prince to a remote castle, with instructions to care for the lands surrounding, and to guide the people through the winter. It was a tall order, but the elder two princes had been doing such things for years, and the youngest prince had clamored long that it should be his turn, too. The prince was delighted at the appointment and left without even a goodbye to his family.
The queen waited a fortnight. Then, one day, she called on her fairy blood and transformed herself into an old, old woman, and went to the young prince’s lands to see how they fared.
Well, it was just finishing up harvest, and so they did not fare too poorly. The people were still gathering their grains and storing them, milling them, and preparing for the winter. There was some little complaint that the prince rarely heard their charges, and dispensed justice indifferently. Very well, the queen thought to herself, and went to see the prince.
She petitioned at the door, calling herself a traveler and hoping for a place to stay. She waited in the courtyard for perhaps an hour before servants led her to the kitchens and gave her a meager bowl of soup and a crust off a two-day-old loaf, then told her to sleep in the corner. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was asked.
And the next morning the queen left, and went home, and told the king what she had found.
A month later, as winter was properly coming on and the trees were losing the last of their leaves, she changed herself again, and went again to the prince’s lands.
Now, the people were discontent, for there was less grain left from the harvest than they had hoped: the prince had taxed them highly, just before winter, and kept his own stores full while the people outside could do nothing but hope there would be enough to last winter through. He listened still more rarely to the cases put before him; people petitioned him and waited hours before admittance, where, if they were allowed speech, their charges were dispensed with quickly and sharply, with no consideration of the actual case. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.
She waited long at the door before finally being admitted to the courtyard, where she saw servants sitting about and talking, or sleeping, and a very few running frantically to their actual tasks. She waited another long while before being admitted to the kitchens, handed a five-day-old crust, and then being ordered to the stables to sleep. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was told. The next morning the queen left. She went home, and told the king in anger of what she had found.
A long, cold month later, she changed again, and went again to visit the prince.
This time it was hard midwinter, and the people suffered. The prince had levied a second tax – smaller, certainly, than the first, but enough to keep himself in comfort and his kitchens full. He never heard petitions now; the mayor returned from the castle with edicts, and people complained in taverns about the prince’s disinterest and his gluttonous manner. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.
She was not admitted. No one stood at the back gate, and, finally, with a bit of magic, she let herself in, and wandered the courtyard. The servants lounged in the stables or stood about the kitchen, talking or playing at dice and cards. Finally one shouted to the others – where had this old woman come from?