The Princess of Woe

by L. Rose Reed

Once there was a princess who did not feel love.

She was born to the wise and beloved Queen Vasudha, and Vasudha’s king, Sarvesh. On the day of the princess’s birth, all across the Realm of Red Earth, tens of thousands of fish leapt from their rivers and into the nets of the fisher-folk.

“Our princess is come! Minali, Minali, Fish-Catcher!” cried the people.

And so, the princess received her name, Minali, as a gift from the people.

As a baby, Princess Minali wailed with the rage and grief of one whose heart has been broken. No trinket nor song nor cradling arms could soothe her— she fell silent only to listen to the great racket roused by the storms of the rainy season. And so, the queen and king moved their household into an ancient castle on a tall cliff by the sea. There, the never-ending crash and groan of waves against the dusty red rock of the shore bought their daughter’s ease.

Minali grew into a taciturn, unsmiling child. Her parents provided her with hundreds of the most doting servants, and dozens of the most charming playmates, and the most lavish clothes and toys beyond numbering. Dutifully, the princess ordered her servants, and entertained her playmates, and made use of each and every gift. But she could not smile, for no love stirred in her heart.

 With her shoulders — red-brown skin over barely-there muscle over sharp bones, a young girl’s miniature wings — already bowing under the weight of her sorrow, she approached her parents

“Mother, Father,” said the princess. “I must confess to you the shame that I feel in my heart. I am a princess, the prized Fish-Catcher of my people, born in an age of plenty to parents who love me far beyond my due. I want for nothing in this world. And yet, I yearn for something I know not what. I shall feel neither love nor wholeness until I have obtained this thing, my heart’s one desire.”

And so Vasudha the Queen and Sarvesh the King redoubled their efforts to provide for their daughter’s happiness. They sent traders and messengers across every inhospitable land and every treacherous sea. To the far corners of the world, royal vassals sought the heart’s desire of Princess Minali.

In this way, the tale of Minali Fish-Catcher, Princess of Woe, spread across the world, and all who heard it felt their hearts moved to pity. The envoys of Vasudha and Sarvesh returned to the Realm of Red Earth with gifts rich and poor: precious jewels and fine cloth; strange fruits and bespelled herbs; and dolls, always dolls, the most prized possessions of the poorest children. All were gifts freely given, to tempt the princess’s heart.

And still— only the endless dance of ocean-and-shore brought Minali a measure of peace.

The wheel of years turned the princess from childhood toward womanhood, and still — and still, and still, time and tides both endlessly turning — no flame of love kindled in her heart.

On her eighteenth birthday Princess Minali resolved to search the world for herself.

First, her parents begged her not to go. Second, as her sovereigns, they commanded her to stay. But, Minali explained— “As the tree must reach for the sun; as the landslide must bring down the mountain; as the carp and the kingfisher must leap and dive: so, too, must I be moved.” And the queen and king relented.

Princess Minali refused all who offered to escort her, from the noblest knight to the humblest hunter. Only one would not be parted from her. This was Kiran, the Dust-Collector.

Kiran was named for the kiranen, the threads of dust which catch in sunbeams. (The common people knew that the humble dust wove the tapestries of Gods, for those patient enough to see. Kiran’s keen dark eyes had traced the threads of kiranen from infancy.) The princess’s first playmate in childhood and, on the cusp of adulthood, her truest friend, Kiran clung stubbornly to the princess’s side.

“It will be a difficult journey,” warned Minali.

The Dust-Collector only smiled, and answered, “Then you will need a poet to immortalize it. I am with you, my princess, my sister, my friend.”

And so Minali Fish-Catcher and Kiran Dust-Collector sailed the seven seas, traversed the seven continents, and even, it is said, sought out the seven sister stars in the night sky.

The tapestry-threads of their many journeys are re-spun in full in Kiran’s The Journey of the Princess of Woe. Here is recounted their final adventure.

Minali and Kiran sailed away from the island country of the Faery Folk in a boat hewn from a single enormous elm tree. Their humble vessel was tossed from wave to wave in the waters of the unquiet straight, until keen-eyed Kiran spied the warning of an ancient lighthouse. Safely to the shore of that far distant country, the travelers came— to the place where Minali’s heart’s desire was found.

The companions left the ocean and shore behind, following a winding path cut into a steep cliff. The weathered white and green limestone recalled to Kiran’s mind the red cliffs of their home on the other side of the world. A feeling of deep unease overcame them.

“We must be wary, here, Princess,” said the Dust-Collector.

The princess was thinking of the Faery Queen’s warning— “Yours is an all-consuming Love: although Death Herself cannot reap that which is thrown beyond Her reach, such a mighty hunger must by nature consume its creator as well as its object.

But she kept her thoughts veiled as though by the sea air’s very mist and mystery.

At the top of the cliff stood a marketown.

“Let us resupply for our next journey,” said Minali.

“And what journey will that be?” asked Kiran, not without amusement. “Shall we now venture inside the caterpillar’s chrysalis? It seems that we have been everywhere else.”

But Minali did not hear; she had stopped walking several paces behind Kiran when a flash of white caught her mournful black eyes.

Among the wares of a vendor who plucked sea-relinquished objects from the sands, it lay.

A comb. Carved of bone by an unknown but steady hand.

The princess held the comb in her shaking hand, and smiled.

And remembered.

She remembered the first love— two stones formed by God’s hands from the dust of creation. One stone, God threw high into the stars, and the other she threw low into the waters— beyond the reach of Sister Death, so that love could never die.

She remembered lives long past and lives yet to come—

a river who reached out a loving hand to a fisherman

a house on a hill and and two newlyweds crossing the threshold

a catfish jumping to meet a waiting kingfisher

two stones cupped in a child’s hand

two soldiers in a foxhole

a star that fell from the sky for love of a man.—

A princess, and her comb.

She remembered the people who wailed with hunger, and the flood of the river which began life anew. She remembered the cacophony of bells which rang out—which will ring out—at the wedding of the ages.

She remembered what it was to love and be loved, and knew that she could not return to its absence.

Smiling, the princess said, “Kiran, my friend, the Dust of Creation— I love you. Tell my parents that I love them, too. And thank you.”

And so saying— the princess swallowed the comb. In this way, she and her love would again be part of each other, and never be parted.

The comb did not rend her from the inside with its teeth; It was by love that Minali perished, her lips smiling.

With the threads of the kiranen did Kiran stitch the princess’s body back together, from throat to stomach, leaving the comb within. They wrapped her in clean cloth, and bore her body home. 

The queen and king’s laments were louder and more terrible than the raging sea. Funeral bells sounded from the heavens themselves, and the rivers ran dry. The fisher-folk moved on to more bountiful lands while, in their crumbling red castle, Vasudha the Wise and Sarvesh the Beloved wasted away in their grief.

Throughout the Realm of Red Earth, you may spot fish lurking in the mud of the river bottoms; But to this day, none will be caught.

And none will: until the day that the two lovers appear in this world once more— the Princess, and her comb.

Pray that the lovers return from the hand of God before Sister Death reaps us all from this earth. Before all hunger of love abandons us, too.

L. Rose Reed is a former teacher, current librarian, and forever historian. She writes queer speculative fantasy and narrative poetry. Her short fiction appears in Spoon Knife 4: A Neurodivergent Guide to Spacetime, The Monsters We Forgot, Vol. 1, and Helios Quarterly Magazine, among others. Reed currently lives in Aurora, Colorado with her siblings-of-choice and a clowder of cats. You may find her at her beloved spinet piano, or online at and on Twitter at @LRoseWrites.

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