There was a fountain in the middle of the town square, and in the fountain swam a fish. It was a large white carp that swam in circles and sometimes ate the bread that the town’s children crumbled into the water.
A young man approached the fountain. He wore fine clothes, but they fit oddly, and his sword was hung from the wrong side. The young man looked around and bent close to the water.
“Magic fish, magic fish,” he said.
The fish swum closer to the surface. “Hullo, little prince-to-be. Did you reach into the woodpile without showing fear?”
“Yes.” the young man seemed nervous. He clasped the extra cloth at his waist.
“And did the princess wear flowers in her hair?”
“Yes, fish, yes.” He bent lower, his lips nearly to the water. “I picked her out of ninety maidens. The king could set no more tasks before me. We are to be wed, and it is all thanks to you, fish.”
“Well,” the fish said, “that is tremendous.” It mouthed the algae growing in a corner.
“They have made me into a prince.”
“One day I shall be king.”
“My congratulations to you.”
“Fish,” the young man said urgently, “what if I do something wrong?”
The fish swam lazily to the other end of the basin and back again. “are the servants at all animous to you?”
“No. They scoffed at the tale of bandits taking my clothes, but now they reassure me I will never have to dress myself again.”
“And the princess, how does she find you?”
“She told me she wore flowers in her hair because she knew what I would be about. She almost didn’t. But she was tired of seeing young men die for her hand.”
“Well, it seems you are well off.”
“Well off? I won because she pitied me.”
“It meant she wanted you to win.” the fish snapped at a mayfly. “I am a fish, but I can see it’s very simple: don’t beat her, speak to her kindly, and she will be willfully blind to your faults. They all want to see a prince, and so they will. The only way you could fumble it is if you do something terribly out of character.”
“And what if I do,” he gasped, “what if I do something terribly out of character? How do I know what this prince wants, what his taste are? I’m a farmer’s son, I don’t know finery.”
“You made him, little prince-to-be. I’m sure you will be able to help them in their self-deception.”
“That’s it,” the young man said, “I’m not clever. I’ve only gotten this far because of you.”
The fish found an eddy that held its interest for a moment. The young man stared into the water, his hands curled into claws.
“Listen,” he said suddenly, “what do you most desperately want, more than anything in the world?”
“Want? I am a fish. I have no real wants.”
“You mean you’re not just an enchanted sorcerer or something like that?”
The fish swung its pectoral fins wide in a gesture much like a shrug. “I was born this way. I am a fish who can speak and have always been.”
“Do you come from a magic land?”
“I don’t remember. All I have ever really known is this fountain and the people in this village. Occasionally they drop coins and wish, but you were the first to strike up a conversation with me.”
The young man gripped the basin with white-knuckled hands. His sleeves had fallen in the water; they were cut wide and long in the current fashion, now their silk was drawing water up into itself.
“But if you could want anything?”
The fish nuzzled a surface bubble. “If I wanted something? I suppose I wouldn’t mind being put in the ocean. It would not be my home, not really, but there would be more room to swim around.”
“That is your wish?”
“Not a wish. It might be nice, that’s all.”
The young man nodded. He dipped his fingertips into the water.
“And in return,” he said excitedly, “you will advise me in my first year as king?”
The fish backed away until its fins grazed the bottom of the basin. “No.”
“Why? Why? I’ve done everything you asked.”
“Princeling, that was not for me, that was for you. Has palace life affected your ears? I have not been adverse to helping you, but either leave me to my peace or let me go.”
The young man stood. “You won’t give me even one little piece of advice?”
“I already have, in case you haven’t been listening. You will do fine. Now go enjoy your spoils. In a while the schoolchildren will come this way and drop their leftovers in the fountain—hark!”
The young man looked around. The square was empty of people.
“I will be back,” he promised. The fish made no reply.
That night, moon spilled into the square, making the fish nearly vanish against the white of the basin. It dozed with one eye open, one fin twitching ceaselessly.
A metallic clank against the wall of the fountain. The fish opened its other eye and swam to the surface.
The young man was there, dressed in a peasant tunic and trousers. The outfit he’d worn when they had first met, to be precise. He held a silver bucket.
“Hurry,” he said, “I have slipped away, but they will miss me soon.”
The fish gently gravitated in place. “You are going to set me free?”
“I have every intention of fulfilling my end of the bargain. Here—” he dipped the bucket into the water. It rocked buoyantly, he thrust it down with both hands so that it violently filled, a small geyser splattered his brow and clothing.
The fish paused, looking from the boy to the bucket rim.
It swam into the bucket. The young man lifted it, water slopped over the sides but he gingerly heaved it over the edge and to the ground. He carried it carefully for a long ways. The fish could only tell travel from the pass of light and shadow. It dozed.
The jolt of the bucket being set down woke the fish. It was too dark to tell what lay above it. It heard scraping that echoed metallically. Suddenly the bucket lifted again and the fish rushed out in the torrent of the bucket being upturned.
It landed in a porcelain bowl painted with scenes of the kingdom’s founding. The fish darted around, examining its surroundings. The young man looked down at it. Whether he was wet from sweat or water was uncertain.
“You promised,” the fish said.
“I have every intention of fulfilling my end of the bargain,” the young man said, “I was telling the truth. I just need you help for a little longer.”
“How much longer?” said the fish, “how long will I have to swim in a bowl one-tenth the size of my home?”
“I have to keep you here,” the young man said urgently, “if they found you, it would mean disaster. Besides, for one who has lived as long as you, it will seem as no time at all.”
The fish looked around the room. It took in the heavy drapes, the single chair, the only door. The young man followed its gaze.
“I have the only key,” he said, “so you won’t have to worry about being bothered.”
A bubble escaped the fish’s mouth, sitting on the surface for an instant before it burst.
“I don’t understand. When I told you to take only the plain walnuts, did you?”
“When I told you how to creep into the king’s garden and eavesdrop on his barber, did you follow it to the letter?”
“Of course, but I—”
“Why, then, should you choose to disobey me now?” Another bubble escaped, this one sat like a pearl on the water.
“…you’re being very selfish,” the young man said finally, “what’s the use of getting me this far if I only fail? Look, I’ll steal some scraps from the kitchens, you have some time to think about it.”
He turned to go.
“Wait,” the fish said.
The young man stopped.
“Do you still trust me?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Then you must put me on a marble plinth by the light of the moon.”
The young man turned. “I thought you said you weren’t magic?”
“I’m not cursed, if that’s what you mean. Magic is what I am. Are you willing to obey me one last time?”
The young man hesitated a long time. Finally, he approached the bowl and dipped his fingers in. the fish mouthed them.
“Marble?” he asked.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to find some around here.”
Just before dawn, the young man stole up to the king’s astronomy tower, which would someday be his astronomy tower. He mounted the steps silently until he came to the observatory.
The plinth he had taken from beneath a likeness of the queen, his betrothed’s late mother. The fish lay on it, white and motionless as the marble beneath it.
The young man approached slowly.
“Fish,” he said, “it’s almost dawn. The castle will wake soon.”
The fish was still. Silent and still.
“If you are done, I must get you back to my rooms before they begin to suspect.”
The fish said nothing. The slick was gone from its scales, it looked tacky to the touch. The young man tread on heavy feet, but the fish did not stir.
“Fish?” he asked, “I will bring you breakfast. Fish? When does the magic happen? Fish? ….fish?”