A Prince in Disguise.
A fairytale about birds, true love and remembering that beauty is only skin deep.
A Prince in Disguise
Princess Pia looked down from her perch and admired the pink and orange sunset. She sighed. This was to be the last evening belonging to her alone.
“What’s wrong with me?” she wondered. All day, the only thing that she had been asked was if she was excited. Wearing her perfected smile, she had replied that she couldn’t wait for the ball. It was easier than admitting the truth. She was overcome with a feeling of dread that she could not explain.
“This is going to be the happiest night of my life”, she remarked. Even with the words spoken aloud, she could not bring herself to believe it.
Once, in the kingdom of birds, a princess parrot was about to come of age. Keeping with royal tradition, her father, the king parrot announced that there was going to be a bird ball held in her honour. This wasn’t just any birthday celebration. On this night, Princess Pia would decide who she was to marry. That lucky avian would not only become her mate, but would be the next in line as King.
Sparrows were sent far and wide, delivering invitations to every corner of the kingdom. Princess Pia was greatly admired. Not only was she a beautiful creature, with glossy green feathers and a rosy pink collar, she was loved for her kindly nature and heavenly singing voice. Many young candidates flocked to the ball, eager to meet their beloved sovereign and win her heart.. One, dark hearted bird made his way to the ball in secret. His intention was to use his stolen invitation to get close to the royal family. They would all rue the day that he was banished from the kingdom of the birds.
As the full moon rose, the guests began to arrive at the glade. They dined on nectar and berries and marveled at the fireflies zipping about, illuminating their ball. Entertained by the music of the lark and the golden whistler, the birds soared around the gum trees merrily. How lucky they were to have been invited to Princess Pia’s birthday celebration.
At last, there was a hushed silence as the guest of honour arrived in the glade. Pia greeted everyone with a song, which caused all of the candidates to swoon. Afterwards, the king parrot addressed his subjects.
“In order to win the Princess’ wing in marriage, there is going to be a contest”, he announced.
“Firstly, you will introduce yourself to her. Next, if you are chosen to continue, you will have the chance to perform. Impress us with your special skill or talent. Those who remain will then court Pia in a dance. At the end of the ball, the Princess will make her decision. If I agree that this is a suitable match, I will give my blessings towards the marriage.
In other words, choose somebody straight laced. No interesting or opinionated avians need apply.
“Pia”, her mother the Queen hissed. Snapping to attention, Pia shot the guests her loveliest smile.
“Good luck, everybody. I look forward to meeting you all”. Instructed by the tawny frogmouth, the master of ceremonies, the candidates gathered along the bank of the river, eager for the contest to begin.
Pia listened politely as the introductions were made. She encouraged the birds who were too nervous to speak and tolerated the boisterous braggarts who squabbled over who had the prettiest feathers, the sharpest beak and the sweetest song. Not impressed by such things, Pia started to wish that she was back home in her warm nest. Not one of the candidates had impressed her so far and she was in serious danger of falling asleep. As the kookaburra was about to have his turn, he was bowled completely over by a falling ball of red and brown feathers.
The kookaburra spluttered, spitting the dust out of his mouth.
“That was some raindrop”, he joked as he got back onto his feet.
The intruder was more dust than bird. Even so, the other guests began to titter and stare.
“He’s brave, showing his face in front of our Princess”, remarked the willy wagtail. “Have you ever seen such a pitiful creature?”
“Well really. What business does that weakling have in the air if he cannot fly properly? How embarrassing”, scoffed the sandpiper.
“Is he sick, Mama?”, asked Princess Poppet, Pia’s younger sister. “I have never seen feathers like that before”.
The king parrot approached the new arrival.
“What do you have to say for yourself, you inconsiderate ball-crasher?” To the amazement of all, the Princess giggled.
“He sure crashed hard, didn’t he Papa”.
In seeing her father’s icy glare, Pia fell silent. On the inside she grinned. At last this test had started to get interesting.
Flustered, the intruder bowed his head in apology.
“I am sorry for causing such a disturbance. All that I wanted to do was attend the ball and meet Princess Pia. It wasn’t my intention to be late, or to make such an entrance. I am afraid that my wings don’t work as well as they used to”.
“Go home, trash”, heckled Colin the crow. The other crows on the sideline joined in on this cry, making quite a ruckus.
“Is that your name? Trash?”, gasped Pia. She couldn’t imagine what it was like being cursed with such a horrid name.
“It might as well be”, Trash replied, not daring to meet her gaze.
“I have certainly seen better days”.
Trash was scrawny, dusty and covered in patches of feathers. He was malting at an alarming rate. Everywhere that Trash hopped, he behind left a trail of fluff. His wings appeared to be so fragile that many considered it a miracle that he had been able to fly here in the first place. The rest of him was ugly, exposed, pink flesh. Even Pia had to admit that he was one of the most unsightly birds that she had ever seen.
“Well, you know each other now”, snapped the king parrot. As far as he was concerned this introduction was over.
“Fall into line, Trash. Otherwise you can save yourself some time and head for home. I think that it is safe to say that you have no place amongst these fine birds”.
Princess Pia could not stand hearing such cruelty.
“We agreed that it is my decision who stays and goes, at least until the end of the test. I want him to stay”.
“Princess!”, gasped the crowd, and Trash as well.
“Are..are you certain?” he gasped.
“I would be honoured”, she insisted. Though Trash wasn’t much to look at, he seemed like a decent bird, plus he had won a place in her heart for making her laugh.
The Princess found herself pleasantly drifting. She smiled as she remembered her friends, Prince and Raven, and what it felt like to be her own avian, anonymous and free. A shake of her shoulders woke Pia up, pulling her away from happier times. The Queen, also a princess parrot, gave her daughter a critical look. Pia looked briefly at the current candidate, a kingfisher performing aerials around the trees. Noticing the performer was engaged in his own brilliance, she turned to the Queen.
“Do I really have to do this tonight, Mama? If I cannot decide upon a match, can’t we just send everybody home? I don’t want to choose any of them”.
“Pia, hush”, cautioned the Queen. In her lowest whisper, she reminded Pia that it was important to honour tradition.
“Why is it important? Is change forbidden? How can we expected to find a better way if we never consider change”.
The Princess was refusing to lower her voice and was starting to draw attention to herself.
“What’s come over you tonight?”
The Queen gasped as a horrifying notion struck her.
“Don’t tell me you are pining over an avian that isn’t here. Really, if he cared for you at all then he should be here competing with the rest of the birds”.
“There isn’t another bird”, Pia squawked in horror.
“Oh Pia”, the Queen sighed, noticing that her daughter’s cheek were turning as pink as her collar.
Thoroughly embarrassed, Pia shifted her focus back onto the competition. Tawny was about to make his next announcement.
“And now, I present to you: Trash”.
Pia swallowed her heartache and sat up. In desperate need of some cheer, the Princess gave him her full attention.
Trash hopped forward, leaving a trail of feathers as he went. He cleared his throat, which unfortunately sounded like a frog was trying to escape. Pia could not help but think of Poppet’s observation. Trash did not look well at all. At last, he began to recite:
“You brightened our day, and not just with your cheer.
You carried away leaves and twigs, and saved the ones we loved dear.
With heart and humour, you showed us your best.
From all of us in Keeley, we love our Princess”.
“What is he talking about?”, enquired the channel billed cuckoo. “Surely our Princess would not waste her time helping such backwards birds”.
Pia, understanding the poem perfectly, fluttered her wings with excitement.
“You’re from Keeley!”, she exclaimed. “No wonder your wings are so tired”. Keeley was where her friend Raven lived. Located outside of the kingdom’s borders, the journey must have taken him a week, at least.
Trash told Pia that the journey had been worth it.
“You did not give up on us, during the storm. You stayed around until every last one of us were pulled safely from that fallen tree. Afterwards, you stayed and helped us rebuild our homes. If we had known who you were then, we would have thanked you properly. The least that I could do is fly here to thank you personally”.
“You’re very welcome”, Pia beamed. She thought to her summer in Keeley with great fondness. The Princess had not minded in the least that her visit to a childhood friend, Raven, had led to a rescue mission. She would have been happy to save those birds and not receive any recognition, and yet the tiny community had showered her in thanks. In particularly, one sweet, red feathered avian had gone out of his way to show his appreciation. Pia’s greatest regret was not telling Prince her true identity. Yes, she had wanted a break from being treated like a princess, but he had proved himself as a trusted friend. How she wished that he was here now, instead of the clowns that had been parading in front of her all evening.
“Your time is up, Trash”, announced Tawny, having been signalled by the king parrot. Trash turned to them in appeal.
“Can I have one more minute, please? I wish to withdraw from the contest and I would like to explain why”.
“Go ahead then”, the king parrot agreed with far too much enthusiasm. The Princess hopped over to him, saddened that he was pulling out.
“You’d better have a good reason”, Pia told him. Leaning in closer she confessed that he was her favourite competitor by a mile.
Blushing, Trash shifted his gaze to the dirt.
“I cannot stay because it was never my intention to compete. Your father is right, Princess. I am no match for you and am not suited to be king”. Bending down, he pecked at something near his foot. A piece of string came loose, as well as the dirty stone attached to it.
“I hope this gift brightens your day when you need it the most. Thank you for seeing me, Princess. It has been an honour.
Not counting on his wings to carry him, Trash started hopping back towards the glade.
“Trust a trash heap to give a rubbish present” chortled the kookaburra.
“Good riddance. Have you ever seen such an ugly bird in all of your life?” gossiped the Lyrebird.
“You will never catch me in Keeley if that is who they choose as a representative”, chortled Colin the crow.
“Keeley is wonderful”, snapped Pia. She was well aware that her parents were staring and she did not care.
“You are the ones who are ugly. Every one of you that laughs at that sweet avian is ugly. Crow, Lyrebird, Kookaburra, you are hideous. You are out of the running and expelled from the ball. Get out!”.
“It’s your temper that is ugly”, remarked Colin, as he and the others left in a huff. The ball guests were thrown into disarray as they tried to understand why Pia was so upset.
“So who is next, Tawny?”, Pia called, her voice still laced with frustration.
“Smile, Pia”, prompted her mother from the crowd. At the moment the court darling was frightening the crowd. Pia sighed and was somehow able to find her perfect, Princess smile.
While the song of the wren was uplifting, Pia was reduced to tears. Without understand why she was upset, she rubbed at the dusty stone in order to settle her shaky wings. As the silver and white specks of the moonstone emerged, her world stopped. Without a second thought about her parent, the crowd, or her dignity, Pia spread her wings and flew frantically towards the glade. Trash had not gotten very far at all.
“What’s happened to you, Prince?”
Trash, finally called by his true name, smiled weakly. He was pleased that the moonstone had meant something to her. Pia had been so pleased after finding it after the storm, and yet she had polished it and given it to him as a gift. He had treasured it ever since.
“I am glad that you remember. I am so happy that we are still friends, Pia”, Prince beamed.
“Don’t dodge the question. Why couldn’t I recognise you? Tell me what is wrong with you this instant”.
Prince sighed and then confessed the real reason why he had come.
“My life is nearly over, Pia. I could not bear never seeing you again. This ball was my last chance”.
“What do you mean, your life is nearly over. I don’t understand”.
“Neither do I”, confessed Prince. Just six months ago he had been fine. All of a sudden his feathers had started falling out. As well as the shedding he had started to lose weight and muscle dramatically. While he had once been the finest flier he could barely get off of the ground. Every day he was growing weaker and weaker. Surely death wasn’t far away now.
“At least I have finally found a plus to not having any family”, he remarked. Prince had been rescued as a little chick from a horrific bush fire. While his adoptive starling family had been lovely, they were not of his blood. Prince did not even what his own blood looked like. Whatever he was, he appeared to be one of a kind.
Pia was not amused by his dark remark.
“Let me be your family, then. Dance with me, Prince. Come back with me to the river so everybody can see. Afterwards I will tell my parents I have chosen you as my mate. If they cannot accept it, we will fly away to Keeley”.
Prince shook his head. He wasn’t sure if he could ever get back into the air,let alone make it all the way back to his home.
“Your subjects deserve better than a dying King. Turn back, Pia. It is enough that I got to see you again”.
Pia shook her head and spread her wings.
“Dance with me. Please won’t you try? Give me this gift, before I sell my soul away to my kingdom, I beg of you”.
She then admitted the truth that she had been running from all evening.
“I love you, Prince”
Prince did not know what to say. While he loved Pia too, and wanted to dance with her more than anything, he had no desire to cause her any shame.
“You mustn’t make a spectacle of yourself, Pia. I am aware of how ugly and what your guests think of me. Such madness is going to haunt you as Princess, for the rest of your life.
Pia smiled through her tears.
“So haunt me, Prince. Leave me with happy memories while we still can. I promise you, this is what I want. Please won’t you dance with me?”
Finally, Prince nodded. He spread his wings and they began to twirl.
At first the couple remained on the ground. Pia was so happy that she flapped her wings without realising it. Prince, wanting to join her so badly, flapped his wings too and actually managed to soar. Lost in the dance and each other, they were unaware of the gathering crowd.
“I do not approve, Pia”, squawked the king parrot. “Come back down here at once”. The other guests, especially the other candidates were furious.
“Get back down here, cheat. How come you get to dance with her first, especially after pulling out?”
“He’s bewitched our Princess. What other explanation is there? I don’t see how else she could bear dancing with that thing”.
“My darling. My sweet baby, chick. What has that villain done to you?”
Distracted by this outrageous display, not one bird noticed that a second King Parrot flew towards them undetected. Inside of his crooked beak, he was carrying a large, flaming stick. When he let out a rallying squawk, the dancers looked up. Pia locked eyes upon the bird and a rush of terror gripped her heart.
“Uncle Gray, no!”
Gray had been banished from the kingdom due to his wicked ways. He had been resentful of the Princess since birth since she was now next in line to inherit the kingdom. Refusing to leave this power in this chick’s wings, he had tried to turn his brother’s subjects against him. As the next male in succession, Gray believed that he deserved to become the next King of the birds.
“There’s more of them”, Prince cried. Pia glanced around and saw six magpies join Gray. Every one of their beaks carried a burning torch.
Prince realised Gray’s plan just as Gray let his torch drop. He chased the fire downward, using all of his speed to get ahead. Making a beeline for King Parrot, he landed on top of him, just in time. The flame landed on top of Prince, causing him to disappear in a puff of smoke.
Gray had expected the Princess to be upset. What he did not anticipate from his weak willed niece was her rage. Pia darted towards Gray, her claws at the ready.
Pia’s aim had been perfect. Grey spun helplessly in the air, blinded by his niece’s swift attack.
“Restrain them”, Pia called to the galahs, their kingdom’s fiercest protectors. The guard of galahs ascended and fought off Gray and his magpies. By the command of the Queen, the kingfishers ascended as well, expertly catching the remaining torches before they could cause any damage. Having done as she could as Princess, Pia hopped past her singed father. Curling up next to the pile of ash that was Prince, she wept.
So lost was Pia in her grief that she did not see the seventh magpie in the sky. Only little Poppet saw what was about to happen.
“Sissy, watch out!”
King Parrot gazed upward and then sprung into action. He threw himself upon his daughter, knocking her sideways and out of harm’s way.
As the fiery torch struck Prince’s ashes, there was an explosion of light. Enormous flames erupted. Their colour intensified from a warm orange to a deep shade of red. A powerful bird call rang out across the glade as a majestic red feathered bird broke free of its furnace. Prince had returned from the ashes, stronger and more handsome than ever before. Instead of common crimson feathers, this time they were illuminated in their own fire.
The king parrot, the Queen and all of the guests bowed. Though he was the first in living memory to visit, a phoenix was still regarded as the Prince of all birds. He had transformed from being ugly and pitiful into the most majestic creature that they had ever seen. Prince, in shock over what had just happened, turned to Pia.
“My feathers are alight”, he marveled, barely believing his transformation himself.
“You were born in fire”, Pia grinned. Suddenly, a piece of Prince’s mysterious hatching had become clear. It was likely his bushfire rescue was a result of his egg being awakened by the flames.
“Dearest, Pia”, called king parrot. He apologised profusely for not giving Prince a warm reception.
“If your heart is truly set of marrying this fine phoenix, then I am not going to stand in your way. I wish you two all of the happiness in the world”.
Pia looked down upon to her father and was ashamed by his desperate attempt to win over Prince’s favour. As the other birds started to apologise, she was not consoled. Even though her heart was breaking, she put on her perfect Princess smile one last time.
“I will marry him, Papa, if Prince wishes it, for he accepted me without knowing that I was a Princess. What we will not be doing is reigning as your King and Queen. None of you gave him a chance before knowing Prince was a Phoenix. To you he was just trash and what was worse, you treated him like it as well. I wish everybody all of the best but my heart is no longer with you. I am afraid that this is goodbye”.
Pia landed amongst the cries and protests, rushing to the baby princess parrot in tears.
“You saved my life Poppet. Please forgive me leaving. I still love you and you are welcome to visit us in Keeley anytime”.
Moving onto her parents, Pia nearly bowed her head out of habit. Instead she looked at them with confidence.
“Please respect my choice. I beg of you, do better by Poppet. If she comes to you with a strange bird, remember that beauty is only skin deep. Who knows what secrets may lie within him. Be kind to him and kind to all, no matter how strange or different they seem”.
Eager to put this night behind her, Pia flapped her wings and headed skyward. She expected Prince to follow but he did not. The phoenix could see that the bird kingdom was falling apart below her.
“We’ll do better, Sissy”, Poppet unexpectedly called at the top of her lungs. “I’m the next Queen now, so what I say goes”.
“We’ll do better”, called the wren and the lorikeet. Sandpiper, willy wagtail, tawny frogmouth and a chorus of birds joined in. After hearing the vow of her mother and father join in, Pia flew downward again. This time her smile was genuine.
“I never said that it was goodbye forever. The next time that I come and visit, make me proud, okay?”
The ball guests nodded and flapped their wings in farewell. Prince and Pia flapped back and then set off into the night’s sky towards Keeley.
“Do you think they can change?”, Pia asked after a prolonged silence. She was frightened that Prince was not the last bird made to feel small within the kingdom.
Prince flew in closer to Pia. The warmth from his flame alone was such a comfort.
“I have changed three times already and my life is just getting started. We are hoping for them to change just the once. Of course they can do it”.
“Change”, Pia called, placing all of her will and hope into one word. Then she set her gaze north once more. The dread from earlier was replaced with excitement. She could not wait for the next phase of her life to begin.