There lived a king on a distant planet who treasured two things above all else: his three children, and a tree which bore fruit of gold.
It happened one night that a thief came and stole a fruit from the golden tree, unseen by the palace guards. The king, fearing as much for his life and that of his children as for his precious fruit, proclaimed that the thief must be caught at once: and whosoever brought them before him would win his planet’s throne.
The king’s sons were eager to please him, and all the more eager for the promise of kingship. They guarded the golden tree by turns: but each night the weight of sleep closed their eyes at last, and each night the thief came and went without any trace of their passing. At last the youngest prince cut a wound into his arm and rubbed it with salt, and the pain of it kept his eyes open through the night: and so, at last, he saw who it was that came to steal his father’s fruit.
But the thief, he saw, was not human. It had wings of starlight, and its body was like sun-flares, like the magnet-lights of the north and south: bright and burning, and flowing with the colours of prisms and nebulae.
Awestruck, the prince forgot the stunner in his hand. Only when it began to fly, again, did he think to shoot: and all he struck was a feather from its tail, which flickered and glowed as it drifted into his hand.
He ran after the shimmering star-bird as it flew from the palace garden, out into the wilderness far from his home, until the bird flew up into the sky and was lost among the stars.
The ships of his father could sail among the stars, but the trail of the bird was lost to him; nor did he remember the way home to his father’s palace. So the prince walked on through the wilderness sighing with despair, with the feather in his hand his only light.
Then there came a voice from the darkness: “I know what you seek, fair prince, and for the love of you I pledge myself to your aid. Come and take my hand, and I’ll bring you to the garden of cages.”
There in the shadows stood a stardancer: one of those cold dark creatures who travel from one world to the next without need for ships or air-suits, whose claws are long and whose teeth are sharp and many; but the prince had no fear, and took the stardancer’s hand.
In the blink of an eye the stardancer took him away to a world of flowers and trees. “There is the garden,” said the stardancer: “you must enter it alone. In a cage at its centre you’ll find the bird you seek. But take care, and touch nothing else you see!”
Through the gate the prince went, and there was the star-bird glimmering in a cage of gold. But all around it were a thousand thousand other cages, and a thousand thousand other birds, each of them as beautiful as the last, and he could not stay his hand from reaching for a second once he had the star-bird in hand.
At once a shrill cry went up through the garden, and a dozen guards with stunners drawn came to take him before their king.
“Please,” said the prince to him, “I am a king’s son as you are a king; have mercy, and do not kill me.”
“I’ll give you your life and the star-bird with it,” the king answered, “if you find for me the star-bladed knife, sharpest among all blades.” And the prince agreed to do as the king asked.
“Did I not tell you to touch nothing?” said the stardancer when he returned. “Yet for the love of you I shall help you once again. Come and take my hand!”
In the blink of an eye the prince found himself before a castle on a gleaming silver plain. “There in the armoury you’ll find the knife,” said the stardancer, “but you must enter the castle alone. Take care, and touch nothing, and none will be the wiser.”
Into the castle the prince went, and no one saw nor questioned him. In the armoury he found the star-bladed knife, which shimmered and glittered like wheeling galaxies, and was so sharp that his wit faltered before it. All round it were a hundred hundred weapons and tools, sickles and scalpels and axes, some forged of light and some of diamond: and he could not stay his hand from reaching for them.
At once a shrill cry went up through the castle, and a dozen angry guards came to take him before their queen.
“Please,” said the prince, “I am a queen’s son as you are a queen; have mercy, and do not kill me.”
“I’ll give you your life and the star-bladed knife with it,” answered the queen, “if you bring for me the maiden of the furthest planet’s moon.” And the prince agreed to do as she asked.
“Did I not tell you to touch nothing?” said the stardancer when he returned. “And has the maiden no say? Still: for the love of you, I shall help you once more. Come and take my hand, and I’ll take you to the furthest planet’s moon.”
There they found the maiden, and she was as beautiful as a hundred moons, a thousand stars. To see her was to love her, and love her they both did: and happily she loved them in return.
“I’ll not be the queen’s,” she said, “but I’d gladly be yours – if you both would have me.”
The greed in the prince’s heart gave way to love, then, and he said: “Let my father’s throne go to my brothers. What need have I of a star-bird, of a star-bladed knife?”
And the stardancer answered: “Come, and take my hands.”