The Bunny Princess and the Bean

Once upon a time a bunny princess fell in love with a bean. But that is not where this story starts.

The bunny princess lived on an island, surrounded by a great, cold sea. Everyone on the island considered beans to be quite unapproachable. "They are strange," they said. "Only good for nibbling on if you're peckish."

"I think they are interesting," the bunny princess said. "We should try to be friends with them."

So the bunny princess decided she would travel to the home of the beans and live among them and learn of their ways and be the bridge between their two people. She boarded a boat and traveled across the great, cold sea.

The journey was difficult and treacherous. She braved giant waves, horrible storms, and terrible sea serpents. More than once she thought she would be sent to the castle in the sky. Yet somehow she persevered and pressed on.

By the time she reached the island where the beans lived, the bunny princess was tired, chilly, and hungry. The sky was overcast and a light, freezing drizzle fell. She hopped off the boat and crawled up the beach. Just beyond, there was a tall forest which looked to provide shelter and possibly some food.

As she neared the forest, she realized the trees were really quite strange! Instead of brown bark, the trunks were green and lush. For a moment she thought her weariness was playing tricks with her mind. But it smelled so sweet and her tummy growled. She could not help herself and hesitantly bit on the trunk. To her surprise, it was as juicy as a juniper and crunchy as a carrot.

Overwhelmed with hunger, the bunny princess nibbled more and more until finally the tree's trunk had been nibbled all the way through. With a sound like a great sigh, the tree tipped over and crashed to the ground.

With her belly filled, the bunny princess now even more felt the weariness of her travels. She climbed inside the hollow of the recently-felled tree, which was soft and warm like the sleeping burrow of her castle. Sheltered from the elements, the bunny princess quickly entered a deep slumber.

The bunny princess was prodded awake by angry pokes. At first she thought she was dreaming, so she tried to roll over and go back to sleep. The pokes continued and then she thought it must be her brothers and sisters trying to wake her up to go play, so she kicked at them with her feet and said, "Go away."

But the prodding got even angrier, so the bunny princess opened her eyes and found herself surrounded by beans, each holding a spear and jabbing it at her. The bunny princess sprang away, her heart thudding in fear, forgetting that she was here to make friends with the beans.

She did not get far, however, before a net was flung over her. She screeched and kicked her legs, struggling to escape. But she could not free herself and soon stopped moving entirely. Her instincts told her that if she played dead, the beans would no longer be interested and leave her alone.

Unfortunately the beans were not predators, so they did not give up so easily. Instead they tied her up and carried her back to their village deep within the forest of green, fleshy trees.

The bean village was made up of hundreds of pods dangling from the sides of some of the oldest and largest trees. Each pod held three, four, or in a few rare cases even five beans a piece. The bunny princess was placed in an old, brown pod that had detached from the trees and come to settle upon the ground.

They left her there in the dark. She could hear their voices outside, though she could not speak the bean language and thus did not know what they said. That made her want to cry because she realized how foolish her entire journey had been; for if she could not speak with the beans however could she become their friend?

At least it was warm inside the pod. The pitter-patter of the rain against the skin of the pod was actually quite melodic and, now that she was starting to accept her situation, the voices of the beans seemed almost musical. Suddenly she was very sleepy. She closed her eyes just for a minute and was snoring once again.

A voice woke the bunny princess from her slumber. She looked up and blinked her eyes at the bean standing over her. "I am sorry," she said, "but I do not speak your language." She sighed. "And you do not speak mine either."

"But I do," the bean said to her.

Her eyes went wide and she sat up. Her arms and legs were still tied, but the bean did not carry a spear like the others had. He was a pale bean; thin and long.

"What sort of bean are you?" she asked him.

The bean smiled and said, "I am a sugar bean. But who I am is not important. It's important to know who you are and why you're here."

"I am the bunny princess," she said truthfully. "I came from our island across the cold sea to visit the beans and learn about them and become friends with them."

The sugar bean crossed his arms across his chest and said to her, "It is a funny thing to say that, considering what you did the the beanstalk."

"Beanstalk?" she asked, wondering what he could possibly mean. "I don't know anything about that."

"Yet you ate right through it. That is the reason we beans left the island of the bunnies, because all our beanstalks were being eaten by you bunnies without giving any thought to us. We had to come to this cold island which isn't friendly to us."

The bunny princess suddenly realized what the sugar bean was talking about. "You mean the tasty tree I snacked on and slept inside!" she said.

The sugar bean eyed her closely. "It's as I thought. You are simply innocent and didn't know what you were doing."

She nodded her head furiously. "Yes, yes! I did not know what that was. I thought it was a tasty treat, not a... what did you call it?"

"A beanstalk," he said. "I can see you don't know what that is. When a bean gets old enough, he is planted in the ground, and he grows into a beanstalk that reaches up to the castle in the sky."

"Oh how terrible!" the bunny princess despaired. "And to think I ate through one of those beanstalks and brought it crashing down. It was a terrible crime I committed."

The sugar bean nodded. "Yes, to our people, it is a great crime. But in this case it is a crime of ignorance, not malice. We are a forgiving people, actually."

The bunny princess sighed in relief. "I am thankful. I will do whatever I can to make it up to your people."

Then the sugar bean smiled ruefully. "Ah, but it is not so simple. You see, for though I believe you to be a sweet innocent, bunny princess, I am the only one. Everyone else thinks you have come to nibble on our beanstalks until we have to run away again."

"No! I am not, I swear it," the bunny princess insisted.

"It is not me you must convince," the sugar bean told her. "But my brothers and sisters." He unbound her legs but left her arms in shackles, then led her from the pod. By now, the rain had stopped. Though the sun was shining, the air was cool and clammy. The bunny princess shuddered as she was taken through the village.

Beans looked out from their pods at her with suspicious eyes. When she looked back, many of them looked away, but a few glared at her with malice. "I'm sorry!" she shouted to them. "I didn't mean it!"

"They do not understand," the sugar bean said. "They cannot speak your words."

"But they will hear my voice," the bunny princess said, "and maybe they will understand my remorse."

The sugar bean fell silent and seemed to reflect on her words. Soon they had come to the largest pod in the village. Inside were the four oldest beans, who would soon be burying themselves in the soil to become beanstalks. They were wise and respected and each of them looked at the bunny princess with suspicion.

The bunny princess tried to explain herself to the elder beans as the sugar bean translated her words. "I did not mean you any harm," she told them. "I am a traveler from a far off land and came only to learn about your people and prove that we could be friends. I was ignorant of your ways and did not know about the beanstalks.

"Perhaps this is why our people must be so distant! Because they do not know each other. I wish to learn, yes, but I also wish to teach. The bunnies and the beans should be friends, not strangers. And the first step to becoming friends is forgiveness. Forgive my ignorance. Forgive me for harming you so terribly. I shall do whatever I can to make up for it. I shall cook your meals and mend your clothes and clean your homes and do whatever other chores of penance you might conceive. Please let me become your friend!"

Her words were emphatic, but the elder beans did not pay attention to her sincerity. The four conferred and came to a decision and spoke harshly. The bunny princess knew not what they said but could understand their intent and her face fell in despair.

But not everyone was unmoved by her words. The sugar bean spoke up, the words of his strange, wobbly language coming out as passionately as the bunny princess's own. Once he finished speaking, the elder beans leaned back and conferred once again.

This time, they spoke softer, but remained firm in tone. When they finished, the sugar bean sighed and turned to the bunny princess. "What did you say?" she asked.

"I told them that you were sincere and telling the truth. I told them that I believed you and that I would stake my honor on your words being truthful." The sugar bean then removed the manacles from her wrists. "They have agreed to let you stay and not punish you, as long as I watch over you."

The bunny princess threw her arms around the bean's shoulders. "Oh, sugar bean, thank you so much! I promise not to besmirch your honor."

The sugar bean smiled ruefully. "It is not my honor you must be worried about now. For if you do commit some crime, I shall be punished alongside you. And since you swore before the elders that you were here as a friend, any crime you commit will also be a crime against them, the punishment for which is death."

The bunny princess's eyes went wide as she followed the sugar bean out of the pod.

Thankfully for the sugar bean and the bunny princess, she did not once violate any law of the beans while she remained. Whenever she was at risk, the sugar bean gently saved her from folly. He was always by her side and slowly, the two became quite close to each other. She learned how the beans lived and worked and played and spoke. Four whole seasons came and went.

One night, as the bunny princess swept the inside of the pod she shared with the sugar bean, a sweet music began to dance in the wind. The bunny princess stopped and closed her eyes and listened. Before she knew what she was doing, she was swaying with the music. When it finished, she opened her eyes and found the sugar bean watching her.

"Do you enjoy music?" he asked her.

"Of course!" she said. "Who doesn't enjoy music?"

"Beans do not enjoy music," he said. "We only play it when there is something sad to mourn. Music is not something enjoy."

"What is there to be sad about?" she asked him.

"One of the elders has decided to become a beanstalk. He was planted just a few moments ago."

"Is that why your voice is so melancholy?" she asked him. "Because you are sad?"

He shook his head. "No."

"Is it because you enjoy music too?" she asked. "And wish it did not have to be sad?"

The sugar bean was silent for a moment before saying, "As always, you read me, my bunny princess. It is true, I wish we knew about happy music."

"I have been here for a whole year," she told the sugar bean. "I have learned much from you, but I feel like I have not taught a thing."

"You have taught me what love is," he said.

She blushed and smiled and said, "Maybe that it so, but can I not teach you more? I wish to teach about happy music to you and your people. Should I not do it?"

He nodded, "I wish you would. What music do you know?"

She sighed. "Unfortunately I do not know any music." She pondered this problem for a while before deciding, "I shall return to my island and find the finest musicians. Then I shall return with them and teach your people about happy music!"

"I should come with you," he said. "I do not want to be out of your sight for a minute."

She smiled at him and said, "Oh, silly bean, you have so much to do here. I cannot ask you to come away with me, not when you will likely be stuck on the boat the entire time. I will be back before you know it, do not worry."

So the next morning the bunny princess set sail for home. As her boat sailed away, she heard the sugar bean's voice over the waves. "I shall wait here for you," he said, waving to her from the beach. "I will wait in this spot until you return to me!"

Then a huge gust of wind blew the boat so far from the shore that she could no longer see or hear him and the bunny princess was overcome with grief. Her tears were so great that they made the ocean rise a whole inch.

But soon she came back to her island and the people gathered. She shared tales of her year on the island of the beans and let everyone know that she intended to return with the finest musicians in the land to teach the beans about joyful music.

Word spread of her plans and stories and soon musicians from across the land flocked to her castle. There were so many musicians that the bunny princess could not take them all. So she staged a series of competitions where the musicians played for her and she selected the best. It took a full season before she was able to listen to all of the musicians and then yet another season until she was able to narrow it down to the best.

In the end, she picked four musicians; there was a jackrabbit who blew a triumphant tuba, a cottontail who tweeted a effervescence flute, a march hare who thumped a rousing drum, and a young coney who strummed a vibrant harp.

By this time, it had become winter and the waters were even more choppy and dangerous than before. Her people begged her to wait until spring, when the waters would be calm, before she departed. "But I cannot wait," she told them. "Already I have waited too long. I told my sugar bean I would return swiftly and already I have been here half a year! I cannot bear it any longer."

So despite their misgivings, she set out into the sea once more with her four musicians. They sailed for three days and the waters were calm and it seemed as if their journey would be fine. Then on the fourth day a great storm rose out of nowhere.

The bunny princess and musicians struggled to batten down the hatches and keep the ship sailing steady. The sea tossed them on great waves as water assaulted them from both above and below. More than once it seemed the ship would capsize, but it managed to hold on.

The five of them huddled down in the hold, not daring to even light a candle for fear it would fall over and set the entire ship ablaze. Water trickled down and soaked them. "We shouldn't have left so early!" the march hare complained. "We are doomed."

"We shall pull through," the bunny princess said insistently. "Nothing can keep me from my sugar bean."

And so it was that, on daybreak of the next morning, the storm passed and the seas were calm again. The five bunnies were wet and hungry and tired, but they were alive. The ship itself, though, could not be said to be in such a fair condition.

The sail had been torn free and blown into the ocean. "We are crippled," complained the cottontail. "We'll never make it without that sail and now we're doomed."

"Nonsense," the bunny princess said. "We need merely make a new sail and we'll be fine."

"But what shall we make it of?" the cottontail asked.

"You yourself have a tail of cotton. Does that not give you an idea?"

So the five bunnies trimmed their tails until they had a big pile of fur. "But how will we spin it?" the jackrabbit wondered.

"We simply need a wheel," the bunny princess said. Together with the other bunnies, she turned the ship's wheel into one for spinning. She then spun the fur into yarn, until she had enough to weave a new sail.

"But how will we weave it?" the coney asked.

"We already have the tools we need," the bunny princess said. She took the coney's harp and used it like a loom, weaving the yarn atop it.

"That will tear to pieces in a strong wind," the march hare said.

"It will be enough," the bunny princess insisted.

For several days they slowly sailed, hastily taking down the sail whenever a wind got too strong and threatened to tear it apart. A week passed and they had made some progress, but nowhere near enough, and food and fresh water were starting to run low.

When it seemed as if they would starve or die of thirst, they saw another ship on the horizon. The others thought this a fortuitous sign, but the bunny princess was cautious. "We don't know who they are," she said. "We should not let them know we are in danger."

But the musicians ignored her advice and took up their instruments and started to play a distressed ballad. The notes carried over the waves until they reached the other ship, which turned to approach them. "See?" the cottontail said, "they are coming for us!"

But as the ship neared them, the flag flying from its mast was not a friendly one. It was black with a skull and crossbones upon it.

"Pirates!" the march hare cried out in dismay. "We're doomed!"

"We have to turn and run!" the bunny princess said, grabbing the wheel.

"But we are too slow," the cottontail said. "We'll never get away. Better to surrender and beg mercy than run and make them angry!"

There was much arguing until finally the bunny princess got her way. But it was too late, as the pirates had grown close and fired a round of cannons at them, tearing through their sail and demolishing their mast.

With no other choice, the bunnies raised a white flag of surrender and laid anchor to await the pirates boarding. Holding their breath, the bunnies sat morosely on the deck to wait their captors. "Perhaps it will be for the better," the cottontail said. "We've no food or water here. Perhaps they'll treat us well."

As the pirates boarded, the bunnies were finally able to see the faces of their captors. The coney cried out in fear, for the pirate ship was crewed by foxes. "They'll gobble us up!" the jackrabbit said. "We're doomed."

"Not so," the bunny princess said. "Because I have not seen my sugar bean again and I do not mean to meet him next in the castle in the sky."

The foxes boarded the bunnies' ship, drool running down their chins as they got a look at them. The bunnies were rounded up up and herded onto the pirate ship. Once they were there, the pirates scuttled the bunnies' ship.

The captain of the foxes was a big, mangy fox with stiff red fur. "Well well, we've got quite a feast now!" he said, eying the bunnies hungrily. "I've heard rabbit stew is delicious!"

"No!" the cottontail said. "We taste terrible! Far too stringy and tough. Not a bit of rabbit meat is good." The foxes exchanged looks of disbelief.

"Oh, don't listen to her," the bunny princess said. "Rabbit meat is most tender and delicious. Oh, yes, it certainly is." The other bunnies looked at her in betrayal.

"Good, good!" the fox captain said. "We'll boil you up tonight! Put you in there with carrots and onions and greens and make a feast of it!" The other foxes hooted in agreement.

"That sounds lovely indeed," the bunny princess said. "It's just a real shame, a shame indeed, that it is only one feast and not five."

The fox captain looked at her curiously. "And what do you mean by that?" he asked.

"We have been adrift for quite some time," she told him. "We are each but skin and bones. The five of us together, now, we're a pretty poor feast. Oh, if only you'd caught us a few weeks ago when we were fat and plump, then each of us would be a feast!"

The captain stroked his chin in thought. "Hmm, yes. Five feasts of rabbit stew would be better than just one."

"It's too bad," the bunny princess lamented. "Oh too, too bad that we are so skinny! If only we had plenty of carrots and onions and greens to eat, we'd plump up quickly. Then you could make five feasts of us! If only, if only!"

The foxes started chattering among themselves. The fox captain said to them, "We have all of those things. What say you, boys, that we fatten up these rabbits and then make a feast of them?"

The foxes all let out a cheer, so the bunnies were taken down into a hold and given a heaping portion of food and water to eat. At first, the musicians were afraid, but then they got a taste of the food and water and calmed down.

For the next few days, the rabbits ate to their hearts content, going to sleep with full bellies. Then the fox captain came down to the hold and looked at them. "You're looking pretty plump to me now," he said.

"No no," the bunny princess said. "We are not nearly as fat as we could be. You'll have to be patient. It will be worth it!"

So for the next few days, the bunnies were brought the food and water and they ate and were content. But one day the cottontail did not eat her food. "We're happy now, but what happens when they finally decide to eat us? We're just delaying the inevitable. I'd rather get it over with now!"

"Don't worry, just eat," the bunny princess said and the cottontail did so reluctantly.

After another week had passed, the fox captain came down to the hold to check on them. "You're plump enough now, aren't you?" he asked.

"Not yet," the bunny princess said. "With the amount of food you're giving us, it might not ever come."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, we're getting a normal portion of food," the bunny princess explained. "But if you really want to fatten us up, you'll need to feed us several portions each!"

So the next day, the bunnies were brought three portions of food each. They ate until they couldn't eat any more and then the bunny princess made them continue eating. They each felt like they were going to burst. But still they ate.

A week passed and the fox captain came down to the hold. When he looked at the bunnies and their plates of food, his stomach growled loudly. "Aren't you plump enough yet?" he asked.

"Almost!" the bunny princess said. "A few more weeks and we'll each be fine enough for a feast."

After the fox captain left, the cottontail started to weep. "I can't stand it!" she said. "I don't want to be eaten by the foxes!"

"Don't worry," the bunny princess said, "it'll all be fine."

But the cottontail did not believe her and she ran out from the hold. The pirate foxes shouted and tried to grab her, but she was full of energy and bounded past them. She reached the rails and leapt off of the ship, into the sea. The foxes watched her as she swam away until she disappeared into the sea spray.

The fox captain stormed down to the hold. "The cottontail leapt into the sea! We're leagues from the land so she'll never get free, that fool. And even worse, our feast is now shark food!"

"I'm sorry, I tried to stop her!" the bunny princess said. "But look on the bright side, we can all eat her share and get plumper even faster."

"Very well," the fox captain said. "But you've only got one more week. After that, we're going to feast on you no matter how fat you are."

"Of course, of course," the bunny princess said. Once the fox captain left she cursed the cottontail. "That fool! She threw away her own life and might have doomed us as well!"

"What do you mean?" the jackrabbit asked, but the bunny princess did not say.

So the bunnies ate for a week, including the cottontail's portion. At the end of the week, they were fat and full. The fox captain came down to the hold. His cheeks were sunken and his legs wobbly. As soon as he saw the bunnies, his stomach growled and he began to drool.

"It's time," he said. "Now which one of you bunnies will be our first feast?"

"I think you should pick me," the march hare said, standing up and approaching the fox captain. The fox captain weakly raised his knife, but the march hare easily knocked it out of the his hands.

With the march hare leading the way, the bunnies walked out of the hold. The foxes, too weak from hunger, weren't able to put up a fight. The bunnies tied them up and placed them in the hold, then barred the door.

"You tricked us," the fox captain said. "You ate all our food and waited until we were starved. What will you do with us now?"

"Don't worry," the bunny princess said. "You lot are thieves and murderers, but I am merciful. We'll feed you to keep you alive and then drop you off on land as soon as we find some. What happens then is up to you."

For the next few days, the coney fed the foxes enough to keep them from starving while the other bunnies took over running the ship. After checking the charts and maps, they realized they were far to the south of the beans' island.

"We're so far off course!" the bunny princess despaired. "But we must press on."

"Even without the cottontail?" the jackrabbit asked.

"Her loss is sad," the bunny princess said. "But I shall learn the flute in her place while we travel."

For the next few days, the bunny princess practiced on the flute. She was not very good at it and certainly could not match the other musicians in skill, but her energy was clear.

On the fifth day since they had taken over the ship, the march hare spotted a small island in the distance. They set course for it, planning to drop the foxes off and resupply their food and water.

As they neared the island, suddenly there appeared something on the shore. It was something large, taller than the trees. "Quick, turn the ship around!" the bunny princess cried. But she was too late.

The giant on the shore hefted a boulder at the ship. It crashed into the mast and shattered it. A second later another boulder slammed into the hull, splintering a huge hole. The ship started to take on water and quickly started to sink.

"Abandon ship!" the bunny princess ordered. The musicians ran to the lifeboat, while the bunny princess headed down toward the hold. The foxes were all in confusion as she entered. "The ship is sinking," she told them.

She cut the bonds of the fox captain and handed him a knife. "Help me free the rest of your crew."

Immediately he started cutting the ropes, but asked, "Why are you doing this?"

"I promised I would take you to land," she said. "And though I can't do that now, I'm not going to let you sink."

By the time the foxes were all freed, the ship had half sunk. The lot of them fled back to the deck. The bunny princess joined the musicians in their life boat, while the foxes filled three of their own. It was not a moment too soon, as another boulder crashed into the ship, smashing it into pieces.

The lifeboats dropped into the ocean and rocked back and forth. Another boulder flew at the group of lifeboats, narrowly missing the bunnies. "Toward the shore!" the bunny princess ordered.

"What are you doing?" the fox captain shouted over to her. "You have to get away!"

"We're doomed if we go out into the sea!" she said. Before any other words could be exchanged between them, the giant threw another boulder which created a huge wave. The bunnies' life boat was capsized and the bunny princess was knocked unconscious.

When she awoke, she was sitting in a cave, tied up. The jackrabbit and the coney were sitting across from her, tied up as she was. The cave was cold and the bunny princess's head ached. "What happened?" she asked.

"We were knocked into the water," the jackrabbit said. "You were knocked out. I grabbed you and swam to the shore with you. When we got there, the giant grabbed us and tied us up. He brought us here."

"Where is the march hare?" she asked, remembering his bravery in capturing the fox captain.

"We don't know," the coney said. "He never came to shore."

Just then the giant entered, carrying a sheep over its shoulder. It sat down without a word and began to butcher the sheep. The bunnies watched in fear, imagining that the giant would do that to them soon.

When he finished, he curiously set the juicy meat aside while placing the offal over the cooking fire. "Sir giant," the bunny princess asked, "why do you cook the offal and discard the meat?"

The giant turned slowly to them. "I can only eat the offal," he said in a slow, thunderous voice. "The meat is for my master."

"Your master?" the bunny princess asked. "What master do you serve who would take your meat from you?"

"The king of this island," the giant said grumpily. "He is my master and demands all the choice mutton. Luckily, I caught you rabbits and will have tasty meat of my own soon."

"But we are so thin and skinny!" the jackrabbit called out. "You'll have to fatten us up first!"

The giant looked at them and then laughed. "You are plenty plump! For rabbits I pulled from the sea, you are surprisingly fat. It looks as if you've been prepared for a feast!"

The bunny princess shook her head at the jackrabbit and whispered, "That trick won't work again! But wait, I have another idea." Speaking more loudly, she said, "Yes, it's true we're quite fat. Oh, for once I wished I was not a rich, important princess! Then I would not have been fed so well and be so fat."

The giant perked up at that. "You're a princess, you say?"

"I am," the bunny princess said. "You must be quite the noble servant of your king. I could tell when I first saw you and called you sir. But I suppose even that must have been too low a title for you. Clearly, you are a lord, are you not?"

The giant frowned. "No, I am not a lord."

"Oh, my mistake," she said. "So I suppose you are a knight, and sir was the correct honorific."

"I am no knight," the giant said through his teeth.

The bunny princess gasped. "Not a lord or a knight! Well, I suppose you are an important minister to the king."

The giant shook his head and lowered his eyes in shame. "No, no. You flatter me, bunny princess. I am just a lowly servant who guards the king's sheep."

The bunny princess clucked her tongue. "Why, I simply cannot believe that," she said. "I simply cannot. I must speak with your king about this injustice! You should take me to him."

"What can you do?" the giant asked.

"I am a princess," the bunny princess said. "At least I would serve as a wonderful captive for you to deliver to him! Imagine the riches and titles he will shower upon you for bringing me to him."

The giant thought about it and finally nodded. "Very well. I shall take you to him. But do not try to get away."

The giant loaded the bunny princess and the musicians into his sack and carried them to the king's castle. The bunny princess could not see anything, but heard the creak of the giant's knees as he knelt and said, "My liege, I have captured a princess from a foreign land who was onboard a pirate ship which harassed your shores. I bring her to you to do with as you might."

The bunny princess was then dumped from the sack onto the ground. To her surprise, the king was an old, fat hare. He sat languidly upon a shabby throne. His clothes were threadbare and his crown tarnished. Beside him stood a youthful pika with a stern face, while other pikas, armed with spears, stood guard around the throne room.

Upon seeing her, his cloudy eyes lit up. "Oh my, what do we have here?" he asked, looking her up and down.

The bunny princess tried to rise, but the ropes around her kept her from doing so. "I am the bunny princess," she said. "I apologize for not making proper obeisance before you, but your good servant has restrained me and I cannot stand."

The hare king turned to the giant and angrily said, "Well then, free her! How dare you treat a princess so poorly as to tie her up like a common criminal!" He turned back to the bunny princess and said, "I apologize for my uncouth servant. He is a stupid giant, good for nothing but tending the sheep."

The giant cut the bonds and the bunny princess stood, rubbing her sore wrists. "No, he was right. We did sail upon a pirate ship, though it is one I captured after my own ship was damaged in a storm. He is quite a diligent protector of the shore."

"A fool!" the hare king declared. "I suppose he threw his rocks at your ship. You could have been killed! And I bet he never once tried to figure out who you were before attacking."

The bunny princess said nothing, merely lowering her head in deference. The hare king dismissed everyone and had the bunny musicians taken off to quarters of their own.

The bunny princess he brought to his own chambers and said, "Princess, I must wonder why you are here in this land. It is far from the island of the rabbits."

The bunny princess nodded. "I could ask the same question of you, king. But I will tell you my story. I had traveled to the island of the beans and visited the people there. While there I learned they knew nothing of joyous music, so I pledged to teach them of it. I returned home and found four of the best musicians and set sail back.

"Unfortunately, we have encountered hardships along the way. A storm damaged our first ship and set us adrift for weeks. Then the pirates attacked and took us hostage. Luckily, we were able to take the ship from them and sail further. But while looking for a place to resupply, we came across your island and were sunk by your giant. You know the rest."

The hare king stroked his chin. "Well, you are quite distant from the island of the beans. It would take months of sailing to reach them now. And you said four musicians, but I only see two with you."

The bunny princess sighed sadly. "Our flautist fled the pirate ship by jumping overboard, while our drummer was lost in the water when your giant attacked. But I still mean to push on and fulfill my pledge."

The hare king smiled ruefully. "And how will you do that," he asked, "when you have no ship?"
"Well, your majesty, I was hoping to beg a ship from you. And then I could resume my journey."
The hare king shook his head. "Why would I do that?" he asked. "My kingdom is an island, so my fleet is important to me. Even a single ship is too much. I would need some trade for it."

"My father is quite powerful," she said. "The king of the bunnies. He would reward you greatly."

The hare king shook his head again. "I have riches and your father is distant."
The bunny princess proclaimed, "I would give anything I have for a ship. Tell me what you want and I will deliver it."

Now the hare king smiled. "As you can see, I am old. My heir is not of my bloodline. And this is not a land of rabbits, so I have no mate. And yet here a beautiful, young bunny princess is delivered to me. I think it is kismet, do you not? Marry me and, once you have given me an heir, I shall give you all my ships!"

"I am flattered, your majesty," the bunny princess said. "But sadly I cannot give you my hand in marriage."

"Why not?" the hare king asked angrily. "You said you would give me anything, but now you say otherwise!"

"I said I would give anything I have," the bunny princess reminded him. "But I cannot give you my heart. I have already given it to another."

"Then I am afraid I cannot give you anything," the hare king said. "But I shall not mistreat you either. I have had enough of seeing you for now." He called his guard and had them escort the bunny princess to her quarters.

The quarters were quite sumptuous, with a lush bed, thick velvet curtains, and soft pillows. But upon closer examination, the accommodations were worn and old. The chairs were creaky, the wardrobe was scuffed, and the couch cushions were flat. Even so, the bunny princess made herself as comfortable as possible.

She asked to see the musicians, who were led to her. They told her that their quarters were sparse, but much nicer than the ships. They were being treated well and had plenty to eat and drink. The bunny princess told them that she had not gotten a ship yet, but would keep trying.

The next day, the hare king came to see the bunny princess and asked, "Have you changed your mind? Will you marry me?"

The bunny princess shook her head. "I am sorry, your majesty, but I cannot."

The hare king left her. Each day, the hare king came back to her room and asked her to marry him and each day she refused.

The bunny princess spent the days exploring the island and thinking of the sugar bean. Did he wonder why she had not returned to him yet? Was he worried or angry or despondent? She sighed and stared up at the stars during the night and wondered if he too was looking at those stars and thinking of her.

Soon, the hare king began to lavish gifts upon the bunny princess. He gave her the best his kingdom had to offer; jewels, gold, fabrics, food. It was not the best in the world and certainly not as grand as the things from her home. But they were the best the hare king had and could offer. They really were quite flattering.

He called her before him and said, "I have given you many gifts. You see that I love you. Will you marry me now?"

"I cannot," she said.

The stern-faced pika to the hare king's side leaned in and whispered something to him. The hare king whispered something back and it seemed they argued for a moment. Then the stern-faced pika stormed off.

"Is there a problem, your majesty?" the bunny princess asked.

"That is my adopted son," the hare king said, "the pika prince. He is my heir, until the day you agree to marry me and bear me a son. He believes you are merely holding out until I give you all the riches of my kingdom before you'll agree to marry me."

"He is mistaken, your majesty. I will never marry you, no matter what riches you give."

"We shall see," the hare king said with a smile.

When the riches failed to turn her heart, the king tried other means. He sent poetry to the bunny princess, speaking of his love and regard for her. But the poetry was wooden and lacked emotion. A single word from the sugar bean had been more touching.

After weeks of this, the hare king called the bunny princess before him and asked her again. "I have told you my love
and how it fits like a glove
on the most beautiful hand
in all of the land.
Can't you see
that you should just marry me?"

She smiled sweetly and shook her head. "I am sorry, your majesty, I will not marry you."

"You will one day, my sweet," the hare king said. "And when you do, all this land will be yours and our children will inherit both our kingdoms."

One day, the bunny princess was having a meal with her musicians when a luxurious desert was delivered to them. "Courtesy of the pika prince," said the servant who delivered it.

It looked and smelled delicious. "What is it?" the bunny princess asked in curiosity.

"It is a pastry filled with sweet bean paste," he explained. "Very rare here."

At hearing what it was, the bunny princess became despondent and lost her appetite. She told the musicians and the jackrabbit said, "I would still enjoy it if you don't mind."

"Be my guest," she answered weakly.

The jackrabbit took a huge bite out of the pastry. Soon he became very sick and fainted. The pikas ran in and carried him away.

The bunny princess and coney were quite distressed by this. "What happened?" the coney wondered.

"Poison, I suspect," the bunny princess said darkly. "Someone wishes me to no longer be here."

After hearing about this, the hare king ordered the arrest of the chef and the servant who delivered the pastry. Both proclaimed their innocence, but the hare king would not hear it. He had them thrown into the dungeon, where they lingered forever.

The hare king appointed a taster to the bunny princess. He checked all of her food and drink, to make sure there was no more poison. "I will not let any harm come to your head!" the hare king said in distress. "No one will take my future wife from me!"

The bunny princess was touched by his care. "Thank you, hare king, but you must know I will never be your wife."

The hare king refused to believe it though and continued to pressure the bunny princess for her hand in marriage.

Seasons came and passed and the hare king refused to let the bunny princess go. One night, while she was contemplating her situation and how to get out of it, the stern-faced pika approached her.

"Your highness," he said with a bow. "I am the pika prince, the heir to the throne. It is my pleasure to meet you."

"Hello, your highness," she returned. "It is good to finally have your acquaintance. I am sorry we were not properly introduced sooner. It may have saved us from some nasty business, would it not?"

"I need to protect my inheritance," the pika prince explained. "I am the hare king's heir by default. He adopted me. Before you came, my position was secure. But now he has seen you and wishes to have a son to take my place. What is rightfully mine is being stolen from me."

"You need not worry, your highness," she said. "I do not intend to ever marry the king."

The pika prince frowned. "But you will be here forever. He is an old man, but not that old. He has several years left in him regardless. Why hold out?"

"I hope eventually he will see his error," she said to him. "My heart belongs to another. I cannot give myself to the hare king. My sugar bean is the only one for me."

The pika prince said, "Who is it that could be of such importance to you? Tell me about him."

So the bunny princess told him of her time on the island of the beans and how she had accidentally eaten a beanstalk, but the sugar bean had stood up for her when no one else would. She told him how they had shared a pod for a year and she had learned of their ways. She told him how he wished to hear joyous music and how she promised to bring it to him.

"That is a lovely story," the pika prince said, tears in his eyes. "Truly, you would never betray his love. Had I known this from the start, I would have never questioned things. My adopted father must know this too. I will speak to him and see if I can turn his mind."

But of course the pika prince's words were for naught and the hare king insisted on continuing his desire to win the bunny princess's heart.

Seasons passed and the hare king refused to relent. "Will you never give up?" the hare king asked.

"I should ask the same of you," the bunny princess said to him. She passed the time exploring the island and practicing the flute. For though she had lost the jackrabbit and the march hare in addition to the cottontail, the flute was the only instrument she could practice easily.

Finally the hare king grew petulant at her constant refusals. One night he heard her playing her flute and ordered her brought before him. The guards dragged her into the throne room. "Have you decided to release me, your majesty?" she asked him.

"Release you?" he asked incredulously. "You have been given free reign of my island. I have given you gifts and serenaded you with poetry and protected you from assassins. Yet you continue to vex me by playing that flute for a love who has likely forgotten you!"

"As you say, your majesty," she said simply. "Yet I have declared my love for him and refuse to take another. You keep me trapped here, when the proper thing would be to give me a ship to leave."

"Proper? I have given you everything, but you still refuse me! I will show you have a truly improper king would act!"

The hare king ordered the bunny princess thrown into the dungeon. She was stripped of her fine clothes, given rags to wear instead. Instead of the sumptuous feasts, she was fed desiccated greens and carrots. Rather than a soft bed, a pile of hay was where she slept.

Worst of all, the hare king took her flute away from her. Yet the bunny princess did not once complain. Instead, she hollowed out a particularly tough carrot and bored holes into it and used it to practice.

Another whole season passed as she languished in the dungeon. It seemed the bunny princess would never see the light of day again. "Yet I would trade a lifetime of the sun to see my sugar bean's face for a moment," she would say to herself whenever her despair became greatest.

One day the hare king finally brought the bunny princess back before him. Even with all that time, her beauty had not faded. "You have sat in the dungeon for a whole season now," he said. "You see how I could treat you if I hated you. But I love you, so I offer you another chance. Marry me and bear my children."

"I cannot," the bunny princess said.

"Very well," the hare king finally said. "If you will not be my wife even through all this, then you will never accept me."

"Then will you give me a ship to take me away from here?" the bunny princess asked.

"No," the hare king said. "Refusing the demand of a king is treason. The punishment for treason is death. I hereby order you executed in one week's time."

The pika guards dragged her back to the dungeons. The next day, the pika prince came to visit her. "Please, just relent," he said. "My adopted father will still forgive you and let you live. You will only be his queen for a few years; he is growing more frail ever year. Soon you will be free of him and able to seek out your sugar bean."

"But if I bear him a son, you would lose your inheritance," she reminded the pika prince.

"I do not care," the pika prince said. "You are a noble, pure, sweet woman and I cannot allow you to throw your life away for my desires."

The bunny princess smiled. "Then do not worry, because I do not. If my life is forfeit, it is all for my own desires."

The pika prince sighed but knew it was no use arguing. "Then is there anything I can do for you, your highness? Anything at all?"

"Perhaps," she said. "Tell me, the giant your father employs. Does he get to ever taste the sweet meat of the sheep he protects?"

"The giant?" the pika prince wondered. "No, he must make do with the offal."

"I see. Then I have but one request. Please allow the coney harpist to visit me one last time before the end. I would like to thank him for his service."

The pika prince thought this an odd request but acceded to it. The coney came to see the bunny princess and wailed in despair. "My princess, what a terrible fate has befallen us!" he said.

"Do not cry," the bunny princess said. "All is as it is ordained." Then she gave him certain instructions and bade him carry out her commands.

When the day of the execution came, the bunny princess was led from the dungeon in shackles to the gallows. Hundreds of pika guards were there, as was the pika prince, and the hare king. The hare king watched coldly as the hangman placed the noose around her neck. The bunny princess was impassive and stared ahead, showing neither fear nor hope.

"You may speak now," the hare king declared. "Either agree to marry me or say your last words. It matters not to me."

The bunny princess turned to him, her eyes firm. "I shall do neither," she boldly declared. She then turned to the pika prince. "This is an island of pikas, yet a hare rules over it illegitimately. And how does he have the might to do so?" She then turned to face the gates, which suddenly shuddered under a mighty blow. "Because he controlled a giant!" The gate burst forward and in strode the giant, with the coney riding upon his back. "But no more does the giant serve the king! For I have made him a knight in my service!"

The hare king's jaw went slack. Yet he quickly regained his composure. Even though the giant was strong, he had an entire army of pika guards to protect him and space was cramped. There was no room for the giant to move. "Guards, slay the giant!" he ordered.

"No!" the pika prince suddenly shouted. "My fellow pikas, the hare king has proven himself a capricious and evil king! All those who stand for the side of virtue should stand by the bunny princess! Turn your spears on the hare king!"

Immediately, pika turned against pika and fighting broke out. The hare king barked out orders, directing his guards in defense of the courtyard. The giant swung his mighty fists in wide circles, bowling over friend and foe alike. The coney jumped from his back and grabbed a spear in service of the bunny princess.

In the chaos of the fighting, the bunny princess was forgotten. She slipped her head from the noose and began chewing on her bonds to free herself. Though her teeth were sharp, it was still slow working.

Suddenly, the hare king was in front of her. "You have undone me!" he shouted in madness. "But I shall not perish alone!" He thrust a spear at her, but it never penetrated her breast. The coney had leapt in the way and taken the attack for her.

The giant roared in anger and grabbed the hare king, then threw him with such force that he did not land until he reached the castle in the sky. The few pika guards who remained loyal to the hare king threw down their weapons and surrendered.

The bunny princess raced to the coney, but it was too late for him. She wept for his loyalty, but the pika prince came to her side and escorted her away. She was taken to her former quarters, where she took to bed and soaked her pillows with tears. For many days she lay in the bed, feverish and unhappy, unable to rise.

Once she had recovered from the ordeal, the pika prince came to her. "I am now the pika king," he said to her. "My people crowned me shortly after that bloody day."

"Thank you, your majesty, for assisting me," she said with proper obeisance.

"No, I thank you," he said. "For without you, we would have never seen our king's true colors."

"What has become of the giant?" she asked.

"I have given him a lordship," the pika king told her. "He now can eat as much sheep meat as he wishes and has a giant's castle that protects our shores."

"And what of those who stood beside the hare king in battle?"

"I have pardoned them," the pika king said. "They were doing their duty. How can I punish a man who remained loyal? Some have accepted me as king. Others refuse to do so and I have given each a parcel of land to live upon until the end of their days."

The bunny princess smiled. "You will truly be a wise king," she said. "And what shall become of me?"

"You are free to go whenever you wish," the pika king said. "Alas, the hare king was boastful when he proclaimed that we had a fleet. We only have a few small boats, none of which could survive the trip to the island of the beans. If we had such a ship, I would give it to you without hesitation."

"I would not ask for such a gift," the bunny princess said. "I only ask that you take me as far as your boats can go and then I shall find my own way."

"You are too kind," the pika king said. "Very well, I shall have them ferry you to a great port to the north. It is filled with all kinds. Surely you will discover someone who can provide a ship to you there."

"Such is all I can ask of you," she said.

The next day, the bunny princess set out on the boat for the northern port. The boatswain approached her and said, "This vessel is yours until the day we reach the port. Any order you give shall be followed precisely."

"I ask only that you deliver me safely and work as hard as you can," she said. True to her word, she never once bothered in the operation of the boat as they sailed.

It took several days of travel to reach the port. All the while, the bunny princess practiced her flute. She was becoming quite proficient in it despite the lack of a teacher and her songs were always joyful.

Finally they reached the port. As the bunny princess disembarked, the boatswain approached her and said, "The pika king ordered me to provide this with you as you left," he said, "as a token of his gratitude toward all you gave to our kingdom."

It was a small chest full of gold coins. The bunny princess nearly wept at the generosity of the pika king, for she knew this was likely all the wealth the kingdom had. "If I had known he had given me this, I would have ordered the boat turned around and returned it."

The boatswain smiled. "Which is why his majesty ordered me not to give this to you until we had been freed from your service." With that, he returned to the boat and the pikas departed for their home.

The bunny princess found lodgings in a modest inn. The next day, she set out to find a ship to purchase. Unfortunately, no one was willing to sell a ship to her, despite her offering her gold. At this time of the year, in the height of summer, all the traders were busy making their trade runs and the navy was busy protecting the traders from pirates. Even the ship builders were already busy, their contracts having been made earlier in the year.

But finally, the bunny princess found a bear merchant who offered to sell his ship to her. "Of course, it will be quite expensive," he said. "To replace the profits I'll be losing by not using it for trading this season."

"Will this be enough?" the bunny princess asked, producing the chest of gold.

The bear merchant's eyes went wide at the sight of the coins. It was more money than he had ever seen before. Surely, he thought, if there was someone who could produce such wealth at a moment's notice, there was more to come. "Well, that's a start," he told the bunny princess. "A good down payment, for sure... But I would make that much on one trade run, you see. I'll need more."

The bunny princess sighed, "I have no more than this." But the bear merchant was not convinced. "I shall try to procure more for you. For now, I leave this as a down payment so that you will not sell to another."

The bear merchant nodded and quickly took the chest as the bunny princess left. She was so far from home and had no way of contacting her father, who likely thought she had been lost at sea. She had no other way of getting wealth. But she was determined to get the ship and needed more money, so she decided she had to find work.

So the bunny princess took jobs from whomever would give them to her. One day, she was toiling in a weaver's, spinning thread on a wheel. Her fingers were dry and cracked, her hair was unkempt.

The bear merchant entered the weaver's, looking to buy some cloth for his trades. When he saw the bunny princess, he was quite surprised. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

"I am working to earn money for the ship," she explained. "It is not much money, but every little bit helps."

The bear merchant narrowed his eyes and said, "Well, I am sure you'll get there soon."

The next day, the bear merchant went to a baker's to buy some pastries for dessert. When the clerk entered the kitchen to retrieve them, the bear merchant saw the bunny princess sweating over a hot stove. "She had a chest full of gold and yet sweats in this bakery," he said to himself. "What is she doing?"

The next day, the bear merchant visited a lumber mill. Once again, he was surprised to see the bunny princess standing there with an axe, chopping wood. "You're chopping wood?" he asked her. "Why do you lower yourself to such physical labor?"

She smiled wearily at him. "There were no easier jobs today," she said. "At least none that paid as well as this one. I am getting a whole gold coin for my efforts here today."

"A single gold coin?" the bear merchant wondered. "At the price I am charging, it will take three seasons before you earn enough!"

"Perhaps so, good merchant," she said, "but only if this was the only labor I undertook today. It is not."

"Is that so?" the bear merchant muttered and left without even completing his order.

That evening, he returned to his home to have supper. To his surprise, the bunny princess was one of the servants, delivering his meal to him. She looked worn and tired, with bags under her eyes and limp, dull fur.

"You've even stooped to serving me?" the bear merchant asked. "I know how much I pay my servants and it is not much."

"As I said to you earlier, I take what offers the most. There are not many jobs at this hour of the day, so I do what I can."

The bear merchant shook his head. "Before you had a whole chest of gold. Where did you receive it such that you cannot get more?"

"It is a long story," she said. "And I am too weary to tell it now. I shall say my gold came from a benefactor who is now beyond me. But now I must attend to my duties, sir, else the majordomo will not pay me."

As the bunny princess retreated back to the kitchen, the bear merchant looked down at his food and found his appetite had deserted him. He pushed the food away, claiming stomach distemper, and retreated to his room for the evening.

The next day, the bear merchant went to the docks to see his fleet. No longer surprised by it, he saw the bunny princess loading cargo. This time, he did not say anything to her and only watched. She seemed on the verge of collapse and, when she finally stumbled to her knees after helping lift a crate onto a boat, he went to her.

"You are exhausted," he said to her. "You press yourself so much for this pay. Where do you live?"

She smiled weakly at him. "I apologize, sir, but I must return to work. I cannot afford to slack off and be denied pay."

The bear merchant shook his head. "Nonsense! If you exhaust yourself, you will grow sick and miss more work than taking some time off now. Tell me what inn you are staying at and I will have my men take you there."

"Oh, I do not stay at any inn," she said. "I did when I first came to the port, but now I must save where I can."

"So where do you live?" the bear merchant wondered.

"Over there," she said, pointing to a small shack. "I have been staying with a mouse family there. They allow me to stay there for free as long as I help with the chores."

Shocked, the bear merchant said nothing. Then the bunny princess pulled a bag of coins and handed it to him. "Here, sir. This is all the money I have collected so far. I give it to you now to confirm my serious intentions. Plus, I must admit I have been tempted to spend some of it on myself to make life more comfortable. So please take it so I do not succumb to temptation."

Now the bear merchant began to weep and handed the bag of gold back to the bunny princess. "Please, lady, take your gold back! I cannot accept it. The chest you gave me before is more than enough for my best ship. I merely thought I could get more from you, as you seemed to be rich. But now I see the truth; you are a poor woman who needs a ship for some reason."

Then the bunny princess told the bear merchant her entire story. "Oh you poor thing," he said. "I am so ashamed about my actions. Consider my finest ship yours! And I shall return your gold to you. All of it."

But the bunny princess shook her head. "No, I cannot take advantage of you. Sell me a sturdy, reliable ship that can take me to the island of the beans. I will give you a fair price for it as well. Then we will be even."

"Of course, your highness, of course. And if there is anything you need from me, simply ask and I will deliver."

"Thank you, sir," she said. "For now I need to rest. And I will need a crew for my ship." Then she passed out. She was feverish and worn.

"I will deliver," the bear merchant pledged and had the bunny princess carried to his estate to sleep.

Several days later, the bunny princess had recovered enough to leave bed. The bear merchant met with her. "Your ship is primed and ready to leave," he told her, "except we still do not have a crew. All the trustworthy crews are out to sea at this point. The ones that remain are lowly criminals, who you cannot trust."

"But I have gold to pay them," she said. "If we promise them pay for loyalty, they will come to our side."

The bear merchant shook his head. "I would not trust any of them. The only crew that I know of are a lowly bunch of foxes who have been committing piracy for years. You should not trust them at all."

"Foxes?" the bunny princess wondered.

"Yes," he said. "With a rough looking rabbit working along with them."

"Take me to them," the bunny princess said.

Sure enough, the crew was familiar to her. "Bunny princess!" the fox captain said, throwing his arms around her in a warm embrace. "I never thought to see you again!"

"When I heard you described to me, I knew it would be you," she said to him, forgetting and forgiving the past. "And where is my drummer?"

"Here I am, my princess," the march hare said. He looked tough and rugged and one of his paws had been replaced with a hook. "Sadly I can no longer drum for you, as my paw has been taken from me."

"So you are with these lowly pirates now?" she asked.

"Pirates we are no more," the fox captain said. "After we were rescued from the sea, we gave it a try, but found we had stomach for it no longer. Now we seek to be honest men, but our old reputation haunts us and we have been unable to find work."

"You are in luck then," the bunny princess said, "for I am seeking a crew to take me to the island of the beans. I have a ship and supplies to last; a crew is all we need."

The fox captain nodded enthusiastically and smiled. "We would be glad to serve! But I do need to tell you we lack a helmsman. And even if we left today, we would find ourselves traveling through the rough seas during the winter."

"And you remember what happened the last time we tried to travel the seas in winter," the march hare reminded her.

"Of course. So what can we do? Must I wait until next spring before we depart to see my sugar bean again?"

"Perhaps not," the fox captain said. "As I know a brilliant helmsman. Unfortunately, I do not know if he will wish to travel, as he rarely does so."

The bunny princess nodded and said, "Take me to him and we shall see what happens."

So the fox captain took the bunny princess to see the helmsman he knew of. He was a sloth who laid in a hammock. The bunny princess approached him and said, "Good sloth helmsman, please help me. I wish to travel north to the island of the beans, but I do not have a helmsman for my ship. I hear you are the best."

"I am the best," the sloth helmsman said with a slow yawn. "But why would I wish to travel in a cold sea on an uncomfortable ship when I could lounge here?"

"I can pay you much gold," the bunny princess said. "And reward you further once I make contact with my father, the bunny king."

The sloth helmsman shook his head lazily. "I have all I need here. What good are gold and riches when I have a soft hammock? I'd rather sleep."

"You enjoy sleep then?" the bunny princess asked.

"Of course," the sloth helmsman said. "Sleep is the gateway to dreams, which are a fine thing."

"Are your dreams always so sweet that you prefer them to waking?" the bunny princess asked.

The sloth helmsman shrugged. "Sometimes I have nightmares. And sometimes the dreams are boring or strange. But that is all worth it for the few sweet ones."

"They say music can soothe the soul," the bunny princess said. "Let me play for you and I promise you sweet dreams."

"Very well," the sloth helmsman said. The bunny princess took out her flute, which by now she was quite skilled at, and played a joyful lullaby. Soon the sloth was sleeping soundly, his lips curled into a big smile. The bunny princess took her leave.

"Did he agree?" the fox captain asked her.

"Not yet," she said. "But we shall see in time."

The next day, she returned to the sloth helmsman. "How were your dreams?" she asked.

"Quite lovely!" the sloth helmsman said enthusiastically.

"Will you join me as my helmsman then?"

"I do not think so," he said with a yawn. "But perhaps you can play me to sleep again?"

"Of course," she said and took out her flute. Once again she played a joyous lullaby that lured the sloth helmsman into a deep sleep. The happy noises that came from him told her his dreams were quite sweet.

When she returned to her companions, the fox captain asked, "Did he agree?"

"Not yet, not yet," she told him. "But we shall see."

The next day the bunny princess returned to him and he once again declined to join her. But she played for him again and sent him into a glorious slumber. This continued for a full week, the bunny princess asking for his help, the sloth helmsman refusing, and her playing him a lullaby until he slept.

"You are a princess and should not have to stoop to such things," the march hare complained. "Let me talk to him! I'll make him see how wrong he is to refuse you!"

"No," the bunny princess said. "We must not think we are better than him. Remember, he has a skill we need, not the other way around."

But the bunny princess did stop going to him. Instead, she practiced her flute alone in the room provided to her by the bear merchant. By now, she was resigned to waiting until the spring, before other crews had signed on and she'd be able to find a helmsman.

After another week passed, the sloth helmsman came knocking on her door. He seemed haggard. "Finally I have found you!" he said. "Why did you stop coming to see me?"

"You kept refusing me," she said. "I decided that I could not convince you so I decided to leave you in peace."

"But can you please play for me?" he begged. "I need your songs to help me have a peaceful sleep now. Since you've been gone, I have not been able to sleep at all. It is miserable."

"Well, I will certainly play for you now," the bunny princess said. "But you must know eventually I will be leaving. And then what shall you do?"

"Yes," the sloth helmsman said. "Just play me to sleep now. Then we shall see what I think when I wake."

"Very well," the bunny princess said and played a lullaby for him. He fell asleep as soon as the first note came from her flute.

The next day when he woke up, the sloth said to the bunny princess, "Your highness, I have decided that I will accompany you as a helmsman on one condition. You must play your flute to me each night so I can enter a sweet dream."

"My princess is not your nursemaid!" the march hare said, but the bunny princess hushed him.

"Of course I shall, sloth helmsman. It will be my pleasure to play for you."

Thus the bunny princess had her ship and her crew. They spent a day preparing, then set sail.

The journey to the island of the beans was not easy. They met dangerous pirates, but the fox crew knew their tricks and were able to fight them off. A dangerous storm rose up, but the sloth helmsman steered them through it. A deadly sea serpent rose up from the depths to threaten them, but the dashing fox captain and the march hare fought it off. They passed by a beguiling siren, but the bunny princess played her flute and her crew listened to it instead.

Summer gave way to autumn and autumn gave way to winter. Finally, they neared the island of the beans. The travelers were tired and glad to see land, but were no worse for the wear. The made landfall and the bunny princess went on shore.

There she saw a beanstalk, right where the sugar bean had stood as she left. The bunny princess ran to it. "Sugar bean! Please tell me it isn't so!"

A young bean emerged from a pod on the beanstalk's side. "You are the bunny princess?" he asked. "The one the sugar bean elder spoke about?"

"I am," she said in dismay. "Where is the sugar bean? He said he would wait for me."

"Wait he did," the young bean said. "He remained in this spot, even when he became an elder. I was his student and took messages from him back to the other elders. He was an elder for more seasons than any other bean before him. But when this last winter approached, he began to despair. Finally, we had to plant his body in the soil and this beanstalk grew from it."

The bunny princess was lost to despair. Worn and aged from her ordeals, she felt as if she could not go on. She slumped against the side of the beanstalk and wanted nothing more than to cry until the end of her days.

She took out her flute and began to play. She wanted to play a sad song, but there was no sad song for her to play. She did not know any. She had only learned joyous songs.

So she played a joyous song. She poured all her sadness into the song, transforming it into happiness, even as tears poured down her cheeks. She played long into the night, even as cold winter rain began falling upon her head.

As she finally began to finish her music, a voice said to her, "I thought I had lost you forever."

The bunny princess opened her eyes and looked up to see the sugar bean climbing down the beanstalk. "Sugar bean!" she said and pounced upon him. He embraced her back as she covered him in kisses.

"Your music is beautiful," he said to her. "Look." She looked out and saw that hundreds of beans had gathered around in the night to listen to her beautiful song. Already, young beans were humming the joyous tunes she had played. "The joy you brought to me has now been brought to the music of my people," the sugar bean said.

"It is all I ever wished," the bunny princess said, taking his hand.

Together, the two of them climbed back up the beanstalk, to the castle in the sky.

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