The prince was born beneath the stars of August’s muggy haze. The king and queen took great care in rearing him, for he was to inherit the kingdom. He was always under the watchful eye of one of his many tutors. The tiger was born just a month later, during September’s wet nights. It never knew its father, but spent many happy days in its mother’s company, hunting in the vast jungle.
The prince soon learned that with so many tutors, it wasn’t that difficult for him to sneak away, allowing one tutor to think he was with another. He tried never to be gone for long, but he enjoyed slipping out beyond the palace walls and exploring the wonders of the jungle. He was caught but once, and brought abashedly before his father and mother, who scolded and warned him. “The jungle is a dangerous place, my son. Do not go alone into its depths.”
That did not deter the little prince. He simply took more care in arranging excuses for his absences. He delighted in the darkness, in the quiet sense of life, and yes, even in the dangers of the jungle. To the boy, danger was no more than play, a quickening of the pulse and a constricting of the throat, but never a threat to the flesh. What could happen to the son of a king? What creature would dare harm him?
One day, however, as he was slowly exploring another patch of the jungle, he failed to notice two large eyes intently watching him from behind a bush. He did not see a compact body crouch even lower and prepare to spring. He did not notice the small twitch at the end of a tail, or hear the claws unsheathed in anticipation.
The tiger, for its part, did not know what it was hunting. It heard the clumsy footsteps of an inexperienced creature. It saw the undergrowth move and swish and sway as its prey got closer. It narrowed its eyes and waited until its quarry was just barely close enough.
And then it leaped out of its hiding place, claws extended, blindly hurtling toward … toward … what was that thing?
The prince heard a rustling of leaves and turned just in time to see a streak of orange tipped with fierce black claws and sharp white teeth headed straight for him. Before he could think to move, the streak of orange, black, and white had hit him, and they both tumbled to the ground. But no claws had torn him. No teeth had bitten him. He got up and brushed himself off, searching for the tiger who had scampered off under cover of the dense undergrowth of the jungle.
“Hello!” he called. “Where are you? I won’t hurt you!”
“You won’t hurt me?” came back the haughty reply. “It is I who didn’t hurt you. Who are you?”
“I am the prince,” the prince said. “And, if you like, a friend.”
“Prince, I know. But friend?” said the tiger. “What is a friend?”
“Oh, well, a friend,” began the prince, scratching his head, suddenly unable to think how to describe it. “A friend is someone that you spend time with, that you do things with. Someone you like.”
“There are only two kinds of creatures in the jungle,” the tiger said. “Those you try to eat, and those that try to eat you.”
“I’m not either kind,” said the prince. “I’m a new kind. I’m the friend kind.”
“A new kind?” The tiger crept cautiously out of its hiding place and walked up to the prince, sniffing at him. “It’s true that I’ve never seen your kind before. Maybe you are a friend.”
“You are beautiful,” said the prince, stroking his fingers through the soft fur of the tiger. “Just look at these wonderful stripes! Look at this fearsome face, and these long, bright whiskers! Feel these powerful muscles! Oh! I am your friend! Will you be my friend?”
“That means I can’t eat you? A friend, hmmmm?” said the tiger, with some doubt. And then it decided. “Very well. A friend. I think I shall be your friend.”
And so began the unlikely friendship of a young tiger and a young prince. And so began many years of the prince stealing away from his tutors to spend time with the tiger, and of the tiger abandoning the hunt whenever the prince came calling.
To be continued…