As luck would have it, the tiger didn’t end up having to wear the muzzle very often. The prince’s mate did come, and did demand that the muzzle be in place before she would enter, but she came less and less frequently as time went on. While the prince often came alone, matters of state began to occupy his attention more and more, unfortunately, and the time that would pass between each of the prince’s visits became longer and longer.
The tiger accepted the new demands that were being placed increasingly upon the shoulders of his friend, and was content with the few moments spent in his company. Normally the prince would enter in the late afternoon, greet the tiger, and stroll briskly around the perimeter of the enclosure before leaving again. One day, however, the prince came early in the morning, walked slowly and wordlessly to the small pool, and sat down at its edge.
The prince returned the following day. “I’ve got the solution,” he said.
“The solution to what?” said the tiger.
“Here,” said the prince. He held out his hand to the tiger and showed him a set of short ropes all tied together.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” the tiger said.
“It’s called a muzzle,” said the prince. “And it’s the only way my wife will agree to join us.”
The prince did not visit the tiger the next morning. The tiger went back and lay down beside the pool and slept fitfully. With every sound, it raised its head expectantly, its ears twitching and searching to see if the door was at last opening. And with every sound, the expectation increased. This time, for sure, it had to be him! But with every expectation came a subsequent disappointment. And every disappointment was an even greater disappointment than the one before.
The tiger thought of every reason to excuse the prince’s delay. Certainly the prince was on his way to visit when an old acquaintance caught him, rushed him into his house with offers of food and refreshment and demanded to be informed of all the details of the prince’s long journey. Certainly the prince tried to extricate himself as quickly as he could, only to be accosted by another old acquaintance. Or maybe matters of state kept the prince. With an absence of so many years, certainly the prince had much to attend to in his duties. Certainly the prince would have come to visit if he could have. Or maybe the prince’s parents had decided that the tiger was too dangerous to visit after all, and had forbidden him from coming at all. Certainly if that were the case, it would be a long time before the prince would finally be able to slip away unnoticed to visit. But certainly he would. Certainly he would.
Through eternity after eternity the tiger waited for the prince to return. The tiger was not sad. How could it be sad when the prince was engaged in something so wonderful? Just imagine! When he returned, he would bring a mate with him! And then what fun the three of them would have!
The tiger spent an eternity beside the pool, thinking with joy of the prince. Then it spent an eternity pacing the well-worn paths, imagining what the prince’s mate would be like. Afterward, it spent an eternity sharpening its claws on the bark of the tree, wondering if today was the day the prince would return. Its next eternities were spent trying to spot the prince’s face in the formations of the clouds overhead, running imaginary races with the prince, curling up beneath its favorite bush and falling asleep to the image of the prince, waking and wondering what the prince was currently doing, pacing along the walls and remembering days spent with the prince, searching for bugs in the remains of a fallen tree and thinking to itself how much the prince would love to be there. But after all those eternities, the sun hadn’t moved very far in the sky, and there were so many more eternities to face before nightfall and happy, senseless slumber, that the tiger didn’t know quite how it would survive until then.
The tiger’s new home was everything the prince had said it would be. The jungle had been enclosed, a portion of it, anyway. The sun shone down from high overhead. Birds called from branches above. The undergrowth was just as green, the water in the newly made pool just as cool. If the tiger kept far enough from any of the walls, it appeared just like any other part of the jungle. But although the prince might think perhaps that it was a big home, it felt very small to the tiger, who was not at all used to walls.
The first day the tiger explored the enclosure and kept finding itself all too soon at another wall, from which it quickly retreated. The second day it had learned the layout better, and remained in the center, out of sight of any of the walls. The third day, it walked along the edge of the wall, wearing down a path from the many times it traversed the perimeter. The fourth day, when it found itself alone, the tiger lay at the edge of the pool and shed silent tears into the water.
But it wasn’t all bad. The prince came every day, and in the excitement of their renewed friendship, the tiger thought it could endure a lot more hardship than mere walls. The pain of their separation was wiped away almost completely by the joy of being together once more. The tiger decided it could be happy with this arrangement.
After the tiger was returned to the jungle, it did not see the prince for a very long time. It hunted close to the palace walls to ensure that if the prince came to visit, the tiger would be alerted. Day after day passed, however, without any sign of the prince. The tiger tried to keep track of the days, but it couldn’t remember what came after twelvety-nine, and it lost track soon after that. And still the prince did not come.
At last the tiger decided that it could no longer hold out hope for the prince’s return, and it wandered farther and farther from the palace in its hunts. But even though the day soon came when it told itself that it would no longer wait on the prince, it still found itself retracing the paths back to the palace each day.
The prince visited the tiger as often as possible, being careful always to slip away unnoticed, and never staying as long as he would like. Some weeks he couldn’t visit the jungle at all, and his eye and his mind would linger on the palace wall and what lay beyond it.
In their many visits, the tiger taught the prince how to travel safely and stealthily through the jungle. It taught him how to listen to the sounds of the other animals, and what the absence of some sounds meant. It taught him how to understand direction and how not to get lost. It taught him how to climb trees and how to hide and how to hold very still. It tried to teach him how to hunt, but the prince had no knack for it, and the tiger soon grew weary and frustrated of trying to teach the prince how to spring out quickly from bushes, or how to unsheathe his claws, or how to bare his teeth and roar ferociously.
The prince shared his knowledge with the tiger as well. He taught the tiger about astronomy, about geography, and politics. He taught letters and numbers, though the tiger struggled with reading and writing and couldn’t seem to appreciate the usefulness of math. He taught the customs of the palace, which fork to use at which time, and how to dress for different occasions. And he told the tiger many stories, stories that he heard from his mother as a very young child, stories he learned from his tutors, and stories about things that he had seen and heard for himself, stories about people and places and things that the tiger could only shake its head about and wonder if they could possibly be true.
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.”