Long ago in the river port city called Novgorod the Great, there lived a young musician named Sadko.
Every day, a rich merchant or noble would send a messenger to Sadko’s door, calling him to play at a feast. Sadko would grab his twelve-string gusli and rush to the banquet hall. There he would pluck the strings of his instrument till all the guests were dancing.
“Eat your fill!” the host would tell him later, pointing him to the table, and passing him a few small coins besides. And on such as he was given did Sadko live.
Often his friends would ask him, “How can you survive on so little?”
“It’s not so bad,” Sadko would reply. “And anyway, how many men can go to a different feast each day, play the music they love, and watch it set a whole room dancing?”
Sadko was proud of his city, the richest and most free in all Russia. He would walk through busy Market Square, lined with merchants in their stalls and teeming with traders from many lands. He never crossed the square without hearing tongues of far-off places, from Italy to Norway to Persia.
Down at the piers, he would see the sailing ships with their cargos of lumber, grain, hides, pottery, spices, and precious metals. And crossing the Great Bridge over the River Volkhov, Sadko would catch the glint from the gilded roofs of a dozen white stone churches.
“Is there another such city as Novgorod in all the world?” he would say. “Is there any better place to be?”
Yet sometimes Sadko was lonely. The maidens who danced gaily to his music at the feasts would often smile at him, and more than one had set his heart on fire. But they were rich and he was poor, and not one of them would think of being his.