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Sadko played faster and the King’s dance grew wilder. All the others stopped and watched in awe. Ever more madly did he move, whirling faster, leaping higher, stamping harder.

The Sea Queen whispered urgently, “Musician, end your tune! It seems to you the King merely dances in his hall. But above us, the sea is tossing ships like toys, and giant waves are breaking on the shore!”

Alarmed, Sadko pulled a string until it snapped. “Your Majesty, my gusli is broken.”

“A shame,” said the Sea King, winding to a stop. “I could have danced for days. But a fine fellow you are, Sadko. I think I’ll marry you to one of my daughters and keep you here forever.”

“Your Majesty,” said Sadko carefully, “beneath the sea, your word is law. But this is not my home. I love my city of Novgorod.”

“Say no more about it!” roared the King. “Prepare to choose your bride. Daughters, come forth!”

The river maidens passed in parade before Sadko. Each was more lovely than the one before. But Sadko’s heart was heavy, and he barely looked at them.

“What’s wrong, musician?” the King said merrily. “Too hard to choose? Then I’ll wed you to the one who fancies you. Behold the Princess Volkhova!”

The princess stepped forward. Her green eyes were sparkling, and a soft smile graced her lips. “Dearest Sadko, at last we can be together. For years I have thrilled to the music you’ve played on the shore.”

“Volkhova!” said Sadko in wonder. “You’re as lovely as your river!”

But the Sea Queen leaned over and said softly, “You are a good man, Sadko, so I will tell you the truth. If you but once kiss or embrace her, you can never return to your city again.”

That night, Sadko lay beside his bride on a bed of seaweed. She’s so lovely, thought Sadko, so charming—all I ever hoped for. How can I not hold her?

But time after time, the Queen’s words came back to him—never return to your city again—and his arms lay frozen at his sides.

“Dearest,” said the princess, “why do you not embrace me?”

“It is the custom of my city,” Sadko stammered. “We never kiss or embrace on the first night.”

“Then I fear you never will,” she said sadly, and turned away.

When Sadko awoke the next morning, he felt sunlight on his face. He opened his eyes and saw beside him not the Princess Volkhova but the River Volkhov. And behind him rose the walls of Novgorod!

“My home,” said Sadko, and he wept—perhaps for joy at his return, perhaps for sadness at his loss, perhaps for both.