Once upon a time...
a beggar in faraway Persia had a stroke of luck. After a sudden flood, the fast- flowing river near the capital city shrank back to its old bed, leaving mud and slime behind it on the banks. In the dirt, the beggar caught sight of a sparkling red stone.
He picked it up and hurried off to visit one of his friends who worked in the royal kitchens.
"How many dinners would you give me for this shining stone?" he asked the man hopefully.
"But this is a ruby!" exclaimed the cook. "You must take it to the Shah at once!" So next day, the beggar took the stone to the Shah, who asked him:
"Where did you find this?"
"Lying in the mud on the bank of the river, Sire! he said.
"Hmm!" mused the Shah. "Now why did the great river leave such a treasure to you? I'll give you a bag of gold for the stone. Will that do?" The beggar could scarcely believe his ears.
"Sire, this is the most wonderful day of my life," he stammered. "My humblest thanks!"
Before the Shah locked the big stone in his treasure box, he called Fatima, his daughter and said: "This is the biggest ruby I've ever seen. I shall give it to you for your 18th birthday!"
Fatima admired the gem in her hand and happily threw her arms round her father's neck.
"It's marvelous! Thank you so much. I know it will bring me good luck!"
Some months later, on Fatima's birthday, the Shah went to fetch the ruby as promised. But when he lifted the lid of the box, he leapt in surprise, for out stepped a handsome young man, who smilingly said, "The ruby you want no longer exists! I've taken its place. I'm the Ruby Prince. Please don't ask me how this miracle took place. It's a secret I can never tell!"
When the Shah got over his shock, he went into a towering rage.
"I lose a precious gem, find a prince, and I'm not allowed to ask the reason why?" he roared.
"I'm sorry, Sire," replied the prince, "but nothing and nobody will make me tell how I got here."
Furious at these words, the Shah instantly decided to punish the young man for his impertinence.
"Since you've taken the place of my ruby," he thundered, "you are now my servant, I presume."
"Of course, Sire," replied the young man confidently.
"Good!" exclaimed the Shah. "Then take my gold sword. I'll reward you with the hand of my daughter Fatima if you succeed in killing the dragon of Death Valley that's stopping the caravans from passing through the forest."
As it happens, many a brave young man had lost his life trying to kill the terrible dragon, and the Shah was quite sure that the Ruby Prince would share their fate.
Armed with the Shah's sword, the Ruby Prince set off for Death Valley. When he reached the edge of the thick dark forest, he loudly called for the dragon to show itself. But the only reply was the echo of his own voice. He leant against a tree trunk and was about to drop off to sleep when the sound of snapping branches brought him to his feet. A frightful hissing grew louder and louder and the earth trembled. The terrible dragon was on its way.
Before him the huge horrible beast reared with open jaws. Unlike all the other brave warriors who had gone before him, the prince stoutly stood his ground; he took a step forward and struck first one heavy blow at the dragon's throat, then another, till at last the monster lay dead at his feet.
When he returned to the palace carrying the dragon s head, the Ruby Prince was hailed as a hero. And so Fatima and the Ruby Prince were married and lived happily together. However, as time passed, Fatima became more and more curious about her husband's past.
"I know nothing about you," she complained. "At least tell me who you really are and where you once lived!"
But every time the Ruby Prince heard such remarks, he went white and said, "I can't tell you. You mustn't ask, or you'll run the risk of losing me for ever!"
But Fatima was tormented by the desire to know. One day, as they sat by the river that flowed through the Shah's gardens, Fatima pleaded with him to reveal his secret.
White faced, the young man replied, "I can't!"
But Fatima only pleaded more: "Oh, please! Please tell me!"
"You know I can't . . ."
The Ruby Prince hesitated, gazing at his dearly loved wife and gently stroking her hair. Then he made his decision.
"I don't want to see you suffer like this. If you really must know, then I'll tell you that I'm . . ."
At the very second he was about to reveal his secret, a huge wave swept him into the river and dragged him under the water.
The horrified Princess rushed vainly along the bank, crying loudly for her husband. But he had vanished. Fatima called the guards and even the Shah himself ran up to comfort her. But the Princess became very depressed, for she knew that her foolish questioning had been the cause of the tragedy. One day, her favorite handmaiden hurried up to her.
"Your Highness!" she exclaimed. "I saw the most amazing thing last night. A host of tiny lights appeared on the river, then a thousand little genies draped the river bank with flowers. Such a handsome young man then began to dance in honor of an old man who seemed to be a king. And beside the king stood a young man with a ruby on his forehead. I thought he was . . ."
Fatima's heart leapt: could the young man with the ruby be her husband?
That night, the Princess and her handmaiden went into the garden and hid behind a tree close to the water's edge. On the stroke of midnight, tiny lights began to twinkle on the river, then a stately old man with a white beard, dressed in a golden robe and holding a scepter, rose from the water.
In the young man beside the throne, Fatima recognized her husband. Covering her face with her veil, she left her hiding place and gracefully began to dance. Wild applause greeted her at the end. Then from the throne came a voice.
"For such a divine dance, ask us whatever you wish for and it will be granted!"
Fatima tore the veil from her face and cried, "Give me back my husband!"
The old king rose to his feet. "The King of the Waters of Persia gave his word. Take back your husband, the Ruby Prince. But do not forget how you lost him and be wiser in future!"
Then the waters opened once more and closed over the King and his Court, leaving Fatima and the Ruby Prince on the bank, reunited and happy at last.