Once upon a time something happened. If it had not happened, it would not be told.
There was once an emperor who had three daughters; the oldest was beautiful, the middle one more beautiful, but the youngest, Ileane, was so fair that even the sun stopped to gaze at her and admire her charms.
One day the emperor received the news that his neighbor, a mighty monarch, was no longer friendly, but wanted to fight with him on account of a great imperial feud. The emperor consulted the old men of the country, and, seeing there was nothing else to be done, he commanded his valiant soldiers to mount their horses, take their weapons, and prepare for the terrible battle which was to be fought.
Before mounting himself, the emperor called his daughters, addressed a few fatherly, touching words to them, and gave each one a beautiful flower, a merry little bird, and a rosy-cheeked apple.
"Whoever has her flower wither, her bird mope or her apple rot, I shall know has not kept her faith," said the wise emperor; then mounting his steed he wished them "Good-health" and set off with his brave soldiers on their toilsome way.
When the neighboring emperor's three sons heard the news that the emperor had quitted his home and gone to the war, they made an agreement among themselves and sprang on their horses to ride to the palace and vex the monarch by making his three daughters faithless to his trust. The oldest prince, a brave, spirited, handsome fellow, went first to see how matters stood and bring tidings afterward to the others.
Three days and three nights the champion stood under the wall, but not one of the girls had appeared at the windows. In the gray dawn of the fourth day he lost patience, plucked up his courage, and tapped on the oldest princess's window.
"What is it—what is it? What is wanted?" asked the royal maiden, roused from her sleep.
"It is I, little sister," said the prince, "I, an emperor's son, who have stood under your window three days for love of you."
The princess did not even approach the window, but replied in a prudent tone:
"Go back home by the way you came; may flowers spring up before you and thorns remain behind."
After three more days and nights the prince again knocked on the girl's window. This time the princess approached it, and said in a more gentle voice:
"I told you to go back home by the way you came; may thorns spring up before you and flowers remain behind."
Once more the prince waited three days and three nights under the maiden's window. In the gray dawn of the tenth day, that is after thrice three days and thrice three nights had passed, he smoothed his hair and for the third time tapped on the window.
"What is it? Who is it? What is wanted?" asked the princess, this time somewhat more sternly than before.
"It is I, little sister," said the prince. "For thrice three days I have stood longingly under your window. I would like to see your face, gaze into your eyes, and watch the words flow from your lips!"
The princess opened the window, glanced angrily at the handsome youth, and said in a scarcely audible voice:
"I would willingly look into your face and say a word or two to you, but first go to my younger sister—then come to me."
"I'll send my younger brother," replied the prince. "But give me one kiss to make my way home pleasanter."
And almost before he had spoken, he snatched a kiss from the beautiful girl.
"May no second one fall to your lot," said the princess, wiping her mouth with her embroidered sleeve. "Go back home by the way you came; may flowers spring up before you and flowers remain behind."
The prince went back to his brothers and told them all that had happened, and the second took his departure.
After this prince had stood under the second princess's window nine times nine days and nine times nine nights and tapped for the ninth time at her window, she opened it and said to him kindly:
"I would like to look at you and say a word or two to you, but first go to my youngest sister, then come to me."
"I'll send my youngest brother," said the prince. "But give me one kiss, that I may hurry the faster."
He had scarcely said it, when he stole a kiss.
"May no second one fall to your lot," said this royal maiden too. "Go back home by the way you came, may flowers spring up before you and flowers remain behind!"
The prince returned to his brothers, told them all that had happened, and—for the third time—a hero departed, the youngest son. When he reached the palace where the three sisters lived Ileane was standing at the window, and when she saw him, said merrily:
"You handsome champion with the royal face, where are you hurrying, that you urge on your steed so hotly?"
When the prince saw Ileane's face and heard Ileane's words, he stopped, gazed at her, and answered boldly:
"I'm hurrying to the sun to steal one of its rays, to give to its sister and take her home, where she shall become my bride. Now, little sister, I will stop on my way to look at you, gaze at the radiance of your face, say a word to you and steal a word in reply."
Ileane cleverly answered: "If your nature is like your words, if your soul is like your face, proud and beautiful, and mild and gentle, I will gladly call you into the house, seat you at a banquet, give you food and drink and kisses."
The prince sprang from his horse as he heard these words, and answered boldly:
"My nature will be like my speech, my heart like my face; let me in, seat me at the banquet, you shall never repent it from dawn till nightfall."