Long ago on the Arabian Peninsula, when cities flourished along the major trade routes that stretched across the desert to transport spices, almonds and dates, there ruled in one of those cities a king whose daughter had come of marriageable age.
Three princes of nearby cities came to court her. But the princess looked at them with alarm. One prince was bossy, the second prince was unclean in his habits, and the third suitor was vain.
"Father, I beg you, don't make me marry any of them!" she cried.
The king loved his daughter, but he didn't want to offend her suitors and risk angering his neighboring city-states.
"I'll think about it," he said. "Come back tomorrow."
The next day, he summoned the three suitors and the princess to his throne room.
"Each of you is a perfectly worthy suitor for my daughter's hand," he said. "Therefore, to make the correct decision I have determined that the three of you must venture into the world for one year and a day. Whoever returns with the most wondrous item will win my daughter's hand in marriage."
The princess was glad for the one-year extension and the king was equally glad to postpone the matter.
The three princes set out together. After traveling for one week they came to a well that was located before a fork in the road, beyond which the road branched into three separate paths.
"Obviously, this is where we should part," stated the first prince.
"Don't you think we know that?" said the second prince, wiping his dirty hands on his cloak.
"Listen carefully," the first prince continued. "One week before we return to the palace, let's all meet at this well to compare what we found. I only hope the maidens don't slow me down by falling in love with me," said the third prince, throwing back his hair. "It's such a nuisance."
And so the three princes went their separate ways. When the time came to return to the well, each one followed his separate path that led back to the well.
"You look a little the worse for wear," said the first prince to the second. "I'm fine," said the second prince, blowing his nose onto his sleeve. "What did you find?"
"Only a crystal ball," said the first prince, as nonchalantly as he could, "that shows anything you want to see that's happening anywhere in the world."
The other two were impressed (and a bit worried). Said the first prince to the second, "What wondrous item did you find?"
From under his cloak the second prince unrolled a carpet. "A flying carpet. People who sits on it can be transported anywhere in the world they wish to go in minutes."
"If they don't mind sitting next to you," another prince murmured, holding his nose. And now it was the third prince's turn to show what he had brought.
"This vial," said the third prince, "holds a magical healing ointment. One dab of it will restore the health of anyone, no matter how sick. And they say if it's rubbed with true love, can even restore youth."
"Speaking of health," said the second prince to the first, "since you have a crystal ball, let's take a look at our princess and see how she fares."
The first prince waved his hands over the crystal ball; its cloudiness disappeared and was replaced with an image of the princess lying in her bed, still as death. Her father and the court physicians hovered over her. "Isn't there anything you can do?" said the king. "Sire, we have done everything," said the head court physician. "I'm sorry, but she has very little time left."
The three princes leapt up, alarmed. "Alas!" cried the third prince. "My ointment would heal her, but we're too far from the palace - we'll never get there in time!"
"Quick, everyone on my magic carpet," said the second prince. "We'll get there in a flash!"
Indeed, moments later the three princes were standing in the very room they had viewed through the crystal ball only minutes before. Everyone was so distraught they didn't notice the three princes had suddenly appeared in the room. Without a word, the third prince stepped up to the princess' bed and with his finger touched a dab of ointment on her forehead and set the ointment by her bed stand. She blinked and seconds later opened her eyes. Then she moved her head, and sat up.
"I feel better," she said.
"It's a miracle!" cried the father, and he embraced his daughter.
Later that night, the three princes appeared before the king. "Your majesty," said the first prince, "each of us may have located a magical item. But there is no doubt that my crystal ball is the most wondrous item of all. Without it, none of us would have known the princess was sick in the first place. I submit that mine is the most wondrous item and therefore I deserve the hand of the princess."
"With all due respect," said the second prince, stepping forward, "While it was informative to learn that the princess was sick, had we had not been able to travel a week's journey in a blink of an eye on my flying carpet, that knowledge would have done us no good. I submit that mine is the most wondrous item and therefore I deserve the hand of the princess."
"Good sire," said the third prince. "While it may have been useful to learn the princess was sick and was helpful to arrive here as quickly as we did, had we not had my magical ointment, all that knowledge and all that quickness would have been in vain. I submit that mine is the most wondrous item and therefore I deserve the hand of the princess."
The king was perplexed. Each of the princes made a good argument. And since the question was so close, no matter which prince he selected, he was sure to raise the ire of the other two and their neighboring city-states.
"I'll think about it," he said, "Come back tomorrow."
That night, the king summoned his viziers to ask their advice. "Sire," said his head vizier, "there is a wise old man who lives amongst us who hails from very far away, a distant country called Russia. He is well known for his sage advice, and if we allow him to make the decision, the communities of the princes who aren't chosen will get angry at a country far away, and not at us."
"Excellent thought," said the king. "Summon him to court tomorrow."
The next day when the three princes arrived to hear which of them would be selected, at court stood a very old man. He hobbled on his cane and spoke in a whisper. The three princes repeated why they thought they deserved the hand of the princess.
"As far as I'm concerned," asserted the king, "each of these fine young men has an equal claim to my daughter's hand. And so," he turned to his guest, "I am interested. You come from a faraway land. What is your opinion?"
The old man coughed and cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, first allow me to say that it is an honor to be in your court." He raised a shaky hand toward the princes. "There's no doubt that each of you brought a wondrous item that saved the life of the princess. But in my country, when it comes to marriage, there are those who say that the young woman, whose happiness is at stake, should have a say in the matter. And so I would ask our royal highness." He turned to her. "Princess, whom do you wish to marry?"
The princess was silent a moment. She raised her head and faced the three princes. "Each of you saved my life and for that I will always be grateful. Yet this old man is the only one," she said, looking at the Russian, "who understands that the choice is one that should be mine to make. And so, father, if you please," and here the princess stepped toward the old man, "I choose him."
Gasps of shock throughout the court. Some ladies fainted and were carried out. The king blustered, "But, but you can't!" The princess picked up the magic ointment, took the old Russian's hand, and with a dab of the ointment rubbed the back of his hand. Instantly a haze surrounded him. When she removed her hand, incredibly, the old man had straightened up to become tall and dark, with the lines of an earnest young man chiseled on his cheeks. Restored to the strength and handsome stature of his youth, he smiled at the princess.
"Each of you will have large tracts of land to rule," the king quickly said to the three princes. "We will never forget what you did for our royal family." The three princes, of course, still had in their possession the magical items of the crystal ball, the flying carpet, and the vial of healing ointment, and it wasn't long before they attracted lovely princesses from neighboring lands to marry.
And so they all lived happily ever after, as may you.