“Be polite and listen carefully,” said the old man to his four daughters, “and don’t speak unless you’re spoken to!”
Their names were Anshula, Bakula, Chandhini and Darshini. By the grace of God they had been born exactly three years apart so that all four shared the same birthday – today, November 1st – unique in all the land.
Anshula was 16, Bakula 13, Chandhini 10, and little Darshini just seven. Now they waited, dressed in beautiful saris, Anshula in maroon, Bakula in ruby red, Chandhini in royal blue and finally, little Darshini in emerald green. Their mother was considerably younger than her husband and now stood, nervously adjusting their saris and combing their long black hair. “He’ll be here soon. Be sure to stand straight and smile!”
There was a knock on the door which made them all jump. The old man answered it to a messenger, who proclaimed, “The Great Prince will be here within the quarter hour, he approaches the edge of town.”
“Thank you,” said the old man, handing the messenger a coin. He turned to his daughters. “You may sit until his Royal Highness arrives.”
The daughters sat down on two long sofas in the large, high-ceilinged chamber. The family were not rich but by virtue of the daughters’ shared birthday, they had acquired a certain fame. People would visit them, regarding them as holy due to the coincidence, and were accustomed to leaving gifts of money, sides of meat, fine wines and the like.
After the longest fifteen minutes the family could remember, there came another knock at the door. A servant opened it to the Great Prince himself! His Royal Highness strode in, followed by an entourage of exotic characters. “Greetings to you all!” he pronounced in a deep, booming, royal voice.
The girls smiled nervously and curtseyed simultaneously, as they had practised. The entourage spaced themselves around the large room whilst servants brought refreshments.
The Great Prince was tall, over six feet high, and magnificently dressed in a golden achkan with a crimson turban and dupatta. He was very handsome, with a tawny face, startling green eyes and thin lips that naturally gave the appearance of a smile. Finally, after some small talk with the parents, he clapped his hands for silence. The girls stood, trying to look calm, except little Darshini who wasn’t nervous at all.
“Well my dears,” he pronounced, “God has seen fit to give you all the same birthday and today Anshula, the eldest, is 16 years old. A Very Happy Birthday to you all!”
He kissed Anshula on both cheeks. Her brown face turned red and she felt faint. She determined not to wash for a week. He kissed the other girls likewise, having to bend low for little Darshini.
“Now, I have very special gifts for you all!” he announced. This was followed by loud applause. When it had quieted down, he said, “To Anshula, I give the clouds!”
Anshula, looking perplexed, smiled and curtseyed. “You are most generous my Lord!”
“To Bakula, I give the moon!”
Bakula blinked her huge brown eyes and sweat lined her upper lip. “Thank you Sir!”
His Highness moved along to Chandhini. “To you, Chandhini, I give the Sun!”
Chandhini curtseyed and smiled sheepishly. “Thank you Your Honour!”
Finally, he looked down on little Darshini, who looked up in anticipation, her blue eyes twinkling.
“Yes, and to little Darshini, an extra special present – all the stars in the sky!”
There was huge applause. The old man approached. “Thank you your Highness for your wonderful gifts!”
Suddenly a shrill voice piped up. “I don’t understand. What use are the stars to me!”
The room fell silent, the old man gasped and a look of annoyance crossed the Great Prince’s face.
He recovered his composure. “Well my dear little Darshini, Anshula may tax all who wish to fly their aeroplanes through her clouds, and she will be rich! And Bakula may tax all who gaze with wonder at her moon, she will be richer still!”
Little Darshini remained silent, scratching her head.
The Great Prince continued. “Chandhini may tax all those who wish to receive warmth and light from her sun, except me of course!” The entourage roared with laughter, followed by polite applause. “She will be the richest of all! And you, my dear little Darshini may tax all those lovers who hold hands and look longingly up at your stars!”
The little girl looked confused. “But what happens if they won’t pay the tax?”
“Well then, it’ll be ‘off with their heads!’ ”
“What, you mean … “
“Yes, the criminals will be executed,” his Royal Highness exclaimed gleefully.
Darshini bit her lip and leant back to gaze up into the Great Prince’s handsome face. “Please sir, I’d just like a little puppy.“
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