Prince Ferdinand had traveled farther than he’d planned. As he wandered through the woods, he was fairly sure he was past the borders of his own kingdom and into the next. He stopped to pull out his map.
Sure enough, he should have stayed on the other side of the river. He folded up the map and put it away. “Where are you going?” A voice behind him asked.
Ferdinand turned. There was an old woman standing on the path. She hadn’t been there before. “Right now, probably back that way,” Ferdinand said, pointing back down the path. “After that, I’m not sure. I’m seeking my fortune,” he said.
“Let me help you,” she said. “The king of this land has twelve daughters who wake every morning tired, with holes in their slippers. No one knows why. If you solve the mystery, you can marry one of the princesses.”
The prince raised an eyebrow. “I assume the king has already tried leaving someone to watch them all night? The simplest solution is that they are leaving somehow.”
The old woman smiled. “The guards outside their door don’t see them leave. Princes and peasants have tried their luck, but no one who has tried watching in the princesses’ room has managed to stay awake all night.”
“That doesn’t sound likely. Something must have interfered with them. What do they say? Was there a strange smell? Some sort of food or drink offered?” The prince asked.
“No one knows. The king kills everyone who fails to solve the problem after three nights,” the old woman said. “But I know.”
“The king sounds rather harsh,” the prince said. He shook his head. “However, you should tell the king. I’m sure he’d reward you.”
“I cannot leave this wood,” the old woman said.
The prince sighed. “I don’t want to marry one of the princesses, but tell me what you know and I’ll do what I can to help.”
“Thank you,” the old woman said. “Do not drink anything the princesses give you. Pretend to be asleep. Then…” she handed him a cloak. She hadn’t had one in her hands earlier. “…use this cloak. It will make you invisible, and you can follow the princesses.”
“Wow,” he said. “Thank you. I’ll do it.”
The old woman smiled and disappeared. Prince Ferdinand pulled out his map. It took all afternoon to get to the castle. Once there, he met with the king and agreed to the task.
He did as the old woman said. He poured out the wine the oldest princess handed him while pretending to drink it. Once they thought him asleep, the princesses laughed at him. Prince Ferdinand thought they weren’t very nice. How many young men had they tricked knowing their father would kill them?
The oldest princess clapped her hands and her bed sunk into the floor and a trap door opened. The prince put on the cloak and followed them. He broke off a branch with silver leaves as they went through a forest to prove he’d been there. Soon, they arrived at a river.
The princesses met twelve princes who rowed them across a river and took them to a ballroom in an underground castle. Prince Ferdinand took a gold goblet from the table. It would be more proof. As he waited, he looked around the ballroom. The people seemed a little off, as though they were in disguise somehow.
This was obviously not a normal castle. He wondered if the princesses could continue visiting once they were found out. They’d probably be sad when they couldn’t go out and dance all night.
This could be a business opportunity. He watched the people dancing, pausing at times to talk and eat and drink. He began to mentally take notes. When the princesses had worn out their slippers, he followed them back to the river, making sure to slip ahead of them when they reached the shore.
He again pretended to be asleep. In the morning, he told the king everything and showed him the branch and goblet. Shocked, the princesses admitted to the truth. “So,” the king said. “Which princess do you want to marry?”
Time to be diplomatic. “Your highness,” he said. “I’m not yet ready to get married. However, I believe that this problem of yours could lead to an excellent business opportunity.”
The king, who had started to scowl, now looked interested. “A business opportunity?”
The prince smiled. “Yes. I think that a dance club like the princesses visited, one where people had to pay for entrance and any food or drink, could be very popular. Your daughters can help with the details and tell you what they think would work best.”
“That sounds expensive,” the king said.
“I’d be happy to provide start-up costs for a small percentage of the profits,” the prince said.
The king narrowed his eyes. “You have money to throw around so carelessly?”
“I have a small amount of money to invest wisely. I think this could be a good investment, if done well. You should earn enough for dowries for your twelve lovely daughters and more,” the prince said.
The king leaned forward. “How much money will you send?”
The prince shook his head. “I’ll send back my lawyers to draw up the agreement and determine how much money you will need. Once they return, I’ll send the money.”
The king folded his arms. “I’m not sure about this,” he said.
“I think this could be great. Your daughters had so much fun they wore out how many shoes dancing all night? Trust me. You could be very wealthy,” the prince said.
“All right,” the king said. “You have a deal.”
“I’ll leave now and send my lawyers to come meet with you,” the prince said.
Prince Ferdinand headed home. He passed through the forest, but didn’t see the old woman. “Can I keep the cloak?” he asked. No one answered. He decided that meant that he could.
A business opportunity and a magic cloak. It had been a successful trip indeed. Perhaps he could even find someone who could grow a tree from the branch he’d saved. Maybe he should get lost more often?