There was once an old King who had two daughters, of whom the younger possessed the greater beauty and vivaciousness. She captured the admiration of those around her from an early age, and when she came of an age to be courted the older princess found that she was passed over in favour of her younger sister’s charms. Many powerful men approached the King for the younger princess’s hand in marriage, and in time he arranged for her to become betrothed to a young King from the east.
The young princess, however, had no wish to wed and she coined excuses to avoid departing on the traditional visit to her intended husband’s lands until eventually she could not put off the visit any longer. The night before the visit she went to her sister’s bedroom with a troubled countenance. “Sister,” said she. “I do not want to go to the east. What if the King is horrible?”
“That is the purpose of your visit,” the older princess explained. “If you dislike him, you can refuse to wed him.”
“You are so sensible – why don’t you go in my place and tell me what he is like?”
The older princess laughed at this impulsive suggestion. “I would love to,” she smiled, shaking her head. “But we look nothing alike, and Father sent a portrait of you to this King. Unless he is blind, and all his courtiers blind, there would be no way to fool him.”
“Not as we are now,” the younger agreed, a gleam in her eyes. “But I know a spell that will let us take on the appearance of another. Take the hairs from your brush and braid them to form a small circlet that you can place around your wrist. I will do the same with my hairs. Then I will give you mine, and take yours, and in the morning we shall put on the circlets and speak the spell. As long as we wear the circlets, we will look like each other!” She laughed at her sister’s astonishment. “And you can go in my place, and find out what this King is like. I will stay here, and I might even be able to secure you a suitor!”
Though she was stung by the careless words, the older princess was curious. She wanted to see the eastern lands, and surely it would be nice to be beautiful and admired for a while? So she agreed, and in the morning they exchanged circlets. Just as her sister had said, when they spoke the spell with the circlets on their wrists, one became the other in face, form, and voice. Thus, it was the older princess who left to travel east, disguised as her younger sister.
The moment she laid eyes on the young King, she envied her sister. He was tall and handsome, and as time went on she could no find fault with him for he was also kind, clever, cheerful and devoted to fulfilling her needs and wishes. She tried to be happy for her sister, because she would be able to tell the younger princess that she was betrothed to a good man, but her heart grew heavier as each day passed. Her sister had admirers a-plenty, and now this King who had never met her would wed her and make her happy, and yet she had none of that.
Her melancholy grew until it began to cloud her eyes behind her smiles, and the King noticed. “You seem sad, my lady,” he observed one evening, leading her on a walk through the gardens. “Your eyes don’t laugh as they did – do you miss your home and family?”
“A little,” she said softly, knowing she couldn’t tell the truth and feeling worse for it.
“Have you not enjoyed your time here? I fear it may have been a duty rather than a pleasure.”
“Oh, no! I’ve had a wonderful time, your Majesty,” she protested at once. “I’ve been made to feel so welcome here.”
“You are welcomed,” he said, stopping and looking down at her. “This will be your home.” He bent to kiss her, but she turned her face away so that his lips met her cheek. “Why did you turn away?” he asked.
“I…” She blushed nervously. She couldn’t kiss her sister’s betrothed! “Forgive me,” she said, shaking her head. “I have not…”
“Ah.” The King smiled and touched her cheek. “Do not worry my dear.” He kissed her forehead. “I understand.”
The princess wept in her room that night, seeing her sister’s face in the mirror. She took off the circlet of golden hair and watched her true appearance return, and grieved because she had grown to love the King and knew that he loved her beautiful sister without knowing that he was being cruelly deceived. She hid the circlet under her pillow while she slept, as she had done every night. Unbeknownst to her, the King had been told by a servant that a strange young woman had been sleeping in the princess’s suite. On this night, in the company of that same servant, he entered her room and frowned at the stranger for she was clearly not his betrothed. Her hair was copper, rather than gold, and though her features were fine and well-bred they lacked the glowing beauty of the princess he knew.
He said nothing of it, swearing his servant to silence on the matter, but he pondered the problem for most of the night. When he took leave of the princess, he also ascertained that the mysterious young woman was not among the servants who had accompanied her to his lands. The young King promised to visit the princess in her Father’s realms, and she relayed this promise to her younger sister when she arrived home. “You are lucky,” the older princess added. “He is a good, kind, handsome man. He will certainly love you and treat you well. I wish we had not deceived him. He will be hurt when he finds out.”
“He will not find out, then,” the younger said confidently, taking off the circlet. Her sister copied her, reluctantly. “I am looking forward to meeting him now.”
When the young King’s visit began, the younger princess greeted him eagerly. The older princess’s heart beat quickly when she was introduced to him, but he simply bowed over her hand and turned his attention back to her sister. Secretly, however, he was astonished to find that the mysterious young woman was actually the princess’s older sister. The unknown lady’s face had haunted him in the weeks between visits, and when he began to observe the older princess he saw that the unhappiness hadn’t left her eyes. By contrast, his bride-to-be sparkled, and it puzzled him that she was so vivacious. The more he compared the sisters, the more certain he became that somehow a switch had been made and that the quieter, elder, princess was the one who had come to his palace.
He was walking alone in the gardens, pondering the problem of how to explain the switch, when he glimpsed a shadow slipping past. It was the elder princess, and she was crying as she made her way through the gardens. Unseen, he followed her to a small garden with a fountain and watched from the shadows. She was weeping as if broken-hearted, looking down at her reflection in the water. He stared when she wrapped something around her wrist and changed before his eyes into the likeness of her sister. Her tears fell faster as she stared down at her changed face, and then she broke up the reflection and tore off the circlet. “He doesn’t love you,” she said to the shifting water. “He loves this!” She flung the bracelet away, hating it for the heartache it had caused her.
The King picked up the circlet, and found that it was made of braided golden hairs. He smiled faintly, and slipped away without the princess knowing he had ever been there, and decided to request an audience with the old King. The next day, he told the King a story from his lands. At certain times of the year, it was believed that spirits would take on the appearance of men to try and steal the souls of their wives. Thus, men of the east would only wed a woman who would not be fooled in this way. So he asked for the princess to take a simple test – to pick him out of a group of men who looked like him.
The old King was amused by the superstition, and agreed to this. The younger princess was also amused, and told her sister, but the older princess cautioned her. “Be careful,” she urged. “He did not mention this before – I think he may have guessed our trick.”
“You worry too much,” the younger laughed. “There cannot be another man as handsome as him in this kingdom!” Imagine her dismay, then, when the next morning saw five identical young Kings enter the throne room! The young King had consulted an old and wily advisor, who knew a thing or two of magic, and had recruited four of his servants to help him. The princess hesitated over the choice, for the men all looked and spoke the same, and finally chose the man standing in the middle of the line. He smiled and bowed, and removed a token holding a lock of the King’s hair – revealing that he was really the King’s valet. The princess was furious at being tricked, and unguardedly protested that using magic was unfair.
“Is that so?” another of the ‘Kings’ frowned. “Yet you used magic, my lady! Where is the bracelet of your sister’s hair that you used to take on her appearance?”
“What is this?” the old King demanded.
“Forgive me, your Majesty, but your younger daughter was not the one who visited the east. I believe the elder came, disguised as her sister – though why the switch was made, I do not know,” a third murmured, frowning slightly.
“It is true.” The older princess was standing by the door, pale and resolute. “I am sorry for what I did – I took my sister’s place to find out what her betrothed was like, for she didn’t want to go. I should have stayed here,” she added sadly. “I have only brought myself unhappiness.”
“Who are you addressing?” one of the four remaining ‘Kings’ asked, smiling faintly. “Can you tell which one of us is real?”
She smiled shyly and chose the one who hadn’t spoken at all after greeting her sister. He gave a shout of laughter and the others removed their tokens – she had chosen truly. The young King took her hands. “I do not want a bride who hasn’t the courage to visit the unknown, or the insight to recognise her husband,” he said. “Will you be my bride?”
Her answer, of course, led to their ‘happy ever after’.