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Once upon a time a greedy emperor forced his subjects to pay heavy taxes. Not only the poor were squeezed, but the nobles in this immense empire were highly taxed too. At last, tired of being crushed by taxes, the nobles held a protest meeting.

When the emperor heard about this, he took fright for he feared a rebellion. So he sent out this proclamation to put an end to their complaints:

"The nobleman that can make my daughter Sarah smile again, for she's mourning the loss of her fiancée, will never pay taxes again."

This caused an uproar at the protest meeting. Most of the princes decided there was no need now to complain, for each was quite sure he would succeed where others might fail. So off they went to get ready to try and make Sarah smile. But some of the nobles warned their fellows that, with his words, the emperor was not really abolishing any taxes at all. From that day on, a long procession of noble knights trooped from all over the empire to the palace to try and console the weeping princess.

The crowds cheered them as they passed, but when they returned with bowed heads, the same crowds booed and whistled at their failure. The days went by and the list of defeated knights grew longer . . . Indians, Circassians, Arabs and Turks . . . from all over the provinces came bold young men, bouncing with confidence and hope. But the minute the princess set eyes on them, she just wept and wept. The emperor was delighted, for each failure meant another taxpayer. Even the common folk seemed contented to see that the rich too did not always get what they wanted. The only unhappy person among them was Sarah, who went on weeping.

One day, a Mongol prince seemed to be on the point of winning a smile. He thrummed his balalaika for hours, playing first a sad tune, then a more cheerful one, till he finished by playing a merry jig. The princess sat for ages staring at him eyed and the onlookers thought she was about to smile. Instead she burst into floods of tears, to everyone's disappointment. A Kurdish chief, famed for his humor, who had already kept the court in fits of laughter, tried to steal a smile from Sarah with his witty remarks. But the princess's dark eyes filled with tears. Noblemen came from as far away as Persia, but in vain.

The only person who had not yet appeared was Omar, the chief of the tiniest farthest away province. A bright, intelligent young man, he had cleverly got the better of certain greedy ambitious relatives that tried to take away his power when he succeeded his uncle as chief. The emperor's messengers had taken a long time to reach this remote realm, and though Omar set out at once, on hearing the news, he rode for many days on his fine black horse. Then, one evening, he reached the palace. When the tired and dusty traveler explained to the stable boys why he had come, they laughed in scorn. But they had orders to obey, so they told him to enter.

"It's late," they said, "and you won't see the princess till tomorrow."

The emperor's other daughters, however, were soon told of the new arrival.

"He's the most handsome of them all!" exclaimed one of the servants. So Marika, the emperor's youngest and prettiest daughter, with her sisters, peeked through a window at the sleeping Omar. Next morning, the emperor ordered the newcomer to be led before Sarah. The court crowded round to watch. Unlike all the other suitors, Omar did nothing at all to amuse the princess. He stared at Sarah without saying a word. And she stared back, with an empty look on her face. The two young people stared silently at each other. Then Omar went back to the emperor and said:

"Sire! Give me your scepter and I will solve the problem of Sarah."

Surprised at such an odd request, the emperor followed Omar into Sarah's room. The other princesses clustered round, smiling and admiring the handsome young man. With a deep bow to Sarah, Omar straightened up and dealt her a blow on the head with the scepter. Screams filled the air the emperor threw up his arms in rage and his daughters fled in all directions. The guards drew their swords. Then the whole room stopped in amazement. For, out of Sarah's head, which had been chopped off by the blow, rolled broken springs and pieces of metal. The princess that never smiled was a doll! A perfect doll And nobody had ever been aware of it except Omar.

The only princess that couldn't stop laughing was Marika. The emperor glared at her.

"Be quiet . . ." he ordered. But he too saw the funny side of it. For the crafty emperor had been making use of Sarah the doll as a way of guaranteeing himself a steady flow of taxes from all his subjects. And now, a man more cunning than himself had exposed his trick. The emperor had a sudden thought: he would rid himself of the cheeky Marika and gain an astute son-in-law able to help him hold onto his kingdom.

"You should be put to death for this insolence," he said, "but I'm going to spare your life, if you marry my youngest daughter. Of course, you won't need to pay taxes!" Smiling at a happy Marika, Omar nodded silently. Down in the depths of his mind he was thinking:

"One day, dear father-in-law, I'll be sitting on your Imperial throne." And he was, a few years later.

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