THE BOYS WITH THE GOLDEN STARS 309
The emperor, as he listened, grew red with anger.
' Thrust them out,' cried he. ' Set the dogs after them.'
' Leave us alone, and we will go quietly,' said the princes, and stepped backwards, weeping silently at the harsh words. They had almost reached the gates when a servant ran up to them.
' The emperor commands you to return,' panted he: ' the empress wishes to see you.'
The princes thought a moment: then they went back the way they had come, and walked straight up to the emperor, their caps still on their heads.
He sat at the top of a long table covered with flowers and filled with guests. And beside him sat the empress, supported by twelve cushions. When the princes entered one of the cushions fell down, and there remained only eleven.
' Take off your caps,' said one of the courtiers.
' A covered head is among men a sign of honour. We wish to seem what we are.'
' Never mind,' said the emperor, whose anger had dropped before the silvery tones of the boy's voice. ' Stay as you are, but tell me who you are! Where do you come from, and what do you want? '
' We are twins, two shoots from one stem, which has been broken, and half lies in the ground and half sits at the head of this table. We have travelled a long way; we have spoken in the rustle of the wind, have whispered in the wood, we have sung in the waters, but now we wish to tell you a story which you know without knowing it, in the speech of men.'
And a second cushion fell down.
' Let them take their silliness home,' said the empress.
'Oh, no, let them go on,' said the emperor. 'You wished to see them, but I wish to hear them. Go on, boys, sing me the story.'
The empress was silent, but the princes began to sing the story of their lives.