With his red falcon, the Emperor hunted and wounded the daughter of Keikobad the king of spirits – a fairy-like being with the appearance of a white gazelle. Since then, she has lived as Empress together with the Emperor at his palace, in the form of a translucent woman – he spends the night with her and hunts by day. She was accompanied to the Emperor’s palace by her nurse.
A messenger from Keikobad informs the nurse that twelve moons have nearly passed since Keikobad’s daughter was made Empress by the Emperor. Since she still casts no shadow, which would signify an ability to become pregnant, the Emperor is in danger of turning to stone. Should this happen, the Empress would have to return to her father’s kingdom. Three days remain for her to acquire a shadow. The nurse, who harbours a deep resentment towards humans, receives the news almost joyfully. The Empress, on the other hand, feels guilty. She wants to save the Emperor from petrification. The nurse promises to help her: She claims to know how and where the Empress can procure a shadow.
In disguise, they go to the house of Barak the dyer, who lives with his wife and three deformed brothers in a world of dirt and danger. Barak has been married for nearly three years, but, to his great chagrin, the marriage has remained childless. The nurse tries to persuade the unhappy dyer’s wife to give up her shadow in return for riches, servants and carefree erotic fulfilment. The dyer’s wife appears to accept the offer.
When Barak leaves the house the next morning, the nurse paints the dyer’s wife a picture of her future in dazzling colours. Meanwhile, the Emperor suspects that the Empress has left the palace. Filled with jealousy, his initial intention is to kill her, but he is emotionally torn. Deeply troubled, he flees. The nurse and the dyer’s wife have given Barak a sleeping draft. Together, they prepare to transfer the shadow to the Empress. They leave the Empress with Barak and she takes pity on him. In a vision, she sees the Emperor turning to stone.
The dyer’s wife reveals to her husband that she has been unfaithful to him and offered her shadow for sale. Beside himself, Barak threatens to beat his wife to death. The Empress, however, hesitates to take the shadow while the dyer’s wife, at the eleventh hour, also decides against giving it away.
The two couples have been separated from one another and carried to another world by Keikobad’s messengers. The dyer’s wife is tormented by the voices of the unborn. The Empress speaks with Keikobad. She dissociates herself from the nurse, who is banished. While Barak and his wife search for one another, the Empress is offered the ‘water of life’ with which she could take on the shadow of the dyer’s wife. Once more, she sees an image of the petrified Emperor before her eyes. Nevertheless, the Empress refuses to bring misfortune upon others for the sake of her own happiness. Both couples – now able to conceive – are reunited.