Thus goes the tale of the Silent Princess:
The Silent Princess went by the name Qingye, but no one remembered that anymore.
Princess Qingye had been a precocious child, brimming with wonder and delight so bright and pure she literally glowed.
On the day she turned sixteen, whenever she opened her mouth to speak, her tongue would weave threads of gold and silver. They would unfurl in the air, gossamer strands finer than an infant’s hair, and twist into bales that shimmered in the light.
As the curse took effect, the kingdom plunged into complete darkness after sunset. That night, when she saw the inky-black sky robbed of its light, the princess broke down in tears and resolved never to speak again.
Fearing for his daughter’s safety, the emperor hid her in the highest tower in the palace to protect her from the greed of men. Yet, stories travelled. Suitors from across the land arrived at the palace gates offering their hand in marriage, proclaiming adoration and undying love.
Upon her incarceration, the princess grew withdrawn and sullen, her eyes no longer bright with curiosity and wonder, and her tinkling laughter turned into sorrowful sighs. Heartbroken, the emperor declared that any man who could make her smile again shall marry her.
Many tried – men of all background, shape, size, and fortune. A nobleman from the western colonies came with a talking puppet and the princess almost broke into a faint smile, but it was not enough. The nobleman stormed away complaining about how difficult she was. What remained of the princess’s smile faded soon after.
Finally, just as the emperor was giving up hope and the princess had resigned to spending the rest of her days in her tower, a young man by the name of Fleet Fingers came skipping up to the palace gates one night, bearing nothing but an old wooden flute.
The guards turned him away at the gates at first and only let him in when the emperor ordered them to do so, having caught wind of the thief and his legendary skills. Fleet Fingers could steal an oriole’s voice while it was singing, a peony’s scent before it even bloomed, a man’s wallet while he was bragging about his new young wife.
Could he, then, steal a curse?
Fleet Fingers found the princess sitting by the window in her tower, watching the indigo night sky that shared her silence.
He leaped onto the parapet and drew up his knees. “Greetings, Princess. Did you know that this tower is the closest to the heavens in all of this land?”
The princess shook her head, still staring wistfully at the sky.
“I think,” he went on, “you are a far better thief than I am. You managed to steal the stars and keep them between your lips.” He winked. “What’s stolen ought to be returned, my dear princess.”
“I didn’t mean to!” she blurted despite herself, her voice ragged from disuse. At once, a trail of silver slipped past her lips, dancing in the balmy wind. The princess pursed her lips again.
Fleet Fingers reached out and caught the strand of silver. It was as fine as her long, silken hair. He pulled out his flute. “Will you sing a song, Your Highness?”
She gave him a look that suggested he might be stupid or mad.
“Indulge me,” he cajoled. “Indulge yourself. When was the last time you sang? Let’s play one tune together and I’ll be on my way.”
The princess sighed, clearly debating whether she should entertain him to be rid of him. At length, she cleared her throat and, with a voice that trembled in the breeze, sang the song of the girl in the mountains. Fleet Fingers joined in the familiar melody, a slow, woeful tune that ached with wanting.
Waves of gold and silver spun around them as they sang and played, drenching them in an otherworldly glow. Tears spilled out of the princess’s eyes. She closed them, never breaking her song, an act of defiance she allowed herself after all this time.
And Fleet Fingers didn’t stop playing even as the light around them grew blinding. He didn’t stop playing as long as the princess didn’t stop singing. And he didn’t stop playing as he reached out to catch the song spilling out of her lips.
When at last the song ended and the princess opened her eyes, she found herself sitting alone amidst blankets of threaded gold and silver. The visitor was gone; in his place was his old wooden flute lying on the ground next to her. The princess called out for him, but no sound came out. No matter how hard she tried to scream, there was only silence.
She had been the girl who stole starlight. Her voice had been her curse. And now it had been stolen from her by that sly thief. That brilliant flutist with the spark in his eyes.
The princess raced out of the tower and into her father’s chamber, gesturing wildly. The emperor was furious when he realised what Fleet Fingers had done, but then he caught the smile on his daughter’s face, the gleam in her eyes he had missed seeing for so long.
He fell to his knees and wept – for he still remembered what he had done all those years ago, when he tried to steal the stars for his mute daughter and instead doomed her with a curse.
Fleet Fingers was nowhere to be found after that day, no matter how hard the emperor combed the kingdom. And the Silent Princess now spends her days in the garden playing Fleet Fingers’ old flute, a new voice he had given her, and a new life.