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The old man sat on top of the hill, staring up at the birds that were silently moving their beaks, creating music he could not hear. Across from the hill, a mountain jutted up from the ground, and atop it sat a magnificent palace owned by the king. Staring at the great structure, the man was reminded of the offer the king had made.
“The one to please my blind daughter and make her smile shall be granted their weight in gold.”
Years had passed since the offer was made. Doctors, sorcerers, gypsies, and citizens of the kingdom had entered the palace, none leaving victorious.
The old man rubbed a small box beside him, determined to get the money he needed. His village’s foundation had been ripped apart by a flood, and all of their houses were underwater. He could still envision the rough rapids tearing and devouring his house and others. Standing, the man began preparing for his trek up the mountain.
Wind blew in his face, scrambling the leaves around him, dancing with his scarf. Other villagers climbing walked in silence. Suddenly, rocks began to vibrate, the ground shook, and people covered their ears. The old man looked up and saw a rusty, archaic bell in the top tower of the palace swaying back and forth, and each time it did he felt as though the ground would split. With shaky steps, he continued up the mountain, ascending the steps, all the while rubbing the small box in his pocket.
Finally, the old man reached the top. He was wheezing, sweat cascading down his face. The palace’s huge doors loomed in front of him like the Gate to Heaven. He pushed them open.
As soon as he entered, a rush of cool air and a luscious, rich fragrance poured onto him. The palace was overwhelmingly beautiful. Intricate patterns made of a shiny, blue crystal slithered along the walls, entangling themselves in shimmering laces of gold. The floor sparkled underneath him, and the man felt unworthy of stepping into this stunning place with dirty feet.
As he wandered further into the palace, he noticed stained- glass windows and small fountains full of black and white koi, faces like Noh masks. Other rooms contained small gardens with vibrant flowers glistening with dew, their petals outstretched, reaching for the sun. The old man passed through an aviary and all birds of shapes, colors, and sizes greeted him in a flurry of feathers and songs he could not hear.
Finally, he reached the throne room. It was most magnificent with its tapestries, chandelier, and throne made of polished opal and gold- threaded cushions. Upon it sat the king, wearing robes longer than bedsheets and a crown worth more than his kingdom. He gestured to his daughter, who held a small sculpture of her mother, and it was wet from the tears that fell from her white, unmoving eyes.
The man brought out his box.
He began to wind it up with a lever, and it made a clicking sound that caught the princess’s attention. Springs and gears inside of the box wound up, tightened…
And out popped a bird. It was composed of metal and made no noise, aside from the clicking of levers and the whoosh of air when it swooped out of a window.
It flew to the aviary where it collected the birds, herding them back to the throne room. The princess felt soft wings brush her cheek as all birds, exotic and common, gushed past her. They hovered in the air, and song drifted from their beaks.It reached the sky and touched the sea, spreading its joyful melody throughout the palace, echoing in resonance. The tone found its way to the sad princess’s ears. It pushed rusty gears in her brain, pulled strings in her heart. But there was something lodged in the gears, her heart. And she would not smile.
In her small, shriveled soul, the girl knew what she wanted.
She would not smile.
The princess listened until the man’s footsteps faded.
572 victims now, she thought. How I love the feeling of watching the dreams of others wither and die.
She covered her mouth to yawn. But behind her delicate fingers, her lips tilted upward.
She loved the feeling.