But even so she could not hide the little girl’s eyes and any that happened to look into them instantly forgot what they were doing and melted in adoration. It so happened one day that while the nurse and Fea were in the market, the royal carriage passed by and the driver caught a glimpse of Fea’s honey-coloured eyes, lost control of the horses and crashed into a fish stand, sending mackeral and shrimp high up into the air. The king stuck his head out of the window and his outrage was compounded when a fresh wet fish smacked him in the face. He probably would have ordered the execution of everyone present had he not chanced in that moment to meet the gaze of the infant Fea. He stepped out of his carriage in a daze, walked right up to the nurse and took the babe into his arms. Slowly, with trembling hands, he pulled back the veil and his royal jaw dropped open as he beheld a beauty he thought reserved only for the angels.
Accustomed to taking anything he wanted, he picked Fea up and carried her back to the carriage in a trance. The nurse released an agonising howl and the king snapped his fingers and his attendants stepped forwards to cover the woman from head to toe in gold by way of compensation. But treasure seemed to be little reward as the nurse continued to sob violently beneath the piles of golden coins, lamenting the loss of her beautiful daughter.
And so it was that Fea was destined to become a princess in the royal court, adopted by the king himself who spent his days playing with her, neglecting the affairs of state just to hear her infant laugh that came gurgling up like a mountain spring.
The years passed and Fea grew into a delightful girl and then into a dazzlingly beautiful young woman. Her face was like the moon shining at its brightest; her lips were like a piece of crimson coral, her eyes were like two dark pools reflecting a starry night and her skin made silk seem rough. Her hair trailed onto her slender shoulders like strands of gold and even the sight of her shadow was enough to make men and women fall violently in love.
There was not a man or boy in the kingdom who did not dream about her every night – even the workers in the fields who had never been to the city were entranced by the mere description of Princess Fea – and though the women professed to be insanely jealous and plotted her downfall, they, too, lost their hearts when they finally saw her with their own eyes.
Word of Princess Fea’s beauty spread through the lands so that when her likeness was sketched in the sand for the benefit of a neighbouring king, he immediately sent out his armies to capture her. The invading army was met with firm resistance on the battlefield and terrible bloodshed was only averted when Fea rode out to the field and, with one gentle wave of her hand, sent the soldiers home, each with a foolish, moonstruck grin on his face.
And so Princess Fea grew up learning that she was the center of the world. She had only to look at a thing to have it and a single flutter of her long, dark eyelashes was enough to command whoever was lucky enough to receive her glance. When she walked in the garden birds and butterflies would flutter about her head, competing between themselves to land on her shoulders and nightingales serenaded her through the night without ever tiring.
But though Fea’s beauty was so great that the sun would often rise again for a few moments after having set, just for one last longing look, and the moon would tarry in the sky above her head until the stars hurried it along, still one question remained hanging over her head – who could possibly be fit to marry her?
The king reluctantly conceded that he was too old for her but he was determined that Fea should have nothing but the best and the royal call for suitors was heard throughout the land and in all corners of the known world. Soon enough, distinguished princes in suits of pure white silk arrived, as did mighty warriors with arms and legs like tree trunks, riding in on snorting black stallions. They camped outside the royal palace and began to engage in trials of strength and courtesy; the warriors battling it out with quarter staffs and axes while the princes engaged one another in contests of wit and eloquence. But the Princess Fea looked down from her tower at all the suitors in pity.
“Let the man who can look on me without trembling be my husband.” she declared and her attendants carried her out of the palace on a sedan chair to meet the contenders. But though they jostled to take their place in front of her, not a man among them could look upon her loveliness without swallowing hard and then beginning to shake at the prospect of marrying such a vision of beauty.
When all the warriors and princes had stepped up to the challenge – and wobbled away in failure – Princess Fea was about to order her servants to carry her back to the palace when a low, rumbling voice spoke up:
“I haven’t had my turn yet.”
Fea was astonished to see a man with pale, white skin, not five foot tall and dressed in ragged clothes covered in dirt and soot stepping forwards.
“Only those of a noble birth may try for the princess’ hand,”, a court advisor said hurriedly but the challenger waved him away.
“I am Lord of the Underground People of the mountains to the north and my realm is both greater and more numeous than this one. I will take my turn.”
“Let him try.” Fea agreed, quite weary of the whole thing and anxious to return to her beloved garden. But to her astonishment, the small, dirty man stepped up and stared right at her without blinking or moving a single muscle to show that he was in any way affected by her beauty. She stared at him in wonder – he was the first man she had ever encountered who did not bend to her will like a leaf in the breeze and as she looked into his pale, white eyes she suddenly understood – the challenger was blind.
Slowly, as if in trance, she stepped forwards, took the arm of her new husband and, to the horror of the people of the city, walked away towards the mountains of the north that everyone had considered to be inhospitable and lifeless. Crowds of distraught men, women and children – not to mention dogs, cats and bird – pursued her in protest but a dismissive wave of her hand convinced them that she meant to keep her promise and there was nothing they could do to change her mind. One and all watched, utterly heartbroken, as the couple grew smaller and smaller until they were just shadows on the horizon and then faded from view.
The city plunged into deep mourning and for years afterwards and no music was allowed to be played, not any occasion celebrated as the inhabitants of the city went about their business dressed in black, their hearts somewhere else entirely. In time, however, a new generation grew up that rolled its eyes at accounts of her beauty. ‘No one could be that good looking!” they protested and so, with time, Fea’s beauty became the stuff of legend, remembered only by the old, many of whom carried her memory with them to the grave.
Until one rainy winter’s night, some 50 years later, the guards at the gate of the palace saw an old woman approach with her face hidden under a hood. They told her rather curtly to come back the next day if she wanted to beg some alms.
“People used to be more softly-spoken when I lived here,” she replied, casting off her hood to reveal a face that would once have been considered beautiful before the ravages of time had etched lines into her face and cast age spots around her eyes that glowed in a countenance so white she seemed almost ghostly. The younger guard chuckled to himself but his older counterpart, though he had been just a boy when Fea had departed, recognized her at once.
“My lady!” he stammered and then regaining control of his wits, he gave the young guard a clip around the ear and instructions to go and fetch the king while he opened the gates hurriedly to lead the princess in. She walked with a stoop now and suffered from a terrible cough that obliged them to pause to rest every few minutes until finally she declared she could go no further and took a seat on a bench beneath a sprawling banyan tree on whose branches she had once climbed as a young girl.
The ancient king hobbled down from private chambers which he had scarcely left for the last half century and had to be led within a few meters of his daughter before he could make out her face.
“F-Fea?” he gasped and collapsed to his knees, crawling towards her with the last of his strength.
“Father.” Fea replied, reaching out for his hand.
“I… I would have sent armies to bring you back… I held on to life just in case I might see you again one day…’ the king stammered until the tears choked the words.
“My husband died last month,” Fea said calmly, “The people of the Underground Kingdom live short lives with the dust that fills their lungs and it would seem it is to be my fate, too.” As if to affirm her point, she suffered a coughing attack and took several minutes to regain her breath. A guard brought her a glass of water which she accepted with a smile.
“But dark and gloomy though his world was, I would never have left him. He was the first person to ever see me. I had been invisible my whole life without knowing it. Only now that he is gone have I come back to die in the gardens where I grew up and hear the bird song that I used to love so much.”
In that moment, a flock of nightingales swooped down onto a low branch and, seeing the princess lying down on the bench, struggling for air, they burst into a chorus of longing, delight and grief. The king buried his head in Fea’s lap, sobbing at her words and that was how the two of them were found in the morning; the father and daughter having both departed this life, songbirds singing melancholy dirges above them.