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Too Many Mattresses

A Retelling of "The Princess and the Pea"

By Brynne NelsonPublished 6 months ago 11 min read
1

For Tasha

Who didn’t have to take me into her heart

But seems to have done so anyhow

It was a long, long way down.

Nobody thinks about fifty downy mattresses being tall, but I am here to tell you—they are tall. I was way, way high up. Is it any wonder that I didn’t sleep? I’m absolutely petrified when it comes to heights!

My father used to say that was my major character flaw. “Climb higher, do better,” he’d say—though come to think of it, he usually wasn’t referring to distance from the floor. More like overcoming my dirt-floor, dirt-poor upbringing.

Wouldn’t he have loved to see me there, scrunched up near the top of the castle’s tallest tower, shivering under a blanket, too scared to look over the edge of the bed?

Maybe not. Maybe he would have been disappointed to know that I wasn’t only afraid of falling. The queen, her outrageous demands, her apparent madness, they all scared me. But my father died when I was fourteen; Mother went two years later. I was alone.

At the very first, I’d met Stefan quite by accident. I wasn’t trying to social climb. Love sneaked up on us, though I did try to keep it at bay.

You see, the prince—Stefan is the prince—had been ordered by his mother to find a bride and provide an heir to the throne. Then, his crazy mother had systematically undermined every single potential wife from every last surrounding kingdom. The princess from Regat had been driven away when she’d been asked to embroider a full-sized tapestry. In silks. In two days. Then, the princess from Asurra had been driven away with a test involving fire (no one would even gossip about the details, apparently it was too frightening.)

I don’t blame either girl for giving up.

The other princesses were gotten rid of in similar manners. Every unwed royal or noble lady from the nine kingdoms, it seemed, had been invited to try for Prince Stefan’s hand, then been sent packing after being faced with a dread fear.

Finally, the king had stepped in.

King Ion is a tall man. Skinny, too. He looks like a single gust of air could blow him away, and his wife, Queen Elena, is constantly blowing storms of air and words out her mouth. Maybe that’s why King Ion doesn’t argue with the queen. Either way, Elena runs the kingdom of Pim, and she does it—well, let’s just say that I’d do things differently.

But once in a while, King Ion will dig in his heels good and proper. This time, it was for the sake of his son.

“Elena, dear,” he’d said (so the gossip went,) “Stefan is going to have to choose a Pimmish wife now.”

“Pimmish? There are no ladies worthy,” the queen had argued (so they say.) The royal couple had gone back and forth for days. Finally, someone thought to ask Stefan what he thought ought to be done.

“Devise a test, mother,” he’d declared (I know because he told me himself.) “Find a way to identify a worthy bride. Then let the women of Pim prove themselves against it.”

Now, I know that sounds absurd. It was. But Stefan knew his mother’s ways, knew that she would never just let him choose a wife. The game had to be played, and the deck had to seem stacked in the queen’s favor. It was that, or have his own mother executed for crimes against the nation. Stefan chose the gentler course.

“It’s a good plan, Elena dear,” Ion had agreed. And so it was that, however reluctantly, the queen got on board with a Pimmish Princess test.

“I don’t think she expects anyone to pass,” Stefan said when he told me about it. He and I had been friends a long time—Stefan is one that likes to mingle with his commoners, see who he can help and serve. He’ll be a good king. I’d admired him for many years by this point, but I’d never imagined I’d be anything more to him than a friendly face in the market.

“What are you going to do?” I asked him, wiping dirt off a cob of corn with the corner of my apron. “You have to find a princess to wed.”

“Not necessarily,” he answered. “ I have to find a woman to wed. Technically, nowhere in the rules does it say she has to be a princess.”

“Well, sure, but we all know your mother means--”

“I don’t care what she means,” he said. He gave me his wide-eyed look, the one that reminded me of my pup, Rapscallion. The one filled with a longing that I guess we both felt, though we’d never talked about it. “Can I have one of those?”

I handed him one of the pea pods I was now polishing. He chomped it cheerfully.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

` “Not I,” Stefan said, and swallowed. “We.

“'We'?”

“If you want to,” he said quickly. “That is, if you’re interested. If it sounds like something you’d like to do.”

“If what sounds like something I’d like to do?” I asked, puzzled.

“Marry me?” Stefan asked, his cheeks and ears reddenning. “Become a princess? Be my wife?”

“Oh, ha, ha,” I said, though my heart thumped so hard I was sure the prince could hear it.

“I mean it, Vi,” he said. I gave him a hard stare.

“You do?”

“Yes.” So unequivocal!

“But why would you want to marry me? You could have anybody!”

“What?” Stefan looked utterly flabbergasted.

“I mean, you could marry just about anyone if you really tried,” I continued. “Even your mother can’t scare someone off for good, and those princesses that came—”

“I don’t want those princesses,” he answered earnestly, and his deep hazel eyes met mine. I had to fight back the urge to grin sappily. “I want you.”

“...You do?”

“Of course I do, Vi. I thought you knew that.”

“But—but—”

“Do you love me? I love you.”

“Of course I do,” I whispered.

“Then it’s settled,” Stefan announced. “We’ll get married.”

“How? Your mother’s game--”

“Why, we’re going to cheat, of course.”

***

I didn’t recognize myself by the time the royal clothiers were finished with me. True, I’d never seen myself in a looking glass before—or anything nicer than a clear puddle on stone—but the girl who peered uncertainly at me didn’t seem to be me. She looked like a princess.

“You look beautiful,” Stefan said as I tiptoed out from behind the changing screen.

“I look like someone else.”

“No,” he said, standing and taking my hands in his. “This is what I’ve always seen you as.”

“A cupcake in a frock that costs twice what my cottage is worth?”

He laughed.

“No,” he answered, and squeezed my fingers. “I look at you and I see fierce strength, and quiet wisdom. Kindness, patience, and a good judge of character. Like a queen.”

“Not like the current queen, I hope,” I whispered, and Stefan chuckled again.

“No, I think it’s safe to say that you and my mother have nothing in common,” he agreed. “Now. That was the easy part.”

I nodded. The dress, paid for by the prince himself, was simple. Even learning to breathe in the strict corset wouldn’t be the difficult bit.

I had to pass as “worthy” before the queen. And no one knew what the test was!

“Do you know, yet, what she’s requiring of me?” I asked.

“No idea,” he said, and released my hands, cupping my chin in his fingers instead. “But whatever it is, we’ll get through it. Together.”

“Together,” I agreed. It was a lovely sentiment.

***

“Lady Viorica of Desen-upon-Evela, Pim,” the herald announced as I entered the Grand Hall. I ground my teeth nervously; masquerading as a lady before Their Majesties was probably a crime.

“What a lovely young woman,” King Ion observed, giving a nod of his head. I smiled a little. Ion might not have been much of a king, but he was kind.

“Hmm,” Queen Elena rumbled. I quit grinding my teeth then, standing as straight as I could. Here’s a thing about me: give me wiggle room, a way to squelch out of a fight, and I’ll make a run for it nearly every time. I hate conflict. But if you try to box me into a corner—if you want to make me feel small—if for even a tiny second you act like I don’t deserve my humanity—I’ll come back so strong and so fast, swinging so hard, that you won’t have a clue what hit you.

That hmm struck me wrong. If I hadn’t been ready to fight for my love before, I was then.

“Your Majesties,” I said, sweeping into a shallower curtsy than was strictly proper. I was angry.

“Lady Viorica,” Queen Elena replied, her lips snapping together when she’d finished, as if she could spit me out of the room. “I don’t know you.”

“Your son does,” I replied.

“That is not as strong a recommendation as you’d think, my girl,” the queen said. “My son consorts with commoners.”

“Oughtn’t a king to know his people?” I asked, trying to keep my tone demure. “Your royal Majesty,” I finished. King Ion cracked a small smile behind his wife’s back.

“Hmm.”

“May I know what I am to do to prove myself, Majesty?” I asked. Stefan, seated behind his parents by a few inches, gave me a glance of warning. Too bold, Vi, I told myself.

“It is late,” the queen said with a wave of her hand. “There is a bed prepared for you in the tower. Pass the night here, and we will test your worthiness in the morning.”

Which is how I ended up terrified, annoyed, and precariously balanced atop fifty downy mattresses, as I mentioned.

Stefan crept into the chamber as I lay at the top, my fingers gripping tightly to the bedsheets, staring at the ceiling that was only a few inches above my nose.

“Your Highness,” I heard the chaperone say as the door creaked open. “Lady Viorica is not to be disturbed.”

“I’m not disturbing her,” Stefan said. “I don’t think. Vi, are you disturbed?”

“By you?” I asked. “Never.”

“By what, then?”

“By your mother,” I answered. “I’ve been expressly forbidden to sleep anywhere but atop this tottering pile of fluff.”

“Then should I leave you to sleep?”

“As if I could!” I exclaimed, and rolled just close enough to the edge that I could peer down at Stefan. “Will you read me a story?”

“Certainly,” Stefan said. He looked to the matronly woman guarding the door. “Sofi, may I?”

“The queen has said nothing against it,” Sofi agreed.

“Then I will fetch a book and return,” the prince said. He left, and I rolled back to the middle of the bed. The pile of mattresses shook, and I trembled too.

“Are you well, m’lady?” Sofi called up.

“Not in the least,” I grumbled. “You may tell your queen that no proper person could sleep on this… this mountain.”

“A mountain, is it?” Sofi chuckled. “You’re uncomfortable, then?”

“Beyond description,” I called back.

“I’ll inform her Majesty in the morning.”

“That might not be wise,” I said, realizing I might lose out on the mysterious competition by complaining.

“It is my duty to report on your sleep, m’lady,” Sofi said.

“It’s what?”

“I found a book,” Stefan called as he re-entered the room. I inched back to the edge.

“Read at your leisure, please,” I answered.

Stefan read to me for the rest of the night—and into the gray hours of the morning, too. The tale was interesting, though it was not what kept me awake. He finally nodded off in the chair he’d landed in. I couldn’t sleep.

“Awake and arise, my lady!” The queen herself announced as the sun began to peek through the tower window.

“I can get down, then?” I asked from my spot in the middle of the bed. The queen’s footfalls came to an abrupt halt.

“Did… you sleep well, Lady Viorica?” She asked. More steps echoed, and I peeked down to see King Ion standing in my doorway. He gazed up at me.

“I beg pardon, Majesties,” I said with a shudder, “but I fear that I did not sleep. May I descend?”

“Certainly you may,” the king said. I gave a sigh of relief, then rolled to the top of the ladder and inched downward. I took another great, steadying breath when my feet hit the floor.

“I thank you for the hospitality, Your Majesties,” I said. “However, if there is a couch somewhere that I can rest on…”

“You didn’t sleep?” the queen demanded.

“Forgive me, Majesty, but… could you have?”

“No, but—” she lunged forward, past me, reaching toward the base of the pile of bedding, She wiggled her fingers around under the bottom mattress, her hand finally sliding out with a green smudge on the forefinger.

“But how did you know?”

Know what? I wondered. Was sleeping some sort of—was it the test? What kind of lunatic test is that?

‘ “She knew because she is worthy, Mother,” Stefan said. I hadn’t realized he’d woken up.

“Apparently so…” the queen agreed.

No matter how many years pass, the image of her confounded, stupefied face will never cease to be a source of amusement and comfort to me.

***

Anyhow, that’s how I, Viorica of the tiniest farm in Desen-upon-Evela, an orphan and a stranger to royal ways, ended up the princess of Pim. It’s strictly terrifying, being in charge, but I have Stefan beside me as guide, friend, and love. Every day, I try to climb higher, and be better.

But I do it from the ground.

Short StoryFantasyClassical
1

About the Creator

Brynne Nelson

I'm a writer. I'm a wife and a mom. I'm a human.

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Comments (2)

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  • L.C. Schäfer6 months ago

    I enjoyed this one. It's the only one I've seen of the Princess and the Pea. A story I'd completely forgotten about 😁

  • Antoinette L Brey6 months ago

    It was funny, nice take on the story

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