Finally, with thirteen mattresses piled high, I could sleep without thinking of the man I’d killed.
At twelve, it was more of an echo. A question. Did I still feel the shape of it, or was it my imagination playing tricks?
Eleven was hope. I fell asleep for nearly an hour that night, and the one dreamless hour promised that I was nearly there, nearly far enough from the event, from the singular moment of my life. Soon the lump seemed to whisper, soon you will not feel me pressing up against your stomach.
Ten soldiers arrived from his father’s palace, in crisp green uniforms. I stood at my throne, grateful for the whale-bone stays helping me keep my back straight as I answered their careful questions.
I had entertained great quantities of optimism that the ninth mattress would be sufficient to my needs. Three times three is a most powerful number, infinite in its magical potential, an everlasting loop. But it was not strong enough to cushion my guilt.
We had been engaged for eight years, he and I. Eight years trading letters and miniature portraits of all different expressions. That had been his idea. A portrait of smiles, a portrait of sorrow. Shining with anger. In play and at work. With crowns proud against our brows, and again with no finery. A portrait of how our faces shaped when we thought of each other.
The seventh mattress raised questions.
On the sixth night, as my women dragged the newest mattress atop the pile, I stared at the golden threads quilting its surface. I traced their lines as if the pattern would explain to me why my marriage bed had become this ever-climbing mountain. I should have liked to see my husband splayed out across it, smiling indolently at me with his jacket undone and the thin silver consort’s crown dangling from his fingers. I should have liked to slide over him and kiss his temple, the corners of his eyes, his lips. I should have liked that better than stretching out to sleep, only to feel the hard lump pushing up through even so many layers of feather-down, of straw, cotton, silk, and woven-rushes.
Five minutes I waited on the bed, freshly married, finally to have my prince to myself. The candelabra dripped wax, sending flickers of orange light to make the tapestries come alive. I was anxious and ready, and when he entered, pushing the double doors open in a dramatic gesture, I laughed and stood. I held out my hands. But my prince hesitated. His arms fell to his sides and as the doors swung closed he said, “My queen, I must be honest.”
Four mattresses should have been plenty! They should have distributed my weight, should have cushioned me well enough. I ached all that night, bent in half and wanting to bleed.
Three words to tell me he loved another.
My mother’s sword had hung over the mantle since the night she died. I calmly walked to it, lifted it off its setting, and cut through his chest twice. Though it was my own heart I destroyed. And two more hours for my wizard to burn the body – all but two pieces: the head and a finger. The latter of which he would use to lay spells to hide what I’d done. The former because he’d been my husband.
One skull, polished to shine like a pearl, pushed under my mattress.
The common prompt today is “Princess and the Pea (The Real Princess),” by Edmund Dulac