Sunday, July 25, 2010

Of Princesses and Peas, and also short stories.

The prospect of writing a short story is not difficult. In fact, when I get all weenieish and want to give up/get a story done, I go, "Oh, well I can just write a short story" and be done with it. Although I've never done it. I really don't think my mind works with short stories, because when I start to plot things get out of control and before I know it I've built and entire alien world filled with Pea-people and an army of ninja princesses.

No. I kid.

However, I did write a short story today. Yup. I wrote it because early last week I was poking around on the Merry Fates LJ and saw that one of the three lady authors had posted news about a contest. To win one of four fabulous prizes (including copies of their books), the toll was to write a short story based on Edmund Dulac's "Princess and the Pea" painting. After probably a minute of consideration, I promised myself I would enter, if only to try writing real short stories for the first time (that weren't fan fiction, ha ha ha).

Though it is very different than the traditional story, I enjoyed writing it. So then, without further ado, fiction by yours truly.

Princess, Not the Peas

I sat there, hands folded across my lap as the place wear was set all around me, staring at him from across the table, holding my breath as the dishes were uncovered.

“Pork, greens, wine, and pea soup, my lady,” the waiter hovering over my shoulder announced. At once I shook my head.

“No soup, please,” I said, hardly taking my eyes off the man across the table.

“Certainly, my lady.” In one swift movement the man scooped up the simmering bowl and disappeared.

Dinner was otherwise uneventful. The man across the table, the wonderful, delightful Prince Avargad, held my gaze for the duration of the feast, hardly speaking a word. He spared a nod or two to the woman on his right, his charming mother, and a few yes’s and no’s to his father, sitting at the head of the table. I was alone on the other side of the wooden barrier, like an outcast waiting to be thrown from this magnificent place.

Truth be told, I never felt like I belonged.

Their hospitality was faked. The smiles twitched with disdain every time I spoke. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t remember speaking more than a dozen words to another human being that day. I often stole to my room and chatted with the cat. Said cat that evidently thought she owned the room, the very bed I had been given to sleep in. At least her eyes weren’t glazed with lurking judgment. As I scanned the faces around the table, I found that eyes either averted from mine, or tore into my gaze like knives.

Unable to breathe, my stomach did a somersault. A strange sensation trickled along my spine, leaving me numb and weightless as though I wasn’t really there at all. I feigned a small cough and brushed a strand of hair out of my eyes.

“Do you need something, my lady?”

My head shot up and caught Avargad’s steely, half-lidded eyes on mine. A smile was painted to the orbs though one barely tugged at the corner of his lips. So willing to leap to assistance, though so withholding of his true opinions, I thought, carefully judging the words that would make up my response.

“No, sir Prince. It’s just my stomach, that’s all.”

“Perhaps you should retire early and get some rest,” he said. “It has been a long day after all.”

I nodded, unable to produce well thought of words in a timely fashion. Then, as I rose from the table, so did he. Not a lock of gold hair fell out of place as he skirted around the table to join me, always insistent that he should escort me everywhere I went. A small, breathless sound escaped me, and I hoped he did not hear. For some reason I spared one last glance over my shoulder, perhaps as an apology for my early departure from the meal, but the Queen gave me a cheery little smile in dismissal. Then, as if he had eyes in the back of his head, Avargad’s smile echoed his mother’s and he pressed towards the main hall.

For a long while, the only sound was that of our shoes tapping against the wooden floor. Then there was a gasp and cry—I stumbled over my own two feet and was caught around the arm with such ferocity that I thought it would pull right out of my shoulder. The Prince righted me almost as quickly as I had tripped and then refused to relinquish my arm as he hooked his around mine.

My face was suddenly flushed and I forced myself to look anywhere but at the Prince, whose eyes I could feel weighing down on me from the side. How was I ever going to survive his trials if I kept behaving like such a klutz?

Soon he deposited me beside the door of my room. There was a faint mew inside as the cat sensed our presence. Most of the red had faded from my cheeks, though as chuckled at the cat’s cry some of it seemed to return. Avargad smiled as well, his face made up of twisting lines. He seemed much older than eighteen between the way he spoke and carried himself and the controlled expressions. Never mind his age, I was still his subordinate, given I was a girl who was barely gracing the age of an adult. But how I found myself there, head low and hands folded neatly across my front while a handsome Prince graced my lips with a goodnight kiss, I could hardly recall.

My throat tied itself in knots as the creeping sensation returned. I didn’t dare draw breath until the Prince stepped away. He offered another slanted smile at the lingering pink in my cheeks and then stole around the corner, his figure fading into the shadows in the blink of an eye. I backed into my room without another thought.

This was how it had gone on, day after day, night after night. I was to endure a month-long observation under the watchful eye of Prince Avargad and his family to see if I was fit to be his blushing bride. At first, I had been terribly excited to be chosen. It was all our town could seem to talk about, the fact that a prince was in need of his princess to claim the throne and the innumerable riches of the Litsen family. I had seen other girls whisked away by beautiful carriages time and time again to see if they could stand up to the test. It was both exciting and frightful to see them go, for if they did not pass—which none had—the girls and their families would never be heard from again. People spoke of what great shame fell on the families when their daughters were rejected, so much so that they were forced to move to where their names had never been heard before.

When the carriage arrived at our doorstep and two tall men knocked on our door bearing a regal scripture with my name on it, I remember springing up and clapping, shrieking this, that and the other about how wonderful the whole thing was. I didn’t particularly care for the last girl, Emmamelie, and was unquestionably thrilled she hadn’t succeeding in taking the prince’s hand. Yet, as I was whisked away, the carriage travelling through three towns before it would arrive at the Litsen manor, my fantasies were smashed into the dirt.

At the last stop before the castle, I found myself in an Inn run entirely by ladies not much older than I. Their father had passed away and, though he wished for a son to continue his legacy, he was unwilling to see his business in hands of someone not in the family. His daughters ran the place, and chatted with me in the parlor when I couldn’t sleep that evening.

“Oh, dear, really? You’re off to see Prince Avargad, are you?” one of them inquired with a coy smile.

Three of the four chattered among themselves upon me confirming my status as the up-and-coming Mrs. Litsen. The fourth, a few years older than me but not the eldest of the bunch, lowered her lids and tilted her chin back as she looked at me. A shudder rolled down my shoulders at her expression—she was looking at me as though I was some horse put on the market. Although, looking back on it, what I was to face at the Litsen castle was hardly any different.

“Just keep your wits about you, girl,” the woman muttered. Keeping the dark tone, she soon added, “And if you’re ever offered a dish with so much as a single pea in it, you best reject it if you wish to stay in that place.”

My brow furrowed. “Why?”

She scoffed. “Why? Ask the boy Prince! I don’t know why, but its one of the thousand silent rules he’s made up to pick his bride. Not a one of the girls has rejected the pea-laden meal, and look where it got them.”

The other girls had fallen quiet as well, but after a few pops from the fire, they were up and running their mouths again, one chirping, “I heard that you’ve got to kiss him first. He thinks it as ‘taking initiative.’”

“And make sure to wear ribbons in your hair!”

A dozen ‘rules’ were thrown at me before I felt as though I were drowning in them. I excused myself for bed, and in less than a day’s time I was at the castle and under the care of the seniors Litsen and their only child, the prized Avargad.

I patted the black and white cat on the head as I crossed the room. A ribbon slipped free of my hair and sent the curls tumbling down my back when I approached the vanity. I hardly recognized the woman staring back at me. She looked tired and scared, constrained and quieted. My eyes fell to the floor and I turned my back on it, stumbling on my feet again before I managed to climb into bed. Uncomfortable (though they had promised the bed was made of the finest cotton) as always, I somehow shuffled under the covers and drifted to sleep, quietly and absentmindedly praying that I might not wake under the same roof come morning.

The following day passed just as dreadfully and unexcitingly. Four individuals were seated at the table again. A dozen hired hands rushed this way and that bearing countless hot plates of food. Three dishes were uncovered before me: lamb, a pasta entree I had never known, and casserole.

“…and the pea casserole.”

I could feel heavy eyes on me once again, as I had for the past seven days and nights. A knot swelled in my throat and my heart sped out of nowhere when the words, “Thank you, sir,” tumbled from my lips.

Gripping my fork with delicately gloved fingers, I made sure to clear the casserole in its entirety first. The entirety of the meal was scrumptious, but the casserole was by far the best dish.

Then as we all commented on the grand meal and bid each other goodnight, the Prince escorted me to my room once again. We were only just around the corner, out of the sight and earshot of the king and queen, when the Prince took my hand and stopped. He pressed his lips to mine, jarring my mouth open in favor of his tongue before his hand slipped away from mine. His opposite hand cupped my jaw but soon craned around my neck. He had produced a dagger in the other.

“I’m so sorry, my dear, but I detest those inferior vegetables and simply cannot forgive a woman who would willingly consume them!”

Just as I saw his hand rise and the intent in his eye to drag the knife across my neck, my eyes flashed open and the scene dissolved. I was still lying in my bed atop the five mattresses piled high. Something swished across my neck and I nearly screamed, until I realized it was just the cat and her languid tail flicking back and forth.

Struggling to catch my breath, I realized what I must do. Though I would miss the pleasant company of the cat, I wouldn’t spare the rest of them another thought as I planned to make a break from the castle. Someone would find me soon enough. Someone would whisk me home, where I would tell them of the horrors of this place. Of the king and queen who paid their son no mind, and the young boy Prince who sent his brides-to-be to jump through impossible hoops. No one would marry the treacherous Prince Litsen, who stalked ladies with his narrowed eyes and crooked smile.

As I slipped out the door with a bag of my things hanging off my shoulder, I felt the very breath in my lungs dissipate and the color in my face drain entirely. Said Prince stood across the hall from my door, arms folded and head bowed, and he glanced to me without moving an inch. With such dark rings under his eyes, I almost mistook him as a ghost.

“Sir,” I choked.

“What are you doing up?” he said.

I didn’t hesitate. “I could ask the same of you!”

“I couldn’t sleep so I came here, thinking thoughts of you would calm my mind.”

I wondered if the lies tasted bitter on his tongue. He was waiting for my excuse.

I wouldn’t grant him the favor. Instead, “I have a question, sir Prince.” His face smoothed out expectantly. “Where are all the other girls? The women you rejected as your brides?”

The smile that unfurled on his face was haunting. “They’re not with us anymore, this is true.”

My jaw slipped open. Had he killed them all? Who knows how many women he had called on to be his bride, how many of them had met their fate—

“Oh, please,” he laughed, “your face is priceless! What, do you think I’ve gone and killed them all?”

“It’s what you said--!” I shouted. He clutched his sides to keep the laughter from exploding out of him. I could hardly breathe, I could hardly even stand given my knees had started shaking, and he was laughing near maniacally before me.

“They were all politely dismissed. I couldn’t have them, you see, when all of them were so…brainless.”

The word was so loaded I was left waiting for his punch line.

“You see,” he began, straightening to full height and beginning to pace around me, “they each accepted any old thing I said as pure fact. They hardly offered a second thought to my speech. I need to be sure that the girl I choose is…sensible and smart, you see. I can’t have a woman who would be willing to believe anything; no…then her imagination might get the best of her. What if she had a dream that I was some evil spirit? How could I be certain she wouldn’t be out to call me a monster or even kill me on a whim the next morning?”

I tried to swallow, but the knots in my throat wouldn’t let me. He was, more or less, speaking of me.

“So my dear, how about we go for a stroll to clear our heads?”

Avargad offered me a hand. I stared at it for an eternity. I ran in the opposite direction as fast as my feet could carry me.

No comments:

Post a Comment