The Princess and the Pea

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Once upon a time there was a powerful Queen who was used to getting what she wanted. She accepted nothing less than the best, and she also wanted nothing but the best for her son.
So when it was time for him to be married, she told him: "Son, you deserve the best woman in the whole world. Do not settle for just any pretty face. A prince must be married to a princess." she told him. "But remember - a real princess is not just the daughter of a king and queen. A real princess is delicate and refined. She wears the loveliest dresses, and carries herself with grace and dignity. And the first thing you will notice, a real princess has the voice of an angel."
That night, during a terrible thunderstorm, there was a knock at the door. A servant went to go answer the door, and a young woman stood outside, dressed in a heavy cloak, soaking wet from the rain. The Prince happened to be walking past, but when he heard the voice of the young woman he stopped in his tracks. She explained to the servant, "I got lost in the rain, and I saw the light from your castle. Would you be kind enough to shelter me for the night?" It was almost true. She'd been making her living as a singer, working at a local tavern. But she couldn't stay there any longer, not after what she'd experienced. Wanting to believe that there was somewhere she could find real love, where people behaved and treated each other with basic human decency, she had fled to the one place where she dreamed that she might find it.
She had the voice of an angel, and the Prince knew immediately that she must be a princess. He quickly ran up and excused the servant. "Of course you are welcome to stay, good lady," he said, bowing respectfully. "Allow me to take your coat."
When she pulled the hood off of her head, the Prince thought that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life. "Thank you." 
The Prince was so excited, he ran to go tell his mother what had happened. But right after he told her the story, she scoffed. "My dear son, she is no princess," she said. "What kind of a princess goes out in the rain, knocking on doors in the middle of the night? Shouldn't she have a servant for that?" She peeked out into the hall to get a look at the girl, and was appalled to see her with dripping wet hair and a muddy dress. "You see? She is no more than a common peasant."
"But mother..." argued the Prince. He peeked back outside as well, where he was struck again by the depth of emotion in her eyes. "Just look at her."
The Queen could see that her son had already fallen for the girl, so she quickly devised a plan to get rid of her. "Alright, then, if you don't believe me, we will put her to a test. Tonight we will dress her bed with ten of the softest, fluffiest, most luxurious feather mattresses in the castle. Then under the ten mattresses, we will place a single, uncooked pea. If this pea disturbs her sleep, then we will know. Only a real princess would be delicate and refined enough to feel the pea." So the Queen ordered her servants to gather the best mattresses they could find, and bring them to the guest tower. Then she took a single pea, and put it right in the middle of the bed, and had the servants stack all the mattresses on top. Then the Prince escorted the guest to her room, where she needed a ladder to get to bed. He bid her goodnight and returned to his own quarters, leaving her alone in the dark tower.
She could feel something under her mattress, an unwelcome presence in her bed. It couldn't have been any larger than a pea, but it didn't matter. She tried to force herself to stay awake, but she could only do it for so long. She drifted off into a fitful sleep. It was his, she was sure of it. The seemingly friendly traveler from the tavern. He'd come in the night, in secret, and planted it there. At first she'd welcomed it. The beetle that hatched from the egg had been beautiful, with wings that shimmered in shades of rainbow. She'd allowed him to explore her skin, caressing her arms and neck, held in her hand, a presence that had made her feel a little less alone. But one day it had wandered over to the front of her neck, then down her shirt. Suddenly it bit into her skin. Stop...stop, that hurts...I didn't want you to go there...
The beetle didn't listen. Instead, it borrowed into her flesh, leaving only a fleck of blood and a raised bump that began making its way over to her breast. Somehow another appeared. They were feeding on her fear and multiplying. She drew in panicked breaths, scraping at them with her fingernails, trying to get them off of her, but instead the raised lumps continued making their way over her body, covering every area until no part of her was left untouched. There were too many now for her to count. Becoming overcrowded, they sought a way out, poking their heads and chewing upwards and back out of her skin from beneath its surface, like worms emerging from the dirt, until it undulated like a hive of bees. The beetles were everywhere, borrowing in and out, tearing open her flesh as they inserted and withdrew their sharp antennae. They ate through her clothes too, until she could feel nothing but their alien presence pressed against her, the warmth of the friction generated by their bodies and furry legs rubbing against one another. She tried to scream, but they crawled into her mouth and down her throat, wet with her blood. They bit into her face and neck without mercy. It's a dream... it's a dream... wake up...The bugs finally retreated, emerging from the holes which they had created and dropping to the ground to skitter away, their gluttony satisfied. She looked at her skin. Every inch of its surface was pockmarked with round, deep, angry red indentations, unremovable scars. Only thin lines of raised skin remained, weaving veins in labyrinthine patterns like the surface of a coral. She looked at herself, closed her eyes, and cried. It's a dream... it's a dream...
For a brief period she woke up, shivering in the unfamiliar castle, huddled against the edge of her bed, squeezing her arms around her legs and weeping, looking up only often enough to check that her skin was restored. But soon, utterly exhausted, she drifted back to sleep.
It was a woman in her dream this time, perhaps the queen. She entered and looked down at the girl with disgust, as the girl stared back, terrified.
"He would never love you if he could see what you really are. What you've done."
"What I've done?"
"You're impure. Your own foolishness has ruined you."
She looked down fearfully at her arms. The round scars had hardened into dragon scales that glinted in the dim light of the bedroom. She brushed them off, and they cascaded to the floor, leaving only thick grooves like the bark of an oak tree. "We'll see."
She awoke and cracked her neck, groaning with discomfort. There has got to be something under these mattresses...
In the morning, the Prince went to the dining hall, and peeked inside to get a look at the mysterious young woman. She looked terrible. She had dark circles under her eyes and was sipping a large cup of tea. "I am so tired," she told a servant. "Please do not tell the Prince, but that bed is awful, I felt like there was a brick inside it." The Prince rushed over to her side and knelt before her.
"You are a true princess, aren't you? Please - you can stay here as long as you want, and I will get you any mattress you choose."
The girl looked shocked, but then smiled. "Thank You. I will, as long as I don't have to sleep on that bed ever again." They exchanged a long look, something unspoken passing between them, and then they embraced. The queen looked on with disdain. As unhappy as it made her, she was no longer able to deny that the girl was a princess.


Image of Among the Shadows


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