The prince poisons the spindle. It’s nothing personal. The prince likes the girl enough: they talk about books. She’s a young blonde with full lips and heavy breasts. She’s conscious of her big nose and avoids her reflection in the silverware when they dine. But he can’t marry her. If he marries he will lose his steward. So the prince buys the witch’s poison. His fiancée pricks her finger and falls into deathless sleep and the prince feigns outrage, grief. He mourns loudly and is silently relieved.
The prince is glad she isn’t dead; he is not a killer. He orders her room kept spotless. He checks on her daily at sunrise and watches her nose cast a shadow like a sail on her face in the early light. He then returns to the bed he shares with his steward, Simon, and holds the still-sleeping man in his arms. The prince feels the heat of his lover’s skin, the pulse in the other man’s wrists, and the warmth is balm for his guilt. His steward is the opposite of his princess: delicately thin, dark and morose. He only smiles in his sleep. His acerbic comments frighten the maids but amuse the prince. Simon does not know what the prince has done. His steward has enough secrets to keep.
When months pass and it is clear the princess will not wake, the king fetches a new bride from a different allied kingdom. The prince woos her, dances with her, and takes her riding. She owns a chestnut gelding with a mane that shines from brushing, and no one brushes the horse but the princess. When she is discovered on the floor of her bedroom, her long brown hair a halo around her bloodless face and her body cold from the flagstones, the servants settle her in a room next to the first princess. Soon a third sleeping girl is situated down the hall, and a fourth two doors down from the third.
The rumors grow, spread like a virus. There is a devil haunting the prince, a curse, a spell. Patrols report unseen forces spooking the town’s horses; mothers report children screaming in their sleep. The inns coax travelers to stay the night with little success. And every sunrise the prince visits the four sleeping princesses in reverse order of appearance. He straightens their pillows, brushes the ends of their hair with his fingertips, and watches the rising sun imbue their faces with the false glow of health. None of them stir when the light touches them, though the third sighs in her sleep. When the prince returns to his bed he holds his steward and presses his nose into the smaller man’s neck, willing the gentle heat of their pulses to turn scalding. Lazy warmth is no longer enough.
The witch is captured by a frightened mob after a fifth princess succumbs to sleep. The prince attends the burning. When the guard lights the woodpile in the town square the prince closes his eyes. He tries to ignore the screams of agony and the desperate cheers of a populace now confident that the worst is over, that the danger is past. But the princesses keep coming. They are successively less accomplished, less beautiful, less polished. Instead of sparkling at the prince over dinner, their laughter rich and smooth as wine, they sit stiffly at the table and flinch at his touch. Few discuss books. Fewer ride gracefully. Many are not even princesses. But the prince pricks their fingers and they all slumber the same impenetrable way. Sending the prince fiancées becomes the fashionable way to prune courts of ill-favored maidens. His kingdom is a dumping ground for unworthy daughters, a punishment for disgraced families of other kingdoms, and a story to frighten little girls at bedtime.
The castle rooms fill with dreamless girls. The prince can no longer visit them all over the course of a morning. Soon he stops visiting entirely. The prince sleeps beside his steward until the sun is high overhead though he no longer holds the other man in his arms. Simon’s moroseness upsets the prince; his sharp humor is unbearable. That his lover should not smile more for him after all he’s done, that his steward cannot uncover his loving sacrifice of the women that pile in the castle like logs, provokes the prince to inexplicable rage. They fight secretly in bedchambers and closets over perceived slights accumulated through the day, the steward’s dark cheeks flushed bright and the furrow in his brow marking a permanent crease on his forehead. Each insult is worse for being flung in whispers. The frustrated prince breaks mirrors, shatters furniture. One day the steward is gone, having left the country on a boat in the dark of night, and the prince wonders if his lover knew the truth after all.
The king dies having never seen his son’s wedding. Neighbors refuse to trade with a cursed empire, and the citizens flee for less haunted lands. The kingdom falls into disrepair. The animals grow feral and weeds overcome the farms. The poisoned girls’ bedrooms molder though the occupants remain lovely in sleep. The prince stalks the lonely castle halls in outdated finery, opening and closing windows. He can no longer distinguish between one day and the next. But still the women come. Now they come without having heard of the prince at all. They come because they have heard that this is where women go when they are trapped, when their lives are aimless, when they want to disappear. They are old, poor, young, wealthy, beautiful, sad, fierce. They come in droves and crowd the dusty inns, the abandoned farms. They wait, patient and tireless. The prince does not turn them away. The prince understands traps, and the castle holds dozens of empty rooms. There are hundreds of spindles.
Frances Gonzalez is a Creative Writing MFA candidate at The New School in New York City. Previous publications include SmokeLong Quarterly and Stork. Check out her website, Tales of Pneuma, for more of her work.