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Elsa of Corona

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“‘Elsa is in no way intended to replace your lost Rapunzel,’ she says,” King Thomas of Corona struggled for air on the name of his daughter, the princess who had been stolen out of her cradle. She had been missing for so many years, but the loss was as fresh as that first morning when she was discovered gone.

Queen Primrose took the letter out of her husband’s hand before he crumpled it too much to read. The letter had arrived with the merchant ship from Arendelle. The little white-haired girl standing forlorn before them had arrived with the letter.

Primrose reread the handwriting of the Queen Genevieve of Arendelle, Thomas’s sister. The queen of Arendelle had written in a tidy, restrained hand. Primrose wondered how her sister-in-law had been able to keep her hand steady while writing such a ghastly letter.

To His Highness, King Thomas of Corona

My dear brother,

A time has come when I must call on you for the favor you once promised to me. I am sending you the princess, your goddaughter, my eldest child Elsa. I am sending her into your keeping, for the time being.

As you are bereft of your own daughter, I feel that she would be a comfort to you and Queen Primrose. She is a quiet and obedient girl. Elsa will benefit from time spent in Corona, learning of her cousin country. I recall our days as children, the excellent education we were given, and the happiness of Corona’s temperate climate. These will all be a great benefit to Elsa.

There was some small difficulty with Elsa and my younger child, Anna, this winter, and Marius and I feel that a separation of the sisters is the most sensible course for the well being of all.

Elsa is in no way intended to replace your lost Rapunzel. I pray your nightmare may pass and that may Rapunzel be returned to you soon.

With blessings,

Genevieve of Arendelle

Queen Primrose looked little Elsa over. It wasn’t enough comfort to the girl that the monarchs of Corona had received her in the cozier surroundings of the solarium, instead of the formal audience chamber. The poor child was a pale wisp, standing in the sunlight of the window with a look that said she would prefer the anonymity of shadows.

King Thomas pounded his fist on the carved arm of his chair with sudden, loud vigor. “Unconscionable!” he cursed.

Elsa’s bright blue eyes grew wide and she shrunk further into herself.

“How could they send a child on a sea voyage alone! And send her to foster here, with no warning!”

“Thomas, you’re scaring the girl,” Primrose scolded softly. She put the letter down on a table and moved toward the princess of Arendelle. “Elsa, child,” she said, reaching toward the princess. She stopped when Elsa stepped back to avoid being touched. “Oh.” She cast a look at her husband. He was fuming still, though silently now. Primrose felt some of the same anger that she imagined Thomas was feeling, but she saved it to vent later in privacy with her husband. “Elsa, why don’t you come with me? We’ll choose a room for you.”

She had never seen the child before today except in one of the paintings sent to hang in the castle’s halls. King Marius was fair with golden hair, but his eldest daughter’s hair and complexion were as white as new milk. As Primrose led the young princess toward the castle’s sleeping chambers, she sneaked glances at the girl.

The girl followed after Primrose down the corridor like a petite ghost. Elsa was nearly the same age as Rapunzel. The princess of Arendelle had been born the winter after the princess of Corona was abducted, only seven months after Rapunzel's first birthday. The birth of his niece had been a difficult visit to Arendelle for King Thomas. Primrose had remained behind in Corona, the sensible thing to do, so that one of them would be present if the searchers had found princess Rapunzel.

“Here, this one is not far from my own bedroom.” Primrose directed Elsa toward one of the rooms ever ready for guests. This one had a beautiful view of the calm bay and of morning sun, which Primrose thought might cheer the girl during her stay. “What do you think of it?” she asked.

Elsa glided through the doors. She stopped just past the doorway. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said in a wan voice.

“Are you sure you like this one?” Primrose nudged. “Do you want to see one or two more before you decide?”

“No thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Elsa. You may call me Aunt Primrose.”

The girl looked at Primrose with eyes that were piercing with sadness. “Thank you, Aunt Primrose,” she said. There was no warmth in her small voice.

Primrose refrained from shaking her head in dismay. “You must be quite tired, Elsa. We’ll have your luggage brought to your room later. Why don’t you rest until dinner is called? Is there anything you would like for now?”

Elsa looked around the room. Her gloved hands clasped together tightly. “I would like to write a letter for my sister,” she said, “before the ship leaves. May I have ink and paper?”

“Of course!” Primrose sighed inwardly. “You can write to your sister every week if you like. We have ships sailing north on a schedule.”

A glimmer of real gratitude brightened the girl’s eyes. “Thank you, Aunt Primrose.”

“Your welcome, Elsa,” Primrose replied in the gentlest of voice. “I do mean that. You are welcome here in Corona, in my home, with us.”

*

A little while after Queen Primrose left Elsa alone, one of the maids brought a box with writing materials to the room. The letter paper was Queen Primrose’s own, watermarked with the Corona sunburst. The ink was walnut brown. The quill was tipped with gold that nearly glowed.

Dear Anna, she wrote,

I have my own room here in Corona Castle. The King and Queen seem nice. I’m so glad to be off the ship! The rooms were tiny. Everything is so weird, here. It’s really bright. You would love it, wouldn’t you? You always like new things. I hope you can read this writing. I’m trying to make it very small because I don’t want to use up too much paper.

Write back to me before the ship leaves, promise? You can draw me a picture, too, but you have to practice writing. If you send me a letter, it will be almost as good as when we were sharing the same room. I’ll write you a letter every week so it will be just like you are here with me.

Elsa wrote as much as she could on one sheet, in her smallest writing, and sealed it with the smallest drip of sealing wax she could make. She pressed her own ring into the wax.

 

*

The King of Corona himself came to call her to dinner. He was her uncle by blood, but she didn’t know him at all. She was a little frightened of him. He had a full beard of dark hair.

His eyes were kind, though. They reminded her a little of her father’s eyes, even though her father had eyes like the water of the fjords when the sun shined through. King Thomas had mild blue eyes that looked at Elsa with something like the same expression. Her father was afraid of the magic getting out. She wondered what King Thomas was afraid of. The king and queen couldn’t know about her ice powers, otherwise they wouldn’t have been treating her so nicely, she imagined.

*

Elsa lay on her back with her eyes on the ceiling, but she wasn’t seeing the gilded sunburst painted there. The bed she lay on didn’t have a canopy over it to keep out the cold air at night. Elsa was picturing the canopy over her bed at home. She was missing her room and missing her sister, who until recently had shared a room with her. She wondered what Anna was doing and what she had had for dinner.

“Conceal…” Elsa reminded herself, aloud, quietly, “Don’t let them know.” She held her hands over her head. Her aunt and uncle had not made her remove her gloves at dinner. She was glad for that, but she wiggled her gloves off her fingers, now. Soon her hands were free of the stiff gloves. She held her arms over her head. Her hands looked really pale, she thought, in the moonlight that illuminated the room.

She still had to change into her nightgown, so she climbed down from the bed. She rubbed her bare feet into the coarse wool rug as she crossed. It was itchy and hard, not like the fluffy rug in her room back home. The sheep in Corona probably didn’t weren’t as fine as the sheep in her country. She guessed that they wouldn’t need the same thick, downy coats as the animals that lived in the colder north.

Servants had put away the possessions Elsa brought with her from Arendelle while Elsa had dinner with her aunt and uncle. She felt a little happy, not to have to live out of a trunk, the way it had to be during the sea voyage. All of her clothes were now hanging in the wardrobe or stored in the dresser of polished hardwood.

She picked a soft nightgown and pulled it on in exchange for her dress. The curtains on the window were open, but her window looked out on the placid bay. Elsa moved closer to the window and looked out at the sky. The moon was almost round and still cast bright light on the water. The position of the stars was a little different from home, but the moon shining in the night sky was the same moon that Anna would see if she looked out her window.

Elsa touched the glass of the window. It wasn’t cold until her finger touched it. Then a curl of frost formed on the glass. She pulled her touch away quickly.

Her father had said that it would be good for her to learn from Corona. She would be queen of Arendelle someday; the experience would help her to see Arendelle’s  place in the world. But Elsa knew that she had been sent away to protect her sister. She was even a little bit glad about that. Far away in another kingdom, there was no way she could make a mistake and hurt Anna again. Elsa had been so scared that morning when her magic could have killed Anna. She would go as far away as she had to, whatever it took to keep her out of harm’s way.

“Goodnight, Anna,” Elsa whispered to the moon. Her breath made more small whorls of frost on the window pane.

She ran to the bed and burrowed under the covers. It was nice to have the curtains open and let the light in.

*

Chapter Text

*

A maid screamed. Elsa came wide awake. She tried to hide under the covers. Sunlight was now pouring in through the open curtains, but it was refracted all over the room in broken rainbows.

Her bed now had a canopy of ice. She had made an ice canopy while she was dreaming.

“Oh no oh no oh no oh no…” she whispered under the covers. “No no no no please I didn’t mean it!” She closed her eyes and pressed her face into the blankets.

The frightened maid must have called the guards, because boots stomped into Elsa’s room, making crunching noise as they cracked the film of ice covering the floor. The sound of one pair of heavy shoes, running, stopped right beside her bed.

All at once she was lifted, blankets and all, and carried away in a rush. She heard her uncle’s voice booming above her head. His shout vibrated out of his chest and against her body. “Search the grounds! Find out who did this!”

Elsa held her breath, trying to keep the fear inside, but it started to creep out of her hands anyway. She hadn’t had time to grab her gloves from the table beside the bed. Ice started to form in the folds of the blankets. “Wait…” she tried to say, but was muffled against her uncle’s shoulder as he ran down the corridor.

Her aunt met them when they entered one of the rooms. The king eased Elsa gently into a large armchair by a fireplace. He ordered one of the servants to build up the fire.

Queen Primrose fussed over her. “You’re ice cold!” she exclaimed. “Thomas, what happened?”

“Her room was covered in ice,” King Thomas said all in one breath. “I’ve roused the guard.” Elsa peaked open an eye and saw her uncle shake his head as if he didn’t know what else to say.

The queen covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh, Thomas,” she whimpered. “This can’t be happening.”

“We will protect her, Primrose,” the king vowed.

The queen dashed tears from her eyes and went back to tending Elsa. She reached for Elsa’s hands to chafe them warm.

“No…” Elsa protested, pulling her hands close to her body. The ice was still flowing out of them even though she was trying with all of her might. It kept pushing to explode out. “I need my gloves,” she said.

“We need to get her warm,” said the king to the queen. He moved away to retrieve something from an adjacent room.

She saw walls of hanging clothes through the doorway. Elsa realized that she must be in their bedroom. The adjacent room was their closet.

The king came back with a sable fur cloak, which he placed over Elsa. The queen wrapped one side of it over Elsa’s head, bundling her in. Then she wrapped her arms around Elsa and held her tightly. After a moment, the king did the same. They embraced her together.

“We won’t let anything happen to you,” the king, her uncle, said.

Elsa heard her father’s voice sounding in her head, “Conceal, don’t feel. Conceal, don’t feel.” It started to speak in the same cadence as her heartbeat. But she was being held, held closely, and she wondered if the heartbeat she felt was her own, or if she was hearing the heartbeats of her uncle and aunt. She listened closely. The sound became a hypnotic beat. On the sea voyage, the waves had whispered against the hull with the same kind of steady rhythm. She knew that every wave put her ever further away from hurting Anna again.

The confession came out of her mouth unbidden. “It was me,” she said. They didn’t seem to hear her tiny voice. More loudly, she said, “The cold doesn’t bother me.”

Her uncle lifted his head.

“The cold doesn’t bother me,” Elsa repeated. “I’ll be alright.” The ice had stopped pushing. She actually did feel suddenly more calm.

The king and queen looked at each other with expressions of bewilderment. King Thomas stood up.

“I’d like to get dressed now,” Elsa requested. “I would like to go back to my room, if I may.” When Queen Primrose moved aside, Elsa unburied herself from the fur cloak and her blankets. The queen wrapped her again in just the cloak, for modesty, since Elsa was still in her sleeping gown.

One of the frazzled palace guards stopped at the room’s entrance. He spoke when the king motioned permission. In a voice ringing with surprise, he announced that the ice in Elsa’s bedroom had disappeared.

It was a few more minutes before they accepted that the perceived danger had passed. When they finally allowed Elsa to return to her room, Queen Primrose stayed with her while she washed up and dressed.

Elsa dressed slowly, thinking about her aunt and uncle’s reactions. Queen Primrose was clearly still anxious, and in a way very different from the worry that Elsa would see from her mother and father regarding her. Queen Primrose was alert for renewed trouble coming at Elsa, not coming from Elsa. Elsa thought that she should feel guilty for making them worried. She even considered trying again to tell her aunt the truth. But instead of feeling guilt, she felt something else. She thought it might be relief.

They didn’t know. She still had a chance to keep her powers secret.

She finished dressing, and then went with her aunt to breakfast, all the while thinking over what had happened.

*

“We don’t have a tutor for you yet, Elsa, child,” Queen Primrose said as the servants took away the breakfast dishes. “I hope that it won’t be boring for you to spend today with me.”

Elsa was happier with that idea than the prospect of being alone in the unfamiliar castle. She wasn’t sure how to respond, so she just said, “Thank you, Aunt Primrose.”

The queen smiled. Her gentle smile was a little sad, like a ray of sunlight fighting to break through gray clouds. She rose from her seat. “I like to take a walk after a meal,” she said.

Elsa perked up. “I do, too!” she answered.  At home in Arendelle, Elsa would go out to the gardens after breakfast, before her lessons, even on the coldest day of winter. She preferred it to being shut up indoor with her tutor droning away.

Elsa was pleased to discover that her aunt walked at a brisk pace but that it was still easy to  keep up with her. As they made their way toward the outdoors, Elsa thought about how Anna would love the shining hardwood banister of the grand staircase. She could picture Anna perilously sliding down the spiral. Anna would love everything about the castle’s airy, bright interior, except maybe the lack of weird stuff. There were no ancient suits of armor lined up along the hallway, for one thing.

On their way through the castle, the queen slowed only slightly when she gave instruction to various castle staff. She seemed to have something to say to everyone, a word of encouraging praise at the least, and she kept a world of information in her head. Elsa would have compared her to her own mother, but Elsa didn’t actually know how her mother spent her day. She didn’t get to accompany her, as she was doing now with her aunt.

Queen Primrose continued the athletic pace once they were outside. They walked through the ornamental gardens without lingering over the view. Elsa decided that she would have to come back later to get a better look at the flowering trees. There was no time to admire the bluebells. She had to walk quickly to keep up with her aunt’s purposeful stride. Her aunt seemed enthusiastic about getting exercise!

Elsa started cataloging everything that required a closer look. Castle Corona was a lot like Castle Arendelle in some ways, and it was a lot different at the same time. They stopped in at the dairy, where the milk maids made cheese and turned butter while the cows grazed out in the green pastures. The queen made an inspection of the hen house. Elsa noted that chickens in Corona were just as silly-headed as the chickens back home. Then they continued on to the stables.

At the view of a colt being exercised in one of the pens, Elsa slowed down so much that Queen Primrose had to double back for her. The queen stayed with Elsa and let her watch the playful young horse without hurrying the girl on.

The queen confided, “His name is Maximus. He’s small now, but he is going to grow into that name perfectly, I’ve been told.”

“I like him,” Elsa said.

“He comes from a sturdy bloodline. Maximus is being trained to serve in the royal guard.”

“Can I visit him, sometimes?” Elsa asked. She looked at the little gray and felt the universal floaty feeling that little girls inevitably have for horses.

“Yes, of course…” The queen paused in thought. “It might be a good idea to combine his lessons with yours. How well do you ride?”

Elsa didn’t know how to answer. She didn’t want her aunt to know that she didn’t know how to ride a horse. Back home, if they went somewhere, it was in a carriage. “Not very well,” she equivocated.

“Oh,” said the queen. “Well, we have an excellent riding master, here. We’ll get you in shape.” She smiled at Elsa, then tipped her head toward Maximus, who was running circles around his trainer. “We all have to start somewhere. Never be shy about learning. The only thing to be ashamed of is willful ignorance in the face of the opportunity to learn.” She stepped back from the railing around the horse pen. “Now, shall we continue on? We have a full day today, if we want to allow enough time for shopping this afternoon.”

“Shopping?” Elsa asked, bewildered.

“Well, yes. Even if you brought riding clothes with you, I suspect that they will be too warm for our climate. We need to have you measured for a new set, suitable shoes, a swimming suit,  and any other clothes you need. I’ve also scheduled some other merchants to present their wares -- study books and writing instruments -- I don’t mind you using mine, but you really need your own -- and of course, we will interview candidates to serve as your instructors…”

Primrose rattled on, enumerating the lessons that Elsa would be expected to take. Elsa listened in stunned silence. She was to have lessons in horsemanship, swords, swimming, archery, and cooking. She would have continuing instruction in weaving, embroidery, and other arts such as painting, music, and dance. There was something called “elocution.” Apparently, in Corona she would be expected to study all of the scholarly arts, from astronomy to calculus. Her mind boggled. How was she going to do it all?

As the busy day went on, Elsa’s energy flagged, but Queen Primrose bustled through it as if the level of activity was routine. Elsa started to suspect that it was the queen’s routine. The queen reviewed petitions from the townsfolk, passing them on to the king once she confirmed that they required his attention. She sat with various councelors and advisers to discuss domestic matters. She spent an hour in the kitchen, inventorying the pantry with Cook to make a list of imported stores that were running low.

Lunch was an informal affair at the home of a relative in the town, yet they were accompanied by half a dozen of the royal guard. Their procession through town created a flurry of interest. Casement windows opened and curious townsfolk peered out of doorways. Queen Primrose kept Elsa closely at her side; the queen affected a casual manner while being protective.

The guards remained outside the townhouse. The hostess, a grandmotherly woman, greeted Primrose without fanfare. The queen introduced Elsa as “the princess of Arendelle,” making Elsa feel that she had to be on her absolute best behavior.  She stayed quiet and listened to the older women chat about inconsequential things.

“And where is Gerta?” Primrose asked.

“Oh, here somewhere,” the woman answered lightly. “She’s usually playing in the garden with the neighbor boy, little Kay. They planted a rose bush together. It’s their daily joy to water it.” She turned to Elsa. “Do you enjoy flowers, my dear girl?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Elsa answered.

“I have some rare ones in my garden,” the woman replied. “If you care to visit again, I will introduce you to them. The curative properties of flowering plants outnumber the uses for their beauty. ”

“It’s a wise thing for a queen to know about the potential of flowers,” Queen Primrose said in a voice heavy with memory. “Especially the rare ones.”

*

By the end of the week, Elsa had a lot to write about to her sister. She was thrilled that Anna had answered her first letter. She didn’t open it until she could be alone in her room.  

She used to once in a while think it was cumbersome that Anna tagged around with her everywhere that Elsa went. Now Elsa had at least four palace guards as an entourage any time she left her room, unless she was with Aunt Primrose or Uncle Thomas. She had guards when she went left the castle and went into town, even when her aunt and uncle were with her. They were afraid that whoever caused the ice that first morning would come back for Elsa.

She thought about telling them the truth, but then imagined that those palace guard might stop being for her protection.

Anna had drawn her a picture and written their two names under the figures. In her labored handwriting, she wrote:

Elsa, I miss you so much! It’s sooooo boooooring here without you! No one knows how to build a snowman right and who cares if the snow is almost gone and I still didn’t get to build a snowman or anything. Hurry up and learn to be a queen and come back OK bye!!!

Elsa smiled while she sat at her desk and wrote out her letter on her new stationary.

Dear Anna,

I had the most amazing week. First of all, I am learning to ride horses. There is one very pretty one that I will be able to ride once he is a little bigger. He is white all over, with a grey nose and grey around his hooves. He loves apples. I have lessons every afternoon.

Here in Corona, they really like lessons! I have four different teachers, now. I’m learning interesting things, so I guess I don’t mind having so many. I made a vase out of clay, I learned how a loom works, and I’m learning to walk across a room with a book on my head.

She was about to continue writing about all the lessons, something she never guessed she would enjoy so much, when she felt the presence of someone standing next to her. She jumped, scooting her chair back and away.

“Hello,” the snowman said.

“No, no!” Elsa said in a weak voice. “You can’t be here!”

The funny-looking little snowman smiled at her with a crooked, friendly smile. “I’m Olaf. You made me.”

“I didn’t mean to!” She looked at the door with desperation, wondering if anyone could hear her. “You have to go away!” she ordered in a tense whisper.

“OK,” Olaf said. “But I can come back whenever you want.”

“No,” Elsa denied. She watched Olaf disperse into a snow flurry. She waved her hand at it and the swirling snowflakes disappeared.

“No,” she repeated, letting her breath out. “You can’t come back. You can’t.”

*

 

Chapter Text

 

The school work kept Elsa’s from thinking too much about Arendelle, at first. The excitement of her first time away from home kept her mind busy. Everything was unfamiliar in an interesting way. At the end of a day, she could fall asleep fast in her unfamiliar bed because she was tired out.

She wore her gloves to bed every night. She didn’t want to accidently allow the ice out again while sleeping. The stiff gloves felt weird with her nightgown, yet still comforting. Their leather smell was a little bit of home.

Then, after the first weeks, she couldn’t think about anything but Arendelle. She longed to be home. The unfamiliar in Corona Castle had started to become familiar, but she could only think about how much she missed her old room, the old suits of armor, the portrait covered walls, and the fountain in the courtyard. She ate meals comparing the food to food from home. She missed Anna terribly, and her father and her mother, and she read Anna’s weekly letters over and over. Elsa couldn’t stop herself from crying on her pillow every night when she tried to sleep.

Aunt Primrose called it “homesickness.” She found Elsa sitting at the window in her room after lessons and took her out onto the sunny balcony that had a wide view of the outdoors.

“My first time away from home was when I married your uncle,” she told Elsa. “Once the excitement of being a new bride calmed down, I was suddenly sad all the time, and I didn’t understand why. Nothing in Corona was quite right. I felt out of place, like a puzzle piece from the wrong picture. I thought I had made a terrible mistake.” She soothed Elsa with her calm, honest manner. “But it got better. With time.”

“Do you still miss your home?” Elsa asked.

Her aunt replied, “I miss my home country, at times, but Corona is my home now.” She moved her gaze out to the town below the castle.

“Arendelle will always be my home,” Elsa said.

“Yes it will. You will return to Arendelle. Your sister, however, may be like me, and want to marry someone who lives far away when she grows up.”

Elsa didn’t like the idea of Anna leaving Arendelle in the least, not even when they were both grown up. Maybe they would both have to marry princes, but not for a long time, and even then, they could all still live in Arendelle Castle. It was a big castle.

Aunt Primrose called her attention back. “Child, do you know what helps make homesickness go away? Making a place, here where you are, that fits you. It turns out that we’re not pieces of a puzzle. We’re people,” she said, leaning down to catch Elsa in a hug, “and people can fit around each other different shapes.” She gave Elsa a squeeze, then straightened back up.

Almost as if she could hear Elsa silently asking herself, How do I do that? Aunt Primose continued, “Mother Gartner sent an informal invitation for you to visit her flowers.” She took a folded note out of an inside pocket in her dress skirt. She handed the note to Elsa. “Perhaps you can spend some time with her. She is your blood relative, through your uncle, you know. She’s expecting you tomorrow afternoon.”

*

The queen of Corona lingered on the balcony after she let her ward return to her chosen solitude. Primrose wanted to make Elsa go out and play in the sun, or go and find some other children and make friends, but she gauged that she could not push her niece into it. Elsa was not, by nature, an excitable little girl. Her current situation made her further subdued. Primrose imagined that Elsa must feel, by being sent away, unwanted by her parents. It was a common feeling of children sent to foster with a relative, though some children embraced the change of families as an adventure.

Elsa didn’t seem to have the personality for adventure. Still, Primrose had been pleased to see how well the girl took to the physical challenges of some of her lessons. Elsa was as cute as a fairy in her swimming suit. She had already progressed past the foundation lessons of floating, and if she had been afraid of the pool water, she hadn’t betrayed herself.

Primrose approved heartily of exercise. If she herself didn’t partake of it regularly, she knew she would be plump. When a food craving overtook her, she couldn’t have any mental peace until she satisfied the craving. Exercise helped her, too, to deal with the other, constant craving: the desire to hold her child in her arms.

She knew that after all this time, Rapunzel wouldn’t be a baby anymore, but her sweet, golden-haired baby was the child she had known. She felt such an ache to hold her baby. She sometimes wondered if Rapunzel even still lived. In her times of despair, she dreaded that the bones of her child had become ingredients in the witch’s potions. Why else would Rapunzel have been stolen, except as revenge?

Mother Gartner had been the one to tell Thomas to look for the golden flower when Primrose had fallen deathly ill. Primrose had been too sick to be part of the decision uproot it and make a curative tea from the whole plant. She might not have tried, because the flower itself had the nature of forbidden sorcery. But Thomas -- Thomas never gave up on anything. He put aside the taboo against magic things to gamble for her life. She knew he still believed that their daughter lived and that they would find her, even though at the end of every day, when the searchers came back without news or leads, his heart broke all over again.

*

Elsa wore a silver and blue dress, laced up the bodice front with ribbons, when she answered the invitation. It was one of her new dresses. The cloth was shiny taffeta with pinstripes in the weave. The aqua blue ribbons were fuzzy velvet.  The maids who did her hair coaxed her into allowing some jeweled hairpins in the shape of tiny blue flowers. Six petaled, the jeweled pins twinkled in her white braid like sticky snowflakes.

It was not the custom in Corona for children to wear hats or bonnets. Walking through the town with only the shadows of her ever-present, tall palace guards for shade, Elsa wondered if she was getting freckles from the sun. The sun was very bright.

She wasn’t wearing her gloves, either. She couldn’t wear them with her fine, new dress. She couldn’t wear them most of the time. It was too warm in the castle, for one thing. Also, as soft and well-made as they were, they still restricted her dexterity too much. She couldn’t wear them and do handicrafts.

Instead, if she didn’t absolutely need her hands to be bare, she would sometimes wear light cotton gloves or lace ones. The lace suited her taffeta dress and gave her some of the protective comfort of her regular ones.

Mother Gartner greeted Elsa’s guards with chilled herbal tea, but she didn’t allow them inside her house or into the special flower garden. They took their stations outside the front door. She brought Elsa inside.

“Now let me introduce you to the flowers,” said the old woman. She led Elsa out a side door and around the house on a pretty path. Elsa’s slippers whispered over the moss and flagstone. The path continued through the garden, winding between the lush flower beds. Elsa expected lessons in gardening and and herbal lore, but  Mother Gartner left Elsa simply to wander among the flowering plants while Mother Gartner oversaw the makings of lunch.

Petals floated down from the blossoming trees. The petals were as white as snowflakes, and wistfully, Elsa thought about making snow flurries for her and Anna to play in. The breeze in the garden shook the petals loose. Elsa crouched down to smell star-shaped lilies that had just started to open. She slipped off her gloves, then stood up on her toes to try to touch the petals of a deep red camellia with her fingertips.

As she often did, she started composing a letter in her head. Dear Anna, I spent the afternoon today in the prettiest flower garden. I don’t know the names of most of the flowers yet. I’ll try to paint them in my next art lesson. Maybe Father and Mother will hang the painting in the gallery. Or at least in your room.

She was having such a lovely time in the garden that she didn’t notice the cold aura of her companion until he commented, “This place is so pretty. I could stay here for hours!”

“Olaf!” Elsa exclaimed.

“That’s my name,” the snowman said. He skipped in a circle around Elsa, taking in the sight of her. “What a pretty dress that is! Are you going to a party? Can I go, too?”

“No, I’m visiting Mother Gartner.”

“Who’s that?” asked Olaf.

“The lady who made this garden,” Elsa answered. “You have to go away,” she entreated.

Olaf peered at Elsa with a knowing look. “You don’t want me to go away,” he said. “I just got here.”

Elsa closed her eyes. “No, you really have to go,” she insisted. She felt the crystals of ice on the wind that swirled around her. She opened her eyes and stared down at her hands. She knew that making Olaf was wrong, but he felt like something from back home, and she was sorry that he was gone.

She started walking back toward the house when her path was suddenly blocked by a boy, who looked about her age, holding the hand of a girl to drag her along. He stopped abruptly and pointed out Elsa to the younger girl. They all stared at one another.

“It’s the queen of the snow bees,” said the boy. “Look, she’s all white.”

“But it’s not wintertime. It’s spring!” the girl argued. “She’d melt!”

Elsa bristled at being talked about as if she wasn’t right there in front of them. “I’m Elsa,” she announced, “Princess of Arendelle and a guest of Mother Gartner. Who might you be?”

The other girl answered first. “Oh, you’re the princess!” She dipped into a curtsey. “I’m Gerte. And this is Kay.”

Kay made an unpracticed bow to Elsa. “But what about the snow bees?” he complained. “I saw them buzzing around you.”

“I bet you just saw the apple petals falling,” Gerte answered pertly. “Right?” she asked Elsa.

Elsa was spared having to lie by the appearance of Mother Gartner at the window. She peeked out, disappeared back into the house, and then in a few moments was walking down the garden path toward the children. She wore a large sun hat decorated with mixed flowers. She carried a basket over her arm.

“Ah, there you are, Gerte,” she said when she walked up. “Hello, Kay. You’re welcome to join us all for a sweet.”

Gerte tugged on her playfellow’s sleeve. “Yes, stay,” she cajoled. “Don’t go back home just yet.”

Kay still stared at Elsa, though he acted as if he was doing so discreetly. “I’d be honored,” he said. His delivery was formal and awkward.

“Gerte,” the old woman instructed, “take Kay inside. Elsa, stay with me a moment more. I’m cutting some blooms for our table.” She shooed the other children up the path. She said to Elsa, “It’s early, yet, and many of the garden’s best flowers will not show their charms until a later season. Let’s see what we can observe, now, that is already blooming.”

Mother Gartner spoke in an airy way that implied that everything she said had another layer of meaning. Her pale blue eyes observed Elsa closely.

Elsa felt as if she was the garden, and the old gardener searched her for ready flowers. She folded her hands together and looked down at them.

Her hostess continued, “In tending a garden, the artistry is to know when to cut back and when to let a stem grow.” Unlike Aunt Primrose, Mother Gartner moved slowly when she walked. She strolled. “No amount of teaching can give anyone flawless knowledge. Even a lifetime of experience can still leave a body with the wrong answer. Elsa, you are family, so I will tell you a secret: we made a mistake in how we used the magic flower, all those years ago. We were afraid of losing Primrose. She was so very sick.” They had finally made their way down the garden to a bed of cheerful daffodils. Mother Gartner stooped over the cup-and-saucer flowers. “Making a tincture drew out all the healing power of the flower. It was very strong medicine. It saved her life, but in doing so, we destroyed the flower completely. We thought there was no time to study it. I think now, a few petals might have sufficed. I could have taken a cutting. We were too afraid.” She handed her flower basket for Elsa to hold. “We acted out of fear and paid a terrible price.”

Elsa found herself asking, “What happened?”

“Don’t you know the story of the lost princess?” Mother Gartner asked. Gently, she began cutting daffodil stems. She placed each flower in the basket with care. “She is your cousin, Rapunzel.”

“Please tell me,” Elsa asked. “All I know is that she was stolen away.”

“Your parents must not have wanted to frighten you with stories of dark magic,” said Mother Gartner. “Of sorcery and witches.”

Elsa shook her head softly. Her parents would not have brought up the subject of sorcery. They didn’t talk about her ice powers. It wasn’t sorcery, she told herself. Her father almost talked with her about it, after she hurt Anna, but he didn’t call it sorcery. It was her “little problem”.

“We all knew that the princess was something special. Her hair grew out as golden as the sunshine. She was the embodiment of Corona. Princess Rapunzel was stolen away by a witch, taken right out of her cradle, from the palace. No one saw an intruder. No one heard a sound. It was dark magic.”

“Dark magic,” Elsa repeated, feeling light-headed.

“Yes, dark magic,” Mother Gartner stressed as she took the flower basket back from Elsa. “Not all magic is used for harm.” Again, she pierced Elsa with a look. “The golden flower was light magic. A person who knows how to conjure can use that ability for good, too.”

Elsa stared back at the old woman. Did she know? How could she know?

“As I was saying about flowers,” Mother Gartner was back to her mild personality. “Caring for a garden isn’t about rules and expectations. Living things aren’t orderly. To tend a garden well -- or to rule a kingdom justly -- love is necessary. Love guides the learning.”

She started her slow way back toward the house. “Now, shall we go inside and enjoy a snack? I have a box of Turkish delight to share.”

*

 

Chapter Text

Dear Anna!

It feels like summertime already. If it gets any hotter, I think I might melt. Just kidding. I still feel a little embarrassed when wearing my swimming-suit, but now that it is warm enough to swim outdoors, the water is really nice. Even our uncle and aunt like to take a dip. We all go together, along with some of the other children whom I’ve been getting to know. My guards joke about going swimming with me now that it’s so hot in the afternoons. I think that would be really funny.

They are pretty nice. I think I know all of them, now, because they’ve all taken turns being part of the squad that guards me. It’s still strange to have bodyguards all the time. I never see anything bad happen, like thieves or, I don’t know, highwaymen? Maybe the bad people stay hiding out in the forest, where I’m not allowed to go. I saw a fight in the marketplace but it stopped as soon as the boys fighting saw the palace guards. All the people in town have work and school. It’s almost as nice as Arendelle. So I guess Aunt and Uncle are as good at ruling as Poppa and Mamma.

Everyone is getting ready for the big festival of Corona. It’s called the lantern festival. Next month the lanterns get lighted at night, and they fly up into the sky. There will be a big celebration with music, dancing, and special food, I am told.

I wish you could be here with me to see it. I miss you all the time. I miss everyone.

If you were here, I would show you how big Maximus is now! I feel so high up when I ride him. I want to keep riding Maximus, and since he needs to be trained to have his rider fighting with a sword, I am going to learn to use a saber. I will have to ask for lessons.

*

Little Anna rolled over on her back in the soft grass. She took Elsa’s latest letter out of her pocket and read it again. “I want to go to a lantern festival,” she told the sky. There was a cloud in the blue above that looked kind of like a boat. She wished it was a magic boat that she could take to Corona to go play with Elsa.

She sat up and looked around. Castle staff passed to and fro along the paths of the garden. Butterflies flittered to and fro among the flowers in the garden. Anna jumped up and ran after the butterflies until they flew too high up. “No fair!” she yelled after them.

Anna went back to her swing and pushed off, kicking her short legs back and forth to get as high as she could. The sky became closer each time, but she still couldn’t reach the cloud. She started to feel dizzy, and she started laughing, but she stopped kicking and the swing eventually slowed down. She jumped off while it was still moving.

“Ha!” she said, after landing on the grass without falling. She straightened up from her crouch and dashed away into the trees.

On her way, she picked up a stick and started swinging it back and forth. It was her sword, she pretended. She was going to fight with a sword just like Elsa. She yelled and yelped, swinging and slashing, while she ran all the way back around toward the ice storage house and kitchens.

When a boy her age came up the path, Anna jumped in front of him and brandished her sword. “Halt in the name of the King!” she shouted. “You’re under arrest!”

The blond boy’s eyes grew big. He hugged the small reindeer that was towing a sled behind him. “We didn’t do anything wrong!” he answered Anna.

“State your name!” she commanded.

They boy jumped back from the stick poking the front his shirt. “Kristoff and Sven!”

“I have to lock you up in the dungeons,” Anna declared.

He had a conference with the reindeer. “I know, Sven. But she’s the princess. We have to do what she says. Oh, you’re right.” He made an awkward bow to Anna. The reindeer calf lowered his head in a similar bow.

Anna pointed her stick at the reindeer, then again at the boy. She skipped around him and pointed her stick at his back. “To the dungeon, prisoner!”

Little Kristoff marched up the path. When they came to a spot where he path split, he stopped. “Which way do I go,” he asked, “um, Your Highness?”

Looking around for a suitable dungeon, Anna pointed to the gazebo. “That way,” she indicated.

The gazebo was farther away than Anna had realized, and she was starting to want something to eat. She started thinking about whether cook might give her a pastry or an almond cookie. And now the kitchen was in the opposite direction from where she was taking her prisoner. She looked over her shoulder at the long distance she would have to go back and exhaled a melodramatic sigh.

“Isn’t it weird for a princess to take prisoners?” Kristoff asked.

“I’m a princess guard!” Anna answered. She needed a horse, she thought. She wondered a reindeer would be fun to ride. “Can I ride on your reindeer?” she asked.

“Sven is too little to ride,” Kristoff replied. “He would have to be big like Bae, his Poppa.”

“Can I ride on your sled?”

“It’s for ice,” the boy said.

“There’s no ice on it right now,” Anna pointed out. She started using her stick to poke at things on the ground, forgetting that it was her sword. “Aaaand if you give me a ride on your sled,” she wheedled, “I’ll give you something!”

“Carrots?” he asked. Even Sven looked hopeful at the suggestion.

Anna laughed. Getting carrots would be easier than two cookies. “Maaaaaybeee…” she teased. “I know! I’ll race you. Winner gets the prize!” she yelled, already dashing away.

“Come on, Sven!” Kristoff shouted. They chased after Princess Anna.

Anna was fast, but even with the sled bouncing on the path behind them, Sven and Kristoff caught up to her before the herb garden came into view. Little Anna glanced back over her shoulder, giggled wildly, and tried to speed up down the slope heading toward the kitchen. The ribbons on her strawberry blonde braids streamed behind her.

She didn’t see the slippery spot on the ground. Running, she planted a foot in the mud. Her forward motion flung her sprawling onto her face.

Slowly, Anna rolled over and sat up. Her cheeks and chin were scratched and covered in dirt. The front of her dress was filthy. One of her scraped knees was bleeding. She started to cry, first in hitching sniffles, then with sobs.

Kristoff offered his hand to help her up. “That looks like it hurts a lot,” he said.

Nodding, Anna let him help her to her feet. Kristoff led her to his sled, to sit on instead of the ground. “I have an idea,” he said suddenly.

He ran off toward the storage house where the palace kept a wealth of ice brought down from the mountains. Kristoff’s father used to be one of the ice harvesters, and the other ice cutters still let little Kristoff go out with them. When he was bigger, he would be able to harvest enough ice so that he and his mother wouldn’t be poor, as they had been since his father went away to heaven. They wouldn’t have to eat dried codfish all the time. Bae and Sven could have carrots every day.

Kristoff returned to Anna with some ice chipped off a small block he himself had cut. It was already melting when he carefully touched it to her scraped knee. “Is that better?” he asked her.

Her face messy with dirt and streaked with tears, Anna smiled.

*

 

 

 

Chapter Text

At least once each week, she went with Queen Primrose to Mother Gartner’s verdant home to have tea. When they arrived, the neighbor boy Kay was always watching for them from a window of his house. He would waive to catch Elsa’s attention but dash away if anyone else noticed. The older women assumed that Gerte and Elsa would become friends and treated them accordingly. Kay was so often around that the three children became playfellows.

In the month of the lantern festival, Corona bustled. The townspeople industriously stockpiled special wares to sell on festival day. Gerte and Kay were put to the same task as every other available hand: shaping and painting the paper lanterns that would be released by the hundreds on the evening Rapunzel’s birthday. Elsa made a dozen of them herself, but as a princess and guest of Corona, she was free to use her time as she desired. Her tutors suspended lessons during festival week; she spent a lot of her time exploring the town, observing the preparations until she became tired of the crowds and retreated to one of the quieter areas of Corona Castle.

The snowman, Olaf, kept showing up when she was alone. Everything would be fine, and she would be feeling happy, and then -- poof -- Olaf would exist. She liked Olaf. Sometimes she wanted to let him stay. But in the end, he had to go. Like all of her ice powers, he had to stay hidden.

Aunt Primrose was right; it did become easier. She still missed Arendelle, but Corona had started to become fun.

For one thing, the palace guards that went with her everywhere were nice. They weren’t always the same four. Depending on the time of day, her personal guard might be any combination drawn from the regiment. As time went on with no new instances of threat, the guards relaxed. They became more casual with her. She was, to them, less the foreign princess and more like a little sister.

In the beginning, the guards assigned to her had been exemplary in their vigilance. Elsa felt weird about having their constant company, but she stayed within sight at all times and made it easy for them. Little by little, they became used to the easy assignment. She didn’t always have the same guards. It took a few weeks before all combinations exhibited the same relaxed manner. They were friendly enough with her, but she was just a little girl, and not a very interesting one, since she never made any trouble.

Today, she had noticed that none of them were paying any attention to her at all. Which was just how she liked it, but it made her wonder: what would happen if she went out of view?

It was like something her sister would do. One minute, little Anna would be playing in the curtains, and the next minute, she would have vanished from the room completely, somehow having snuck away. It gave the maids fits.

Elsa casually walked toward the shade. She turned the corner, expecting to hear the sound of the guards running to keep her in sight, but when she stopped and checked, none of them had moved.

Appearing suddenly, the way he always did, Olaf asked Elsa, “Do you think they’ve noticed yet?”

“Shhh!” Elsa scolded. “I’m testing how long I can be gone.” She peaked around the corner of the wall. The four guards continued to be distracted. Nils, Karl, and Wendel talked among themselves, and Ambros was lost in thought at the view of the harbor ships.

“They’re not paying any attention,” Olaf whispered.

Elsa pulled back and turned toward the little snowman. There wasn’t much shade from the sun on this side of the wall, and the snowman was already shiny from melting ice crystals. Elsa felt a wayward pang of homesickness for Arendelle’s snowcapped horizon. “You’re going to melt,” she said to him. “It’s too sunny outside.”

Olaf giggled. “What? Naw, not with you here!” He didn’t seem concerned that he was dripping melt water on the paving stones. “You’ll fix me right up,” he said with a grin.

Elsa clasped her hands together. It was too hot to wear even the little lace gloves anymore, and her hands were bare. “I don’t think… I mean, I think I can’t.”

“You should think you can, instead. It will be a lot easier to do it if you do.”

Biting her lip, Elsa took a long look at Olaf. Melt water dripped like perspiration from his bare forehead. He had eyes and a mouth like a real person, but no nose. He was just the snow parts of a snowman, without arms or decoration. He was a person made of snow, and Elsa had learned that she could make him go away, turning him back into snowflakes with her power, yet whenever he came back he was freshly frozen again.

She lifted her hand. She willed him to go away. He turned into a flurry, then disappeared. Not even a trace of dripping showed on the paving.

She peered around the edge of the wall again and saw that her guards were still unconcerned and unaware of her absence. She sprinted across the courtyard, squeezed through the tight space between tree trunks in the cypress border, and continued running down the path that led into the apple orchard. The leafy trees no longer had blossoms and didn’t yet have ready fruit. Everyone would be in the apricot orchard near the stables, picking ripe apricots as golden as Corona’s emblem to turn into filling for buttery tarts.

She walked around collecting twigs, palm sized stones from a pebble border, and two skinny branches shed from the trees that would work for arms. Once she was certain that she was alone, she piled them up and stepped back. “Come on, Olaf,” she whispered, deliberately willing the snowman into being for the first time.

“Alright! Arms!” he exclaimed.

“Hush! Someone might hear you!” Elsa worried.

Olaf wiggled his new eyebrows and used his new stick arms to feel the twigs that made up “hair” on the top of his head. “Hey, buttons!” He hissed in a stage whisper as he touched the stones running down his front. “I guess I’m wearing clothes, now. I never knew I was naked,” he mused. “This is the best day, ever. Now I’m perfect!”

“Not quite,” Elsa judged. If only she had a carrot, she thought. “And you’re still melting. It’s nearly summer, Olaf.” She reached out toward him, and a little flurry of cold came out of her fingertips. It wrapped around the snowman and froze him back up.

Olaf inhaled loudly. “Ah! That’s refreshing.”

“You need a nose,” Elsa stated. “I have an idea.”

“You have good ideas.”

The stone birdbath was clean and recently filled. Elsa pushed aside a few leaves and dipped her hands in. She scooped up water in her cupped hands.

Olaf peered at her activity with deep interest. He leaned his face in close to her hands to watch. His mouth hung open with ongoing awe.

With care, Elsa let the water pour out from between her hands in a narrow stream that became a thick icicle as it fell. The frozen water formed an almost conical shape. It was pointed at the tip and wider at the base, a little lumpy and twisted.

“Wow, that’s beautiful,” Olaf exhaled. “What is it?”

“It’s your nose, silly,” Elsa laughed. His eyes crossed as she pressed it into the middle of his face. “There.”

“Wow,” Olaf repeated. “I love it.” He looked up at Elsa with melt water forming under his eyes. “You’re wonderful, Elsa. There is no one in this world like you.”

“Thank you, Olaf,” Elsa replied. “There’s no one like you, either.”

“I know. Isn’t that great? I’ve got an idea! Let’s go show Maximus my new look!”

“He wouldn’t know your new look from your old look. He’s never seen you before,” Elsa said. Still, she liked the idea of visiting the young horse. She had not been able to ride him every day, because he was being specially trained to tolerate crowds and other horses in close quarters. All of the senior horses were having a refresher course for the festival.

“I’d love to meet him.” Olaf jigged away. He pantomimed sneaking. “Let’s go.”

For the moment, Elsa forgot to worry about Olaf being seen or her guards looking for her. Caught up in the fun, she cut through the orchard with a dancing step. Olaf followed. The stables were not far from orchards. She was thinking about braiding flowers into Maximus’ mane for the festival when a shout made her stop cold.

“Thief!” the voice bellowed again. She recognized the voice as one of the palace guards, though not one of the four in her entourage today. The voice echoed from the other side of the stable block and was coming closer. “Stop, boy!”

An apricot fell from the sky and made Elsa look up. Tracking back to where it had bounced off the stable roof, she saw that a boy of eleven or twelve years scrambled over the precarious footing. One arm kept his balance; the other arm held a lumpy bundle against his chest. He leapt from the edge of the roof to the orchard’s stone wall.

He must not have seen Elsa. She hastily jumped out of the way before he bounded off the top of the wall directly onto her. He spared her only a glance before he was back on his feet and running again.

“Uh-oh,” Olaf commented.

With a quick gesture, she made Olaf vanish. She took off running after the mysterious boy, all the while hearing the yells of the palace guards catching up. With a hard sprint, she caught up to the boy first. He was heading in a direction without a way out. “No, this way,” she gasped,  pointing.

The boy disregarded her and kept going in the direction he had chosen. In spite of the fitness she had acquired from her athletic lessons, she had a smaller stride, less stamina, and struggled to keep up. She caught up to him again when he had to stop at the wall. It was high on this side. He couldn’t get a foothold on the smooth stone face and couldn’t pull himself up with one hand.

“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” Elsa called to him, gasping. “Go this way. There’s a storage house where you can hide.”

“No way. That way goes right to the castle,” he argued. He eyed the tree closest to the wall. Elsa wondered if he thought he could climb it and jump the fifteen feet across to the top of the wall. Apparently, he came to the same conclusion that she did. Instead, he started running again, this time in the direction Elsa had indicated.

The palace guards were close enough now to see the boy through the trees, and they were running in his direction. With their long adult legs, they would certainly catch him, now. Unless he had some help, Elsa thought. She cringed, at odds with herself even as crouched to touch her hand to the ground. She froze a patch of dirt in the guards’ path with a coating of clear ice. The guard in the lead slipped on it. The two guards directly behind him collided with him and each other. While they were distracted, she made her way behind them and hurried back toward the castle.

She saw no sign of the boy, by the storage sheds or anywhere else. She was still looking for him when she almost ran into Ambros.

“Princess Elsa!” he exclaimed. “Your highness.” He seemed relieved to have found her. “May I escort you?”

Elsa considered that her guards could find themselves in deep trouble if the guard captain discovered that she had not had their protection for a single minute. She let the guardsman lead her to rejoin the other guards.

To her dismay, the last of the group was busy trying to hold a struggling boy. “Look what I found instead,” the guard called out to his fellows. “Looks like we have a thief.”

The boy, still trying to break free, exchanged eye contact with Elsa. He had a desperate and frightened look. “He’s not a thief!” Elsa lied. “Please let him go, Nils.” She forced herself not to squirm under the questioning looks of her guards. “I…” she started. “I gave the apricots to him!” The guards exchanged looks of confusion. Elsa continued, “I told him to pick some for me, and he could have the rest.”

“Princess Elsa…” Karl started, clearly uncomfortable questioning her statement.

“Please,” Elsa asked again, holding herself like a queen.

Nils released his hold on the boy. The boy took and emboldened posture in spite of his tattered appearance. He was scruffy, but clean. His hair was roughly cut and long, and his clothes were patched and pale from many washings. Yet his brown eyes were bright with intelligence, his skin complexion was good, and he while he was skinny, he didn’t look starved.

Elsa stepped closer to him, feeling bold, herself. “Well,” she said, “you may go now.”

The boy made a sudden, gallant bow to her, holding the stolen apricots stuffing his shirt to keep them from rolling out. With a grin he took one final look at the four palace guards. Then he took off running, out to the lane that led back toward the town.

*

After Wendel finished given his report, the king of Corona dismissed him from the room with a wordless wave. The abashed guardsman bowed and left the room. King Thomas turned to his queen. “What are you thinking, Primrose?”

Queen Primrose sighed. “What’s done is done, I suppose,” she answered. “I suspect that the boy is one of the spirited ones at the orphanage. If he is not old enough yet to be placed in a trade, I’ll see that the director finds a better outlet for the boy’s energy.”

“But why, do you imagine,” Thomas questioned, “did she protect the rascal? Allow him to run off?”

“I’m trying to understand how our finely trained guards failed to catch an eleven year old orphan boy,” Primrose commented. “The inexplicable clumsiness that had them tripping over nothing but their own feet. Maybe Elsa wasn’t the only one feeling peculiar sympathy, today.”

Thomas leaned back in his chair. “Indeed,” he huffed. “We may have inspired a softness toward children.”

“The guards are fond of Elsa, aren’t they?” Primrose agreed.

“Hmm. Is that seemly?” He considered. “I admit, I like the assurance of our niece being well protected, but I wonder is she should not have a governess instead of a troop of young men hovering around her.”

“Well, when you put it that way!” Primrose laughed. She caught her breath at a sudden thought. “Oh, Thomas! Could Elsa have helped that boy because he is… a boy?”

“So young?” asked Thomas, astonished.

Primrose shrugged. “How young is too young to take a fancy? She will have a more serious interest in boys eventually.”

King Thomas began shook his head slowly. “I won’t hear the end of it from my sister if I let Elsa make an unsuitable match,” he chortled. “I guess this means we need to think about finding her a prince. A duke, at the least.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Wesselton? He has sons, as I recall, and the union would fortify Arendelle’s trade routes.”

“Oh, not that old chicken,” Queen Primrose objected. “He’s looking for any foot in the door. He’d benefit far more than Arendelle.”  She mused, “How about Southern Isles?

"They are too old," Thomas dismissed.

"There are thirteen of them," countered Primrose. "The youngest is just her age."

"We wouldn't want the youngest. He has no prospects at all. What would Elsa do with a lad like that?" He jumped up out of his chair, pacing. "The advantage would all be his, marrying a queen!"

"Thomas..." Primrose used her voice to sooth his protective agitation. "Elsa won't be queen any time soon, God willing."

*

 

Chapter Text

In a splattered smock, Elsa brushed plain white paint over an ugly still life of fruit. The still life painting, a work of her tutor’s former student, would be Elsa’s canvas once she covered up the earlier image. In a corner of the room, her first oil painting -- also a still life of fruit -- awaited the same fate.

She was alone in the sunny room that smelled of spirits and oil. Officially, she did not have lessons for another full day. Her painting master had his hands full with the last touches on festival events.

The white paint was nearly out once she had used most of the supply to coat the canvas. She couldn’t work on it for several days while it dried, and while she didn’t hate her painting lessons, she was happy for the extension the wait would put on her lesson break. Painting just wasn’t her interest. She was much more interested in architecture, even though it also required a foundation in drawing. She loved to imagine building grand edifices with winding staircases, vaulted ceilings, and shining towers that scraped the sky.

She cleaned up her tools and hung up her smock. It was possible that the apothecary might be in his shop. She would go into town, she decided, and order more pigment.

Leaving the castle meant finding her aunt or uncle and receiving permission. At breakfast time, they were already embroiled in a full schedule, so they didn’t sit for long.  Elsa wasn’t sure that she would be allowed to go out without an escort, but none of the palace guards were free from other duties to make up her usual entourage. Festivities were already ongoing in the town, and all the guards were needed among the crowds.

She thought over an argument to convince her aunt and uncle that she would be safely watched anyway. She readied her confidence as she walked through Corona Castle in search of the king or queen. It didn’t take long to find them, but they were rushing in separate directions, and Elsa had to decide whom to petition. Queen Primrose seemed very busy, so Elsa ran after the king instead.

He saw her and waited for her to catch up to him. To Elsa, it seemed that his pensive frown lightened as she approached.

“Uncle Thomas,” she greeted, catching her breath with a large inhalation and matching pace when he moved on. “How are you?”

“As busy as I can make myself,” the king replied. “It’s a difficult day,” he confessed. “Did you want to keep me company? I will be reviewing matters of the kingdom. Dull stuff, but has to be done.”

“I was hoping to go into town. May I?” Elsa asked. She hurried on before his answer. “Guards will be on duty at every corner. I will be better guarded than ever, in the marketplace.”

King Thomas continued walking but gave her a long look. “I suspect that’s true,” he answered. “Judging from yesterday.” He turned away again in thought. They were about to pass a family portrait in the corridor when he stopped. “Elsa, your aunt and I still have concern about the sorcery that attacked when you first arrived. We need to feel that you are safe here.” He turned his gaze from the portrait with a great, sad sigh. “It may be that  Corona will never feel safe enough to us, considering…” He didn’t finish the thought. “However. For today.” He paused. “Stay in public areas within calling distance of the guard. Greet them when you see them and when you leave an area. Stay within the walls, of course, and return to the castle before twilight.”

“Thank you, Uncle,” said Elsa. To keep her face serious and attentive, she fought back a wide smile.

“Enjoy the festival,” he said, looking slightly nervous. “I trust you to be careful.”

“I’ll be careful,” she said. She had the impulse to hug her uncle, so she did, even though on her tip toes she could barely reach his wide waist, and her face squashed against his coat at the hip. He leaned over at the awkward angle and gave her a befuddled squeeze back.

Elsa let herself smile as she walked away. It made her happy to be trusted. She hadn’t been bothered by her ice powers going out of control in the longest time. Hadn’t she used her powers just a little yesterday, without getting into trouble? The leader of the trolls had said that her power was strong, but she felt stronger.

More importantly, she was free to do what she wanted, all day, with no lessons or studying!

She hopped down the stairs, wending between visitors touring the castle, and made her way out the front doors. She slowed a moment to view the harbor. Below, ships of all sizes filled the seafront. The port was filled with guests from other countries. There was even a ship with visitors from Arendelle, though not Elsa’s family. She could have been careful with Anna for one day, she thought. It would have been nice to see her mother and father.

She hurried on. She would send something back from the festival for Anna, she decided. She could look for something good for Anna on her way to get paint pigments.

*

Elsa waved goodbye to the guard before she left the square. He could not waive back while on duty, of course, but she saw him nod in acknowledgment. A day ago, she would have also gotten a smile. The guards exhibited formality today that made her sure that they had all been reprimanded in response to her personal set of four following her order to let the thief boy go. She was still glad she had done it. He had only been stealing food that the castle had in abundance.

Not that she had thought it through. It just seemed like the right thing at the time, to side with a boy against the adults. She and Anna always covered for each other. Sometimes, they even got away with it.

The apothecary’s adult son was tending his old father’s shop, but he had nothing to sell to Elsa. “I’m sorry, Your Highness,” he apologized. “We always use a lot of paint at this time of year. This morning I sold the last lead white and cadmium yellow pigment I had to a woman who would not take no for an answer.” Under his breath, as if Elsa wouldn’t hear, he added, “And not only about paint!”

“When will you have more?” Elsa asked. If it was too long, her painting master might send a courier to a neighboring kingdom for it. Still, the nearest kingdom was two days away for a rider, which meant she could still have a four day break from painting.

“A ship will be in in a day or two. I’ll make an order to have the pigments and delivered to the castle as soon as we have them ready.”

“That will be fine,” said Elsa. She decided that she was happy with how her errand had worked out and left the shop satisfied.

The lantern festival drew visitors from far and wide. Farmers shared wagons and filled them with their whole families, from babes-in-arms to toothless grannies. Other, fancier wagons belonged to traveling performers. Elsa watched three different magic shows, listened to a storyteller, and briefly was caught up in a circle dance, but she escaped. She wove through the crowds and bought marvels from the street vendors.

The basket she had on her arm was already stuffed with presents for Anna. Anna was going to love the shadow puppets, cut out of stiff paper glued to sticks, and the tiny dolls made out of dyed string. She even had a lantern to send to her. It wouldn’t fly up in the colder air of their kingdom, but Anna could hang it in her room. Elsa also planned to decorate some with the Arendelle crocus, send one to Anna, and launch one herself.

As she made her way toward a vendor hawking flower crowns, she saw someone whom she was sure was the boy from yesterday. She veered around a cluster of laughing children for a better look, ignoring the children’s calls out to her to join them in their game. She saw the boy slip around a stall, toward an alley of the market that was out of the line of sight of the guard in this area. Elsa was tempted, but her conscience got the better of her, and she remained within the guard’s view and shopped the stalls.

Some time later, as she was on her way back to the castle, she was surprised by a ring of flowers and ribbons dropped on her head. Startled, she looked up to see the thief boy crouched on top of a wall, from which he must have dropped the flower crown on her.

“That’s a thank you,” he said, “for your help.” He looked around, though he must have already known that no guards were witnessing the scene. With a practiced motion, he dropped from the wall to the ground. “You’re the borrowed princess, aren’t you,” he asked.

“I’m Elsa," she answered. "What’s your name?”

The boy made another swooping bow, as he had done the day prior, before running off. “My friends call me Flynn Rider,” he said, taking casual pose with his back against the wall.

Elsa took the flower circlet off and saw that it was the same as the ones she had seen being sold. “You stole this, didn’t you?” she accused.

“It’s a gift for you!” Flynn protested. “Don’t ask where a gift comes from. Just enjoy it.”

“How can I enjoy it if someone else gets hurt?” Elsa argued.

“Well, you can’t give it back,” Flynn said.

Elsa stared at the floral crown and frowned. She put her arms out straight,  pushing the crown into his chest, so he had to take it or let it fall to the ground. “You can give it to someone else. Someone else, at the orphanage,” she said.

Flynn gave her a look of speculation. “Who told you about the orphanage?” he asked.

“I was told that you were an orphan,” Elsa answered without answering. Queen Primrose had told her. Children who had lost their parents lived in a communal house that was also their school, where they learned to read and write, do arithmetic, cook, and farm. When the orphans became old enough, they were placed into apprenticeships. Queen Primrose had said that when children had such a great misfortune, it was the responsibility of the crown to provide for its youngest subjects.

“I’ve got to go,” Flynn said. He leaped back up to the wall. “I’m not at the orphanage anymore,” he said down to Elsa. “No right, no wrong, rules for me.” Standing on the wall, he leaned over and dropped the flower crown back on Elsa’s head. He ran along the length of the wall, then went over the other side and out of sight.

*

In the late afternoon, Elsa started writing a letter to her father. She set it aside, after all, deciding to wait until after the lanterns were lighted, so that she could tell him about the celebration. With the time on her hands, she did a bit of sketching. She even tried to draw a picture of Flynn Rider, but she gave up when his nose kept looking weird.

She had given the flower crown to Cook, who had blustered about it wilting in the kitchen’s heat even while she was smuggling it into the cool root cellar. The ample woman had been pleased, even if she had been embarrassed to show it.

Elsa had a new dress to wear to dinner. It was a glacial green, with a light blue cape for the cooler night, though to Elsa the night still seemed very warm. The dress was long enough to drag when she walked if she didn’t pinch the skirt with her fingertips to lift it off the ground.

Musicians played during dinner, which was a blessing, because neither King Thomas nor Queen Primrose were in their usual spirits. They didn’t say more than a few words over the courses of fine food. Near the end of dinner, the king grumbled an apology to Elsa.

“We keep busy on Rapunzel’s birthday,” he said. “We haven’t meant to overlook you, but keeping occupied -- well, today my thoughts are with my daughter, and I can think of nothing else but the wish to bring her home. All our agents report in this day.” He released a deflating sigh.

“But the last hour before we light the lanterns,” Queen Primrose said, “we are left with our thoughts.”

“And our hope,” Thomas added, though he did not say it with the uplifted tones of optimism.

Primrose agreed. “And our hope, most of all.” She took a slow sip from her wine glass. “We do tend to get lost in our thoughts.”

Elsa gave her aunt and uncle an encouraging smile. They did not seem to see it. Her aunt’s eyes were down-turned, and her uncle’s vacant gaze lay on the performing musicians. The remainder of the meal finished in silence, and then the time came for the ceremony of lanterns to begin.

The king and queen of Corona walked out onto the wide balcony of the castle. A servant waited with a single lantern, which he lit and handed into the monarchs’ hands. Thomas and Primrose walked together, their fingertips on the lantern together, and softly released it over the balcony edge. On its little current of flame-warmed air, the glowing lantern rose. A whisper of a breeze carried it over the town, toward the sky over the bay.

A crowd of lanterns, released by other castle staff from the courtyards, followed immediately after the single lantern. In time with these lanterns, the townspeople and visitors of Corona sent their glowing lights into the sky. Wave after wave of paper lanterns drifted upward. They traveled across the dark mirror of the bay, and the water reflected the lights like a dream of stars.

*

In the dark forest beyond Corona, in a tall tower hidden from the world, a little girl leaned on her windowsill and watched glowing lights rise up on the horizon. She had no answer to the riddle of the lights. Someday, she decided that moment, she would find out. When she was grown up like Mother, maybe the world wouldn’t be so dangerous for her, and they could go out together. After all, Mother left the tower all the time. Mother was hardly ever home at all, anymore.

“Come away from the window, Rapunzel. You’ll catch a cold,” Mother Gothel chided.

“If I do, we can sing the song and brush my hair, and I’ll be all better,” Rapunzel answered.

“Mosquitos will bite you all over your face, and you’ll have ugly bumps for the rest of your life,” said Mother Gothel in a harder tone. “Come here when I call you. Don’t make me ask again.” She leaned back against the padded armchair. “Ugh! You make me so tired.”

In truth, Gothel was anything but tired. She felt fantastic, as she always did from the restorative magic of her “flower’s” golden hair. “Isn’t it time for you to go to sleep?”

“May I stay up a little longer, Mother? It is my birthday...” The little girl slouched and made an earnest face.

Another birthday. Gothel was sorry for ever having slipped and revealed even what a birthday was. When the child was younger, suggesting that she might get a gift for her birthday “if she was good” happened as a way to control her the rest of the year. Now that Rapunzel was older -- Gothel wasn’t sure yet which was worse, a young girl developing a mind of her own, or drooling, grabby baby -- they were stuck with the tradition of birthdays and birthday presents.

The girl was biting her lower lip, now, giving Gothel the winsome effect of her wide, green eyes. “Oh, Rapunzel, don’t be greedy,” Gothel scolded.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Rapunzel answered with revoltingly sincere remorse. “Thank you so much for the paints. I can’t wait to used them. I’m very grateful.”

Gothel allowed herself a smile as she recalled seducing the young man in the apothecary shop. What a pleasant surprise it had been to find the shopkeeper’s attractive son instead of the old stick who owned the shop. It had made the errand so much more pleasurable.

Corona’s festival, of course, had been in full bloom. Gothel made a point of slipping in among the crowds to pick up any news, find out if her treasure was still safely hidden. If she had hidden her flower better in the first place, she would still have an actual flower and wouldn’t be burdened with Rapunzel. She could never stay very long in Corona. It made her too angry, and anger gave her forehead wrinkles.

Rapunzel upset the cart of Gothel’s thoughts. “Do you think that maybe someone will write a book, this year?” Rapunzel asked.

Gothel stared at the girl. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, because books are so rare,” the girl replied, “you said, so I thought maybe if someone writes a new one, maybe for my birthday next year--”

“What goes on in that empty head of yours?” Gothel responded. She was going to nip this one in the bud before Rapunzel started reading too much. Books were dangerous. She should know -- she was very well read, herself. She would not have been able to stand a child who didn’t have the fundamentals of reading and math, but that was as far as it was safe to let it go. “Really, do you think someone can just write a book because they want to?” She pointed to the three texts on the shelf. “Arithmetic and cooking had to be invented to make those!”

“But… someone could think of some new stories…” Rapunzel started.

“There are no new stories,” Gothel said, rising from the chair. “Now, aren’t you scuttling off to bed?” She considered whether she should return to the little cottage she kept for her sanity, but decided that she could stay the night after all and have Rapunzel let down her hair in the morning. Asking for a book! She'd give the girl some kind of pet, something enchanted to watch over her and keep her mindlessly entertained instead.

“Goodnight, Mother,” said Rapunzel. She ran up the stairs to the little loft with her sleeping pallet.

Gothel went to stand at the tower’s window, where she leaned one arm against the window frame. As the girl had been doing, she watched the lights streaming into the heavens. They were beginning to blink out, the lantern flames extinguishing when spent or dimming when the lanterns encountered frigid air. It was a cold world. Little flames didn’t have enough power against the cold.

*

Princess Elsa of Arendelle watched until the night was filled with lanterns. The king and queen of Corona, who stood together, watching the lights, did not see her hurry away back to her room.

Elsa had left her specially-painted lantern in her room. She had wanted to see the beginning of the lantern release ceremony before she added in her own. She could not open the window in her room, so she quickly collected the lanterns that she planned to launch and rushed to the first open window that overlooked the bay. She took a lighted candle from a wall sconce. None of the servants were around to assist her with lighting her lanterns.

First, she sent a lantern like the others, one bearing the Corona sunburst, out into the night. It dropped, at first, drifting downward. Then a waft of air sent it spinning into a warmer updraft. She was more careful with the lantern that she had decorated with her family’s emblem. She kept her hand under the crocus lantern, to catch it if it did not rise, but it hovered for only a moment before it soared upward. It moved outward and upward, yet it traveled alone. Caught in its own path, it did not join the mass of Corona’s lanterns. It moved toward the star-filled sky independent of the others.

When she could no longer see it clearly, she returned to the balcony where King Thomas and Queen Primrose still stood in the same pose, looking over the balcony, as when she left them. Corona’s subjects continued to send light into the night sky, as they would continue to do until they exhausted their stockpile of lanterns.

As Elsa watched the beautiful view, she thought about her missing cousin. She wanted to believe, as her uncle did, that Rapunzel was somewhere in the world. Rapunzel must not know that her parents waited and wished her to come home. She was old enough to make her way home if she knew; she was older than Elsa. Elsa imagined being called home. She would rush home without hesitation. No force could keep her away.

*

 

Chapter Text

Elsa’s birthday came and went, as did another and and two more. Gifts from home arrived for her each birthday, and while the presents were always accompanied by a greeting from her father and mother, they were a poor substitute for being with her family. Her letters to Anna and Anna’s in return continued faithfully, nevertheless. They sent their words with the weekly ships that sailed between the kingdoms. While the ships had sometimes been delayed by sea conditions, Arenedelle’s lively trade kept the merchant ships in top condition. A ship had not been lost between friendly kingdoms for many years.

Seven days was not so far to travel. Elsa sometimes entertained herself by imagining a road over the sea, a path as smooth and even as a frozen pond, over which she could ride Maximus as fast as he could go. He was certainly faster than the sailing ships, and he didn’t have to depend on the wind filling his sails.

It was a fantasy that she hated to dispel with the inevitable practical thoughts. On any long trip, she (and Maximus) would need to rest and to eat. They would have to carry enough food for both of them for the entire journey, unless they stopped at port settlements along the way. Trade was by sailing ship precisely because it was the fastest form of travel available. Elsa could never ignore her serious side. Without Anna’s contagious mischief, it was less of a side and more of her whole nature.

In Arendelle, Anna grew up trying to match pace with the sister she knew in letters. Because Elsa learned to ride, Anna begged for a horse and riding lessons. Because Elsa studied ancient poetry and literature of the world, Anna sought out Arendelle’s record books and discovered the wonderful histories recorded in them. She evesdropped when foreign ministers met with her father; she paid particular attention to visitors to Arendelle from distant countries. If Elsa mentioned, in a letter, learning anything at all, then Anna needed to learn that thing, too. It was a one-sided competition with Anna determined to win the undefined prize of sibling rivalry.

Thus, though the sisters remained miles apart, they grew up with much in common.

 

*

Maximus galloped at full speed across a field of long grasses and autumn muck. The neatly groomed knots of his tail and mane, too, had slipped out again during the run. His tail streamed out behind him, flying clear of the mud kicked up when he splashed through a puddle.

Elsa’s braid had slipped its binding, too. She felt the hairpins fall out after the second time she and Maximus jumped a hedge. Maximus loved to run. Elsa loved to feel the wind blasting across her face as they rode along the bay or through a meadow. Now that Elsa was nearly thirteen, she was sometimes allowed to separate out a measure of privacy from the structured activities of her day.

Meadow gave way to the cover of trees and a return to the forest road. She would have to circle back, soon, to prevent the other riders from concern. Technically, Maximus was on patrol of this section of the woods with his squad. The guard to whom he was officially assigned was used to yielding to the princess, and the guard captain looked the other way where Elsa was concerned. They were all fond of her. The presence of a girl-child in the castle made the kingdom brighter. And if -- with the exception of the king and queen -- everyone in Corona seemed to forget that Elsa was only temporarily their princess, that was only natural. Their true princess had been missing for too long.

Maximus dropped his speed down to a trot, and then a stop, at Elsa’s command. He shook his head, making tack jangle, and turned his neck back as if to give Elsa a look. She leaned forward and patted him on his shoulder. “Time to go back to the plodders, friend,” she said to him. “Try not to gloat so much, this time. It’s bad manners.” Even with her conscience scolding her for running off from the others, she felt prickling of satisfaction. She was a better rider, and Maximus a better horse, than any of the guard. Her aunt and uncle wouldn’t let her train with the guard or wear a saber, but she could ride at full speed over uneven terrain, shoot her bow from horseback, and track anything with her equine ally.

But because she was a princess, not a prince -- and a fostered princess, at that -- she couldn’t be in the the guard for her time in Corona. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to ask for Maximus outright. He was too valuable in the search for Rapunzel to simply be a girl’s pet. A good girl obeyed rules and didn’t ask for more than she was given, and Elsa already felt that Uncle Thomas and Aunt Primrose were put upon enough just having her in their household.

Elsa combed her fingers through her hair to tidy it up. She couldn’t pin her braid back into a circlet, but she quickly unwove and re-braided her hair into a fresh single braid as Maximus trotted down the road.

When he slowed unexpectedly, she paid more attention to the surroundings. The horse had perked up his ears to listen to something hidden in the trees. Elsa peered into the shadows there, trying to see what had caught Maximus’ attention. She slid down out of her saddle and stood beside Maximus, lightly holding his reins while she sought a better look.

They came out of the woods all at once, and from all directions: bandits. Out of the forest shadow a young, muscular man loomed into Elsa’s view; she couldn’t help shrinking back against Maximus’s solid mass. Behind her, a second red-headed man blocked the road, alike enough to the first that Elsa assumed that they must be brothers. Standing ahead in the road, a woman with knotted hair and mean eyes slowly pulled a wicked-looking knife from the motley of her clothes. A swarthy girl and a skinny boy stood along the sides of the road.

After a moment, Elsa recognized the boy. He was taller. He looked hungrier. Still, he was the same orphan boy she had helped, her first summer in Corona. Rider, she remembered. He had said his name was something-Rider. Trying to recall his first name (Jim? Fitz? Something else?) made distracting thoughts in the back of her mind. She saw him crouch down and surreptitiously say something to the small girl with him.

She started to move to remount and run, but the closer bandit dashed forward and grabbed her by the arm. He swiped a meaty hand toward Maximus’s bridle, seeking to capture the horse as well, but Maximus reared up with a equine squeal and bounded away. He charged the robbers blocking the road, evaded the robber woman’s knife, and fled.

Elsa, suddenly without an ally, stiffened. Her dismay at being abandoned allowed the ruffian to gain a better hold on her. She fought against the grip of his meaty hands on her arm and around her waist as he pulled her against his side. Her back pressed against his thick torso. She kicked at the tree-trunk legs and felt no give in them.

“Stop kicking!” he growled.

The robber woman scuttled up to her. The little robber girl followed at her hems. Rider trailed behind. “How beautiful she is,” the woman mused, looking Elsa over with avarice and not lust. “She’s as good as a fatted lamb.” She squinted at Elsa’s face. The little girl tried repeatedly  to come closer for a better look, but the woman pushed her roughly back each time. The other red-headed man sauntered up to join the group.

Finally, the robber girl jumped up on the woman’s back and bit her on the ear like a wild thing. The woman screeched, “Naughty child!” and began to run around, trying to throw the small child off.

The red-headed men began to laugh. The one holding Elsa guffawed so thoroughly at the scene that his hold on her eased.

Rider also laughed, but Elsa thought there was something theatrical in the way he pointed and slapped his knees. He threw out quips to make the big men laugh more and direct their attention to the robber woman wrestling with her wildcat daughter. Elsa took the opening and wrenched herself out of the ruffian’s grip and begin running away.

The men stopped laughing as soon as she started to move. The one that had been holding her lunged at her, though he missed. The other drew a knife and chased Elsa. She sprinted down the road, hindered by clothes made for riding rather than running. She was wary of moving into the cover of trees where she could easily become lost or caught up in undergrowth. She moved fast, but the thickly muscled man pursued her nonetheless with a long stride.

The air temperature dropped. The light breeze blowing through the woods suddenly carried a kiss of winter cold. Elsa eyes teared with fear. She gasped and put in an extra burst of speed when the bandit nearly touched her shoulder.

A scattering of out-of-place snowflakes fluttered over the road. A moment later, a gale like something off the North Mountain of Arendelle shot into the road. It blasted past Elsa and knocked her pursuer off his feet. The wind swirled with hard ice crystals and battered everything in a twenty-foot radius.

Her feet slid on ice that formed under her steps. She slipped and fell, and the paved road crackled as the pounded dirt froze and fractured. The air was full of tiny and sharp sleet. Her hair whipped around her face; it blinded her as much as the windstorm. She scrambled up onto one knee while shielding her face from the icy gale. Immediately, the current shifted away from her face, and she could see. She felt the deep cold around her, but it didn’t chill her.

Though the first of the robber brothers was still blinded by the localized ice storm, the second had caught up and now jumped into the twisting ice winds with a bared knife. He threw himself at her. She saw him in time to leap away. She was still slipping on the ice underfoot. It felt like learning to ice skate. With that thought, she became sure-footed, in time to evade the pair of her attackers as they came at her at once. One caught her by her skirts as she ran. He had a firm hold of them, and he pulled Elsa off her feet.

Again he threw himself at her. He intended to pin her down. Elsa threw a hand up in an unconscious warding gesture even as she used the other to try to push off the ground again. Sparkling slivers, like shards of ice, flew out from nothingness with the gesture, a blast of flying blades that cut her captor’s face. He roared in pain and surprise, clutching at his eye with his free hand, but he didn’t release his grip on the skirt of her riding dress. Elsa yanked on her skirts and stamped the ground as she got to her feet.

Sword-like thorns of ice shot out of the ground. The spikes shredded the cloth of her skirt, cutting her free of the red-headed man’s grip. She suddenly had a half-circle wall that protected her. The wall shocked Elsa as much as its sudden appearance astounded her attackers. The wild wind stopped all at once. The menacing quills of ice, ringing Elsa like a vicious tiara, sparked with diamond colors in the sunlight. Gathered near, the rest of the robber band stared at the tableau.

“She’ll fetch twice as much!” one of the bandit brothers growled, breaking the silence. He pointed at her with a hand stained with blood from his ruined eye. In his other hand, he held only a fragment of Elsa’s skirt. “Conjuror!”

“No!” Elsa denied. Shock was setting in, and she was starting to shake and having trouble thinking.

A vibration of hooves shook the road. “The guard is coming!” the boy thief shouted. “Run!” He grabbed the hand of the robber girl and bolted into the woods, dragging her along. The robber woman had to follow after her daughter.

The red-haired brothers hesitated between choices. The vibration of hooves had become the audible sound of galloping horses, however. With tacit agreement, the also spirited off into the cover of the forest.

Elsa ran toward the sound and away from the ice.

*

Maximus had not abandoned her to the robbers. He had gone for help and led the guard back to Elsa. When Elsa ran up the road and saw him leading the guard, she succumbed to the tidal wave of her experience and fainted. The guard took her back to the palace immediately.

She was conscious again when they reached the castle. She had to explain what had happened, her tear-stained face and her ruined clothes, to her aunt and uncle while shaking. She tried to keep the story simple, but she had difficulty putting the words together. She wanted to lie down; she wanted to vomit. She wanted to hide in her room so that she could cry.

They let her go, at last. Aunt Primrose called for a medicinal tisane to be brought to Elsa’s room while she made to accompany Elsa there. Elsa ran ahead of her aunt and locked the door against the servants. She curled up on her bed with dry crying and panicky sobs. She could still feel ice throbbing in her gut and itching at her fingertips. Frost kept crawling out over her blankets and walls before evaporating in the autumn heat.

It felt like forever before she calmed. She imagined herself among Mother Gartner’s flowers, in the cool, sweet-scented garden. It was a peaceful place, and she liked to go there sometimes when she felt overwhelmed, especially when she felt that way for no reason. Even when that boy Kay was there, asking her a million weird questions or trying to get her things she didn’t need, the perfume of green things quieted her feelings. Imagining and remembering the garden was almost as good as being there. In fact, it could be better, because in her imaginations she could replace prickly Gerte, who had never warmed to Elsa, with the more pleasant company of Anna. Anna would talk to her like she did in her letters.

“I’m starting a club for people who like dancing,” Anna would say. “Kristoff is going to be in it, of course. He doesn’t have any dancing shoes, but I told him that’s OK. And I’m in it. Oh, I need more people!” she would complain. “You’ll join my club, won’t you, Elsa?”

“But I don’t really like to dance,” Elsa would reply to her little sister. And then Anna would pick up some flowers that had fallen off the shrubs and start making patterns on the ground with them.

“But you took all of those dancing lessons! You know how to dance!”

“Those are lessons. I learned the steps and danced with my tutor, but that doesn’t mean that I like to dance at balls.”

Anna would twirl around in circles, then start waltzing with an imaginary partner. “Come on, Elsa,” she would beckon. “I love balls, and ballrooms, and ballgowns. And banquets. With great food. Like lingonberry jam. And chocolate!” She would gesture again for Elsa to join her dancing. “Come on, Elsa!”

Elsa imagined the scene in her mind. She imagined it, and then Olaf the snowman was there, in her mind, dancing with Anna. “I love dancing!” he would shout happily. “Is this the waltz?”

But Anna would still be dancing by herself. Olaf would be reaching out to Elsa, not dancing with Anna. “Come on, Elsa. Let’s dance. You dance so beautifully,” he would say.

Elsa would give in. She would take his stick hand in hers, and he would put his other stick hand at her waist. Then Olaf would lead, and Elsa would dance, stepping in rhythm with practice and poise, as they waltzed together around the garden. “See, this is nice. Isn’t this nice?” Olaf would ask.

“It’s nice,” Elsa agreed.

*

She woke up some time later without knowing when she’d fallen asleep. She rubbed at her eyes and clambered off her bed. The ice was gone. She felt tired and wrung out.

Opening her bedroom door, she found a maid sitting outside on a chair borrowed from elsewhere. The maid guarded a tray covered with a white cloth napkin. She stood up with care at the sound of Elsa’s door.

“Here’s a soothing drink for you, Your Highness,” the maid offered.

“You can bring it in,” Elsa said. “I’m sorry to keep you outside waiting.”

The maid passed through the doorway. “Any of us would wait all day for you, if needed, Your Highness.” She folded away the white cloth. On a side table, she arranged a cup and filled it from the teapot. She slipped out of the room with a curtsey.

The lavender and chamomile tisane steamed in the cup. Alongside it was a plate of light food, slices of fruit and bread with walnuts and honey, that Elsa liked. She suspected from the heat of the tea that this was not the first tray sent up to her room. More than one maid had probably sat outside waiting for her this day, and she was glad that she had made a fuss some time ago about servants waiting at her door standing. She needed privacy. It made her nervous to think that someone stood uncomfortably waiting, growing tired because Elsa was having one of her “moments” and couldn’t bear even the brief presence of a maid.

Anna would have pestered her regardless. It was one of the few good things about being far away from her sister. Elsa still would have told Anna to go away, if she had been around to rattle her door, but doing so would have hurt. It didn’t hurt to tell her aunt and uncle that she wanted solitude. Aunt Primrose and Uncle Thomas seemed to understand about dark moods. They understood them better than Elsa did. She didn’t know why; she just sometimes felt unable to do anything normal and needed to be away from everyone.

She sipped the herbal tea that she didn’t actually want to drink. Thoughts about the bandits kept creeping forward in her mind. That boy (Flynn! She remembered his name was Flynn Rider!) had helped her, she was sure of it: getting the little robber girl to bite her mother, trying to get everyone distracted by laughing so that she could escape, and finally urging them to run away from the approaching guard and give up on her. But how could he have become a highway bandit? He was a full-fledged thief, now. He may have looked like a boy compared to the brawny red-heads, but he was old enough to be considered a man. Adult thieves got the executioner’s axe.

She couldn’t eat any more of the food. She blamed herself. Flynn might have been apprenticed and become a blacksmith or a sailor instead of a thief. The bandits he was with now -- they were going to kidnap her, or worse, today. Her head hurt. Corona couldn’t have highwaymen like that lurking in the woods. Merchants, farmers, tradesmen, and families traveled on that road.

Draining the cup for the calming draught, Elsa put aside the rest of the food and busied herself with fresh clothing. She folded her dirty, damaged riding dress and left it for the maids to repair. She dressed in satin slippers and a clean gown appropriate for an audience with her uncle and aunt. Taking a brush to her platinum hair worked out the tangles and the muck. She finished it into a braid with a ribbon running through it.

She stood in front of the mirror for just a moment to admire the pretty clothes. She loved the light fabrics, the silver and gold threads woven in, and the long, draping styles. She like to dress in new fashions, and she dreamed of dresses made from the fabulous silks imported from distant lands. She hoped that when she returned to Arendelle, she could convince her father to put on a masquerade ball for her coming of age party, for which she would wear some exotic garment encrusted with iridescent sea shell sequins and that trailed yards of diaphanous cloth woven for a princess of Arabia.

She tore herself away from the mirror, but not from her romantic avarice, and headed to see the king and queen of Corona while still daydreaming of beautiful clothes. Her mind was still in the clouds when she reached the door of the room where the monarchs conducted the duller business of running a kingdom. She had a servant announce her, and then she went in turning her thoughts back to the trouble of the bandits.

While she took a chair, Aunt Primrose asked, “Are you feeling a little better, dear child?” She still used the endearment with Elsa, in spite of Elsa’s growth.

“Yes, and I’m sorry for running off from you, Aunt,” Elsa answered.

“It’s fine. You had an upsetting morning.”

King Thomas spoke up. “The guards are scouring the woods now, in double forces, for the bandits that tried to rob you,” he said. Elsa had only told them that she had been waylaid. She left out most of the details.

“We’ll have them by nightfall, if they haven’t fled the kingdom. Messengers are on their way to our neighbors with the alert. The usual procedures,” he smiled to lighten the mood, “as you have been learning.”

Elsa squared her shoulders. “They are more than bandits. They’re kidnappers,” she began.

“What!” exclaimed Queen Primrose. “Elsa! Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

“Elsa…” King Thomas. His eyes looked into hers and made her uncomfortable about looking away. “Tell us more about this.”

“There were two men with the robber band. I think they acted on their own,” she said, diminishing the role of the robber woman for the sake of her young daughter. “The two men with red hair I told you about. When the robbers stopped me on the road, they didn’t only try to grab Maximus. One of the red-haired men held me. When I broke free from him, both men chased me. They talked about the price I would fetch,” she finished.

Still aghast, Queen Primrose stared at Elsa, then turned to the king though she still addressed her ward. “You were nearly kidnapped, and you’re just telling us now.”

“I…” Elsa started. “I’m sorry! I wanted to tell you, now, so that others can be safe on the road…”

The queen did not yield. “Young girls do not travel alone on the King’s Road.”

King Thomas sighed. “We’ve indulged you, Elsa, and it put you in severe danger. Neither Primrose nor I have wanted to curb your spirit. However, today has been a needed reminder. You are a girl. You cannot be out riding on your own, without chaperone or guard. It is far too dangerous for such things.”

“But I--” Elsa started. Her chest constricted with a wayward feeling of panic.

Primrose suddenly put her hand over her own mouth, covering hitching noises of crying. She was crying. Elsa stared at her, starting to feel that she was going to cry again, too.

“Oh dear.” King Thomas pushed out of his chair and began to pace the room. He cleared his throat. “Elsa, I think it would be best if you ceased riding with the guard. We’ll find you a good horse. Another stallion, if you like, but one suited to a princess. A mare would be better.” He rambled on. “You could put flowers in her hair. It would be very pretty.”

“Give up riding Maximus? No…” Elsa shook her head to deny what she was hearing. “You… can’t. You’re taking away Maximus?” Her voice broke. Her lip trembled, making it even harder to talk. “I’m sorry I rode ahead!”

“You can still ride on the castle grounds, of course,” continued King Thomas. “If a need for travel occurs, you will have appropriate escort.”

“But Maximus protected me. He ran to get help. He’s so smart!” Elsa begged. “He’s the best horse. He’s my friend,” she finished, her breath failing her. Her plea came out nearly without sound.

“I can’t lose another d--” Queen Primrose wept, catching herself before erroneously saying “daughter.” “We can’t lose you, child,” she managed, instead.

King Thomas stopped pacing. He wiped his face with his hand. “Was there something else you needed to tell us about, Elsa?” he changed the subject. They had made their decision.

She had intended to ask them to be merciful on the robber woman, the girl, and Flynn. She shook her head. Right now, she couldn’t. She could only think: they were going to take Maximus away.

*

 

Chapter Text

King Thomas moved to Queen Primrose’s side. He placed his hands on her shoulders, a troubled expression on his face. Queen Primrose was struggling to quell her tears.

Still emotionally flailing around the prospect of being separated from Maximus, Elsa only felt worse seeing her aunt so upset. Her aunt and uncle had always been solid and steady, quietly moody sometimes, but never overwrought before. Adults weren’t supposed to fall apart.

Elsa was upset, but they weren’t offering her any comfort. She watched her aunt lean against her uncle, she saw the way they comforted each other as couple, and felt how she was the one left out. Her aunt and uncle had each other and took care of each other. Elsa didn’t belong in that space.

She felt stuck to the chair in which she sat although she wanted to run from the room. It came as a reprieve when her uncle looked her way and made a slight nod toward the door. “If you would, Elsa,” he said, a mild request for her to leave them alone.

She slid off the chair and forced herself to move to the door, turn the knob, and pass through to the corridor. Walking felt like swimming through sludge, as if her body had become dense and heavy… no, as if any movement pulled her in several directions at once, all with the same intensity, so that she could hardly move in any one direction at all.

She went back to her room. What else could she do? She had enough sense to know that leaving the castle grounds was the one thing she should not do. What good were her lessons in statesmanship and diplomacy if she wasn’t able to apply them now? Corona would continue to be Arendelle’s closest ally after she returned home, she told herself. The crown princess of Arendelle needed to be able to put her feelings aside and consider the perspective of opposition.

No matter how short-sighted, or how unfair…

She made herself imagine that her father was watching. She would make him proud. “Conceal, don’t feel,” that was his advice, the advice of a king, she had come to understand. Keep your feelings at a remove, hide the storms that shake you.

She made it all the way back to her room with her chin up and her posture regal. She didn’t run, this time. But when she closed the bedroom door behind her, to her ears the click of the latch was the same sound as a surface of ice cracking under weight.

She swept to her writing desk and gathered up a pile of Anna’s recent letters. She sat on the floor where sunlight poured through the beveled glass windows, letters spilled into her lap, and consoled herself reading them.

She thought it was working. Then she realized that she had been staring at the same lines of her sister’s chaotic writing:

Kristoff is my best friend except for you. Kristoff’s best friend besides me is Sven, his reindeer. I wish we could spend all our time together. Momma and Poppa gave his mother work here at the castle. That means I get to see him and Sven every day. It makes me so happy! I know that grown-ups don’t believe in magic, but sometimes I think it’s real. I think magic sent me a friend so I wouldn’t cry. It would be too sad that you are so far away if Kristoff wasn’t here. I’m so lucky to have Kristoff! And you have Maximus! (I almost forgot how to spell that oops except you write about him all the time so I looked at another letter.)

Elsa wanted to shed tears, but they would not fall. They stuck inside her, so frozen they were as dry as new snow on the worst nights of January. She bounded up and fumbled at her desk for paper and ink. She had already written a letter to Anna that was on the ship that would leave in the morning, but she could confide in her sister and no one else.

Oh Anna! she wrote, her usually well-formed writing turning jagged because of her shaking hand. They are taking Maximus away! I can’t do anything to change their minds! I don’t want a different horse. I’ve told you how wonderful he is. He saved me today from bandits, but they say I wouldn’t have gotten into danger if not for Maximus. It’s not true. It’s not fair!

The top of the desk crusted with a burst of frost from Elsa’s shaking hands. The inkwell fractured from the pressure of the ink within abruptly turning solid. Elsa dropped her pen and shrank back from the growing ice, only to see that she was at the ice’s center. She knew what she was, as much as she had denied it when the thief named her. She was a sorceress, a conjuror, a witch, and she had to hide it.

“I have control of it!” she insisted. She clenched her hands into fists, and her nails dug hard into her palms. She opened one hand, willing Olaf into being to prove that she had control.

A blast of snow and wind swirled out from her hand. It knocked over the fire irons as if they were paper. The blast shot around the room and slammed against the windows. The force of it made her jump. “Olaf?” She held both hands out, trying to shape the snow man. The snow flurry wound itself up and slammed again on the windows. The latch rattled open as the casements bounced in their frame.

Starting to take shape, the flurry formed into something much larger than Olaf. For a moment, it was a hollow figure as tall as the room. The wind outlined, instead of a cheerful little snowman, a hulking monster studded with icicles. He opened his mouth in a soundless roar. His arms became briefly solid enough to crash against the rattling windows.

The windows swung outward. The curtains billowed like sails as the monster, turned back to wind and ice and magic, raced out the window.

Elsa dashed to the window. She reached out to call the magic back. She nearly spilled out of the window herself. The magic sped away, wild and free. “No!” she cried after it.

After that, she simply stood at the window, not knowing what to do. She stayed looking out the open window until the end of the day replaced the sun in her room with growing shadows.

*

The flurry sped across Corona. It was full of kaleidoscoping emotion, and it fought with the sun-warmed native currents as it passed over roofs and walls. When it reached the border of the forest, it dived into the cooler shade of the tree cover. There, it started to take form. It almost had enough power to become a monster, gargantuan and armored in hard ice, but its shape stayed cloudy. It touched down only briefly in corporeal form, but where it stomped, it left enormous tracks on the ground.

Losing cohesion, it swooped onward in the form of a blizzard wind that blew dry snow on a cold current. It raced through the forest. Where it collided with trees, it smashed at the bark with a shape like gauntlets. It ripped through branches and tore at ivy covered boulders. It found a crack in a wall of rock and funneled through it before it blasted out into a hidden glade. In the middle of the glade stood a tower.

Alone in her tower except for her chameleon companion, Rapunzel entertained herself by unraveling a couple of old sweaters that no longer fit her. The arms were too short on one, and if she reached up while wearing the other, her belly button showed. She didn’t want to pester Mother Gothel for new clothes again.

She left the windows open whenever Mother Gothel was away. The cooler currents of autumn gusted around her tower and spilled forest-scented air in through the windows. Although she never left her tower, she did like to sit out on the windowsill, wrapped up in a sweater, and look at the sky. She was going to use the yarn from the old, too-small sweaters to knit up one new sweater of the right size.

Besides, it gave her something to do, something that used up a lot of time. Time was something Rapunzel had in abundance.

A fast wind chased around her towel, twisting around on itself, and shot in through the window carrying a sharp chill that knifed through the dry scent of autumn leaves. Rapunzel sat up with a gasp when it blasted over her head. Pascal dived under the cover of the unraveling sweater. The wind seemed to do a circuit around the tower’s interior before turning back to pass over Rapunzel again. It glazed the walls with white ice.

Another thing Rapunzel had in abundance was her hair. Except for being very long, it usually behaved normally for hair, as far as Rapunzel could tell with her limited knowledge of other people. It only lit up when she sang the magic song for it, usually. But when the icy gust blew over it, it reacted as if it were healing an injury.

The wind touched her hair and lifted it; a wave moved along from Rapunzel’s shoulders down along the loops of her hair. Her hair lifted and fell. The tower room filled with the golden glow of its light. And the wind, which had come in with fury, calmed to a gentle breeze. It left a scent like the frost that whitened the window sills early on December mornings.

Something sparkled and glittered in the air for a moment before a stranger to Rapunzel appeared. He was short, made of stacked up white lumps, and had a long, pointed nose. Rapunzel, surprised, skittered to her feet. The little stranger gave her an open-mouthed smile of wonder. Then, he bowed.

“Hellllooo there!” he greeted. “Wow, where am I? This place is amazing!” Olaf spun around in place while he took in the round room. The ice crusted on the walls by the wind had disappeared when Olaf formed. Olaf himself was starting to melt.

“Hi!” Rapunzel replied with bewilderment.

“Hi, I’m Olaf,” he said. “Whoops! Looks like I’m too far from Elsa!” Olaf began to discorporate faster than he was melting. He waved frantically. “It was nice meeting you! Sorry that I can’t stay!”

“I hope we meet again!” Rapunzel called back to the visitor as he vanished. “I’m Rapunzel!” she said, too late. She investigated her tower but could find no trace of the strange magic, no ice or cold spots left behind.

“What do you suppose that was, Pascal?” She leaned out the biggest window and searched outside. Nothing at all was different from any other day. “Could I have… imagined it? Maybe I’ve been unraveling yarn too long without a break.” She stepped onto the windowsill, looped her hair around a beam for safety, and climbed up to the roof. Pascal followed. “What an odd thing to imagine,” she commented. The sky was clear. The high hills that surrounded her tower filled her view in a full circle. Spots of tree foliage were turning colors with the season.

“Look at that,” she sighed. “I wish I could see a tree up close. At the distance I’ve calculated for the hillsides, some of those trees must be over a hundred and fifty feet tall. If only the hills didn’t block the view! Then I could see the source of those yearly lights.” She had not succeeded in distracting herself from her visitor. She replayed the scene in her mind, thinking about the unfamiliar substance of which he had been made. It almost looked like quartz sand, but it stuck together instead of piling into a dune. Something about that tickled her mind.

She swung back down into her tower so that she could consult her book. One of her three precious books was geology, the study of rocks and minerals. Fine quartz could be used in painting, though Rapunzel didn’t use it because she painted directly on her walls. Quartz had the largest section in her book. She read through it again slowly, hoping that the tickle would become a theory.

“Maybe it’s not this book,” she mumbled. In no hurry to do anything else, she carefully re-read through her other books.

It wasn’t until she lay down to sleep that night that a connection came to her. The reason she hadn’t found anything obvious was that the information came in tiny pieces from each book. In her cookbook, she read a recipe that called for saffron, a spice derived from a crocus native to Greece. Her gardening book mentioned crocuses growing up through something called snow. The connection to quartz was that the Romans, who conquered Greece, thought that quartz was petrified ice. Ice was the solid state of water, which in nature occurred when precipitation fell on high, cold mountains as snow. Rapunzel had never seen snow.

The wind had been cold, when her mysterious visitor appeared. He had not been made of quartz sand. He had been made of snow. She was sure of it.

“Why snow?” she wondered aloud. “Who made a snow man?” She didn’t ask why his magic had blasted in with angry, destructive force. Mother had told her many times that the world was dangerous. Someone out in that world, though, had magic. She wasn’t the only one.

*

 

AO3 Author’s Note:

Thank the readers at ff.net for this update happening. After I loaded up chapters 1-7 there (all at once), I got some followers who asked for more. I was about to give up on updates while I worked on something else, but then I thought, what the heck, I'd give the other archive a try.

Please, could you let me know once in a while that you want to keep reading this non-romantic-pairing, multi-chapter, gen story? ~butterflydreaming

 

 

Chapter Text

Elsa couldn’t sleep, and by morning she was a tired wreck from fretting over where the escaped magic had gone and what it might have done. She hadn’t finished her second letter to her sister; it hadn’t made her feel better. She hated that Anna couldn’t remember the magic anymore. Anna had been the one person ever who begged Elsa to use it, and now Elsa couldn’t even discuss it with her.   

In the morning, she penned out a letter to her father so that she could broach the topic of her ice power with someone who knew about it. She didn’t tell him it was stronger, or that it had gotten loose. She had never told him about Olaf. She didn’t tell him about being waylaid in the forest.

She wrote to her father, instead, her questions about why she had her ice magic at all. The trolls had known what it was. Her father had told their leader that Elsa had been born with it, not cursed. But it was still a curse, wasn’t it? Had there ever been anyone else cursed by magic the way she was?

She wrote for hours, bursts of words alternating with long pauses caught up in her thoughts. She wrote long past the time the ship bound for Arendelle left harbor. It was a letter that she never truly intended to send. In the end, she folded it, sealed it, and pushed it to the bottom of a drawer in her desk, stuffed in with all the others of a similar nature, never to be read. She never even imagined a fantasy of her father reading those letters. Maybe if he were different, or if she were different.

A servant tapped on her door to announce breakfast. Elsa thanked him and sent back the message that she would not be joining her aunt and uncle. She had not eaten a proper meal since the previous morning’s breakfast, and her stomach made noises of hunger, but she had no appetite for sitting down with her relatives just yet.

Her breakfast turned out to be a quick one taken with the servants in the kitchen. It wasn’t the first time she had done it. Cook fussed over Elsa, and only the veteran staff stayed over their porridge instead of scampering off, but otherwise it was nothing peculiar. Elsa was quite sure that the servants did not eat as well as she, though Cook always denied that the buttered toast and poached egg she served Elsa were specially prepared for their borrowed princess.

Elsa was headed to the pottery shed to continue practicing plates on the kick wheel; she was therefore dressed appropriately for a muddy activity. Her plain dress and apron let her feel less out of place in the kitchen, which was already hot with activity and bustling with the day’s tasks. Elsa ate quickly, looking forward to the cooler temperature of the outdoors. Sadly, though her meal was seasoned with Cook’s talent, Elsa found that it tasted like dust. She left it after the first taste for Cook to eat. Her heavy heart had barred her from an appetite as summarily as her uncle had separated her from Maximus.

ooo

Thomas was awake with the sun. His heavy sigh as he lay in bed was what woke Primrose. He saw her looking at him through eyes open halfway, and he rolled over to give her forehead a kiss. “The morning is early still. Go back to sleep,” he said.

Primrose rubbed her eyes and pouted. “I can’t now. You’ve kissed me awake.” It came out grumpy. She smiled to soften the tone of sleepiness.

“At least, stay in bed,” Thomas entreated as Primrose clambered out of the covers.

“Can’t,” Primrose answered. She made her way to the garderobe. In a few minutes, she returned, but instead of climbing back into bed, she sat down at her vanity and began brushing out her hair in front of the large mirror. “Is the matter with Elsa bothering you, too?” she asked.

Thomas sat up in bed, his reluctance to start the day evident. “It’s hard to support that this was anything other than an isolated incident of opportunism,” he said. “The forest is no place for any young woman, alone. We have no enemies who would target Elsa specifically.”

Primrose dropped her hands into her lap. “But what about the witch,” she said in a low voice. “She has not been traced.”

“But after all this time, Primrose?” asked Thomas while he dressed. With a harder tone of determination, he added, “When the bandits are captured, we’ll have them thoroughly questioned. We’ll find out their motive quickly enough.” A grim expression set on his usually kindly face.

She knew his mind. If the bandits did have any connection to the witch who had stolen Rapunzel, they would be put to the same fate as that sorceress. A quick execution would be more merciful than they deserved. Primrose disliked violence, but when she thought of the villain who had taken her daughter from her, she felt willing to rethink her ideas of justice.

And to think that ruffians dared an attempt to take Elsa…

“Elsa should not have had to suffer the experience,” Primrose said. Her eyes stung, a precursor to more tears. She silently scolded herself for nurturing the emotion.

Queen Primrose greatly regretted her outburst of the day before. It wasn’t like her at all. She still cried, often, for Rapunzel, but when she did so it was behind closed doors with only Thomas to witness. At times, continuing as if Rapunzel was alive and would be returned to them seemed a make-believe. They gave each other leave to weep over that open wound, and each would be strong for the other, offering comfort, when one of them couldn’t hold back tears. Such maskless fragility was only to be shown to family.

“Thomas,” she said, as he passed beside the chair in which she sat.  She grabbed his arm and pulled it over her shoulder. He wrapped the other arm around her and stood behind her. Her eyes met his in the mirror’s reflection. “Elsa is like a daughter to me, now,” she confessed.

Indeed, Primrose realised, she thought of the girl as her own. In more ways than one, young Elsa filled a space that a daughter would hold. Elsa had shaped her own space in Primrose’s heart, right next to the one for Rapunzel. Primrose had to be forgiven if the line between those spaces sometimes blurred. Sometimes, she looked at Elsa and imagined another, golden-haired girl right beside her, the two as matched as two lilies in a vase.

Thomas leaned over and kissed the top of her head. He then bowed further, his hands on her shoulders, to put his head next to hers. “I see my sister Genevieve in her,” he surrendered. “Her every expression. If not for the color of her hair, I could mistake her for her mother at this age.”

“Would it be any easier, if we had been able to have another child?” Primrose asked. Even as the question left her mouth, she found it stupid. “No, of course it wouldn’t be.”

“We’re young yet,” Thomas countered. An invitation lighted in his eyes. He nuzzled her neck. “We could still give Rapunzel a little brother or sister, as long as we keep trying.”

“It’s important for us to try,”Primrose agreed in a cozy voice. “We should never give up.” She let herself be led from her chair and back to bed. Her husband was a comfort to her, and they took comfort in each other.

ooo

On a modest sailing ship in Corona’s harbor, a tall, slim aristocrat tossed a Wanted poster down on the table where his brother sat. “Look at this, Holger,” he said with disgust. He turned away, stroking his beard into a sharper point. “They’ve already caught the attention of the law, here.”

The second man, as broad chested as a blacksmith, pulled the woodblock printed poster closer. He made a clucking with his tongue. “Well, we were right about where they went,” he said. He ran a large hand through his dark hair. “Bandits! If not for the disgrace to our family, I’d say leave them to rot in a foreign dungeon.” Holger rose out of his chair, looming over the table. “Johan, we should have paid our regards to the local king and queen when we came into port last night. When Bram and Gunnar see their faces in print, they’ll hightail to the next country and we’ll lose the trail again.”

“Let’s go now and get it over with,” said Johan. “We can do the niceties quickly and get a free meal for the horses while we’re at it. Where is Hans? We’ll have to take him with us. At least he can mind the horses.”

“I’m right here,” the adolescent boy sulked, unfolding from a corner in shadows.

“Are you ready to go now, Holger?” Johan asked. He barely acknowledged Hans. “I’d like to get after those idiots by mid-morning. At least their wanted status here will make it easier to get them to come back with us.”

“Too bad. I always planned to drag them back in a headlock, one in each arm,” said Holger, flexing his beefy arms to demonstrate.

Hans chimed in. “Couldn’t we just tell them that Father wants them back home?”

“Let’s go,” said Holger. He pulled on a princely coat wide enough for his frame.

Johan headed out. “Hans, get the horses! Why do you never put yourself to use? You asked to be brought along, now show some vigor.”

Hans started to answer back, but Johan and Holger were already out the door. He tagged after them, saying, “I’m not your manservant.”

“Well, no one would assume you were a prince. Where are your gloves? You have a commoner’s ingratitude and peasant hands. Like your mother," he finished sharply. "We wouldn't be on this snipe hunt if Father hadn't taken a new wife out of the riff raff."

Hans could not answer back to the taunt, at least not without unpleasant consequences. His mother was his father’s third wife, and she had been a commoner. When she had asked Hans to go with his half brothers to track down her two oldest boys, Hans had jumped at the chance to see somewhere other than the Isles. It was a chance to find his fortune, out in the world, because there was no fortune for him in Southern Isles.

 

ooo

Pottery was a muddy business. Elsa knew there was no way to form the spun shapes in clay without getting a thick coating on her hands and wrists, mud under her nails, and splatters of earth on her clothing. She still didn’t like dirt. She didn’t like the ungainly kicking needed to keep the wheel spinning, either. The aggressive pounding on the lump of clay to prepare it for working on the wheel still felt awkward for her.

It was also somehow satisfying on a deep level, though, and as she “wedged” the clay lump, it was like smashing down on the stormy feelings inside her. The whirring of the potter’s wheel made a calming white noise, too.  When the clay was on the wheel, the slightest pressure or angle of her fingers pushed the clay tall, or pushed it flat. The form became hollow; the walls became thin. She was precise with her movements, after all this time, after years of learning the nuances of the craft. Still, the clay would do unpredictable things. She had one proto-dish after another tear apart or unexpectedly collapse while forming. Earth was not her element; it didn’t always cooperate.

From the whole morning, she was only able to get one suitable dish from her efforts. Anything not up to her standards, she squashed down and put back in a lidded bucket. She cut the new plate free from the wheel and took it into the drying shed to slowly dry alongside others like it. After she cleaned up the potter’s wheel and tools, she scrubbed as much as she could of the mud off her hands and used a stiff brush on her clothes.

She returned to the drying shed and went in, latching the hook on the door behind her. The interior was as cool as a cellar from the moisture of resting greenware. Woven straw mats covered the floor between the rows of shelving. The walls were louvers: a clever design to regulate airflow and light. Elsa walked slowly through the aisles.

She was soothed by the evidence of the symmetry that formed under her hands. She could not have created the beautiful shapes, lined up in rows, while wearing gloves.

She thought about her old gloves and felt a stirring of panic. They would never fit her now. The power had gone right through her riding gloves. Only the ones her father had given her had ever held the ice back.

But it had been years! she reminded herself. She stopped wearing gloves because her power had stayed calm. She had been able to make Olaf, every now and again -- mostly during her first year in Corona -- without the ice turning wild. It had been like before Anna got hurt. She could make a few frost patterns on her bedroom ceiling, or freeze water in the wash basin, and that had been enough to stop the way her fingers tingled when she was nervous, and when she missed home, or sometimes for what seemed like no reason at all.

“No gloves.” Her quiet admonition came out with a cold breath. “I’m never going back to that. I have to do this on my own.” She raised her hands, feeling terrified, but more terrified of the unthinkable: that she could never go back to Anna. That Aunt Primrose and Uncle Thomas would find out that they had housed a sorceress all this time. That she really wasn’t in control of magic that wasn’t going to stop happening.

“Olaf!” she whispered. “Please. I need you.” She turned her hands inward, the way she held them when shaping the curving sides of a vase. Between them, a mass of snow formed. It was like a tiny blizzard, a scene in a globe. Icicles formed like blades and spun around in the wind, but it all stayed within the boundaries of the globe.

Elsa widened the distance between her hands. She moved down to the ground, holding the magic like a delicate bowl. The scene within turned flat, like a mirror. She saw herself there, wide-eyed and frightened. She closed her eyes to the frightened face and thought about Olaf’s funny face instead. She sat back, her feet tucked under her seat, and relaxed her arms to let the magic go.

She opened her eyes and saw Olaf, still spinning like a top. Something wasn’t right about the way he looked. His eyes had a flat, lifeless aspect, and his usually grinning mouth was open as if silently howling. “Olaf!” she gasped, worried for him. She stopped his spinning by grabbing his stick arms. “What’s wrong?”

The snowman blinked his eyes and his face went through a series of odd expressions. But when he finally looked at Elsa, he was back to his usual self. “Woah! That’s dizzy-making!” he commented. “Wow, Elsa. That’s a new look for you.”

He was taking in her clay-stained appearance. Elsa looked down at her clothes. She looked back at him. “Olaf, are you all right?”

“Yeah. Sure. Why do you ask?”

The face full of rage. The despairing eyes. “You do seem back to normal,” she said.

“OK,” said Olaf.

It seemed abrupt to dismiss him now, but Elsa wanted to return to the castle and have a bath. She might slip by the stables on her way, in case the guard were back from patrol, so she could at least see her equine friend for a moment. She lifted her fingers, seeing if she could will Olaf away with the slight gesture. He instantly turned back into snowflakes, which then glittered away as dissipating magic.

The encounter was unsettling. She didn’t know what to think.

It gave her all the more reason to see Maximus. Her uncle had said she couldn’t ride the horse anymore, but he hadn’t said she couldn’t spend any time with him. She was sure that the guard captain wouldn’t mind if Elsa helped groom Maximus, and she knew that Maximus would be happy to see her.

With her mood brightened by the anticipation, she ran across the castle grounds to the stables. The guard, with their horses, were not yet returned, but with her estimation of the hour, she expected them back soon. She went to get the water bucket out of Maximus’ stall, first. She’d gather up the grooming tools after she visited the well.

Some crows were making a fuss on the other side of the yard, cawing and fighting. She didn’t pay much attention to the birds, but the sound of a horse’s whinny did call her to investigate. Three unfamiliar horses were stabled in the second row of stalls, toward the other end where the building opened to a side yard. It was no more out of her way to get to the well from that exit than the other, so Elsa carried her bucket over to take a look at the horses.

“Fjord horses,” she wondered aloud when she saw them. They had the distinctive two-toned manes of horses from back home. All of Corona’s horses were Spanish breeds, like Maximus. She stopped at a stall and looked at one that had a yellowish coat, like the skin of an overripe lemon, to go with its black-and-white mane and tail. The horse seemed unconcerned by her approach, so she stepped up on the crosspiece of the stall door to say hello.

A boy appeared in the building’s doorway. “You there! What do you think you’re doing?”

Though momentarily startled, Elsa didn’t hop down. She collected herself and turned toward the boy. “Excuse me?” she asked.

She saw the boy look her up and down. “That’s my horse,” he said, his manner sharp and haughty, “that you’re gawking at. Get away from him.”

Elsa stepped down from her perch. She didn’t know who this boy was, so she held back a retort.

“Are you even supposed to be here?” he interrogated.

She considered. She could tell him who she was and see how his manner changed when he found out that she was the crown princess of Arendelle. Something about doing that struck her as wrong. With a moment of thought more, she realized that this was because a title’s ability to command respect depended on the assessment of strength by the other party. A ruler needed to be able to deal with confrontation without relying on a title. Strength had to come from the ruler herself.

The boy seemed irritated by the lack of her reply. “Well, girl?” he demanded. He looked her up and down. “Don’t you know to answer your betters?”

Elsa fixed her face in a mask so that her shock wouldn’t show. She could see that he took her dirty appearance as a marker of low rank. She was carrying a bucket to water the horses, too. He must have thought she was, at best, a servant.

She used the moment to take her own assessment of him. He waited with clear impatience for a response from her.  Elsa recognized that they had started on the wrong foot. She tried to steer the encounter to a more pleasant mood by extending hospitality, though she still didn’t want to reveal her identity yet. “I was fetching water for when the palace guard return. Does your horse need some water?”

“I took care of that already. Since there was no one to attend me,” he accused.

The paleness of his skin went with his russet hair. His face didn’t exhibit freckles. He didn’t spend a lot of time outdoor, in spite the abused look of his hands. He had workman’s hands, as if he often did rough work where something like embers marked him with small scars. The tinsmith’s apprentice had the same kind of burn damage, but Elsa felt sure that the arrogant boy wasn’t a tradesman.

He wore well-made clothing, Elsa noticed, though it appeared half-heartedly tailored, as if taken down from a different wearer. It was a better fit than the charity clothes on orphans, yet Elsa suspected that it was also handed-down.

Elsa softened her voice to a tone that Queen Primrose would use. “Corona is normally better in our welcome of visitors. I hope you won’t think ill of us. The grooms must not have expected you. Is there anything else you need for you or your horses’ comfort?”

Her manner gave him pause, she could see. A question ran across his expression, and then his eyes narrowed with a look of recalculation. “No, my brothers are in the castle now,” he started. “We did arrive unannounced.”

Elsa noted the minute shift in his manner to a more pleasant attitude. She was pleased that her tactic was working.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

ooo

 

Elsa cast him a pleasant smile, intended to mollify. Without turning away from him, because eye contact was important for making a person feel acknowledged, she began, “Your horse seems good natured. What’s his na-- “ Her question was interrupted by the noisy crows. Loudly scolding, a crow swooped in through the doorway and aimed at the boy’s head. It overshot into the stable and doubled back to harass the boy again.

The boy yelled in anger and leaped at the bird, vainly trying to catch it. He ran back outside after it without giving Elsa another glance.

She followed. Sometime the crows nested too close in the nearby trees, and they would defend their offspring with bravery, but it was too late in the year for fledglings. The crows around the castle were generally quite tame, also.

The crow had flown up to the edge of the roof, where it hollered its rough diatribe at the boy. The boy picked up a handful of small stones and pitched them at the crow in fast succession. One of the rocks hit the bird, clearly hurting it. It fluttered up to a higher part of the roof, still cawing, and did not fly away.

A second crow lay on the ground. Elsa gasped when she saw twine tied around its legs. The other end of the twine wrapped around a rock. The bound crow tried in vain to fly when the boy approached. The flapping of its black wings was tired and desperate.

The boy aimed at the crow on the ground with one of his stones. He was flushed across cheeks and forehead with excitement or rage. Elsa could not tell which.

Elsa screamed at him, “What are you doing!”

He turned to face her. His expression was an ugly one. He turned away again, threw the remaining stones all at once at the crow on the roof, then looked back at Elsa with a cruel expression. He looked at the crow on the ground, then pointedly looked back at Elsa.

“Stop!” Elsa entreated. “Why are you hurting it?”

“It attacked me,” he stated, seeming to savor the anticipation of revenge, “for no reason at all. And that one,” he pointed at the crow on the roof, “keeps swooping at me.” He studied the crow on the ground. “I’m teaching it a lesson. I think I’ll cut off its legs.” His hand went to the dagger hanging on his belt.

“You can’t! You’ll be punished if you do!”

“I can, you peasant girl,” the boy sneered. “I’m prince Hans of the Southern Isles. What are you going to do, tell someone? Who would believe you?” He stepped toward the tethered crow. The crow thrashed in the dirt. Hans began to draw the dagger out of its sheath, his motion slow and contemplative. He was tormenting the outraged witness as much as he had abused the crow. “Who would even listen?” he added.

When he moved with sudden speed, flipping the dagger over and lunging down toward the bird, Elsa reacted. She dashed toward him. When her body slammed into his, it was not an accident. She didn’t know how to fight this way, but she had seen how town boys fought. She ended on the ground, too, herself. If she hadn’t been instructed in the variety of athletics her Aunt Primrose had required, she would have done worse than give herself a bruise from the hard landing.

The boy prince sprawled across the ground. His face had scraped in the packed dirt. He uprighted himself in an instant. A snarl contorting his face, he threw himself at Elsa. He pinned her down and put a hard knee into her stomach.

This is what she had been afraid of when the bandits chased her. They, however, were large men, while prince Hans was closer to Elsa’s size. She fought to throw him off, fighting at the same time against her coiling power. The painful pressure of his knee created a pressure in her ice magic to strike him with a blast of ice, and she was afraid of her power’s violence. Elsa’s freezing hands grabbed around his coat sleeve as she tried to push him away without letting the force of ice escape.

He yelled at the sudden cold that wrapped his arm. He jumped away. Rubbing his arm from wrist to shoulder, he stared at her, but only for a moment. Then he tried to kick her face with his booted foot.

Without thinking it through, Elsa slapped hand against the ground. A skid of ice shot under Hans’s feet. He went off balance in the motion of kicking and fell. He stared at Elsa with shock while she scrambled to her feet. When Hans tried to stand up, she stomped and glazed the ground all around him with slick ice.

This was bad. He had seen her sorcery; that was bad enough. But the magic pulsed like her racing heartbeat, and she remembered the vicious blades of ice that she had thrown at the bandits and how violent her magic was when out of her control. She pushed the power down. The castle guard would return soon. They could deal with Prince Hans.

She stayed wary of him while she used his dropped dagger to cut the bound crow loose. The poor animal was too weary to peck at her. It made pathetic rasps while the crow on the roof bellowed anxious responses. She carefully cut the knots around the bird’s feet until it was free. It lay on the ground for a heartbeat longer. Then, suddenly energized, it sprang into the air and landed the short distance away near its partner.

Elsa considered pitching the dagger into the distance. Instead, she tied it with the cut twine to her apron strings.

“That’s mine!” Hans yelled. He made another attempt to stand but could only get to his knees. “Return it, you thief!”

Furious, Elsa stepped toward him. She blew untidy hair out her face and took a moment to assess her opponent. Her hands tingled so badly that she had to let puffs of snow out to ease the tingling. The ice storm inside her fought for release. She looked him over as if he were something rotten at the bottom of a jar.

He reacted to the look with escalating anger of his own. He tried to knock her off her feet again by yanking at her ankles. She stepped back out of his reach.

“You’re doing magic!” Hans accused her. “You can’t do that!” He paused. A calculating look crawled over his face.

“Yes. I can,” answered Elsa. It gave her a frisson of cold from head to foot to admit it aloud. It felt like cold lightning crackling out from the storm still raging in her center.

She recalled that the youngest of the Southern Isles princes was more than a year older than she. If this boy was Prince Hans, he was small for fourteen years. Adding in to account his handed-down clothing, it was a sad appearance for a prince, but she would have been able to forgive him those things if he had not entertained himself by torturing a smaller creature. She silently chastised herself for lowering herself to the level of a brawler, not to mention that she now had the problem of Hans as a witness to her secret.

She was starting to feel the shaky feeling that followed a threat, and with it a fear crawled over her. Three Fjord horses, in all: she remembered Hans saying that his brothers were in the castle. And the guard were due to return. She had to get her magic under complete control and hidden again before anyone else saw it.

Hans started to get to his feet, achieving success by using slow, careful movements. “Sorcery is evil,” he said.

Elsa tensed because his words were too close to her thoughts.

His voice had gone as smooth and sweet as honey. “However… we could make a deal,” he started. “You’re pretty enough. A girl like you shouldn’t get locked up in a dungeon, or worse. No one has to know you’re a monster. No one has to find out. If I don’t tell them… ”

“How dare you call me a monster,” Elsa growled. “How dare you… you think... that you can offer me allegiance?” Hans wore a soft expression, she saw, that transformed his face into a handsome one. The sneering, cruel nature was concealed with the guise of Prince Charming. “Or maybe you were thinking that I would go weak in the knees for you b-because you’re a prince?” That sensation of being pulled in multiple directions at once, trapping her in place, came over her again.

Hans continued to smile. He even laughed, lightly, as if she had said something amusing. “Come now, don’t be like that,” he said. He lifted an open hand toward her. “It can be our secret. Nothing bad has to happen to you.”

The sensation of paralysis snapped, like a string pulled too tightly. Her skin prickled all over as if she were touching pins. She felt as if her ice power would spew out of her. She could no more stop it than she could have stopped her stomach heaving if physically sick.

She cried out at the terrible feeling of the power escaping through channels newly cracked open. She was trying to pull it back in, trying to keep it from flowing out. She curled into a crouch with her bare hands pressed against her middle and her shoulders curled in. If she made herself small, the ice might shrink down, too.

Don’t. Feel.

“I… can’t!” she cried out, not to Hans, but to the magic pouring out of her that urged her to let it go.

An answering howl sounded at her back. She could feel the gargantuan, cold presence of the creature. It was so familiar. It as the rage of the storm inside her, the familiar other, made solid in the world. It cast a real shadow she could see over her and Hans.

Hans stood in place, looking up at the thing behind her with his mouth agape. Elsa stood up as she turned around and saw…

...a monster made of packed snow and clear ice. Spines of ice jutted out from its hunched back. Its eyes were hollows; its fangs were icicles. It had enormous hands, disproportionately large hands, deadly hands that ended in pointed, crystalline claws. Eyes glowing with a fey light, it raised its arms and roared.

The castle guard -- with astonishingly bad timing -- entered the stable grounds at just that moment. Elsa turned half-away from the ice creature she had manifested at the clattering of armor. The even cadence of hoofbeats broke into disorder as the horses and their mounted guards saw the ice monster. To their credit, the men drew their swords and the startled horses held their ground.

The ice monster stepped over Elsa. He stepped out in front of her, confronting the guard, and roared again. Maximus, the bravest of horses, leaped forward. His rider swung his sword at the monster looming over them. Elsa screamed, but it came out as an airy, almost voiceless cry.

The monster bounded past the attacking guard. It hurtled past all of the guard with the force of a gale wind. It ran, scattering the cavalry out of its path, knocking riders off their mounts. The guard captain was one of the riders thrown to the ground. The monster ran off. Some of the guard raced after him on horseback, while others dismounted and saw to their injured brethren.

Elsa dashed through the chaos to hop up to Maximus’s back. “Princess!” his rider called after her, “Princess Elsa, wait!” Desperate to catch her escaped magic, she ignored him and urged Maximus into pursuit. He sprung into a gallop without hesitation.

She gave no more thought to Prince Hans. She did not see the his shock double when the guard had called her by title.

Maximus had a gallop like the boom of thunder. He closed the ground to the ice monster at speed. Elsa kept her body forward, low and against his neck. She was crying, icy tears sliding off her cheeks in the wind. The monster had run down from the castle and into to town. Destruction and human injury lay in its wake.

In the path of the monster, ornamental trees bore shattered trunks, carts were broken, and market stands were overturned. Townspeople huddled in fear in doorways. Maximus dashed through the obstacle course. Their passage added to the frey already caused by the guards chasing the monster, some of whom had been unmounted or otherwise thwarted in that pursuit.

Elsa passed guards nursing gashes, bruises, and sprains. She rode on, horrified that it was her errant magic that had hurt people she considered friends. She had to be the one to catch the magic. What could anyone else do? She didn’t even know what she, herself, would do when she caught up to it.

They left the center of town. The open terrain of the shoreline gave her a clear view of the remaining guards that chased and of the monster. It was running toward the woods, slowed down by its need to wreck things along the harbor boardwalk. It picked up a huge coil of tarred rope and heaved it back at the guards.

Maximus veered off the boardwalk and detoured through an alley behind the fish stands and taverns. He shot out at the edge of the woods just as the ice monster bashed through the boundary of trees. The guard were far behind. Elsa could see them caught up in a pile of detritus.

The monster avoided the road and charged through the trees and forest undergrowth. The changed terrain slowed him down, but it slowed Maximus down, too. The monster’s skin was crusty. It crackled with hard, glossy scales from a cycle of melting and re-freezing. Elsa reached for the monster with her magic when they closed in on it. She tried to dismiss the monster as she would do with Olaf when she wanted him to go.

Instead of making the monster dissipate, reaching out with her magic made a tether between them. She was almost unseated from Maximus as he ran, and he whinnied when he felt her being pulled off. The connection became a channel that pulled more from her and gave it to the monster. It grew larger as its ice renewed.

Elsa panicked. She signaled Maximus to run, but Maximus refused. Instead, he confronted the monster with short, aggressive charges that confused it. It howled and slashed at the tree canopy, but it would not attack Maximus. Its increased size left it few avenues to run. It lumbered toward a break in the dense tree cover.

Maximus continued herding the monster toward the open space. It was not a glade or meadow; it was a bare strip at the edge of a ravine. The monster may have heard the yells and calls of the guard, who were now catching up to Elsa, because it turned around. With a sharp drop behind it and the guard riding up behind Elsa and Maximus, the ice monster had nowhere to retreat.

The monster looked at Elsa. Its hollow eyes met hers.

A terrible, cold emptiness fell over Elsa with the creature’s shadow. In that moment, she understood that the creature was not something she could will away. She slid out of the saddle, to Maximus’s consternation, and pushed past the horse. Her slow steps toward the ice monster were not from caution. She could hardly move.

This was the real Elsa, she told herself, the wrongness that everyone would see if they knew her true self. She would never be free of it, and it would only get stronger and larger. She couldn’t control it, because it was bigger than her. It would consume her, and she would be helpless against it.

It would destroy everything.

Time had only made it stronger.

She would never be able to return home. Leaving Arendelle was never temporary. Anna was happy and safe, as long as Elsa was far away from her. Anna was safe. Anna was happy… as long as… Elsa… accepted exile.

She was never going back.

The guards rode up just as the monster turned and stepped off the cliff’s edge. Elsa, nearly at the edge herself, saw it break into chunks as its body crashed and tumbled. It hit the bottom of the ravine and exploded in a cloud of snow that slowly drifted upward and evaporated.

Maximus grabbed the back of her dress with his teeth and pulled her away from the sheer edge. Then the guard were all around her. They were cheering. Maximus nudged her away from the danger of the ravine. She was boosted back up into the saddle. Still, the guards shouted praises and cheers.

She was in a daze all through the procession back through the town, which became a spontaneous parade. Maximus marched at the front of the parade, yet it took Elsa time to realize that they were celebrating her. The townsfolk began raining brightly colored paper and flower petals from upper story windows. Children ran alongside the procession, whooping and shouting. The citizens of Corona shouted out her name, “Elsa! Princess Elsa!”

“Princess Elsa, our Elsa!” the crowd cheered.

“Our hero!”

“The hero who saved Corona!”

“All hail Princess Elsa, defender of Corona!”

The praise and shouts went on and on, a wild and happy noise. The crowd lauded her. The people of Corona raved.

All Elsa could see was the destruction that she had inflicted on the town. The procession rode through wreck and ruin. The shouting voices blended and overlapped.

“...Elsa!”

“...of Corona…”

What was the difference, she wondered, between the sound of a cheering crowd and the sound of an angry mob?

 

ooo

Chapter Text

Messengers ran ahead to take the marvelous news up to the castle: the monster was destroyed, solely by young Princess Elsa!

The impromptu parade became a party in the town. Children ran around collecting the scraps of colored paper, which they strung into garlands and fashioned into necklaces. They gifted the necklaces to their mothers, or in the case of older children, their sweethearts. The procession erupted in dancing even before Elsa and the guards continued up the hill to the castle. Pockets of dancing continued on afterward.

One enterprising trader made the most of broken beer casks by selling servings of the beer directly out of his wagon. For a fraction of the usual price of a pint, he ladled beer into steins before it could dribble away into the street. As dusk closed in, an innkeeper whose nearby tavern had suffered in the rampage offset the detraction of his broken tables by emulating the beer trader’s ingenuity, and it worked to bring in customers who might otherwise have gone home after the parade. Other taverns grew generous with their portions just to compete, pouring more than beer for a festival price. Spirits were high as the spirits flowed. Merrymakers who couldn’t find a sound bench drank their liquor and ate their dinners while wandering in the street,  and their revelry heightened the already excited atmosphere.

In the ensuing hours, facts became fable. Sung as songs and turned into competing ballads, the recounted tale was that the monster had been an evil spell  set upon the Kingdom of Corona by an unknown enemy; the spell had been undone by the bravery of Princess Elsa. Another version of the story credited her purity as the power that banished the creature. A variant that included a spell attack on Elsa when she was a child came from an accidental mention by matron who had once been a maid at the castle. Someone came up with the theory that the enemy that had stolen Princess Rapunzel had come back to steal away Elsa, too, but this theory was only popular with a younger generation that tended to forget that Elsa was not Corona’s daughter. Those older remembered the outrage of their stolen princess all too well, still.

ooo

By the time the procession marched Elsa to the castle, she felt like an imposter. The King and Queen, waiting at the castle doors, rushed to collect her. The crowd sent up a cheer. Elsa dismounted, but she clung to Maximus’s reins.

King Thomas waived the captain of the guard over. The captain hurried near. “I’ll see to Maximus,” the captain told Elsa in the gentlest of tones. “You can let go, Your Highness.”

Elsa could not look at the captain directly. The man wore a sling restraining what appeared to be a broken arm. She nodded, then made herself relinquish the reins.

Queen Primrose put a sheltering arm around her. “Elsa, dear Elsa,” she murmured. “Let’s get you in.”

Elsa felt faint when she saw Hans, standing beside two men she conjectured to be the older princes, waiting with the crowd of people in the entrance hall. Their eyes met for only a moment before he looked away. The queen commented on the focus of Elsa’s attention.

“The princes of Southern Isles,” she said, only for Elsa’s ears. “We’ll introduce you properly in due time. Though I understand you have met Prince Hans. He’s been quite helpful in the account of events.”

“Helpful!” Elsa laughed, eliciting an odd look from her aunt.

Her aunt seemed to see the state she was in, at least on the surface, for the first time. “This won’t do,” she said. She gave King Thomas a squeeze on his arm, and when she had his attention, they exchanged a wordless message.

Queen Primrose navigated Elsa away from the others and down a branching hallway. A few of the queen’s attendants followed, ready to provide whatever service the royal ladies would need. The group passed through rooms as a shortcut to the bathing room. A bath sounded like a wonderful thing, to Elsa, and she quickened her pace when she saw where they were headed.

Primrose shooed the curious maids away after they brought fresh clothes for Elsa. The queen drew the bath herself. The royal bath was an ingenious mechanism with a tap to bring clean, heated water into the alabaster tub and a drain to empty it. It was large enough for someone of the king’s size to recline in and small enough to fill in a short time. The water flowed from the tap to a basin, where the temperature could be adjusted with a second tap of cool water, then from the basin to the tub in a miniature waterfall. It worked via the same engineering that brought fresh water for cooking and drinking up to the castle’s hilltop location.

Elsa stripped off her clay-smudged clothes and stepped into the filling tub. “Please stay with me,” she asked Primrose, suddenly frightened to be alone.

Primrose pulled a stool over next to the tub and sat. “Of course, I’ll stay,” she said.

When the tub was nearly full, Elsa slipped herself down so that her head went under the water. She blew out a cloud of bubbles. If her aunt weren’t there, she might have kept her head submerged until she ran out of air. She wanted to.

Without splashing, she pushed back up through the surface. She started to pick the last of her braid out of her hair, which she should have done before getting it wet.

“Here, I’ll do that,” said Primrose. She scooted the stool over so that she could undo Elsa’s tangle. She combed it through first with her fingers, then lathered soap made with flowers and worked the suds into Elsa’s hair. “This is a lot of dirt,” she commented. “A little more, and you’d be a brunette.”

“I was at the pottery,” Elsa explained.

“Ah.” Primrose continued washing Elsa’s hair. “How you’ve grown, beautiful child,” she sighed.

“I’m not a child anymore, Aunt.” Elsa was, and she wasn’t. She knew she needed to act like a woman, at her age, but she still felt like a child. In a way, time had been frozen for her ever since Anna had leaped faster than Elsa could make a hill of snow to catch her.

“No… you’re not. But, Elsa, grown women, even princesses, have permission to be afraid.” Primrose was careful to wipe the suds dripping from Elsa’s bangs away before they stung her eyes.

“Even princesses?”

“Even a queen,” Primrose said.

“But she can’t show anyone that she’s afraid,” Elsa said. She almost said more. She wanted to say more, but she couldn’t make the words come out. They were stuck inside her, stuck with her tears, pressed down by an invisible weight.

“Oh, Elsa, dear… ! You did a brave, brave thing today, but if I had known what you were doing before it was done, I would have be so afraid for you.” Primrose dipped her hands to wash off the suds. She pulled them out and set them on her lap. Only her voice revealed her anguish. “How could you have known that you would be able to defeat the spell? Why did you go at all?”

Elsa sank down into the water. She used the excuse of rinsing her hair to avoid meeting Queen Primrose’s eyes. “I had to try,” she said, relieved to be able to say something close to the truth.

“I would tell you never to do anything like that again, if I thought you would listen,” said Primrose. “How I wish there would never be another occasion for you to test that.”

Elsa slowly scrubbed at her fingers with a soapy washcloth.

“What can I do, to keep you safe?”

Give me Maximus, Elsa thought to herself. If not for him, I would be in the bottom of a ravine. She shook her head, and said, “Maybe it’s not for you to keep me safe. Maybe it’s that I… that it’s up to me to keep others safe. To keep Corona safe.” From me.

The queen looked at her with confusion, a look that slowly altered into consideration. “You don’t have a debt to Corona that you have to repay,” Primrose said.

Before the end of the day, however, Elsa would find out that she did owe, to the people of Corona and to the king and queen, and there was no getting out of the obligation.

ooo

Flynn wouldn't usually take his chances at The Snuggly Duckling, but the old robber woman had cleared out their camp by the time he circled back to it after a day of evading guards. She'd taken her daughter and every scrap of food and gear. Stabbington and Other Stabbington had a separate camp, and they, too, had packed up and disappeared. Or so Flynn thought.

Such was the life of an adventurer, Flynn told himself. A man of sixteen years, he'd weathered his share of setbacks since escaping the orphanage. He had a tough skin. He could roll with the punches.

Sweet-talking a barmaid susceptible to a smoldering look would have been his first choice method for getting dinner, but with the guard on high alert, any tavern along King's Road was too risky. The Duckling was a pit of unsavory characters because of its remote and secluded location in the woods. He paid actual coin for the privilege of the sloppy bowl of stew and a dark corner to eat it in. The public house was warm, as well as stinky, but he planned a safer -- albeit chilly -- night sleeping outside.

It was while he wolfed down the sour stew that the Stabbington brothers slammed through the front door of The Snuggly Duckling. Not appearing the least bit intimidated by the rough customers already in the pub, they took seats in their own dark corner (the interior of the Duckling was mostly dark corners) to swill tankards of the house ale. The burlier Stabbington, if the distinction could be made, wore a strip of cloth wound around his head to hold a bandage on his eye in place.

Flynn didn't know the thieves well at all. They'd made an alliance a few months ago with the old woman and Flynn for a heist that needed a couple of small bodies to crawl through some narrow spaces. The Stabbingtons had some shadowy connections, but they could move high value items, and Flynn liked his cut of the better jobs. The Brothers Stabbington seemed to like working with the others over the last few months because the old woman was ruthless and Flynn was quick at thinking on his feet in tricky situations.

He sank back further into the shadows of his corner. After the way the day had gone, Flynn was A-OK with going back to doing his own thing. Stealing objects or animals was one thing. Abducting girls was another.

The Snuggly Duckling had exactly one exit/entrance. Everyone that patronized the place wanted to be able to keep an eye on all comings and goings. No one would be snuck up on, and no one could sneak out with loot that didn’t come in with them. Flynn didn’t want to hang around the pub for too long. With all the wanted posters going up, anyone at all might choose to turn him in for the reward. He made his way toward the door using other customers for cover, moving as quickly as he could without drawing attention. Unfortunately, one of the drunkards gestured wildly when calling for more wine, knocking over a pile of dishes, just as Flynn crept by.

One of the Stabbingtons called out, “Rider!”

Flynn didn’t have a choice but to acknowledge them. He altered his path toward the door so that it seemed that he moved in their direction. “Gentlemen!” he said, playing up camaraderie. “Fancy running in to you!”

The two redheads stood up. Flynn tried, unsuccessfully, not to flinch. “Let’s talk outside,” the one who still had two good eyes said. The other one grunted agreement.

Flynn and the Stabbingtons filed out of the pub, into the night. They stopped where a little of the light from the pub still illuminated the clearing. Flynn made ready to run if it looked like the thugs were going to start punching. He was pretty sure that they didn’t realize how he’d helped Princess Elsa when they tried kidnap her, but a little doubt kept him on his toes.

“What’s up, gentlemen?” he asked.

“We’re crossing the border tonight. Got us a horse, so we’ll be out of Corona before dawn tomorrow,” said the slightly smaller Stabbington. Flynn had always thought of him as Cinnamon Stabbington because the man seemed to have a real love for spice and always smelled a little like a grannie’s kitchen. Plus, the red hair. Needless to say, Flynn never revealed his secret name.

“All of us?” asked Flynn. That would be another reason to start running.

“We can’t take you with us when we clear out,” said the bandaged Stabbington. “Got to see a surgeon we know in a hurry.” He gestured at his injured eye and growled, “No thanks to that little witch.”

“It ain’t a three-man horse. You have to stay behind, Rider. Best of luck to you. See if you can find out who that girl is,” Cinnamon Stabbington said to Flynn. “It’s a guarantee that her rich parents will pay out well to keep her little secret.”

“And she owes me an eye,” the injured one joked. Both brothers laughed at the grim humor.

“We’ll be back through this way again,” One-Eye Stabbington stated. “We’ll look you up when we do. No hard feelings, right?”

Flynn hid his relief. “No, of course not,” he agreed. “Smaller numbers, easier to stay ahead of the law. I’ll be alright.”

“Good,” said Cinnamon. He slapped a thick hand against Flynn’s back, almost knocking over. “There’s more honor among thieves than among princes,” he said.

“Hey, we made a great team,” said Flynn, already inching away.

“Good luck, Rider.” The brothers headed back into the Duckling.

Flynn didn’t stick around to test his luck. He jogged away, into the cover of woods and darkness. While he’d been part of the old woman’s robber band, he had camped with them, but he still kept his own base camp. It was a small cave -- too small for a bear to want --  where he stored some of his more interesting “acquisitions.” As long as he went back to it on a regular basis, the smell of his human presence discouraged other wild things from moving in. Flynn could find his home base in the dark without difficulty. He had great night vision, the skill honed from living primarily in the woods.

In the cave, he had a clean, safe space. It was less of a cave than it was a deep niche, like the pocket left behind when a berry is picked out of a blueberry muffin. It wasn’t a home as much as it was a vault. He kept a spare bedroll and spare packs in it.

The walls were crumbly stone, pocked with harder rocks. He could carve the walls a bit or pry out a stones to make little niches within the niche, for shelves. Flynn’s choice acquisitions thus lined the walls, or decorated the floor, depending on size. It was an eclectic mix of things, nothing intrinsically worth more than a few coins if even sellable, that nevertheless had a certain something to them: a small collection of worn out books, a silver-plated fork that he liked for aesthetic reasons, a glass paperweight marked with the official insignia of Corona’s naval fleet, foreign coins from distant lands, and other items of a similar nature. As a burglar and pickpocket, Flynn cultivated opportunism.

Surrounded by his collection, he curled up in his bedroll facing a doorway that he blocked with a concealing assortment of broken tree branches. From the outside, the cave would look inhabited by a badger or some other animal unsafe to disturb. He would be comfortable for the night, hidden in the forest. Alone and free.

Which wasn’t to say that he wouldn’t like the comforts of a house in the town, close to everything. Close to people and life. When he was honest with himself, he could admit that he missed that.

ooo

Chapter Text

Corona Castle shined a golden reflection onto the bay below. Every lamp alight and candelabras blazing, it illuminated a town alive with festive revelry. In the castle itself, a magnificent dinner was being assembled. A line of musicians waited in the courtyards, each quartet, quintet, or duo hoping to be among those chosen to perform at the celebratory feast. Miscellaneous performers juggled and tumbled to a merry cacophony of competing tunes.

With guests in the castle, Elsa could not hide in her room, no matter how much she wanted to close the door and tell everyone to go away. There was no escaping the feast being assembled in her honor that was beginning in short time. Dressed in her most elegant ball gown, wearing delicate shoes made for dancing, she hid herself in the castle’s library. She planned to stay there until the absolute last moment. She had an obligation to the guests, and she would fulfill it, but... not any sooner than necessary.

For events planned with advanced notice, allowing time for travel, invitations to the celebration went out to nobility far and wide. For this event, the invitation list was, by necessity, limited to visitors and those within the kingdom. Elsa was sure she could have convinced her aunt and uncle to delay the celebration, or even to do without the fanfare, if not for the visiting princes.

One of whom was an animal-torturing sadist, she couldn’t avoid recalling. The obligation of entertaining Prince Hans and his brothers was a nightmare for Elsa. First, before the feast was served, there would be formal dancing. With so few on the evening’s guest list, Elsa knew she would not be able to avoid Hans. It made her feel sick to her stomach to think of it.

His version of events, Elsa found out on review, claimed that the ice monster had appeared without any warning. She found out that he had, in fact, chased after her part of the way on horseback. Hans had returned to the castle ahead of Elsa with the messengers reporting her success. He had kept her secret, it seemed.

The library was not a good hiding place. It was enormous, for one thing, one of the largest rooms in the castle. Shelves lines the walls so high that twin staircases spiraled on each side. A room three levels tall, back in Arendelle, would be too large to heat. The shelves contained decades of histories as well countess works of poetry and collected plays. Her aunt Primrose admitted to not having read them all, at least not yet.

She stepped up one of the staircases and sat down on a step at one of the bends. She arranged her skirts around her so that she would be able to stand back up without tripping on them and falling down the stairs. She loved the dress. The making of it had been a gift for her birthday from her aunt. It was yards and yards of draping, pale blue satin, embellished with clear glass beads along the hem, shaped with a neckline that made her feel very grown up. Simple silver pins fixed her hair up off her neck to show off white topaz earrings and a matching necklace. Her nails were polished, not a speck of clay left to mar them; nevertheless, Elsa wore long, white, satin gloves covering from fingertip to elbow.

“A-ha! Found you!”

Elsa scrambled to her feet. She grabbed the staircase railing for support. “Kay!” She almost lost her footing from the relief. For a moment, when she heard the boy’s voice, she had feared it was Prince Hans that had discovered her.

Gerte appeared a moment behind Kay. Both were dressed better than Elsa had ever seen them. Gerte, who had bloomed in adolescence like a summer rose, wore a pretty gown in goldenrod yellow. Kay wore a suit in navy blue, and new boots.

“You’re not hiding out here, are you?” Gerte asked. “From your own party?”

Elsa responded with only a tight smile. With care, she made her way down the stairs.

“It’s terribly dark in here, Elsa,” Kay commented.

“How lovely to see you, both,” Elsa said. “Is Mother Gartner here as well?”

“Yes. Mother Gartner is with the king and queen,” Gerte said, “and they are all looking for you.”

“But I found you,” Kay said, giving Elsa a bright smile. “May I lead you back to their highnesses, Your Highness?” He bowed without mockery, then offered Elsa his arm.

Elsa gave him a light pat on his sleeve but declined his escort.

“I hope you will give me a dance with you,” Kay said as the three left the library.

“You can have all my dances,” Elsa said without thinking. She saw look of dismay that ran over Gerte’s face and didn’t know what to make of it. Kay looked like he had just been granted knighthood. “Why don’t you both go on and watch the entertainment? I promise,” she said, forestalling Kay’s protest, “that I will go directly to the king and queen. Where are they waiting?”

Gerte answered over whatever else Kay was about to say. “They are in the receiving room,” she said. She pulled Kay toward her and started leading him away. “That’s a great idea, Elsa. We’ll go watch the auditions. We can tell you about the ones too awful to be picked.”

Elsa watched them for a moment. Kay was complaining to Gerte and the girl was answering back in a hushed voice as she nearly dragged her friend down the corridor. Kay looked back and waved to Elsa. She gave a little wave back before she turned and went in her own direction.

Her uncle and aunt were, as indicated, in the most formal room of the castle. Once a year, for the festival of Rapunzel’s birthday, the jeweled tiara of the missing princess went on display in this room. The rest of the year, the display pedestal went into storage, and the tiara was locked away with the rest of the crown jewels. For this reason, Elsa was puzzled to see what looked like the tiara’s box of mother-of-pearl inlaid wood in her uncle’s hands.

She crossed the large room to her Aunt Primrose and Uncle Thomas, Queen and King of Corona, who stood close together, holding a quiet conversation. They both smiled when they saw her. There was something more to their smiles than the usual welcome.

She said hello to both and asked, “Did Mother Gartner go already?”

“She went to join the children in looking for you, but it seems that they found you first,” said her uncle. “No matter. We’ll all be gathered together soon.” He seemed nervous.

Her aunt spoke, sounding rushed, with a quaver in her voice. “We make speeches as a matter of course,” she started.  After a breath, she continued, “I… we want to speak simply now, from the heart, to you.” Primrose looked at Thomas.

He gave an encouraging nod, Elsa saw with growing apprehension. When adult had conferences in advance to prepare themselves, it meant something serious. Their nervousness made Elsa nervous. She made herself show a calm face. “What is it?” she asked.

“You have been,” Primrose went on, her eyes aglow, “like our own daughter for these four years. And today…” she seemed to lose her voice. She turned a beseeching expression to Thomas.

“Today, the people of Corona looked to you,” King Thomas announced. “I have seen the people of our kingdom call you their own.” His tone softened. A soft look filled his eyes. “You are my niece by blood, Elsa,” he said. “We haven’t forgotten that you are the crown princess of Arendelle, but your blood has a right here in Corona, as well.”

“For tonight,” Primrose said, “Corona needs its princess.” She touched the top of the decorate box. Thomas lifted it against his broad chest, opened the lid, and turned the opening toward his queen. Primrose reached in and removed the tiara.

Elsa kept her face still, but inside, she cringed away. She didn’t deserve to wear the tiara. She wasn’t Corona’s princess. And yet… it was a beautiful thing, too beautiful not to want. Three teardrop diamonds, each bigger than her palm, sparkled from a setting of blue topaz and white pearls clustered like flowers, lotus-pink sapphires, and yellow gold. Only the king’s and queen’s crowns exceeded it in rare jewels.

“We would like you to wear it,” Thomas said, “tonight, for our guests, and for our people.” He placed the box down on a footstool behind him.

Primrose raised the tiara. She stepped close to Elsa, and Elsa held still. The Queen of Corona settled Rapunzel’s tiara in place, tucking in Elsa’s hair as needed. Primrose hugged Elsa briefly before stepping away. Her eyes were wide, and she had an odd smile, as she looked at Elsa.

King Thomas, too, stared at Elsa for a long time before he broke the silence. “Elsa, my niece,” he said in a soft, intense voice, “if we do not recover our Rapunzel… you are the heir of Corona.” He continued before Elsa could ask a question. “We have not given up hope in Rapunzel. But we have no other children, and in your time here, you have become a leader for our people. We are in no hurry to stop being king and queen,” he said with a smile. “No one is in a rush to make you queen of either domain.”

The weight of the tiara, as little as it was, pressed down on Elsa. Yet, she knew how splendid it would look. She turned away from her uncle and aunt to glide toward a window, where the reflected light made a mirror of the glass. Against her white hair, the three large diamonds made her think of the petals of a crocus. The gems that shined as blue as her eyes glimmered like the ice of a frozen lake. She took a long breath, swallowing the knot in her throat. She tipped up her head, forcing the press of tears back.

ooo

Applause greeted her when she entered the ballroom side-by-side with the king and queen. The musicians, a quintet that had been playing a light melody, struck their instruments with new energy to begin a vivacious tune. The entrance of the king, queen, and princess was a signal for the celebration to begin in earnest.

While other guests paired off, a group that included Hans approached the monarchs and Elsa. King Thomas made the introductions between Elsa and the two other Southern Isles princes, Johan and Holger. “And young Hans, whom you have already met,” said the king. Thomas and Primrose both seemed to expect something from Elsa.

Hans made a deep bow with more grace and flair than his brothers had shown. He was neatly attired in dark blue and dove gray, a different suit that showed less evidence of resizing. The colors suited his light complexion and auburn hair. His manner was pleasant, and his smile just wide enough to appear sincerely bashful.

Elsa stared at his hands.

He wore gloves. Close fitting, white gloves covered his hands. The sight of them sent a crawling feeling up her spine. She looked up; their eyes met. His irises were an earthy green hue, set off by long eyelashes. If she had not known better, she could have believed that the youthful innocence they presented was genuine.

“May I have this dance, Princess?” he asked. His voice was gentle, far different from the sound it had had when he had called her a peasant.

“No!” said Elsa. She ignored everyone’s pause of surprise. “That is,” she said, recovering, “I would like to have the first dance with King Thomas.” She wrapped her small hand around her uncle’s forearm and squeezed, hoping he would go along.

Prince Johan turned to Queen Primrose. “Then perhaps, I may have the honor of a dance with the queen,” he offered.

“Oh! Well,” Primrose answered. She exchanged a quick glance with Thomas. “Shall we?”

Thus, they paired off for the grand march with the king and Elsa leading, followed by the queen and the bearded Southern Isles prince. The first dance was a stately promenade with slow, elegant turns and the lines of gentlemen and ladies weaving through each other until they each matched with their original partner again. Elsa saw Kay and Gerte, and even old Mother Gartner, following in the dance. One of the other guests was pleased to pair with Hans.

The stately dances, where paired partners rarely touched more than fingertips as they strode the classic steps, gave way at last to cordial folk dances. At first, the musicians played slower tunes. With each new song, they increased the tempo of the music. At the beginning of a lively circle dance, King Thomas sat out, although Queen Primrose kicked up her feet as merrily as the younger dancers. Kay maneuvered to be beside Elsa, so while the dance was not precisely paired, he danced as much with Elsa as with Gerte.

Elsa liked her friend’s simple enthusiasm. He unabashedly stomped his feet, slapped his knees, and whooped with the other Corona men as they danced her part of the country dance. The visiting princes sat the out for the complicated steps. Elsa circled and twirled with the other girls. Gerte, too -- Elsa thought -- seemed to be enjoying the dancing as much as Kay. Elsa felt a twinge of envy at how free to enjoy the moment they both seemed.

Elsa stepped out of the circle at the next dance, taking the time to catch her breath. To her chagrin, Hans made a beeline for where she stood. She saw him almost too late. Quickly, she moved around the opposite side of the room, ending up beside her Aunt Primrose.

Primrose knew exactly what Elsa was doing. “Elsa,” she admonished the girl, “it’s only a dance. Dance with the boy. He’s our guest.” When Elsa tried to leave, Primrose stayed her with a light touch on Elsa’s shoulder.

It was enough allow Hans to catch up. “Princess Elsa,” he said, showing teeth in his smile. “Perhaps I could have the next dance?”

Primrose cast Elsa a look that clearly said, “Go on.”

“Very well,” Elsa acquiesced. “We will dance together.”

Hans bowed. He extended a gloved hand to take Elsa’s hand and led her to the middle of the room. Elsa couldn’t bear to put her hand into his, even with the layer of her own satin gloves between them. Instead, she put the tips of her fingers lightly onto his wrist. He would have no polite option but to accept the restrained contact.

As they moved toward the center, the musicians changed. The new group began with a more romantic air. When Elsa heard the first lilting notes of the Landler, she desperately hoped that Hans would not know the couples dance, and therefore have to sit out until a less intimate dance began. Unfortunately for her, he knew exactly the stance to begin, indicating that he did know it.

She had no choice but to dance with him to the Landler in the more recent style, a slow, romantic repetition of turns and near embraces. The steps were gliding and elegant. In each pose of the dance, their hands touched: interwoven fingertips, grasped hands, palm to palm.

His gloves seemed like a mockery of her own. She knew that her dress gloves would not hold back her ice magic if it rose up in her. His gloves were like the invisible mask he wore. He presented himself hidden, obscuring his true nature.

“Well, Princess,” he murmured at the part of the dancing when he stood at her back with arms around her, “you are certainly full of surprises.”

She kept her posture rigid. Her movements were precise and without feeling. “I don’t know what you mean,” she answered in arched tones as she stepped away for the turns.

“I know you do,” Hans answered, his voice pitched only for Elsa to hear. “Why else the… chilly… attitude?” He smiled as if delighted with his play on words.

“You mean,” they stepped into toward each other, fingers linked, “why haven’t I said anything about your boorish conduct?”

Hans actually laughed aloud, though he quickly reduced the bark of laughter to a chuckle that made it seem he was merely enjoying his partner’s wit. “Don’t pretend, Princess. You’re a danger, and I know it. But only I know… for now,” he said. “You should be nice to me.”

Elsa felt a jolt of fear, made worse by the position of dancing shoulder to shoulder as they spun together in a circle. Hans’s face was so close that she could feel his breath pass over her cheek. She didn’t reply. The dance was almost over. She could suffer through the last of it in silence.

Or at least, she thought she could. But when the last part of the dance put her closely face-to-face with him while his arm was around her waist, she couldn’t sustain another moment. She pulled away from him and rushed out of the room without looking back.

She could hear him following behind her. He even called out to her, in a voice pitched to garner pity, “Princess Elsa, wait!”

She turned on him once they were out in the corridor, out of earshot of the gathering. “Stop,” she ordered him. “Don’t follow me.” She stood her ground.

“Or what?” Hans pulled at the fingers of his gloves, freeing his hands from their concealment. “Really, Elsa,” he said, his voice purring. “I’ve been very clear. Don’t you get how this works? I keep your secret,” he stepped close and ran his bare fingers along one of her eyebrows, “and you give me a reason to.”

A woman’s voice suddenly echoed against the walls, making both Hans and Elsa jump. “Dear, dear!” old Mother Gartner tutted. “You two can’t be out here unchaperoned!”

Elsa took the opportunity to step away from Hans. Hans collected himself. He pulled his gloves back on as he turned to face the matron. “On my word as a gentleman,” he blustered, “we were conversing away from the noise. I apologize for any appearance of impropriety and take full blame.”

“Nonsense, young man,” Mother Gartner scolded. “You should know better. Now hurry back where your brothers can keep an eye on you,” she said.

Sincere chagrin crossed Hans’s face for a moment before it was replaced by the posturing of embarrassment. He cast Elsa one last sharp glance before obeying Mother Gartner.

“Now,” the old woman said to Elsa in a kindly voice, “did you come out here for a breath of air?”

“I did,” Elsa replied with gratitude.

“Then we should find a room with a fresh breeze. Shall we walk?” Together, they walked for a few minutes further away from the music and dancing, until Mother Gartner spotted a padded bench and sat down without preamble. “Why don’t you go on ahead?” the woman suggested. “You can come fetch me when you’re done with your constitutional.”

Elsa looked at the old woman for a long moment. The old woman regarded her back with watery blue eyes and a certain wisdom. “Thank you,” Elsa said to her.

Elsa walked away, grateful for the freedom to be alone. She didn’t know how Mother Gartner could know her mind better than she did herself. Elsa took a side corridor, where she could take a flight of servants stairs up to the solarium. It was away from the ballroom and the great hall where servants bustled to prepare for the commencement of feasting.

She opened the French doors to the small balcony outside. With all the lights, it was too bright for her, and she retreated back inside where the room was diminished with soft shadows. She left the room open to the autumn air and sat down on in one of the big chairs.

She wondered if she could tell anyone about Hans. If she did, wouldn’t he reveal her secret, too? How bad would it be if she agreed to his terms?

For the second time that evening, she didn’t allow her tears to run. She didn’t dare weep. Tears could shatter the thin defenses she felt she had left.

ooo


Chapter Text

Flynn could not resist a party, and Corona’s townsfolk were in full party mode. He witnessed actual dancing happening on the tops of roofs. In spite of a lot of weird damage to the port town, the crowds were merry without being unruly, and there wasn’t even a guard in sight. Flynn actually felt a little bad about picking pockets when there was no real challenge to it.

For fun, he even put a few things back into different pockets. Some people were going to wake up, after daybreak, with hangovers and unfamiliar lacey things in their pockets. The best fun came from switching out wine bottles for different ones he had filled with water, without the carousers catching him at it. Flynn sampled the stolen wine, but poured most of it into a pig trough.

“Isn’t it a little early for Harvest Fair?” he asked a group of children who were up long past their bedtime. They just laughed at him and ran on.

Not until he stopped to watch a group of street performers did Flynn get a hint at the cause of the festivities. Using a series of repurposed costumes, the thespians told a story of a white-haired princess who was spirited away by a terrible beast. The princess broke the spell on the monster, turning him back into a prince.

And they lived happily ever after.

Flynn swiped a beer and bite to eat, and wandered on. He was pretty confident that Princess Elsa hadn’t actually become that particular storybook princess, but at least he had gleaned that she was central to the goings-on. And from eavesdropping on conversations, he had indication that some truth existed to the reports of an enchanted beast. Something had ripped through the town that day, causing havoc. The biggest storm that Flynn had ever witnessed hadn’t torn up the town as badly.

He ingratiated himself with a group of beer keg philosophers and turned the conversation to current events with a few well-placed comments. Elsa was being called the Champion of Corona, Flynn learned. The young princess had somehow saved the day, destroying some kind of giant that the guard had been unable to stop. Up at the castle, a ball and grand feast were ongoing in her honor.

Corona’s castle beckoned. Up he went -- not just up the hill. Sneaking past the crowd around the castle doors, he found a dark spot and a window that helped him scale the wall to an upper level ledge. From there he used the decorative stonework to climb further. He went in through an open window, sneaked past the castle staff bustling through the corridors, went back out a different window, and ran along a rooftop until he heard music.

If she was dancing the night away, she was probably just fine, he tried to convince himself. A little thing like nearly getting taken by two big guys couldn’t have shaken her up too much. He tried to tell himself that he didn’t have to feel guilty.

He was just starting to wonder how he was going to find the princess alone when he heard running, coming from indoor, and then a murmur of voices. He crept along the rooftop until he found a window that showed him the people inside: an old lady and Princess Elsa. Elsa left the old woman sitting on a bench and went off by herself.

Flynn looked around for another way in. Up ahead was the stone railing of a terrace or balcony. He leaped up, got a firm grip on the railing, and pulled himself up without more effort than expected. With the castle so well lighted, it was hard to find shadows to skulk in. He hurried to the darkest part of the balcony. He checked the windowed doors, found one of them open, and slipped into the empty room. He made his way around the edge of the room where the shadows were deepest.

His hand was on the knob of the inner door when he heard a girls voice say, “Flynn?”

He spun around, ready to dash across the room to the open door if needed. In the same split second, he also registered the figure curled up in one of the oversized armchairs. She had been sitting so still, hidden by the angle of the chair back, that he hadn’t seen her.

She looked small and fragile. Flynn immediately felt that he was doing the right thing to find and check on her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

Her blue eyes looked bluer because of her finery. In the darkness of the room, the tiara on her head almost glowed. Flynn had never seen that many jewels all in one place, or any as large as the center stones. Elsa had to be wearing the crown of the lost princess.

“I thought you didn’t like flower crowns,” he commented to laugh off his avarice. He made a gesture at her head.

Her hands flew up and touched the jeweled tiara she wore. Belatedly, she must have remembered when he had topped her head with a crown of flowers he had lifted during the lantern festival, years ago. After a moment, she answered his comment. “Not stolen ones.”

Her gave her a slow smirk, eyebrows raised. “That one isn’t?” A vision of her throwing ice daggers at the Stabbingtons flashed in his memory.  Immediately, he raised his hands, palm outward, in a gesture of surrender. “Don’t get mad!”

Instead of becoming angry, Elsa’s face became sadder. “You saw everything,” she said to him in a small voice. “What I did, yesterday, to those men you were with.”

“I didn’t want anything to do with that,” Flynn told her. “When you stopped on the road -- and by the way, never do that -- I didn’t know who you were, at first. A cute rich girl on a fine horse. But that white hair of yours stands out. I remembered the little empress who ordered the castle guards to let me go.”

“Empress,” the girl echoed with a sad laugh. “I don’t even want to be a princess. Or queen.” She unfolded from the chair, enough to put her feet down on the ground. Flynn hadn’t realized that she had had them tucked under her. She was wearing a lot of dress, lots of pale blue cloth and sparkles.

She twisted the fingers of her satin gloves. “You don’t seem afraid of me. Or disgusted,” she said. “You tried to help me, didn’t you?”

“I did. And I want to make sure you’re alright.”

She looked confused. “That I’m alright?” she echoed. She smiled a humorless smile. “You saw what I did!”

Flynn became uncomfortable. “Um. Well.” He tapped his fingers against his legs, feeling out of his element.  “Your, um, magical qualities. I-I can’t say I expected that. I mean, you… you… made pointy  things out of nothing.”

“Ice,” she said, softly. She was giving him a look of serious contemplation. “I-I make ice and snow.”

Flynn wanted to squirm under her stare. “Nice dress,” he said, to lighten the mood. “Sparkly.”

“How did you get in here… up here?” Elsa asked. She straightened up in her seat. A frown creasing her forehead, she asked, “Are you stealing from the castle?” She moved out of the chair, her body tensed. “Is the rest of your thieves band here?”

Flynn was quick to deny the accusation. “No, no! It’s just me. I’m on my own.”

“Is it?”

“Yes. It’s just me. I’m alone. If it makes you feel better, the others cleared out. They’re not even in the kingdom anymore.” Flynn casually moved into a better position for a quick escape.

“All of them?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure about the old woman and the girl. But the big guys...” He saw Elsa stiffen. He softened his voice. “They’re gone.”

“I want that to be true,” Elsa said. She looked at the floor as if she thought was going to collapse. She put her hand on a nearby chairback.

“You can believe it. It’s true,” Flynn answered. He asked, “Are you alright, Princess?”

She looked back up, at him. “What?”

He took a step toward her, and when she cringed, he felt awful. He felt a surge of protectiveness, too, that he realized shouldn’t be unexpected. He was, after all, already risking arrest just to check on the girl.

He turned the chair she had been originally sitting in and wordlessly indicated that she should sit back down. She sat down, but her eyes remained suspicious of him. “Why are you really here?” she asked.

Flynn took a chair nearby and turned it around so that he could sit down facing her. He said nothing for a minute. Then, he cracked a smile. “I can’t resist a party,” he answered. He made himself more comfortable in the seat.

“You’re not at the party,” Elsa countered.

“Neither are you,” Flynn replied. “Why aren’t you at your party, Sparkles?”

She boggled at Flynn’s appellation of her. “Did you just call me ‘Sparkles’?” she asked, avoiding his question. She sprang up and crossed the room. She stopped at the open doorway to the balcony. There, she stood with her arms crossed over her chest. She looked back over her shoulder at Flynn.

“How did you decide to run away?” she asked him. “How did you know where to go, once you’d decided?”

“I went where my feet took me,” he said. He lounged back, crossing his legs as he took a relaxed pose. “Anyway, I didn’t run away. Adventure called me, and I ran toward freedom. Nothing held me back.” He shrugged.

“Wasn’t there anyone you cared about, at the orphanage? Didn’t you have any friends?”

Flynn became thoughtful. He was tempted to say that Eugene Fitzherbert had been a lonely kid. “You can’t let anyone tangle you up,” he decided to say.

“You could be so much more than a thief,” Elsa said.

“I am more than a thief,” Flynn replied, laughing. “I’m terrific at a lot of things. One thing about me doesn’t define all of me.” He crossed his arms. “I like who I am.”

“I’m good at a lot of things, too,” said Elsa. She didn’t announce it with the same pride Flynn had. She looked at her gloved hands. “I don’t want any of this,” she confessed in a small voice. “If only I could go far enough away from everything…”

“You don’t want to run away,” Flynn said. He uncrossed his legs and straightened up.“From all this? Wealth, nice clothes… family. You live in a castle!”

“Why are you getting worked up about it?” Elsa’s voice snapped, and her eyes flashed outrage. “You ran away from who you were!”

Flynn couldn’t believe it. “You’re telling me you want to run away from what you are? You’re a princess! You can be whoever you want. No one can make you do something you don’t want to do.” He looked at the ground, making a performance of controlling his outburst so that she would get that it really bothered him. He had been about her age when he ran away, and it hadn’t been easy, but he hadn’t been running away from easy, either. “Anyway, if they try,” he said, standing up and forcing a light laugh, “you can,” he made a gesture like Elsa casting out her ice magic, “do that ice thing.”

His flippant joke had the opposite affect of humor on Elsa. She covered her mouth, stifling what sounded like a choked sob. She turned away and curled into herself.

“Woah, woah! No crying,” Flynn said, stepping toward her. Tentatively, he reached toward her shoulder.

“Leave me be, Flynn,” said Elsa. “Please go.” She pulled at her dampened gloves and stared out at nothing.

Flynn held his hands outward at his sides. “I was just leaving,” he said.

“If you stay here, you’ll be caught by the guard. You’ve risked yourself enough.” She glanced his way.

His face relaxed into a small smile. “Until we meet again, Sparkles. Uh, Your Highness, I mean.”

“I’d rather just be Elsa,” she told him.

He gave her a salute and a bow. “Until we meet again, then, Elsa. Farewell.” With a theatrical flourish, he exited via the balcony.

ooo

Chapter Text

She saw him climb over the railing, then heard the light sound of his boots against roof shingles. She could follow after him. Not as she was dressed, of course, but her room wasn’t far. Change her name, maybe even dye her hair a darker color. Pretend to be someone else.

Flynn might not let her follow him, not with the illusions he had about her privileges. Why would she want to go with him, anyway? She wouldn’t live as he did, an “adventurer,” as he said. She was better on her own.

She wondered if she even could run away, as Flynn had done. Her life wouldn’t simply let her go. The crown on her head weighed heavily, and so did the crown she was meant to wear one day. If she ran… it would be over the edge of the world. Over the edge of a chasm and into the dark.

Pretend to be someone else.

She was already pretending. Fosterage rarely lasted more than five years. Once, she wished always for the call to go home; now she dreaded the moment of truth it would bring. Only she knew that she would abdicate the crown of Arendelle, since if she were to return, she would put all of Arendelle in danger. Better to give Anna both the crown and safety. Tonight she wore Rapunzel’s tiara, play acting the princess for her aunt, uncle, and all of Corona.

What role would Hans of Southern Isles want for her to play? An arrangement to use her influence on Corona’s and Arendelle’s trade agreements would be strategic. Or could he be reaching for a larger prize?

Could he…

be thinking… to improve his status…

by marriage?

Elsa gasped for a breath. She knew how politics worked between kingdoms, yet the thought of marriage still shocked her. Worse, marriage to a prince so far down the line of succession that he would bring nothing to the union. She couldn’t imagine herself married, or even betrothed! Nevermind that it wasn’t at all strange for a girl who had already started her courses to be considering her marriage-bed prospects.

She didn’t want any prospects! She didn’t want… that. And certainly not with a blackguard such as Hans! If she had to marry someone, it could at least be someone she might pretend to want!

Pretend...

Hans was a monster, pretending to be a prince. He enjoyed threatening to expose her secret, but she knew his true nature. She could pretend at least as well as he did. Better, she imagined. She had so much practice. What she hid always fought to be exposed.

She paced back and forth while focusing her thoughts back to the situation at hand. The power that Hans had over her was the secret of her ice powers, yet he had been the only witness that time. Flynn hadn’t given any indication that he would tell her secret, and the other bandits were no longer in the kingdom, he had said.

“Ugh!” she growled to herself. Hans threatened her. He threatened her because he wanted power over her, which he could not have unless she remained afraid of him.

Be someone else.

If she were unafraid of him, he would not have power over her. She was afraid. However, she could pretend not to be. She could pretend that the secret he held could not harm her. In what scenario would that be true? Suppose Hans thought he would not be believed, or that he would face negative consequences for telling her secret?

She finished pulling her satin gloves off the rest of the way. They were damp from when she had sobbed into them. Her hands felt better, out of them. She folded them up and carried them with her as she went down the stairs, heading back to the ball.

Mother Gartner still waited in the corridor. She sat on the bench in a patient pose. When Elsa approach, the elderly matron slowly rose to her feet. Giving her assistance, Elsa put her gloves down on the bench. She chose to leave them there when she and Mother Gartner walked away.

“You were gone quite a while,” Mother Gartner commented without judgment. “We may have missed all but the last dance.”

Elsa braced herself. She would continue as if she were unafraid. “I feel better now,” she lied.

ooo

She strode back into the ballroom with her lips positioned in a confident smile. While Mother Gartner moved toward a group of chatting adults, Elsa spotted Hans and made her path angle toward him. He was holding court with a small group of other youths that included her friends. Seeing his chummy manner with Kay, she had to fight to keep the plaster smile on her face. That contemptible Hans didn’t merit standing in Kay’s shadow. Hans must have noted Kay’s attention shift. The prince’s smile on turning to see Elsa had a quality of gloating satisfaction.

Kay’s smile, when he saw Elsa approaching, was genuine, however. He quickly stepped away from the others and intercepted Elsa. “I hoped that I could still have that dance with you,” he greeted her. “May I?”

The tune was ending. To dance with Kay would be a short detour from her intentions, but she worried that she would lose her resolve. “I hope you will forgive me, Kay,” she said. She glanced at Gerte, still standing with the others, who had a bereft look dimming the roses of her young face. Elsa could, at least, make Gerte happier. “I should not have promised you anything. I’m expected to dance with Prince Hans.”

“Oh.” Doing a bad job of hiding his disappointment, he gave her a little nod. “A prince for a princess. I understand.” Mustering a smile, he added, “Of course I forgive you, Princess Elsa.”

“Thank you, Kay.” She swept away from him, quickly moving toward Hans as the next musical number began. Hans had stepped away from the others.

“I see you’ve changed your mind,” a pleased Hans said. He took her hand as a given.

Elsa suppressed her revulsion. His kid leather gloves were soft skin against her bare hands. “Shall we dance?” she asked him.

The musicians were playing a piece to accompany a face-to-face couples dance, similar to the Landler, called the waltzer. It was very new, but Elsa knew it, since -- like the Landler -- the dance’s origins were local.

The smile on Han’s face faltered. “I don’t know this one,” he told her breezily. “Why don’t we talk somewhere privately? The moon is beautiful tonight.”

“It’s quite easy to learn the dance,” Elsa insisted. “Three beats to a measure.”

Elsa stepped into Hans and took his right hand, which she pulled around her waist and pressed above the small of her back. Nonplussed, yet not flustered, Hans did not resist. She took his left hand in her right, and wrapped her right hand and arm around his right shoulder.

“Like this,” she said. Though positioned to follow, she pushed and pulled on him as she led the steps of the waltzer. His feet stepped on hers more than once at first, though he adapted quickly.

Because of the dance style or because of fatigue, fewer dancers joined them on the floor. The greater distance between couples made it easier to speak without the possibility of being overheard.

Hans turned his face toward Elsa’s. She compared the green of his irises to the muck of algae growing around a stagnant pond. He pulled her as close as propriety allowed. “We look good together,” he said in a low voice. “You made the right decision.”

“I know I have,” Elsa replied. She changed her language to the language spoken in both Arendelle and Southern Isles. “So that we understand each other clearly, let me speak in our common language.” The sound of the words gave her strength. She wrote to Anna in their language, except when helping her practice others, but she had become accustomed to hearing her own voice in the language of Corona.

Hans switched his language, too. “I certainly prefer it.” His voice sounded more genteel in his native tongue. “And this dance. I like it, too.”

“When you and your brothers leave Corona at first light tomorrow, you can take this lesson with you. As a token, from me.”

“Oh, I don’t know that I have to leave,” Hans responded. “Not so quickly. My brothers can go on ahead of me. They have some business that can’t be delayed longer.”

“You’ll leave tomorrow,” Elsa said as they twirled through a fast turn, “or I’ll see that you are tossed into the dungeons.”

“What?” Hans hissed with a warning tone.

“You assaulted a princess. Have you forgotten? I can have you hanged, for that. Imprisonment would be a mercy.”

Hans struggled to hide a nasty expression. “Have you forgotten? They’ll do worse to you when I tell them you do magic. You won’t be any kind of princess once they know your secret. Witches are rolled in barrels filled with salt and nails. They’re burned with hot iron shoes.” His manner became intense as he enumerated the possible tortures. “I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. If you think a candle burn hurts, imagine that agony.” As another couple danced close, he smiled and nodded at them. Then he maneuvered out of earshot with the spinning of their dance steps. “Don’t put yourself in peril, Princess, by being a little fool.”

Elsa took a breath, bracing herself. “It’s not a secret,” she lied. “My father and mother, and my uncle and aunt, know. I’m the crown princess of Arendelle and the champion of Corona.” Their dancing came to a stop a moment after the music. “I hold your dagger, Prince Hans. Proof that you attacked me. Your testimony is no proof, and if you speak of sorcery, it will be considered an overture of war by Southern Isles.”

Hans looked as if he had been slapped in the face. He stepped back from Elsa, looking her up and down. He belatedly released her hand and took his touch off her waist. His eyes narrowed. Very quietly, he said, “When you look in a mirror, you will always see the monster you are.”

Stung, she pretended not to have heard him. “Did you like the dance? The music was from a scene in the Italian opera, Una Cosa Rara, by Vicente Martin y Soler. The opera’s name refers to beauty and honor together. Una Cosa Rara: ‘a rare thing.’” She stood a long moment to collect herself. Then, as she stepped past Hans walking away, she told him, “I could freeze your heart and no one would notice.”

He didn’t follow her.

Once the feast was served, she could hardly even put food in her mouth. She remained shaken from challenging Hans. She worried that he would call her bluff.  It was true that she could produce the dagger that she had taken from him as evidence, but if he told anyone about her ice power… she couldn’t bear to think of it.

Hans and his brothers sat at King Thomas and Queen Primrose’s table. It was small relief that the Southern Isle princes were placed on the far side of Queen Primrose, while Elsa sat at King Thomas’s side; Elsa felt as if her every move was watched, if not by Hans, then by the room full of guests. Knowing that someone in the kitchen would enjoy a fine dinner of her unwanted meal, she let the servants fill her plate, then  carry away the untasted food.

Instead of eating the food in front of her, she thought about her future as an exile. She couldn’t continue, she felt, in the place of Corona’s princess. Confronting Hans had given her a small boost of focus to consider what she wanted. Talking to Flynn had seeded the thought of what she would do, if she were not a princess, to find her freedom. She might still throw herself into a ravine, but while she still had other options, she could save that one escape as a secret comfort. For once, she would have a secret that only she knew.

The dinner ended somewhat abruptly, at least for the royal family, when the captain of the guard brought news. He entered the hall in the company of one of his messengers, his arm still bound because of his damaged shoulder: the actual injury he sustained from being knocked off his horse by the ice monster. Elsa felt glad that she had eaten nothing; she felt sicker upon again seeing the harm she had done to the captain.

What he had to tell the king required privacy. King Thomas rose and led his guardsmen out of the dining hall to conduct their business away from the guests.

ooo

Once they were in the hallway, heading toward the king’s chamber, the captain apologized to King Thomas for the interruption, then told him, “The villains have been caught, Your Highness. They were found over the Qamar border, apparently making arrangements to flee to Agrabah. Qamar is extraditing them to us. The bandits will be in our custody by dawn.”

“The whole band?” King Thomas inquired. He led the group to his audience chamber.

“Two brutes, only: the ‘Stabbington Brothers’, as they are known. They will say nothing of their fellow thieves.”

King Thomas’s face became grim. “In time, they will,” he said. “I’ll have everything they know out of them.”

ooo

After bidding goodnight to the honored guests, Queen Primrose also left the table. Elsa took the opportunity to escape, following after the queen. She overtook her before Queen Primrose had gone past the first turning of the corridor. She stopped her and asked for the meeting she needed with Queen Primrose and King Thomas.

Elsa and Primrose crossed paths with the captain of the guard and the messenger at the doorway to the King’s audience chamber. The men bowed to the royal ladies, then proceeded on their way with haste.

King Thomas stood with his arms crossed over his broad chest, deep in thought with his head bowed. The king straightened up as his wife and niece entered the room. Primrose shut the door behind them. Thomas’s expression lightened from a grim contemplation as they entered his company.

Queen Primrose held his gaze. “No word… ?” she asked.

He shook his head. “None,” he answered.

Elsa took the opportunity, before the meeting turned to other things, to cement her uncle’s and aunt’s attention. With care, she began to remove the jeweled tiara from her head. When the metalwork caught on the strands of her hair, Queen Primrose reached to help her.

“You don’t have to take it off now, Elsa,” she said. “Let the maids take it out when they brush out your hair before you sleep.”

“It’s not mine to wear,” Elsa stated. She extricated the tiara and put it in her uncle’s hands. “Uncle Thomas, Aunt Primrose, I can’t stand in my cousin’s place. Let me instead,” she rushed on, “pledge all my abilities to the search for her. Give me Maximus. Let me ride with the guard. I am skilled, and I have strength. Let me do this, at least, until Arendelle calls me home.”

King Thomas stopped his own protest and considered her plea. “A year, at most, until you are recalled to Arendelle,” he mused.

“It’s too dangerous,” Primrose worried, but even she seemed to consider.

“Am I not Corona’s champion?” Elsa countered. She felt like fraud, but she had to win her desire.

King Thomas and Queen Primrose shared another one of their wordless communications. Elsa saw the look, but couldn’t interpret the meaning.

“Let me give it some thought,” the king started.

“Uncle --” Elsa began to plead. She stopped when King Thomas lifted his hand in a gesture for her patience.

“I’ll make my decision soon enough,” he said kindly. “My dear niece. At the moment, however, is a matter of pressing importance. “ He looked around the room. “I would prefer we speak of it in a better setting.”

Elsa felt a pulse of hope when, on the way to King Thomas’s personal study, they left Rapunzel’s tiara back in its box, ready to be stored until the next formal occasion. They were all preoccupied, however, and she wasn’t the only one not to notice that they left the jeweled tiara unguarded.

Thomas’s study was appropriate for meetings on matters related to them as a family, as opposed  to discussions about the kingdom. It was an oasis from the grandeur of the castle, filled with sentimental objects. Many of Elsa’s early artwork graced the walls and shelves. A pre-wedding portrait of Primrose and several small paintings of baby Rapunzel filled a space directly across from his writing desk.

He gestured for Elsa and Primrose to choose seats. As usual, they went to the same chairs, Elsa to an armchair (that could recline) and Primrose to a settee. On other occasions, she had taken advantage of being able to lie down or lounge in recline.

Thomas paused before he took his own seat, in a massive chair that suited his frame. “The men who tried to take Elsa have been caught,” he said, all in one great sigh. “Matters of justice are rarely so grave in our kingdom, but I confess that my rage is clouding my judgment.” He sat down. “I am concerned about your feelings upon hearing this news, Elsa. Will you be able to confront these villains? If the strain it too great, I would spare you any contact with the matter entirely.”

Elsa could have screamed. She continued to pretend that all was well and kept her countenance placid. She had only just won a shaky victory against Hans, and now two others who had seen her ice magic, two she had thought gone and to be forgotten, would be in a position to tell her secret. She could take her uncle’s offer, but if she did, she would show herself too weak for her earlier request to ride with the guard.

She made herself speak. “Justice should never be an easy decision, Uncle. I am willing to do what is needed.”

Primrose interjected, “We must discover what they know.”

“We conjecture that these men may know something of our Rapunzel’s abduction,” Thomas explained to Elsa. “Strong methods of interrogation may be in order.”

“You mean… torture, don’t you?” Elsa asked, giving thanks that she had not eaten anything at dinner because of the way her stomach twisted. Under torture, even the threat of it,  the bandits would certainly give her secret away.

“We have to use what is necessary,” said Primrose. “There are poisons that will cause a man to speak without censor. They cause great pain when withheld, after the first dosage. However, ultimately these prisoners will go to the hangman.”

“I have also been given to understand that one of the ruffians has been partially blinded. A promise of medical care can be a positive inducement. If it should turn out that these men are not as villainous as we perceive before all evidence is gathered, we may find ways to attain their co-operation.” King Thomas was not a man of rages. Elsa knew he would prefer a way without violence. “They will be in the dungeon by morning. I would like to begin questioning them as the first order of business, tomorrow.”

Queen Primrose nodded. “I will have our schedule cleared,” she said. “Elsa, you may do the same, but at first, we will only need you to testify that the correct persons have been captured.” She confirmed her statement with King Thomas via a look.

Elsa could only nod. She knew there would be no chance of sleep for her this night, anticipating the next day to come.  

ooo

 

Chapter Text

In no hurry to leave, Flynn gave himself a little tour of the castle. He even nabbed a full plate of food being carried away to the scullery with the dirty dishes from the feast. He found an empty room -- no hidden princess, this time -- to enjoy his meal before finishing his exploring.

There was nothing wrong with the food. It looked like it hadn’t even been tasted. Thanking his luck and the pickiness of rich people, Flynn chowed down on a meal literally fit for a king. Then he went exploring.

“I wouldn’t mind living here,” he murmured to himself as he toured, ducking away to hide once in a while when someone passed down a nearby corridor. It seemed that while the castle was full of people, they were gathered in one of three places: the banquet hall, the kitchens, or outside around the castle.

The castle had a lot of guest bedrooms and guest suites. He dared to poke around what investigation showed was an unoccupied set of rooms. The bed was empty, but Flynn found folded blankets and a featherbed stored in a wardrobe that smelled like lavender.

The meal, a little rich and heavy, was making him sleepy, and the lump of clean bedding looked very, very attractive. He crawled into the closet and pulled the door shut behind him. He knew his boots were dirty, but he didn’t feel guilty about snuggling into the featherbed. Eugene might have felt guilty, but not Flynn. He took a cat nap in the closet.

He woke up not knowing it was several hours later, but suspecting that he’d slept longer than he intended. The bedding had been too comfortable. Before climbing out of the wardrobe, he paused to listen for people, then quietly swung the door open a crack. It was still dim in the room, brightened only by the lights on the outside of the castle refracting through a high window. The window looked too narrow to squeeze out through, so even though Flynn felt as if he was pushing his luck, he had to go back out through the castle.

He did a lot more hiding from passers-by than he had earlier. The festivities must have concluded. The guests were going home. Actually, as he listened in on conversations, these folks seemed to be the last of the guests going home. He kept his eyes open for a clock. When he saw the actual time -- nearly morning -- he couldn’t believe it.

On the up side, he considered, it had been the best sleep he’d had in ages. He felt better than ever. If a featherbed weren’t so large, he would have gone back to steal it.

He saw a crowd at the castle entrance and thought he could sneak out with them, but as he got closer, he saw that they were blocked from leaving by a procession of helmed heads and armored bodies. The curious crowd was watching the castle guard leading the Stabbington brothers, both of them in manacles, toward a part of the castle that Flynn could guess held the dungeons.

He backed up and went looking for a safer exit.

Taking the turnings that he could without being spotted, he stayed as close as possible to outer walls. The castle, made of ancient buildings, towers, and turrets connected as needed by newer architecture, continually funneled him toward the most frequently used spaces. He ended up, in fact, in the throne room, a big room with a vaulted ceiling and no other obvious ways out. Floor-to-ceiling drapes covered grand stained-glass windows that did not open. He ran across the glossy floor to the thrones for the king and queen. There was always a service door somewhere; behind the thrones seemed as likely a place as any.

Not a service door, but a vault door hid behind the wall hangings. It was locked. But on one of the sumptuous royal chairs, a box had been left, as if forgotten. Inlaid with gleaming mother-of-pearl, the hardwood box looked like it would fetch a price of at least a couple of gold pieces.

He opened it, naturally. Empty, it was worth stealing, but in case it happened to hold any documents, Flynn had the sense to leave those behind. When he saw what was inside, he stopped breathing for a solid quarter minute.

He could almost feel the light playing across his face as it reflected from the diamonds of the tiara. The tiara of the Lost Princess. The tiara that had been on Elsa’s head. A thin, white strand still wound around the prongs of one of the dawn pink jewels.

Flynn’s covetousness almost lost the battle with his fear. It was too great of an opportunity to pass. Clearly, luck wanted him to take the tiara. “I’ll be doing her a favor,” he whispered to himself, mesmerized by the play of light through the gemstones. “She hates flower crowns.” His hands shook. His heartbeat thundered in his ears. With the jewels from the tiara, he could buy the rest of his life.

To steal it was worth his life, if he were caught. They would probably borrow punishments from other kingdoms, like cutting off his hands or his nose, before he went under the axe. They might use a blunt axe.

He couldn’t put the box down. He almost couldn’t make himself close the lid on the shining glory of gold and gems. When he did, he felt a rush better than any since he’d run away to freedom.

Then, energized by the raised stakes on his adventure, he continued sneaking his way out of the castle, his prize under one arm. With it in his possession, taking a shortcut through the servants’ areas wouldn’t be any less dangerous than moving through the main parts of the castle. One of the many rooms had to have a usable window, so as he passed their doors, he paused to listen for sounds of occupancy until he found an empty one.

From what looked like an old nursery -- it was as clean as the rest of the castle, but felt neglected -- he went out another set of the French doors that were widely used in the castle. He wrapped the tiara’s box with the covering off a side table as he passed through the room. Sure enough, a small balcony gave him access to the rooftops leading to escape. He paused before he went over the balcony railing, however, when he heard voices spilling out of the window a room above.

At first, he thought their words were being distorted by the distance, which would have been strange because they sounded like they were right by the window. Three voices, three people, all male. Flynn finally realized that they were speaking in a foreign language. Based on the tone, the adults were frustrated and angry at something; the younger sounding voice was persuasive.

Flynn couldn’t understand their conversation, and he didn’t think they would spot him climbing down, so he left them behind and continued on. He tied the ends of the cloth diagonally across his chest to secure the box against his back. Hands freed, he stepped quietly across the edge of roof until he reached a place where he could get a foothold to descend to the ground.

He didn’t waste his escape. The Stabbington brothers were on their own. They were caught; he wanted to stay free. Using the cover of night to get away from the castle without being noticed, Flynn left the castle and town and fled into the woods with his prize. He was far away when dawn began to lighten the sky.

ooo

Hans stumbled down the stairs and nearly ran into the two guards at the entrance to the prison cells. Before they could yell at him for being in a restricted area, he made a show of looking around with shock, followed by embarrassment. “Not -- how say -- cooking bath?” he asked, feigning lack of fluency with the local language. “Sauna?” he asked, using the word in his language. “Where find, please?”

The skinnier of the two guard tried to be helpful. “No,” he said loudly, shaking his head in an exaggerated way. “No understand. You,” he pointed at Hans, “go upstairs.” He pointed back up the stairs. “Ask for Matron Inka. She help you.”

Hans smiled like an imbecile and nodded along with the skinny guard. He didn’t move from the spot.

The second guard addressed the first. “You’d better take him upstairs, Karl. The king wouldn’t like to know that guests were wandering into the dungeons.”

“You’re right, Ambrose,” the guard replied in a normal tone. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He turned back to Hans, and his volume went back up. “Please come with me, sir.”

Hans walked behind the guard, distracting him with nonsense questions. On the stairs, Holger stepped out from around a turning, grabbed and silenced the guard. The big prince choked the guard until Karl slumped unconscious.

A minute later, Johan trod past them, heading down the stairs for his role in their plan to break the Stabbington brothers out of imprisonment. The idea had been Hans’s. The arrest of his brothers, Bram and Gunnar “Stabbington” as they called themselves, couldn’t have come at a better time, for him. However unwittingly, for once his brothers had helped him out. Without the need to break them out of Corona’s dungeon and flee, Hans would not have had a way to convince Johan that they all needed to leave the kingdom by dawn.

Fate had given him the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Without the Princess interfering, this time.

He heard Johan ask the guard if he had seen the younger prince. The guard’s answer cut off suddenly with a muffled gurgle. Cleaning his dagger on a handkerchief, Johan came back up the stairs to wave Holger and Hans back down.

Holger dragged Karl’s unconscious body down the stairs. He took one look at dead Ambrose, lying face down in a spreading puddle of dark blood. He shifted Karl’s body, broke the guard’s neck, and tossed him next to his fellow.

“Let’s get this done,” Holger said.

Hans dug around the guards’ belts until he found the one that held the key to the locked door that they had guarded. He took pleasure in the musing that his plan had assigned the dirty work to his brothers. If they were caught, he could say he hadn’t expected the killing.

They unlocked the door and strode as a group down the empty corridor to confirm that no other guards stood in their way. Just as Hans had discovered, the majority of guards on duty were in the town, escorting drunks home and helping clean up after a night of revelry, while the remaining ones, including the captain, were in conference with the king. This hour provided the only window opportunity to break Bram and Gunnar out. Once they saw that the corridor was clear, Johan and Holger backtracked to ready their horses.

Hans had the pleasure of turning the key in the lock of their cell. Not only would they owe him their freedom, but they would have a visual memory as a reminder.

“Would you look who’s here,” muttered Gunnar, scratching his sideburns. “Well, little brother, this is some reunion.”

Bram just groaned as he got to his feet. His skin was pasty, and he did not look well. Gunnar took him by the arm and helped him out the cell door.

“He has fever from his eye,” Gunnar explained. “How are we getting out of here without being caught again?”

“Ship’s waiting,” Hans explained, taking Bram’s other side to assist. “Holger and Johan are with me. They’re getting their horses hitched to a wagon to hide you in, right now. I’ll follow with Sitron.”

They managed to make their way out without being stopped. Hans couldn’t believe the way his good luck held, all the way through the escape. Unnoticed and unquestioned, they left castle and town behind.

They boarded the ship, departed from the dock, and bid Corona goodbye.

ooo

Chapter Text

It’s my fault.

It’s my fault.

They died because of me. Ambrose. Karl. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have thought Flynn Rider was on my side. That he wasn’t a threat.

Elsa could hardly hear the most recent report over the noise in her head of self recrimination. That, and the sound of the heavy rain hitting the windows filled her hearing. A rainstorm had rolled in during the morning. It washed away clues, making chances of catching the escaped prisoners ever more slim.

I didn’t take him seriously, even knowing he’s an outlaw. He set them free. Maybe he didn’t… kill… Karl and Ambrose… maybe it was the red-headed men, after he helped them escape. But he is culpable, and I am guilty, too.

She couldn’t feel anything but a barrier of insulating cold between her and everything else. She sat, perfectly still, watching Captain Kempf’s mouth move. His was the latest news, and yet the same: still no sign of the escapees. It was as if they had vanished. Elsa was the only one who knew that Flynn Rider, known associate of the Stabbington Brothers, had been in the castle. No one knew that she had let Flynn go without raising the alarm.

And good men are dead because of me, she thought.

The escape had happened during a slight lull in security, when only two guards stood guard over the bandits. The guard were unaccustomed to having dangerous criminals held captive, and no one anticipated that they would have an ally positioned to break them out. The level of brutality used to set them free shocked everyone.

And the tiara of the princess was missing. Stolen. King Thomas took the news like a physical blow. Elsa half-remembered that he had held it last, and that the tiara had been left out of the vault. If she had harbored any hope of Flynn’s innocence before that report, it evaporated upon being told that the tiara had been stolen.

Principally addressing King Thomas, the guard captain said, “Interviews of witnesses who were in the areas surrounding the castle having been yielding the same testimony, Your Highness. They saw a dark figure in a cloak, or a shadow carrying a bundle on its back. We have two who have pointed out where they saw the figure leaving the castle. Your Highness, they saw someone climbing out of the old nursery.” The captain tightened his lips, an indication of discomfort. “Rumors have already begun.”

“What kind of rumors?” King Thomas asked. His tone warned seriousness.

“Rumors that dark magic has again touched Corona, Your Highness. The figure has been described as a shadow carrying away Princess Rapunzel.”

“There was much carousing last night, Captain.”

“Indeed, Your Highness.” Elsa registered that the guard captain looked over to her, as if seeking her support. “We had many unreliable witnesses. However, these two were both servants of the castle, and sober, and both too young to know that room as the nursery of the princess.”

Queen Primrose interjected. “The servants do converse among themselves,” she cautioned. “The young maids may still know the empty room was the nursery.”

The captain dipped his head, acknowledging the queen’s statement. Still, the air felt heavy from the talk of dark magic. “If I may be bold,” the captain hedged, “the fear of the people would be well addressed if the Champion could be seen assisting our investigation of this grave affair.”

Elsa’s gaze flickered from the captain to her uncle. King Thomas did not answer Elsa’s look. “It will be taken under consideration. Thank you, Captain. You may return to your duties.”

The guard captain gave a crisp bow, in spite of his injuries, and strode out of the throne room. Elsa wondered if his suffering was terrible. Even if he had kept his riding to a minimum, any riding would jolt his shoulder badly.

“Well, Elsa,” King Thomas sighed, when the room emptied but for the king and the royal ladies. “It seems that not only is your wish approved, but your desire to ride with the guard is needed. While it remains your desire, and while your presence graces our kingdom, you may take your place as Corona’s guardian. The stallion, Maximus, is yours, as well.”

Elsa felt light-headed. She looked at her Aunt Primrose for confirmation. The solemnity of Primrose’s nod told her that the subject had been well-discussed between the king and queen. Nevertheless, the final decision was due to the horrible events of the night.

Elsa carefully rose from her seat. She gave her uncle and aunt a deep curtsey. She left their presence with her head held up. She would not allow her posture to droop, or her view to fall to the floor.

She had gotten her wish, and it wasn’t what she had wished for. If she had known that she was making a choice, she would have remained the frail princess locked in her room; she would have never have hoped to change the life in front of her. Yet now, more than ever, she owed all her strength to Corona.

She felt the familiar tingling crawl across her palms. Her cursed power clawed at the cage of her heart. She heard it roaring in her ears.

Flynn Rider would have no more kindness from Elsa. She would hunt him and his cohorts down, first, and see them all hanged. Then she would solve the mystery of Rapunzel’s abduction. She would place the tiara upon the head of the true princess with her own hands, if the princess was still alive.

All of this, Elsa would do. She, a monster herself, would destroy the monsters who made themselves the enemies of Corona. She would turn the storm inside her against them.

ooo

 

“Catch me!” Anna yelled. Sven the reindeer, sitting on his haunches safely away from the water, watched her run and leap off the pier .

Kristoff stood up in the row boat and did manage to catch the girl in his arms. At ten years old, he was strong and sturdy, but he was no match for the physics of catching a girl his same age while standing on a rocking boat. As soon as Anna was in his arms, they both went overboard into the cold water, shouting in unified protest.

Anna came up sputtering. Kristoff surfaced a second after her. They bobbed in the cold water of the fjord.

Anna wiped stray hair away from her face. “I’m freezing!” she laughed. She started swimming toward the row boat.

Kristoff matched her strokes, and they reached the boat at the same time. He held it steady as she climbed in. “Hey, watch your splashing,” he jokingly complained.

Anna turned around in the boat and splashed a handful of water at his face. “Who’s splashing?” she teased.

“Give me a hand in.” Kristoff held his hand for Anna to take.

“Oh, no. You’re going to pull me in again. I can see it all over your face. You have a face that gives you away.”

Kristoff made a goofy face at her. “This face?” he asked.

“I like your face,” she said. She looked around to make sure that no one would see; then she leaned down and gave Kristoff’s a hug. When she pulled away, she was smiling and blushing.

Kristoff let go of the side of the boat and pretended to sink under the water. He bobbed up again, on the other side of the boat, and climbed in.

He did everything with Anna. Anna, because of her ongoing competition with her absent sister, swam like a seal, so Kristoff had to become a strong swimmer, too. Learning to swim had led to getting apprenticed with a shipwright. Anna dreamed of sailing around the world, and Kristoff wanted to build the ship that would take her. Naturally, he planned to be on that trip with her.

Anna did everything with Kristoff. She liked having someone to share the fun with, and Kristoff went along with anything she wanted to do. He studied with her, learned riding and swordplay with her, and shared her secrets. That they were sweet on each other was a secret from everybody else.

Someday, Anna planned, she was going to kiss him. Probably when they got married. She hadn’t told him that secret plan yet. She thought about telling her sister, but she was a little afraid someone (her parents) might see the letter. Elsa didn’t have a sweetheart. Anna was ahead of her in that regard.

Kristoff picked up the oars and started rowing toward the pier. “Today is letter day, isn’t it?” he asked Anna.

“Yes it is!” Anna answered. “I have my letter ready and waiting.”

The boat lined up with the pier. Kristoff helped Anna step out of the boat and onto the dock. Her skirt was waterlogged. His clothes were soaked, too, but they would dry out well enough in the sun. “I have to get back to my tasks,” he apologized.

“Oh, I know,” said Anna. “I was just visiting you for a minute.” She wrung out her skirt and squished the water from her sleeves and her hair. Her face grew bright with her smile. “Will you meet me at the dock when I bring my letter to the ship?”

“Anna. The ship is already here,” Kristoff said. “The winds must have been favorable. It came in early.”

“Oh!” Anna looked down at her soaked clothes. With a quick shrug and wave to Kristoff, she turned and ran off, back to Arendelle castle, to get her letter… and change as fast as she could.

She knew she would be in trouble if they saw her in her wet clothes, so she tried to avoid her parents as she ran to her room. Before her room door had finished closing behind her, she was stripping off her soggy dress. She didn’t want to unlace her shoes -- doing so would take too long -- so she had to leave on her wet stockings. She did put on fresh underclothes, carefully stepping into them with her boots on. She grabbed her letter and an embroidered bonnet to tug over her wet hair and dashed back out.  

She wasn’t late to the ship. In fact, she was able to intercept the sailor who was taking other documents up to the castle and take them herself. Anna was briefly curious about the other letters, all of which were addressed to Arendelle’s monarchs, as could be expected. When she brought them to her father, he was at his desk reviewing a stack of what appeared to be treaties in need of renewal. Her mother sat by the bright light of a window, taking a break to add to some needlework in a round, wooden frame.

“Thank you, Elsa,” King Marius, his attention on the paperwork in front of him, said to his youngest daughter.

Anna wasn’t mad. Her father made the mistake a lot when his mind was elsewhere. Better that he wasn’t noticing her wet hair and shoes, anyway. Remembering them, she started to hurry nonchalantly out of the room.

Her mother rose and looked through the newly arrived missives. She picked one up and started to break the seal. “Marius,” she said, “it’s from my brother Thomas.” She unfolded the paper and started to read. King Marcus looked up from his treaties.

Anna stopped before she reached to room’s doorway. Curiosity pulled her back, and she slipped into a chair at the corner of the room. If her uncle, the king of Corona, had sent a letter, then he might say something about when Elsa was coming home. If not, she was still interested in the contents of that letter.

Queen Genevieve commented, after reading the greeting, “Thomas is so formal. Elsa, he says, is doing well and is happy, a great help to them, etc. Well, here, ‘It will honor us to officially adopt--’”

“What?” King Marius, startled, interrupted.

Genevieve waved away his alarm. “‘officially adopt Elsa as a peacekeeper in our kingdom. By her own request, while she resides in Corona, she will ride with the royal guard.’ Our Elsa?” Genevieve questioned what she had just read. “What is Thomas thinking?” She sat down next to Marius.

Anna sat up. Her big sister had always wanted to be a castle guard, but in her letters, she said that it hadn’t been allowed. Anna stuck her hand in her pocket and touched the new letter from Elsa’s letter. Anna hoped that Elsa would explain everything. Anna also wondered how she was going to convince her parents to allow her into Arendelle’s guard.

King Marcus pressed his fingers to his temple as if his head hurt. He leaned back in his chair. “Corona is a very safe place,” he said.

“It may be a whim on Elsa’s part. A new set of clothes. The novelty of practice drills.” Queen Genevieve mused.

“We should bring her home. Perhaps,” Marcus said.

“But Marcus,” Genevieve protested in a low voice. “She’s happy there and has friends. And Anna is…” she stopped. She looked around the room and spotted Anna sitting still in her corner. “Anna, is your hair wet? What did you get into?”

Anna quickly got up and scampered out of the room. It meant missing the rest of her parents’ conversation, but she wouldn’t have heard even as much as she had if they hadn’t forgotten for a minute that she was listening.

She hated being stuck indoors, so she made her way outside instead of heading up to her room. In the gazebo, she sat on the railing of the wooden wall and opened Elsa’s letter. It had a faint, fruity smell. Anna held it close to her nose. She wondered when her sister had started wearing cologne.

Dear Anna,

I did it.

Max is my horse now to keep. Uncle Thomas has given permission for me to be in the guard, and since the guard captain was hurt in an accident, because I am royalty, I will be the highest ranking guard. That means that in some ways, I’ll be in authority. Although, for everyday purposes, I’ll delegate to the sergeants until the captain is well again.

I have an important task here in Corona, now. I have something important that I have to do.

Take care of yourself, do your lessons, and write back to me soon.

And that was all.

Anna flipped the letter over. Elsa’s signature was on the bottom corner. The rest of the single sheet was blank. Anna couldn’t believe it. Elsa never sent just one page, and never, ever wrote a letter so short. Her heart falling in disappointment and disbelief, Anna got up and went to wash the fjord water out of her still-braided hair and sneak some of her mother’s lemon verbena perfume.

ooo

Later that night, Anna read Elsa’s short letter again. Snuggled up in a thick blanket, she held the page up in candlelight.

As she held it up near the candle, the paper began to brown. She pulled it away, afraid it was catching on fire. But when she touched the paper, it was barely warm, and the brown marks looked… like pieces of words.

With care, Anna moved the page close to the candle, then a little closer. In seconds, the browning continued, becoming script written on the back side that had seemed blank. There was also writing on the front, spaced in between the ink. Anna held her breath, amazed at the secret writing that had been invisible on the page.

The letter now said:

I did it. It’s all my fault, and I have to make it right.

Then, after the paragraphs she had already read:

I have an important task here in Corona, now. I have something important that I have to do. I can’t fix what happened because of me. All I can do is commit myself to finding and capturing the bad people who got away because of me.

Anna, I’m hiding this in invisible writing because this message is only for you. I trust you to find it if you read this letter by candlelight while it’s still fresh. Please destroy it after you read it.

I have to tell you about the white streak in your hair. I don’t think it’s right that you weren’t allowed to remember. When you were little, I hurt you by mistake. You fell and hit your head. You could have died. That’s why I was sent away.

I have to stay away. I think Momma and Poppa think so, too. But it won’t be a bad thing, for me. I will do my best here to make good.

We have our letters. I always look forward to them, do you? I find that I want to tell you things that only you and I will know. We used to share secrets. We still can.

I wrote this letter, the hidden part, in lemon juice. We have an ample supply of lemons, here. Write back to me using a brush dipped in milk. It won’t smell very good once it gets to me, but that’s all right. It will still be invisible once it dries. When I get your letter, I’ll know you found this secret message.

One more thing. Be wary of any royal visitors from Southern Isles. Prince Hans is a liar and very good at hiding his true nature. Since he is the youngest, I can’t but expect that his brothers are any more honest. Don’t say anything to Momma and Poppa unless you have to, but keep your eyes open.

Take care of yourself, do your lessons, and write back to me soon.

Sincerely, your sister,

Elsa

Anna was crying by the end of the letter. What did Elsa mean, that she couldn’t come home? Anna picked out some of the white strands in her hair and looked at them. They had always embarrassed her, but now her weird hair, she knew, was because of her sister. Now it would always remind her of Elsa.

She wiped her eyes, cheering herself up by thinking about the invisible writing. Now she would have a way to tell her sister secrets without anyone else being able to read them. She always had milk with breakfast. It would be easy to save some for writing.

She couldn’t, however, bring herself to destroy the letter. Instead, she folded it up and tucked it under her pillow. In the morning, she would find a good hiding place.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

“Run fifty more with this one,” Elsa instructed the printmaker. She handed over a newly made woodcut of the wanted poster for Flynn Rider. The small frown creasing between the printer’s eyebrows told Elsa just what the printmaker was thinking. It was the problem of the nose. Elsa had actually stopped trying for an accurate nose months ago. Now it amused her to have Rider’s image printed with absurd noses: hawked, elongated, bulbous, or crooked. She ordered the image changed out regularly, and she saw to it that a mixed assortment of prints were posted around the kingdom.

She took a stack away with her. Outdoor, five guards and Maximus waited for her. She distributed a portion of the posters to each of her men. “Let’s get these out along the eastern border,” she instructed. “That area is due for being refreshed. Bring back any old posters that you see. We’ll have them pasted with the new reward amount and redistribute them.”

“Yes, Your Highness!” the guards answered in near-unison. Even the youngest of them were still at least three years older than Elsa, but over the last months, the Champion of Corona had become the stand-in for Captain Kempf. The old captain had never recovered well from his wounded shoulder. He was taking early retirement, now, training new recruits and raising horses. It seemed to suit him. She hoped that it did.

Leadership suited Elsa. In private, she still vented her ice magic when it threatened to overwhelm her. Since making her vow to hunt down the enemies of Corona, this venting had taken the form of weapons. Her ice daggers still frightened her. Instead, she practiced with the precise creation a slim saber made of glistening, clear ice and a shield to match. She spent her spare time studying high quality swords and written works on bladesmithing. She never let her ice magic pour out freely. She wouldn’t take such risks.

However, this winter was the first in memory to bring snow flurries to Corona. The coldest nights of January grew colder by twenty degrees. Although the frost of mornings burned off with the afternoon sun, since the end of autumn the rain fell as quickly-melting snowflakes more often than as rain drops.

The fashionable set embraced the change in weather with a new fad for lined hats and quilted cloaks. Trade with countries that regularly experienced deeply cold or snowy winters increased as merchant ships fulfilled the new demand for angora and other soft, warm fibers. Corona stood perfectly placed to exchange cod from Arendelle with vicuna from Stele, a neighboring country known for its inhospitable mountains, and with cashmere from the high deserts of Qamar.

While the other guards started patrol, Elsa went to follow a lead. She and Maximus trotted off to an inn on the outskirts of the town. The innkeeper had two grown daughters, and Elsa had learned that one of them had been keeping company with a young man fitting Flynn Rider’s description. As a young woman herself, she hoped that she could get the innkeeper’s daughter to speak more freely to her alone than she would if confronted by one of the regular guard. She slipped off her intimidating helmet before she opened the inn door.

The inn conveyed a welcome to travelers and townsfolk seeking comfort and a well-made meal. The tidy interior smelled of hearthfire and herbs. A buxom blonde maiden welcomed Elsa as soon as Elsa passed through the doorway. The girl was exceptionally pretty, rosy-cheeked and well postured. Her golden tresses were contained by a cap with a lace frill, and she wore a matching, clean apron over her wool dress. Recognition crossed her face after a moment. She dropped into a curtsey, which in turn caused a wave of dipping heads around the room as the inn’s guests also bowed to Elsa.

“We’re honored, Your Highness,” the girl offered.

“Would you happen to be Anise?” Elsa asked.

The blonde shook her head. “I’m Bryony. My sister is in the kitchen.” Her eyes went large and her face grew pale as she seemed to speculate as to why Princess Elsa would be looking for her sister. She indicated a seat near the crackling fireplace, trying to form words that didn’t take shape. “I’ll fetch her!” she exclaimed, turned, and rushed away.

Instead of moving toward the warmth of the fire, Elsa took a seat at an empty table by the door, next to a window with open curtains. She preferred the colder spot, and it was furthest away from others in the room. The innkeeper would be out of the inn at this time of day, another detail that might allow his daughter to converse with Elsa uncensored.

She was not made to wait long. A nervous girl, closer to marrying age than Elsa, appeared and came to the table. She dipped a wobbly curtsey and then stood waiting.

Elsa could see the girl looking over Elsa’s appearance. Elsa was smartly dressed in an all-gray riding habit, a version of the guard uniform suited personally to her that rejected unflattering oxblood for a colder look. While she did not wear any jewels, gold embroidery embellished her uniform in place of armor. She wore her white hair in a coronet of braids. Still, Elsa’s age must have soothed the innkeeper’s daughter’s nerves somewhat, because she didn’t look quite ready to faint.

“I’m Anise, Your Highness,” she said.

“Sit down, Anise,” Elsa said. The girl was a match in appearance with her sister, but with walnut brown hair instead of blonde. Elsa told herself that she should have realized, when she saw Bryony, that she was not the right girl. She was starting to think that Rider had a type; whenever she interviewed a girl associated with him, that girl inevitably had dark hair.

The girl held her hands in her lap and hunched in on herself. Elsa placed one of the Wanted posters on the table. She chose one with the most accurate of the noses. “Do you know this man, Anise?” She kept her volume low. It wouldn’t help the inn’s reputation if the conversation were overheard.

“I didn’t know it was him. I swear it,” the girl said. She squirmed and looked miserable.

“Did he ask for food, shelter?” Elsa coaxed. “Maybe assistance to travel out of the kingdom?”

“I don’t remember him asking,” the girl sighed. “It was just so easy to give him things. He has a look,” she pleaded. “Do you know that look? When a man looks at you, and you turn to butter on a hot day? Like your knees are pudding and there’s nothing in your head but spongecake?”

Elsa tightened her lips together to avoid smirking at the excessive food metaphors. She did not, in fact, know what if felt like to go giddy because someone gave her a look. She was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with her about that.

She dismissed the thought. “I understand,” she lied. “Tell me what happened.”

“Well…” the girl started.

They were interrupted by her sister as Bryony served a cup of bergamot-scented tea and a slice of apple tart to Elsa. The smell was heavenly. Elsa chose to ignore that Bryony hovered nearby, plainly listening in on what her sister had to say. Thankful that accepting the food might put the girls more at ease, Elsa picked up the fork and sampled the apple tart.

Anise watched her eat. Elsa notice the girl slightly relax.

“He came around during the morning. I was in the back garden collecting herbs,” Anise started. “I didn’t think anything of talking to him. We -- my sister and I -- talk to travelers all the time. I fixed him up some breakfast. And then, erhm,” she trailed off, blushing.

“Did he tell you any stories, or talk about his plans?” Elsa hoped for some small detail that might hint at his hiding place.

“Oh, stories! He had some stories. He’s an adventurer--.” She cut herself off. She dropped her gaze into her lap. “I…” she said.

“Anise?”

“He said that every day could be an adventure. He said I was smart, and that I could be anyone I wanted,” she said.

Elsa carefully put her fork down. She took a mouthful of tea to wash down the chagrin. Hadn’t Flynn said much the same to her?

“But I couldn’t go with him,” Anise finished quietly.

“Where was he going?”

“Where his feet took him, he said.” The girl looked out the window. “Someplace warm. And sunny. He said… he had been sleeping in the cold a lot.”

“Any talk of companions? Other… adventurers?”

The girl shook her head. “No. That is, he was on his own. Adventuring is a lonely life. At least, I thought so. I didn’t believe him when he said alone meant alone and free. A man like him isn’t meant for loneliness.”

“How long ago was he last with you?”

Anise colored up again. “He’s been gone two days,” she answered.

Elsa hid her surprise. Two days! Two days ago, this area had been thick with guards riding escort for the merchant wagons moving goods along this road from the port to the border. How had Flynn avoided being seen? How did he do it?

Bryony, growing bold, sat down beside her sister. “Is it true,” she asked in a whisper, “about him being friends with sorcerers?” She seemed genuinely afraid. Her question wasn’t merely for gossip.

“I’m sorry to say that it may have been true,” Elsa answered. She rose up from her chair. “Is there anything else you can tell me about Flynn Rider?” she asked Anise.

The sisters stood when Elsa stood. Anise shook her head. “I’m sorry.”

“If something comes to mind, don’t hesitate to come to me,” Elsa instructed. Disappointed, she bid the girls goodbye.

ooo

After Princess Elsa left, Bryony pulled her sister into the kitchen for a private conference. “You didn’t tell her!” she accused in a whisper.

“No, I didn’t tell her,” Anise answered, keeping her own voice down. “Do you think I want to be locked up? It would kill Father if his daughter was condemned for treason. Anyway, I didn’t know Flynn was in so much trouble.”

“Didn’t you? Isn’t that why you hid him in a barrel of dried codfish when the castle guards came around?”

Anise wrung her hands. “He was just going to ride in the merchant wagon until things quieted,” she said.

“Or maybe he stayed in that cod barrel until it was traded across the border? Did you think of that?” the blonde sister huffed. “Not to mention, by not telling the Champion everything, you might be helping dark sorcery? The Lost Princess would be our same age if she hadn’t been carried off by a bad fairy, Anise. That could have been us!”

“Well, if he did leave the kingdom, then he’s gone from the kingdom,” Anise answered, near tears. “How would telling her change that?” She took a handful of onions out of a basket and began chopping them to use in a stew. “Flynn’s free, I’m free, and no one is the worse.” She let her tears run, blaming them on the onions.

ooo

A day’s walk from the inn, in her tower in a hidden valley, the Lost Princess had no idea that she was no more real to girls her same age than a the victim in a fairy story. The stars that she charted, though far outside her world, were more real to Rapunzel than she was to her age mates.

The star chart was nearly completed. Before starting to  paint over her sketch marks, Rapunzel triple checked her math. When the floating lights appeared again in another four lunar cycles, she would be able to concretely confirm that they were not stars.

Sitting up by the little window in the roof, so that she could paint the constellations in her star chart, she kept an eye out for flakes of snow. For the first time in her memory, snow had started falling out of clouds. She hoped that snow falling into the tower would mean that the snow person would visit her again.

The snow person, Olaf, hadn’t been like anything Mother had warned her about. Rapunzel thought that Olaf might be like Pascal. After all, Pascal had climbed into her tower all on his own one day and had been her friend ever since. Mother claimed to be deathly allergic to pets, but she never did find out about Pascal, who always hid from her.

She was starting to think that Mother Gothel didn’t always tell Rapunzel exactly the truth. About books, for example. After Mother had accidently dropped the cookbook into the stove, Rapunzel had been distraught, but she had assured Mother that she would still been able to make the recipes from memory. Then, although Mother said that books were extremely few and rare, she had shown up with a new cookbook, full of new, different recipes, the very next day. And then insisted that Rapunzel only prepare meals from the new cookbook.

She didn’t love her mother any less for being less than completely truthful. After all, Rapunzel herself kept a few secrets from Mother, too, like Pascal. Like Olaf’s visit.

Would it truly always be too dangerous for Rapunzel to leave the tower? Maybe Mother was not being completely truthful. After all, Mother went out into the world by herself. When Rapunzel was fully grown, like her mother, it might be possible to go out. As long as she wasn’t alone.

Yes! She made herself a promise. When she was old enough, she would ask Mother to take her to somewhere where Rapunzel could see the origin of the floating lights. It was her dream to discover what they were, and if she shared her dream with someone she loved, it would be that much better.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

What he thought would be a setback of a month or two turned out to be years. For nearly four years, Flynn had been rethinking his choices, choices that had left him sleeping in sheds among sacks of rutabagas more often than not. It never got warm enough in Stele to sleep outdoor. His luck with the ladies had been the worst of his life since any time after he’d started being able to grow facial hair.

Things had begun badly enough when he found out he was being blamed for the Stabbingtons’ escape, too. For the first part of winter, he thought he could ride it out. The brothers would get caught again, and the heat would justly shift to them. When he went out by day, his chances of being chased by the guard were ridiculously high. He slept in his cave during the days and sought out warmer accommodations during the nights.

His social life, though, went as off kilter as the suddenly unpredictable weather in Corona. The reward on his head was so high, he realized that even the ladies might turn him in once they realized who he was. Not that anyone could recognize him by the wanted posters, with the terrible likeness of him on them. His vanity took a kick to the gut every time he saw one.

The cause of his troubles, the thing that should have put him in the warm, soft lap of luxury, still sat untouched, tucked away in a leather satchel in Flynn’s forest cave. That is, unless a family of raccoons had taken up residency during Flynn’s prolonged, involuntary absence.  A single pearl, popped out of its setting, would have bought him comfortable passage out of the kingdom. But Flynn had never been able to bring himself to committing the damage. The most he had been able to do was to gift the box to a lady friend out of gratitude for her favors.

The last of her favors had been to hide him from the sudden arrival of the guard at her father’s inn along with a herd of traders. Stuffing himself into a barrel recently emptied of salted fish delivered to the inn, he escaped the swarm of guardsmen by means of a fish merchant’s wagon. Unluckily for Flynn, the wagon didn’t stop until hours later at the Stele border crossing. The mounted Corona guards rode alongside the whole way.

Once it was safe to escape the cod barrel, Flynn crawled out of the stinky hiding place but stayed in the wagon until the mountain road turned toward a town. He had woken up that day wondering when his luck was going to change. By that evening, he was in a strange country with nothing but his wits, his good looks, and what he carried in his pockets. He knew maybe two or three words in the language, all for some kind of Stelese food.

Perfect, useless to him, and the cause of his bad luck, the tiara remained behind.

For four years.

In Stele, there was no such thing as chatting up a girl without the approval of her family. Lack of approval, well… families with unmarried daughters seemed to have a lot of knives to sharpen. Fathers tended to be casually busy honing blades when callers came around. After one or two of those visits, Flynn told himself that he liked being unencumbered by romance. Girls with overprotective parents were not going to be his problem.

Part of that conclusion was that he figured out pretty quickly that a particular phrase meant a girl was thinking of a permanent situation, as in marriage. If she said that she wanted him to join her family over the dinner table, she wasn’t inviting him to dinner. Flynn wasn’t against marriage. He just wanted it to be with someone he could talk to.

His luck had not been all bad since ending up on the wrong side of Corona’s border. Stele was no picnic, but Flynn was able to get by. Not by thieving: the thrill had gone out of the idea of stealing. The risk was just too high. As a foreigner, he stood out too much. Whenever he came across a Coronan Wanted poster pinned up in an area of high travel, he felt like eyes were on his back.

It turned out, however, that he had a good eye for value, and thanks to his experience with the Stabbington jobs, a recognition of collectables. He’d started by trading a bit of junk for a bit of better quality junk, learning the language as best he could. He traveled all over the mountains, making a profit from connecting stuff given away or sold cheaply with people who would buy from him, moving between settlements as a courier, as well, once he built a trustworthy reputation. He took odd jobs, and he came to grips with taking charity when kindness was offered.

The combination of the two was how he ended up telling stories to a couple of small children while their father cooked and their mother dished out food to line of customers. Flynn and the children had been put off to one side of the food stand, and Flynn’s job was to keep the littles nearby and entertained. Later, he would help clean up the market stand to finish earning his meal.

Telling stories to the younger kids had been one of the good things for Flynn about the orphanage. Those stories of Flynnigan Rider had been a long time ago, though, and he stumbled along, having lost the plot on the one he was telling. The little girl was starting to sashay away, no longer listening to him struggle in Stelese, and the girl’s toddler brother was following after.

“Princess Sunrise!” Flynn called out to get her attention. The little girl turned an narrowed her eyes at him with suspicion. Stelese women -- even the little girl -- were dark-eyed beauties with bouncing black hair. More than a few of the grown ones swooned when Flynn turned his charm on, but this little girl looked at him as if he was addled in the head.

Flynn didn’t waste her moment of attention. “Have you heard the story of Princess Sunrise?”

“I don’t care,” the girl sing-songed.

“You don’t care about the princess with your name?” Flynn asked, faking shock. He was desperately trying to remember how the story went.

Now the girl looked at him as if he were a bug. “My name is Aurora,” she said, her voice dripping censure.

“That’s ‘sunrise’ in my language,” Flynn answered. “Do you know the story? It’s a tale as old as time…” Flynn put everything he had into the start of the tale. He imagined the princess, Sunrise, and started describing her generous nature and clever mind, and how the evil uncle wanted to steal the kingdom. “The curse put her into a deep, deep sleep,” he said, speaking slowly in low tones, “and no one could wake her up.”

“The prince will wake her up,” the girl declared.

“Ah, but the prince was under a curse, too!” Flynn went on. “He had been turned into a frightening beast! With sharp teeth! And big claws!”

The girl seemed to like where the story was going. Her little brother’s eyes grew wide when Flynn acted out the snarling, ravaging beast. Some of the customers in line for food had also started to take notice.

“He roared!” Flynn hunched his back and growled. “He growled so loudly that Princess Sunrise woke up from her enchanted sleep! But she was scared of the beast. She was afraid of being gobbled up!”

Soon, Flynn had a crowd listening to his story of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. He acted out parts while he told it. When he was finishing the ending, a much larger crowd was gathered at the food stall. The father of the children caught Flynn’s attention and gave him a nod of approval.

His little critic was eager for another story. Flynn started telling the adventure of The Mermaid and the Magic Lamp. Some of the crowd left, but more still gathered, and the audience increased in size, causing a bottleneck in that part of the market. Flynn, starting to feel nervous about attracting so much attention, quickly wrapped up the mermaid’s adventure.

“Is that all?” his charge complained.

“Well, that’s part one,” Flynn explained. The children’s mother handed him a tankard of honey and hot water that he drank with gratitude. The gathered crowd started to disperse, though many stayed to buy food from Flynn’s employers.

A girl of about fourteen lingered after the others. Arms crossed over her chest, she had been studying Flynn during the last part of his storytelling. “You’re pretty good,” she told Flynn, once most of the crowd was gone.

“Thanks,” he answered between drinks.

“I’m going to tell my grandfather that I want you to join our family at dinner,’ she stated.

Flynn nearly inhaled his honey tea. “What?” he coughed.

She turned on her heel and ran off, giving Flynn a smile over her shoulder before she was out of sight.

ooo

As it turned out, for once the girl really did just mean an invitation to eat. She came back, a half hour later, when Flynn was scrubbing out a pot with sand.

Her grandfather was a man of indeterminate age, with a curling mustachio as black and greased as his hair. He had a chest like a barrel and a handshake that felt like he could tear off Flynn’s arm. “We’re a family of performers,” the oldtimer explained, “not all of us related by blood. Carmilla says that your storytelling would make a good addition. We’ve just lost our playwright. Nothing bad; she’ll be back once the baby is born. But we could use your skills. If you’re interested.” The man considered Flynn’s silence. “We share the take, but you’d have a regular place in one of the wagons as we travel.”

The offer sounded good to Flynn, except for the part about performing. Performing with a traveling group was distinctly the opposite of keeping a low profile. He hated to turn the opportunity down, but he took a breath and got ready to do just that.

The girl, Carmilla, added on, “As long as you can wear the costumes or work the puppets. Justina wrote the stories, and she played the masked parts. Everyone works during a show.”

Flynn brightened at the mention of costume and masks. “That sounds… like a fine proposal,” he said with a grin.

“Excellent!” said the grandfather with a loud clap of his hands. “Come to the square tonight to meet the rest of the family and see the performances. If we all agree, we can start working on the new show over the fire at our camp, after we eat. We’ll see you then.”

ooo

The troop turned out to be a neat fit for Flynn. In spite of being quite a lot younger, Carmilla treated Flynn like a kid brother, instructing him with patience when she could, handing him over to someone more patient when she couldn’t. A lot more went on behind a show than Flynn would ever have guessed. He learned how paint backdrops and how to work the pulleys for the backdrops; he stitched costumes; he learned to move around without falling off the stage while wearing the paper mache Beast head.

He found that he loved working together with a team to make a performance come to fruition. If a show went well, he felt elation equivalent to pulling off a daring burglary. If it went badly, he felt the same rush from a booing crowd as he did when he had first seen the name “Flynn Rider” on a Wanted poster.

It was funny, how well the gig fit into place. The traveling performances overlapped with his collectables trading and courier jobs. The regular, comfortable sleeping accommodations improved his outlook, too. He credited the better sleep with the inspiration he had after a few weeks with the performers.

The birthday of the lost princess of Corona was a week away. Flynn’s plan was this: he would take the crown back. He would sneak into the castle and leave the tiara there, in the place meant to display it during the festival of lanterns, and deny culpability for everything. If he got caught sneaking the tiara back, he could still beg for mercy from the king and queen. They were good rulers, beneficent rulers that had made their kingdom prosper.

Not that he expected to be caught! He grinned, thinking of the uproar he would cause by making the tiara magically reappear for the lost princess’s birthday. Then, he could say he had been innocent the whole time. He could plead wrongful accusation. They might even believe it. The only person who had actually seen him anywhere near the castle was the borrowed princess. By now, she would have gone back to her home country.

The key to his plan was being able to cross back over the border, something he hadn’t been able to do during the four years that had passed since his unplanned exile began. Now, however, he had the cover of his troop and the Beast costume.

Convincing the other performers to take the show into Corona for the Lantern Festival turned out to be as easy as making the suggestion. They had already done the circuit through Stele once and didn’t yet have a new show ready, so traveling further out meant that they could continue to earn coin while creating the new show. More earnings meant more money for new costumes and props.

ooo

The night before they crossed the border, after Flynn had completed the evening tasks, he sat down by the dimming campfire to try to relax enough for sleep. The wagons filled a clearing where a circle of the heavens showed above the dark conifer trees. Stele seemed to know that it was his last night in the country. Its namesake stars filled the sky without being veiled by clouds.

Flynn was not alone for long. A few of the others joined him around the fire’s last light. Young Carmilla sat down beside him, a piece of parchment in her hand. She unfolded it and handed it over to Flynn.

He looked down at the woodblock print of his face with a long, warty nose.

He sighed.

He looked around at the others and saw that they all knew.

Carmilla spoke first. “Why are you going back, when this…?” she asked.

Flynn folded the Wanted poster over on itself again. “I made a mistake,” he said.

“Are you going to turn yourself in?”

“You guys aren’t going to turn me in for the reward money, are you?” Flynn laughed without humor. He hadn’t planned on that possibility.

Carmilla shook her head. Under the edge of her kerchief, her curly locks echoed her negation. “We’re not going to turn you in.” She studied her hands, then looked into the fire. “After we cross into Corona, we’ll say goodbye to you.” She took a bag of coins from a pocket and gave it to Flynn. “Your share.”

“Ah,” said Flynn. “Yeah. It wouldn’t be good for you guys if I’m still with the… with the family.”

“You’ll still be in the family,” the girl said. She stood up. “Good luck to you,” she said.

After a while longer, Flynn went to the wagon where he slept and packed up his bag with the few items he would take with him. They would all cross the border together before midday. After that, he would be on his own again.

For Flynn Rider, it was the end of one adventure and the start of another.

ooo

Chapter Text

From a window, King Thomas observed the guard practicing formations. His niece Elsa, the crown princess of Arendelle, issued commands as captain of the guard. It struck him, as it sometimes still did, how perplexing that was.

He had never outright asked his sister why Arendelle left Elsa with him for so long. When Elsa had been thirteen, he had sent a formal-toned letter with language intended to incite Genevieve and Marcus to pull the girl out of Corona. The reply gave no indication that they would do so within the year that Thomas expected.

Thomas wanted what was best for Elsa. He wouldn’t be happy for himself to see her leave, but he would be happy for her if it brought her greater happiness. As he saw it, she was as happy now, wearing a uniform and issuing orders, as she had ever been since arriving in Corona. Perhaps it was because a queen-to-be could not sit in idleness if an opportunity for command presented itself. Thomas was proud of his niece, whom he had helped raise into the regal young woman she now was.

He saw her look up. Her face brightened with that narrow, composed smile that she had. He smiled back, and with a nod, continued walking past the window. He had a long list of tasks to line up for the next day. As always, keeping busy on his missing daughter’s birthday was his way not to lose hope for her return.

ooo

Heavy travel into Corona for the Lantern Festival meant that the border guards passed Flynn’s performing company through the crossing with practiced efficiency. The troop of players had been entertaining the line as it traveled, and the performers’ wagons crossed the border like a parade, Carmilla dancing with her hoops, her grandfather commanding the ponies into a festive trot, Flynn and the others running around the wagons in costume, calling out advertisement for their show. After a half-mile past the border, where the road widened and forked, Flynn and the others climbed back into the wagons. They picked up speed and rattled down the road that led more deeply into the forest.

There, Flynn left the company behind. His parting was as simple as a hop down from a wagon as they stopped to water the ponies. Flynn jogged deeper still into the forest, all the while feeling a wave of gratitude toward the soft green grass and deciduous leaves that danced in the warm air. He didn’t feel as delighted with the “Wanted: Flynn Rider” posters fluttering on some of those same trees. Pulling them off the trunks as he passed them, he saw that the paper was weathered, but by maybe a few weeks, not years.

Whoever was leading the men-at-arms hadn’t lightened up. That irked him. The kingdom had plenty of wealth. Couldn’t they just make a new crown? Even if the Lost Princess was ever found alive, which Flynn very much doubted would ever happen, the tiara wasn’t some Cinderella slipper that would magically identify her as the right girl.

He shook off the contemplation and searched for familiar landmarks to guide him to the outcropping and his hidden cave. As he drew closer, his elation from being home began to sink under the weight of dread. Even at a distance, he could see how time had worked its changes on the hill of dirt and rock.

He climbed over a fallen tree whose splayed roots blocked where the entrance of his cave would be. The tree looked like it had lost its support when part of the slope had sheared away. He climbed through the roots. The dirt all around was soft, still loose enough to dig with his hands. With the hope that he wasn’t going to run into a family of sleeping skunks, he scooped dirt and weeds away from the hole that remained of the cave entrance. Rolled up, the wanted posters became a makeshift digger.

When he found his door of branches still mostly intact, he exhaled his relief. Still, he remained cautious until the sticks were out of the way. He closed and covered his eyes for a minute to get them adjusted before he risked his neck. With continuing caution, he crept in just far enough to see inside and opened his eyes in the dimness.

The cave smelled like mice and mustiness. He took a step further in. The smell of rodents was strong, and further evidence suggested that his old mattress was now a mansion for an extended mouse family. The most important of his possessions, however, waited as he had left it, wrapped in a simple, waxed leather bag. He picked up the bag and gave it an inspection. Though crudely repaired with perfunctory stitches in one corner, the bag was of quality craftsmanship, and it remained sound after its years of entombment.

He took out the tiara and simply stared at it for several minutes. He had once thought that he could buy his life with it. Now, he was counting on it.

He pulled the satchel strap across his chest and settled it with the pack on his back. After consideration, he took both bags off. The cave was still his cave, though he would have to evict the mice, and it was the only place he had to keep his worldly goods until he found somewhere that didn’t smell like mouse urine. He was going to need to carry away more than one satchel, too, when he found a new home. In the meantime, he decided, he could leave everything he had brought with him from Stele except the food and clean socks. That left room in his pack to secure the satchel inside, and gave him a lighter load for when he sneaked into the castle again. He put the pack back on.

It had taken him some time to find the cave. He estimated that if he left right away, he would make it to the castle after nightfall, but not so late that passing through the town would look suspicious. The timing was good, and he had no reason to wait, so he started out, heading in the direction of the castle while still avoiding roads and anywhere people might be gathered.

He continued removing the Wanted posters. In less than a mile, he had a bundle of them, and a dilemma. If he dumped them somewhere, the wind could scatter them, defeating the purpose of taking them down to begin with. He probably was not going to need a campfire himself, so he stuffed them into his pack with plans to drop them into someone’s campfire later.

With so many visiting foreigners in the kingdom for the festival, even in the depth of the forest he saw people going about. He passed a woman in a rich looking cloak and garnet red dress, apparently walking alone through the woods. She gave him the once-over and a look of lascivious appreciation. Her full, brunette locks framed a youthful visage in spite of her otherwise mature appearance. He assumed that she had a dwelling or camp nearby full of other people and hurried on.

“This is ridiculous,” he muttered to himself as he travelled through the forest. Not only were the noses insulting, but the portraits were badly aged-up from his sixteen-year-old self’s face, at best. All of them had him making an expression either smarmy or idiotic.

His hands were full with two thick bunches of wanted posters. Some of them had sticking paste that was still moist. He knew he was losing time, every time he stopped to tear one off a tree or signpost, but now he felt compelled. He couldn’t stop.

When he came upon one of the guard, walking alone glueing a new poster every hundred feet, he started to follow. He bet himself that he could steal the fresh posters right out of the guardsman’s satchel without the man even knowing. Then the guard, finding his bag empty, would think he’d finished his duty and go home.

He strolled up behind the guard as the man glopped a brush across the trunk of an oak. Quieter than the breezes of summer, he emptied the guard’s bag of every last Wanted poster. The guard suddenly sneezed.

“Gesundheit,” Flynn said. “Hayfever?”

The guard nodded, turning. “Thanks.” He started to turn back but did a double-take.

Flynn looked at the image at the top of the stack. “Aw, come on! This looks you drew a mustache on the face of a kid still in short pants! Not to mention that his nose has an actual twig growing off the end!”

The guard stared at Flynn, then his eyes widened at the stack of posters in Flynn’s hands. His mouth started to open in a yell.

Flynn tucked the posters under his arm and started running.

ooo

Elsa’s long day was far from over. Any other time, she might have considered twelve hours enough, but not on the days around Rapunzel’s birthday. Seeing her aunt and uncle at this time compelled Elsa to break through her limits of endurance. She allowed the fatigued guards to go home to their families while she rode out again with the men newly on duty.

Her gratitude toward Maximus was beyond measure. After a break of a few hours in the middle of the day, he displayed enough fresh spirit to rejuvenate Elsa’s strength, too. He seemed to like the tour through the woods on the lanes and trails away from the main road. Late afternoon in the woods was pleasant, she admitted. Summertime’s clear skies and longer days meant that light still filtered down through the cover of leaves well past the dinner hour.

Her tired mind was drifting when a shout went out among her men. She didn’t have to kick Maximus into a gallop. His ears were up, and he leapt into motion.

“Flynn Rider has been spotted!” her next-in-command called out to her as she caught up to the chasing guards.

Elsa couldn’t believe it was true. Nevertheless, she charged ahead with Maximus until they rode at the front of the group. There, ahead, a running man was just disappearing over a low hill. He would never be able to outrun a horse, and certainly not her horse.

As Elsa rode over the hill, someone slammed into her from the side and knocked her completely out of her saddle. She crashed through a screen of saplings and fell…

...into a suddenly appearing snowdrift that shot out of her hands.

She landed on her front and was winded by the fall, though the resilient snow prevented injury. For several minutes, she lay gasping. She struggled to sit up in the soft, dry powder.  Once up, she made herself sit still until her heart rate calmed. All around her, ice encased the undergrowth, like the hard freeze after a thaw.

Holding her arm out, she focused on her empty hand. She closed her eyes until all the cold around her had concentrated as a weight against her palm. She waited another half-minute, then opened her eyes and stood up with the ice sword in hand.

ooo

“More white paint,” Rapunzel sighed to Pascal. After the fight with Mother, Rapunzel had asked for the most inconvenient thing she knew, a last effort to make Mother reconsider her opposition to an excursion to see the floating lights. Clearly put out by the request, Mother had still chosen the three-day journey, on her own, to get the paint. “And now I’m going to spend my birthday alone,” Rapunzel mourned.

Laying down on Mother’s bed, she indulged her sadness for just a few minutes longer. It was easier to be sad about being alone than to be shaken by the way Mother had shouted. Never leave the tower? She had never said “never” before. It had always been, “When you’re older, we’ll see.” Rapunzel had been waiting for… well, waiting for her life to begin for what felt like forever. Another year, another disappointment in not knowing what the floating lights on her birthday meant, might be bearable only with the hope of “someday.”

“What am I going to do, Pascal?” she asked the chameleon. “I can’t just leave.” Pascal gave her an odd look. “Can I?” she asked. “It’s too dangerous,” she answered herself, sitting up. “I mean, if anyone saw me. But what if I wore a cloak, like Mother, to cover up my hair? What if I could just get a better view of the lights? If I could see the origin? I could be back tomorrow night after that, and Mother will be gone for three days; she wouldn’t have to know.”

Rapunzel was scaring herself. She knew it was dangerous, but she wanted to do it. Her mind ticked away rebuttals to every warning story she remembered Mother telling. Not sound, reasoned out rebuttals. Mostly the question, “But what if I’m careful?”

She knew she was past the point of turning back when she left Mother Gothel’s room, went into the kitchen, and began packing food into a woven basket. She had made the basket for Mother to wear on her back, as was more practical, but Mother continued to prefer the dainty one she carried over her arm.

She was deep in contemplation over how many apples to put in when she heard sounds coming from outside the tower. Thinking it was her mother, coming back after a change a mind, she ran to the window to start sending down her hair. She quickly pulled her head back in and hid behind the curtain.

Someone was climbing up the side of the tower, and that someone wasn’t Mother. She had never ever seen anyone except Mother. The sounds were becoming louder: grunts and panting breaths as the person scaled the wall, using the niches in the masonry for handholds and footholds.

She looked at Pascal. Maybe the person was some kind of chameleon, too.

She was supposed to be safe in the tower, but this person was going to climb in. She inched away from her hiding place. She looked around the room for something to use to protect herself. The iron skillet hanging above the stove seemed to be the heaviest object that she could wield with the most control. She took it down off its hook and crept back to the window, planning to hit the person on the top of his head as soon as he reached the window and before he could pull himself in. Knocked on his head, he would fall off the tower.

Even killing the stinging bugs that sometimes flew in made her feel sick. Her heart was thundering. As she heard the person nearly at the window sill, she lost confidence and lost her opportunity. She shrank back further against the wall behind the post. She bundled up her hair against herself and tried not to make any noise.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Dirty boots crunched against her clean stone floor. “Wow,” the man said as he looked at the contents of the room. He would have seen her if he turned a full circle; instead, he reached for some small objects belonging to Mother that were on a table. He picked up a decorative box and studied the enamel. Rapunzel had often done the same, but in her case, with a longing to try her hand at enameling.

He shrugged the pack off his back. He didn’t take the enameled box, however. When he reached for the hairbrush, which had strands of her magic hair on the bristles, she gripped the iron skillet tighter. He was after her magic hair!

She saw him begin to look around. She brought the skillet up and swung it at the back of his head, where it connected with a thud and knocked him to the floor.

“Owww!” the person said, writhing in evident pain while trying to scramble away from Rapunzel.

She froze with the skillet raised. She had expected the blow to knock him out. He crawled away to the window but stopped there, looking from the window to her with a pained expression and holding a hand against the back of his head.

“I mean you no ill, fair lady,” he gasped.

She stepped back but pointed the iron pan at him. His teeth did not seem to be pointed. At least, none except his cuspids, the same as her teeth and Mother’s. Still, she resisted squirming under his gaze. “Who are you? How did you find me?” she interrogated.

“I know not who you are, nor how I came to find you…” he started.

Mother would chastise her for interrupting, but this person wasn’t Mother. “That’s not what I asked!” Her voice went sharp at the end because of her near panic. “Who are you?” she shouted.

He tried to stand up, but only got as far as sitting firmly against the wall. “The name’s Flynn Rider,” he answered.

“Tell me, Flynn Rider: who else knows my location?” She menaced him with the heavy skillet.

Instead of reacting with increased respect, he waved his hands at her and said, “Look, Blondie. Here’s the situation. I wasn’t looking for you. I saw your tower. It looked abandoned--” His eyes went to his pack, abandoned on the floor by Rapunzel’s bare foot. “Uh, if you could toss by bag over to me, I’ll be out of your hair.”

“What do you want with my hair? To cut it? Sell it?” she demanded.

“What?” Flynn Rider asked. “No, I don’t want to do anything with your hair. You can keep your hair. All of it,” he noted, looking over her tresses spilled across the floor. “Give me my bag, and I’ll be on my way.” He slowly stood. He groaned and reached for his head again. “In a few minutes. You could have killed me, hitting me with that thing, you know,” he complained.

The wheels of Rapunzel’s mind spun. If Flynn Rider could find her tower without trying, what would keep thugs and ruffians from doing the same? How was inside her tower any more safe than the outside?

Flynn seemed to be a strong person. If he wasn’t a threat, he might be an ally. She glanced down at his pack, then gave it a kick to send it to the other side of the room behind her. She walked backward, saying, “I’ll make you a deal. Do you know what these,” without turning, she grabbed the drapes over her painting of the floating lights and pulled them over to reveal the image, “are?”

“You mean the lantern thing that they do for the princess?” Flynn asked. “That’s tomorrow night.”

Lanterns! Rapunzel felt a rush of elation. She hadn’t doubted that they were not stars, but lanterns, flying lanterns, had never occurred to her. How did they float? She had to know! “Well, if you act as my guide to these lanterns,” she said, already feeling excitement at the plan, “and bring me safely home again, then, and only then will I give you your precious bag.”

“No can do,” he answered with an exhale. “What kind of deal is that?”

“One that keeps you alive,” Rapunzel bluffed, again threatening with the pan. “I can safely lower you down out of the tower with my… methods. But if you don’t take my deal, and you try to take your bag with trickery or force, you’ll regret it. That crumbling plaster might not hold up to your weight, twice. Imagine how much harder climbing down will be when I pour boiling water out that window?”

His eyes widened. “There has to be another way out of here,” he said.

“Nope,” Rapunzel answered. “It’s my way, or nothing. I shouldn’t even let you go, now that you’ve seen me. But if you give me a reason to trust you, we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Flynn lurched forward. “That tiara is worth my life,” he blurted out. “Hand it over, Goldie!”

“No!” Rapunzel yelped. She grabbed the pack and used her hair to swing up to the beam in the ceiling, pulling the pack up with her. “Take my deal, or leave without it!”

“That’s not a deal, Honey. That’s extortion,” Flynn glowered. He walked over to the middle of the room and pulled up a chair. Positioning it to face Rapunzel, he sat down and crossed his arms. Then he uncrossed his arms, crossed his legs, and settled back as if relaxed. “Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot. You tried to break my skull, but OK, I surprised you. Why don’t you come down here, and we can talk?” he asked, his voice gentle and friendly.

Rapunzel, accustomed to mercurial moods because of Mother Gothel, hesitated only a short while before descending on a length of her hair. She left the pack out of Flynn’s reach. “We can talk,” she said.

Flynn gave her a look she didn’t understand. He tipped his chin down, puckered his lips, and looked up at her in a winsome way. She peered at him, trying to understand his expression.

“This is kind of an off day for me,” he mumbled. “This doesn’t usually happen.” His expression relaxed and he leaned over with his hands in his hair. “OK, fine. You want to see the lanterns. I’ll take you, but we have to leave right now.”

“And bring me home safely,” Rapunzel reminded him.

He nodded. “So get my pack and let’s get going.” He stuck his arm straight out with his hand flat and vertical to the floor.

Rapunzel looked at him wordlessly, uncertain what he meant. Flynn was confusing. Rapunzel wondered if the world outside was going to have even more confusing things for her.

Flynn still had his hand out in that stiff position. “Well,” he said, “are we going to shake on it to seal the deal?”

“Oh!” Rapunzel switched the skillet to her left hand. She reached her right hand out. Flynn leaned in and grasped her hand, moved it up and down once, then let her hand go.

He stood up. “So how do you leave this place?” he asked.

His hand had been warm and rough with callous. She had felt the strength in it, the solid muscle and tendon and bone. Her hand was small by comparison, but it hadn’t felt weak in his grip. She wanted another handshake.

“Blondie?”

“Oh. Um,” she responded. She felt her face grow warm. She turned away and took Mother’s short cloak off the hook and clasped it on. Grabbing the food basket, she secured it to her back under the cloak. Then with a whip of her hair, she looped Flynn’s pack into her arms. She cast a loop of hair over the pulley outside the window that she used to pull Mother up and lower her down. Flynn strolled over.

“Stand in the loop,” she said to Flynn, “and I’ll lower you down.”

“Stand in the loop of your hair,” he repeated.

“Yes.”

“And you’ll lower me down. With your hair,” he said.

“That’s right.”

“I don’t think so,” he answered.

“But--”

“No no no no no,” he said, backing away from her. He leaned out the window. “That really is a long way down,” he commented.

Perplexed by his resistance, Rapunzel was going to say something reassuring, but Flynn started run-walking around the room, tapping on the floors and walls. He cracked the door open to Mother Gothel’s room, but shut the door again before Rapunzel had to admonish him. After a second pass across the floor, he stopped at one of the tiles, rapping at it in several places. He gave her a look of recrimination before he started to pry at the edge of the tile. He took the little shovel from the fireplace and used it to wedge the tile up off the floor, revealing a small hinged door below. This he also opened. A ladder dropped into darkness.

“Get a lamp. We’ll go this way,” he said to her with a smug expression.

“I… didn’t know that was there,” Rapunzel said. When she thought about it, though, it made sense. How else could Mother have come and gone when Rapunzel was too small to lift her via the window? “We don’t use that way.”

Flynn tested the first few rungs of the ladder. “It’s sound,” he said.

Rapunzel stared at the hole in the floor of her tower room. She felt her heart suddenly booming in her chest. She watched as Flynn came back up, searched around and found the lantern that Mother used, lit the candle using a thin stick of kindling and the banked fire in the oven, and stood again by the trap door, waiting for her.

Rapunzel lifted her eyes to the painting on her wall. It was her dream to see the lights -- the lanterns. All she had to do to start making her dream come true was to take a step toward the exit. “You go first,” she said to Flynn in a tiny voice.

“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?” he joked. Taking the lantern, he started down.

She picked up his pack and realized that she would have trouble climbing down with it. However, she couldn’t just give it to him now, or how could she assure that he didn’t run off ahead once he had his bag?

She opened it up and quickly rummaged through it. He’d said something about a tiara being important to him. There was a large circle thing that wasn’t one of the objects -- food, socks -- that she recognized. Deciding that it must be the tiara, she took it from Flynn’s pack and hid it in her own.

When she went to the trap door, she saw that Flynn was waiting at the base of the ladder, about eight feet down. “I’m going to pass down your bag,” she told him. “Remember our deal. I want to trust you.”

“Hey, I’m trusting you, too, Blondie,” he called up. He sounded defensive.

“When I make a promise,” Rapunzel told him as she climbed down, “I never, ever break it.” She got to the bottom rung and stepped down to the unfamiliar floor. “Ever.” She thought about how she was leaving the tower. She had never made a promise not to leave; she had simply obeyed Mother’s wishes. When she thought about it, though, Mother had never said, even today, that she wanted Rapunzel to stay in the tower. No, she had said, as a statement of fact, that Rapunzel would not leave, ever.

Mother was wrong. She was wrong about the tower being safe from anyone finding Rapunzel. She was wrong about all men being ruffians and blackguards. Flynn seemed nice enough. He didn’t treat her like a freak because of her very long hair. He didn’t laugh at her for being clumsy or chubby. What else might Mother be wrong about?

“It’s stairs the rest of the way down,” Flynn said.

Rapunzel looked around. This level below the trap door was another room, much like the central room that she had known all her life. The walls were line with dusty, empty shelves. An empty crate stood against one wall. Flynn stood by stairs descending further. She followed his boot tracks in the dust to join him. They proceeded down together by the light of the lamp.

The stairs continued in a downward spiral through more levels, each empty, some partitioned into rooms with a small central hallway between them that Rapunzel and Flynn had to cross to get to the next stairs down. When they got to these, Flynn tapped the floor to find the supporting beam, then walk carefully over that spot, in case the floor had rotten from disuse. Everything was coated with a dry dust that they were careful not to stir up overmuch. Some levels had narrow windows that had been filled with brick or stones.

Rapunzel wished that she had known about the rest of the tower. She could have explored every corner of it, cleaning everything so it glowed. So many surfaces to paint on, and they had been hidden from her. She could have made some of the cheeses that required a cool, undisturbed place to age.

Finally, they reached the final stair. Flynn went right to the outline of a door. Rapunzel lingered at that last step. She took the lamp from Flynn so that he could work at opening the door. It was bolted shut by a board across it. He removed it easily; in spite of its weight, it had shrunk and split, and sat loosely. Flynn pulled on the door, using his weight to get the rusted hinges to release.

Behind the door, the arch of the doorway had been sealed with stones and mortar. Rapunzel handed Flynn her frying pan. He took a swing at the blockage.

Sunlight spilled in as several of the stones crumbled. The pieces fell back into the tower, so Flynn kicked them aside. He pushed a hand through the new hole, letting in more sunlight by pushing aside the rooty underside of vines.

“Cover your eyes, Blondie,” he said with a grin. Using her pan, he pounded through the barrier with his eyes shut against the dust and rock shards. Rapunzel used the hood of her cloak to protect her face. They both began coughing; Flynn continued removing the blockage in the doorway.

He offered her a hand to step over the broken pieces. Eagerly, she took his hand again. It already felt familiar to her.

She pushed aside a resistant curtain of climbing morning glory and honeysuckle growing tangled over the tower’s outer surface. Squeezing through, she took her first step out of the tower.

The ground around the doorway was mud. It squished between her toes, making her grin. Immediately, she broke into a run across the green, soft grass. She kicked up dandelion fluff, the little spinners catching the breezes to their own freedom.

Outside was so bright! So open! It was like being on top of the roof, but with the freedom to run. She ran. She ran all the way to the brook, the one she could only see through one of the windows in the tower, and splashed into it. Her muddy, bare feet washed clean. The current felt amazing! She did a slow turn around, taking in the wide, wide world around her. It made her dizzy, trying to take it all in.

Flynn was already jogging away from the tower. Feeling glad she had kept his tiara, she took a last look at her tower, then ran to catch up with him.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Elsa tramped through the woods. Her men must have gone in a different direction, chasing Rider, because she could no longer hear them. She was alone in the woods. Maximus would not lose Flynn’s trail to come back for her just yet.

Snow still clung to her chest and skirt. Regardless of the temperature of the day, the snow would not melt until she dismissed it. With her ice sword still in hand, she was unable to make all of it vanish. Instead, a residue of fine ice crystals shimmered over her dress, making her practical riding uniform look more like a party gown. She felt absurd, hiking through the woods in a glittery dress, holding a bare sword.

She was about to will the sword away but reconsidered. She was alone in the forest. Though it had been many years ago, she easily recalled the incident of being nearly abducted, the feeling of helplessness, and how her ice had escaped control. No, until she was closer to reuniting with her guardsmen, she decided that the sword was a sensible precaution.

Coming out into a small clearing, she saw one of the Flynn Rider posters and walked up to it. She reached out with her free hand and covered up the pig snout nose. Could it really have been Flynn Rider, she wondered, that they were chasing? After all these years, without a single sighting, how was it that he would appear now, to be caught so easily? Some word had reached Corona about the Stabbington Brothers, or at least, two men matching their description closely, being seen in distant lands. Yet no word had come regarding Rider. He had not been seen in the company of the red-haired bandits.

Before being unhorsed, she had seen a brown-haired man, in a blue leather vest, with a white shirt and commonly colored trousers. His stature would match Flynn’s for his age now, but that was not distinctive.

What were the chances, she wondered. Once he had disappeared, she despaired that he had sold the jewels of the tiara for a life of riches and anonymity far from Corona. Her primary drive had been, instead, in searching for any clues about the lost Princess Rapunzel. Under the guise of a census, Elsa instigated a house-by-house search of the kingdom for any person matching her cousin’s age, to no avail. The few young women who had shown any possibility of resemblance had been verified as children of their known parents.

The last four years for Elsa had been… strange. They had flown by, days blending into each other, and hardly felt like so long. If not for Anna’s letters, she would not have had anything to mark any week apart from the one before or after. Elsa knew that she had grown older, filling out in all dimensions as a woman, but when she looked in her mirror all she saw was herself. No different -- just Elsa. Elsa, who could not go home. Elsa, endeavoring to spell eternity in exile. Elsa, always standing on the edge of the ravine.

Anna’s letters sustained her. When Elsa saw the banner of Arendelle flying from a ship coming into port, her spirits billowed like the sails. Anna continually surprised her. It was Anna who declared that they must encrypt their letters to each other with a cipher known only to them, which was very clever, Elsa thought, albeit redundant with Anna burning Elsa’s letters. Ann could write and read the encryption as easily as a natural language. Elsa was not as adept, but she was pleased that she no longer had to bear the rancid milk smell of an invisible letter from her sister.

Her difficulty with the encryption may have been in part because she regularly found it difficult to write anything at all. She felt that she blathered. Anna, at least, didn’t seem to mind Elsa’s dull repetitions.

She would have something of note to write to her sister, if Flynn Rider was in custody by the day’s end. In a mere few hours, Corona’s most wanted could be in irons. Elsa sighted signs of the King’s Road near and headed toward that main thoroughfare at a brisk pace.

Rounding a boulder, she nearly ran into another woman. The hood of the woman’s slate grey cloak fell back, revealing a luxury of black curls. She seemed equally startled by Elsa. Her gaze moved to the silvery ice sword that Elsa held, then quickly back up to Elsa’s face.

“Pardon me,” Elsa greeted.

“No, it’s fine,” the woman said. The way she clutched her basket indicated suppressed alarm.

“Good day to you.” Elsa made the effort to smile, then continued on her way. She glanced back and saw that the tall woman had proceeded on her own path. Somewhat embarrassed by the encounter, Elsa decided to take one of the narrow forest lanes instead of walking out onto the road. With no return of Maximus yet, she considered that she might have a long walk ahead of her back to the castle.

ooo

Flynn saw how the sky was beginning to show the colors of sunset and cursed the time he’d lost by climbing into that tower. What should have been an acceptable hiding place for a few hours had turned out to be another mistake. Now he was saddled with a girl who went wide-eyed at the prospect of glowing lights and carried some weird kind of frog around with her. She couldn’t be sweet-talked. Her lack of response to his smolder still stung his ego.

“Look at the hues!” she breathily exclaimed to him. “I love when the sky starts to go vermillion. Oh, to see the sunset filling the whole sky! Is there anywhere we can go higher? Where the horizon isn’t blocked?”

“We’re kind of in a forest, Blondie,” he answered. “As in, trees everywhere.”

Her big, green eyes went bigger. “Great idea!” she said.

Flynn didn’t know what she meant until she started climbing one of the oaks. She used her hair like a rope, but she seemed to have the strength in her arms to do the climb even without assistance. She was soon climbing into the top branches for a treetop view. Her elated smile could have been the sun itself.

She was back down to the ground again before he recognized the opportunity to ditch her. He couldn’t bring himself to just leaving her alone in the woods, though. Even if her excited squeal whenever she spotted the most ordinary things made their traveling stop every fifty paces.

Not even ten minutes after she was back on the ground and they were walking along quietly, he heard the sniffles starting. In their brief time together so far he’d watched her emotional state swing from the extremes of excitement to a self-recriminating despair several times in an hour. He tried not to look at her, but he couldn’t help it. She walked along biting her lip and wiping away the big tears dripping down her cheeks.

“Hey, come on now,” he said, trying to sound understanding.

“I’m sorry,” she said around a hitching sob. “I just can’t help thinking… Mother would be so disappointed. I keep thinking of how worried she’d be if she knew. But I… I want this so much, for myself.” She raised up a smile, but it crumbled in moments. “I am a despicable human being. A selfish, awful person.”

Flynn saw an opportunity. He modulated his voice to resonate with sympathy as he said, “I can’t help noticing, Blondie, that you’re more than a little at war with yourself.” He almost lost his nerve when she turned her doe-eyed gaze his way. He should have been put off by her gullibility. Instead, he felt as if he should be standing between her and, well, men like himself.

He forged on. “But a little rebellion is part of growing up. Does your mother deserve a broken heart? No, of course not. Will it crush her soul when she finds out you broke her trust? Yes! But you’ve just got to do it. She’ll get over it eventually.”

“What? No!” Rapunzel responded in shock. “You don’t know Mother. She won’t. It would crush her soul, if she knew I’d left home.” Her walk slowed further.

Flynn turned to block Rapunzel’s path. “She doesn’t have to find out if we go back and patch up that door, right? I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you out of the deal. Let’s turn around right now before it gets dark and get you home. If we pick up our pace, I could even help you with that patch. But we’d better hurry while we still have time.” He put his arms on her shoulders and gently guided her around to face the way back. “It will be like we never crossed paths. Only you’ll be the wiser about what truly matters: being the person your mother wants you to be.”

She shook off his hands. “N-no,” she said, turning uncertainty into certainty. She turned back in the direction they had been traveling. “I’m doing this, now. I’m going to see those lanterns,  and I’ll… face the consequences after,” she insisted, meeting Flynn’s incredulous stare.

Flynn matched her appraisal until he started to feel like she could see right into him. Then he threw his hands up in the air to cover up looking away. “Then can we at least walk faster?” he complained.

Rapunzel put one hand on her hip. “Oh, is that the problem?” she asked pointedly.

“Yes! One of the many! The biggest one!” Flynn felt like he was throwing a tantrum, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Why do we keep stopping every time you see a mushroom--”

Boletus edulis,” Rapunzel supplied.

“Gensundheit!” Flynn yelled. Seeing the way Rapunzel immediately shrank back into herself made him feel like a bully. He turned away and began marching away, taking long strides. If she had to jog to keep up, he thought, then so be it.

She didn’t jog. She ran past him, her hair streaming behind her. He increased his speed. It felt good to stretch his legs with a normal walking stride.

“You want a race?” she called over her shoulder.

Flynn considered not accepting the challenge. Then he noticed the direction in which she was running. “Where are you going!” he shouted after her, adjusting the pack on his back and sprinting to catch up.

She was swift, but she didn’t seem to have the stamina for a long run. Catching her didn’t take much effort when she was leaned over catching her breath.

“Where did you think you were going, Blondie?” he asked again. “Nevermind, don’t answer. From now on, let me lead, OK? Am I your guide or aren’t I?”

Rapunzel waved an arm. She straightened up. “Lead away,” she said, laughing while she still breathed heavily.

“What’s funny?” he asked her. He tried not to pay too much attention to the way her chest heaved.

“That was fun!” she replied. “I’ve never been able to run so far in a straight line.”

Flynn couldn’t wrap his mind around the implication. “Are you saying that you never left that tower?” he asked. “How old are you?”

She pushed a lock of her hair behind her ear. “Tomorrow is my 18th birthday.”

Taking her arm for a moment so that they would both start moving again, he asked, “Is that why the lantern thing is a big deal to you? Big enough to sneak away from home?”

“It’s my dream,” she admitted. “And I’ll be back before Mother returns. Don’t forget that part of our deal, to return me home safely.”

“Huh,” Flynn mused. “You still want to go back.” He gave her a sidelong look. “Are you sure about that?”

At first, she seemed surprised at the question. She didn’t answer immediately, however, and when she did answer it was in a small voice. “Yes. Of course I want to go home, again,” she said.

Rapunzel’s dash put them on a forest path that became familiar to Flynn after they followed it for a while. “Hey, are you hungry?” he asked.

She patted the woven pack she carried. “I brought food. Plus, we have those King Boletes I foraged. Should we find some water and make a fire?”

Flynn had not expected that. He tried again. “I’ll tell you what. Over this way is a quaint little tavern. By the time we get there, we’ll want to stop for some refreshment, say a mug of apple cider, and after that we can make camp and you can cook up… whatever you want to eat.”

“Oh. OK,” she said.

“What’s the problem,” Flynn asked, less of a question that a statement of irritation.

She mumbled, “No… problem.”

“Alright, then, onward. This place will make an impression on you,” he said, and turned their direction toward the Snuggly Duckling.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Rapunzel didn’t want to show Flynn that she was nervous about going to a tavern. But since he had suggested apple cider, not ale, maybe this was one of the things Mother had been wrong about. No, she wouldn’t think about Mother’s upsetting story about what happened in taverns. She still had her frying pan – if he suddenly became untrustworthy -- strapped to the basket on her back.

He wasn’t grabby, like Mother claimed men were. He had grabbed her by her shoulders, and then again by her arm, and he had let go without her needing to struggle or scream. She would have liked it, actually, if he had held onto her longer. She couldn’t imagine Flynn doing the brutal things that Mother said men did.

Still, she couldn’t doubt the truth of the stories Mother told. Her mother had no reason to lie.

On the other hand, Rapunzel felt that the last few hours since spotting Flynn climbing the tower were life as she was meant to live it. She was done with wondering and waiting. For the last few hours, she had been exploring and moving forward. And the world was amazing! Not even a day from her tower, she had identified many plants that she had only seen in her books and seen many more that she longed to study further. Not just plants, either. So many more birds and other animals lived in the world than she had even imagined. They flit through the air, or scurried through the bushes, or ran up the trees making scolding noises.

Flynn didn’t seem to understand just how wonderful the world around him was. She almost wanted to shake him for taking it all for granted. But then, maybe he was just accustomed to it. He had had freedom his whole life.

She wondered about Flynn, too. She could tell that he was still not happy about the bargain they’d struck. At first, when she noticed him being anxious, she thought he was nervous because the forest was dangerous. Yet as they walked along -- or for that glorious minute, raced -- she got the feeling that it wasn’t the forest, but something on his mind. Traveling with nothing but food for one or two light meals, socks, and the tiara thing seemed odd. She wished she could take the tiara out of her bag and study it more closely.

Thinking of it made her feel guilty about hiding it with her own things. Flynn hadn’t tried to run off and leave her behind. She thought about what he had said, about how going against Mother’s rules was a necessary part of growing up. Rapunzel knew she wasn’t a child anymore. She had the evidence of their dress dummy to make her aware of her body’s changes as she had grown, and to compare them to Mother’s form. She was her own primary model for drawings and paintings, too. With not enough else to do all day, she had spent many hours in front of her mother’s full length mirror, examining her own shape.

She knew, too, that she was her own person. She had her own thoughts, her own dreams. Her mind understood more than it had when she was a child, or even when she first started to become a woman, and not simply because her learning increased. It wasn’t only knowledge that advanced with time; understanding grew with age.

What Flynn said, though, implied that there was more to growing up than body and mind. Maybe rebelling, as he’d said, was a way of making one’s own place in the world. Maybe it was a differentiation of spirit that allowed each individual to thrive.

Could it be, she pondered, that challenging authority was less about going against that authority -- Mother, in Rapunzel’s case -- than about being recognized as a potential authority herself? That by going against Mother’s rules, she would be forcing Mother to recognize her as an adult, because only another adult could be a real force of challenge? Flynn said it would crush Mother’s soul to know Rapunzel had disobeyed, but Rapunzel felt that if she had obeyed, it was her own soul that would have been crushed.

Like two weights on a balance, if each of their desires were measured against each other, they would at least weigh as equal. Rapunzel thought that her dream, at least at this point, would outweigh Mother’s worries once Rapunzel could show that she was able to look out for herself. Mother would have to acknowledge the fact of Rapunzel’s maturity.

When the sign of the The Snuggly Duckling came into view, Rapunzel felt more confident about having trusted Flynn. It didn’t have a name with a body part, such as “The King’s Head,” and that itself was a distinction from the stories Mother Gothel told to Rapunzel. She could see a structure that she supposed was the tavern, down the hill at the end of the lane.

Because she had been thinking of Mother Gothel, for the first moment when she saw a person with black, curly hair shadowed in the trees along the lane, she didn’t react. Then her mind caught up with what she was seeing. Panicking, she put both hands on Flynn’s arm and pulled him off the road to hide behind a wide tree trunk. If she kept her grip on his muscular limb longer than strictly necessary, she chose to blame it on her fear of being seen. Pascal crouched further back under her cloak and pressed himself against her shoulder.

Flynn, unfortunately, was not as helpful. Not only did he not hide, he waved to the person in the trees.

Rapunzel understood her mistake when the woman stepped out of the shade and approached. “Flynn,” she called out. She did have thick, black, curly hair, but she was shorter and much younger than Mother. Rapunzel liked the bright colors and layered skirts of the girl’s dress.

“Carmilla,” Flynn greeted in return. He looked both happy and apologetic.

“Who is this?” she asked. She extended a hand with an open palm toward Rapunzel. Her shiny bracelets jingled. “Hello. I am Carmilla Masca.” There was a quality to the way she pronounced her words that interested Rapunzel.

Rapunzel put her hand into the girls and tried to shake it as she had learned from Flynn. “I’m Rapunzel.” Carmilla gave her hand a light squeeze and then let go.

“Flynn, I wish I could say I was glad to see you,” Carmilla said. With a glance at Rapunzel, she shook her head. “I am glad to see you, but I did not think it would be so soon.”

Flynn looked like he wanted to say something more, but didn’t have the words. “Well,” he said instead, “we’ll be on our way to The Snuggly Duckling.”

“Then we are going the same way,” Carmilla said. “I am heading back to the wagons now. Look, I found strawberries.” She opened the flap of the satchel she carried.

“They look delicious,” Rapunzel complimented.

“Right. Delicious.” Flynn’s odd discomfort appeared to have increased.

“Shall we walk?” Carmilla invited. With a bright smile towards Rapunzel, she started down the hill.

Rapunzel sneaked glances at Flynn. He definitely seemed perturbed about something. However, his attitude only lasted until they walked through the tavern’s front door. He cheered up right away.

Rapunzel couldn’t share his cheer. She froze at the doorway. So many people! And a wall of smell, undefinable stink, rolled out to her nose. She turned into Flynn and buried her face against his chest.

“You smell that?” Flynn murmured down to her in gleeful tones. “That’s man smell.”

Rapunzel agreed, but she was filling her nose with Flynn’s male scent. Unlike the tavern, he had a good smell to her. Like fresh baking, it made her want to take in large breaths of it.

“Overall, it just smells like the color brown,” he commented. “Aw, now don’t be shy. Let’s get a table.”

Carmilla leaned toward Rapunzel. “It will be OK. You stop smelling it after a few minutes,” she confided. “Flynn, come meet the new members to the family. Raiponsel, you come, too.”

Rapunzel saw the girl go toward the kitchen and hand the satchel of strawberries off to a big man wearing mitts on his hands. Carmilla came back and indicated that they should follow her into the central room. Rapunzel gathered up her hair and started down the steps along with Flynn. The end of her hair still trailed. One of the mean looking men touched it as she passed, which felt discomforting and unwelcome, but she couldn’t think of how to do anything about it.

“That’s a lot of hair,” he said.

“She’s growing it out,” Flynn quipped.

For the minute after he joked, Rapunzel hated Flynn a little bit. She had to remind herself that Flynn was her guide, not her protector. She thought they were friends, but after all, they had only known each other a few hours.

Carmilla joined a large group conversing and drinking together, many of whom had her same coloring and features. She tapped one of the fellows on the shoulder so that he would make room for her on the bench. When he got up, Carmilla gestured for Rapunzel to share the seat. Out of good manners, Rapunzel took it. She sat between Carmilla and a broad-chested man who had his face painted white like a mask. Flynn stood behind Rapunzel and rested his hands on the top of her shoulders.

“This is Ulf. He does pantomime. We have a new puppeteer, too. Fang, on the end,” she said to Flynn. To Rapunzel, she introduced everyone else.

Flynn excused himself to get mugs of cider and stepped away from the group at the table.

Rapunzel’s interest grew with the introduction of each person’s talent. She hoped for a chance to mention her own skills in dance, song, and ventriloquy, but she lost her nerve when an opportunity seemed to appear. She could almost hear Mother’s laugh, the way she would remind Rapunzel that what she did was dabbling and just a hobby. Rapunzel wasn’t trying to compare herself to professionals. She only wanted to share in the conversation.

A better opportunity to mention her skills came up when someone at a nearby table complained about the gloppy stew he had been served. When it looked like a violent fight was about to start between the rough customer and the mean looking cook, Rapunzel felt Pascal prod her to get her attention. The little chameleon gestured with his eyes at Rapunzel.

She turned around in her seat. The beefy man who didn’t like his food was beginning to stand, but he wouldn’t be able to compete with the giant of a cook, who had the extra advantage of a helmet and leather armor.

“Excuse me,” Rapunzel interjected before the fight escalated further. She had to raise her voice over the growling and try again. “Excuse me, gentlemen?” She made herself get up from the table. “Can I help?”

“Nothing can make this slop fit for anything but pigs!” the tattooed customer retorted. The cook answered with a muffled response that sounded like a threat at the tavern’s guest. The helmeted cook grabbed the other man by the throat.

“Wait!” Rapunzel shouted. “I-I cook. Could I taste it?”

The cook grabbed the bowl with his free, mitted hand and handed it to Rapunzel. He handed her a spoon. Tentatively, she took put a spoonful to her lips. It was greasy, tepid, and bland, and all over a grayish brown. She could see why the customer didn’t want to eat it. At the same time, she could see that the cook’s feelings were hurt by the cruel critique of his cooking. Rapunzel knew how that felt.

“You know,” she said sweetly, “I picked some herbs on the way here that I think would go well in this stew. Would you mind if I added in some?” She smiled encouragement at the cook.

He lowered the choking man back to the floor and let him go. After a moment, he nodded at Rapunzel. Then he started back to the kitchen. Rapunzel followed, taking the bowl of stew and her bag with her.

She did her best not shudder at the state of the kitchen. The floor, under her bare feet, felt like it hadn’t been mopped or even swept in a long time. Next to the cookfire, a heavy stew pot hung on an iron hook. The unidentifiable contents of the stew could have been any kind of meat mixed with some kind of root vegetables. She had thought she tasted legumes and possibly barley. Most probably, it was a mix of whatever was at hand, all put in together and left to boil down into glop. The top surface of the contents were congealed and gray; the bottom of the pot showed scorch marks. “May I use this counter?” she asked, spotting the one clean surface.

The cook shrugged, so Rapunzel took that as a sign to proceed. She chopped up some of her freshly picked peppergrass, wild onion,  and ramps. Rosemary would also be a savior to the stew. After a bit of thought, she sacrificed one of the bigger King Bolete mushrooms, which was getting a bit bruised from travel.

She pushed the heavy stew pot back closer to the flame to get it back to boiling, but before it got there, she needed to deal with the excessive fat coating the top. She turned to the cook. He was inspecting the seasoning that she had prepared to fix the stew.

“Do you have any dried up bread?” she asked. After he surprised her with a basket of bread pieces, all neatly cubed, she sprinkled some in a layer over the top of the stew. They would soak up most of the grease and the gray skin caused by over-boiling the broth. In the meantime, she scrubbed out a crusty skillet -- her own was in service as a weapon at the ready, not a cooking pan -- to use for the soaked bread. With a little milk and whisked egg stirred in, it would bake up into a kind of gravy-and-bread savory. She put the filled skillet over the cookfire and began to stir her seasonings into the stew. She added a cup of fresh water to break up the mass, and as bones or stems came up when she stirred, she plucked them out of the cooking.

Looking around the kitchen, she noticed the strawberries that Carmilla had brought in. A dozen of them had been washed, sliced, and arranged so that each fanned outward from the stems. The rest had been stemmed and cored. Rapunzel was glad to know that they hadn’t ended up in the stew.

The cook seemed to notice her looking at the strawberries. Diffidently, he picked up the bowl, added a splash of something from a tiny bottle, and began to mash the berries into a puree. While Rapunzel continued to attend the stew, she watched him add in buttermilk, then wisk the mixture into a light froth. As he went along, he seemed to lose himself into the process, forgetting that Rapunzel watched.

On the clean piece of counter, he had a bowl ready with flour and another bowl with sugar and butter. Taking turns, he combined the contents of the three vessels until he had a smooth, pink batter, that he then poured off into a cupcake pan. He opened the heavy doors of the oven and put the pan to bake.

When he was done, he looked at the patter bowl, still coated with a little of the pink batter, then at Rapunzel. He asked her a muffled question.

“I’m sorry. I can’t quite hear you through your helmet.”

The big man stood still for a long moment. Then he slowly lifted off his helmet. “Would you like to try the batter?” he asked, awkward and shy as he held his helmet between his mitts.

“Oh, may I?” Rapunzel responded. With a last stir of the stew, which was now bubbling in a low simmer, letting off a much nicer smell, she took a step toward the man and accepted the batter bowl. She looked at the man who had hidden his face and gave him a warm smile. “By the way, we haven’t been introduced. I’m Rapunzel. Thank you for letting me use your kitchen.” She ran a finger around the inside of the bowl. The taste of the batter was sublime. She closed her eyes and hummed with enjoyment.

“I like baking. I don’t like cooking,” the man said, his voice as gruff as his face was scarred.

“I like baking, too. What’s your name?”

“Attila,” the man answered.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Attila.” Rapunzel couldn’t stop eating the batter out of the bowl. “You have quite a talent.” She saw that he was staring at her as if he didn’t know how to respond to the compliment. Suddenly shy herself, she set the batter bowl down. She turned and tasted the improved stew. She served a fresh bowl for the unhappy customer, then found a lid and covered the stew. “I think this is ready, now,” she said. She moved the skillet on the fire to a place to keep it warm. “The gravy bread will make a nice stuffing or small dish if it’s served hot. The stew should be stirred every now and again to keep the bottom from burning.” Again, she gave Attila an encouraging smile.

Attila picked up a spoon and tentatively tasted the bowl she had served. He blinked, looked at her, and grinned. “How did you do that?” he asked.

Rapunzel shrugged. “Oh, it was just a few herbs and a little bit of know-how,” she said.

“Greno can’t complain, now.”

“People can get very mean and picky when they are hungry,” she replied, thinking of Mother Gothel. “He’ll calm down after a good meal.”

“You’re a nice lady, Rapunzel,” Attila said before donning his helmet again.

Rapunzel, happy because of the compliment, followed Attila out of the kitchen to see Greno’s reaction. The man took a grudging spoonful of the stew and tasted it. Immediately, his attitude changed. He continued eating the stew quickly, obviously pleased by the meal.

“What, the food is good now?” asked a man wearing a horned helm.

“Get some yourself, Vladimir,” Greno growled between spoonfuls.

Rapunzel ended up helping to dole out bowls -- and mugs, when they ran out of bowls -- of the stew to the rest of the people in the tavern. Nothing was left in the pot, when they were done, because of those asking for second servings. The innkeeper even came out of hiding and offered Rapunzel a complimentary tankard of small beer, which she refused. She didn’t refuse the pink frosted, pink cupcake, topped with a sliced strawberry, that Attila gave her. It was even more delicious than the batter had been.

Although the folks in the tavern had frightened her when she first entered, Rapunzel now felt that she had judged them unfairly. She had a chance to talk to many of them and found out how interesting each individual was. They all had their own hopes and dreams and things they enjoyed, and when she told them about her own dream to see the lanterns, they shared their stories with her.

Vladimir, the man with the horned helmet, had a collection that fascinated Rapunzel. “What is a ‘unicorn’?” she asked, after he told her about it.

“It’s like a horse, but better. It has a magical horn growing from its head,” he said.

Embarrassed at her lack of worldliness, Rapunzel asked, “And what is a horse?”

“You have not seen a horse?” Carmilla asked her. “A pony? No?”

“No,” Rapunzel replied. “Are they wild animals?’

Carmilla giggled. “We have ponies who pull our wagons,” she said.

Vladimir took a tiny figure out of his pocket. “This is a unicorn,” he said with reverence.

Rapunzel looked at the ceramic unicorn. “I would love to see a real one. Or a horse,” she said.

“Come,” Carmilla said, patting Rapunzel’s hand. “I will show you our ponies. You want to see them?”

Cheered by the prospect, but remembering Flynn’s explosion about their pace, she looked around for Flynn to get his approval. “I’d love to see them.”

She couldn’t spot Flynn anywhere in the room. She looked around, searching for him. The last time she remembered seeing him was when he said he was getting drinks.

“Where is Flynn?” she asked, feeling confusion. “Has anyone seen my guide?”

ooo

Chapter Text

Staring into his pack, which contained everything he expected except the tiara, Flynn began muttering to himself under his breath. “Look on the bright side. At least you looked in the bag before you got all the way there. Imagine that? No. No, don’t imagine it.” He pulled the drawstring closed and shrugged the bag back onto his back. “She’s craftier than I thought. Gotta respect that. When did she do it? The ladder! She must have taken it before she went down the ladder.” He shook his head. “Flynn, you are losing your edge.”

He could return to the tower, search it, and hope to find the tiara, but the girl might have it on her person, and The Snuggly Duckling was closer. He would have to make some excuse for where he had been and wait for an opportunity to go through her possessions.

Or, he heard an inner voice say to him, he could go through with the deal he’d made with her: take her to the Lantern Festival, get her home again, and then go on with his life. The lady had lived in a tower without ever leaving. He could show her a little bit of the world, give her a happy memory to take home with her. Who knows, it might even foster some desire for independence that would spare her from being cloistered in that tower until she was old and gray.

Somehow, thinking of her wasting away in that tower made Flynn angry. She wasn’t like any woman he had met before, not any one woman, anyway. She was smart, but trusting, and clever, and enthusiastic… and pretty… athletic, and strong -- considering how hard she had rattled his skull with that pan. The way she was interested in everything only irritated him because it had slowed their journey. On consideration, he thought that was a great trait in a person.

He started back to the Duckling. Night had fallen completely, but the moon wasn’t yet up. For speed, he returned to the wide forest trail and jogged along by the thin light of stars.

The thing about having never left her tower bothered him more than he wanted to admit. The bricked up door supported her story. And the idea of her mother, whoever she was, getting in and out of the tower by means of the girl’s hair -- that was just plain creepy.

ooo

Maximus returned to Elsa before night fell completely, for which Elsa was glad. Until she felt herself relax at the sound of his whinny, she hadn’t realized how tense she was. Hearing her friend nearby, seeing him trotting through the trees, she was able to dismiss her ice sword and the magic still tenaciously frosting her clothing.

He neighed and stomped when he reached her.

“He got away?” Elsa asked.

Maximus gave her a look that she understood as frustrated chagrin.

“But it was him, after all? Flynn Rider?”

The stallion raised himself onto his hind legs and stomped back down. He kicked and stamped.

She gave him a reassuring pat on the neck. “We’ll get him, my friend. Tomorrow will be a fresh start.” At his dejected look, she leaned against his shoulder. “Let’s go home and get these tangles brushed out of your mane. But first,” she checked his saddle, then hoisted herself up, “we need to regroup with the men. We’ll see if we can round them up.”

At the crossroads, a designated rendezvous point, she found the guards waiting for her. She anticipated giving the order to return to the castle, but Guardsman Nils said one thing in his report that caught her attention.

“Traveling performers?” she asked. “When did they enter the country?”

“Today, Your Highness,” Nils provided. “The have camped their wagons beside an inn not far from here.” He smiled at her, always respectful but less formal in his manner with her than some of the younger guards. Like most of the guards over the age of thirty, he had served in little Elsa’s entourage during Elsa’s first year in Corona. “The men are ready at your command.”

Elsa smiled a thin smile of anticipation. If Rider was attempting to hide among the performers, her day would end on a high note, after all. She gave the order, and the guard rode down one of the narrow roads branching from the King’s Road.

Due to the darkness of the forest at night, their horses went with a careful pace. Even with lanterns, the guard could not see far ahead or far into the woods along the side of the road. Elsa sent Nils to the front of the procession, while she and Maximus took the end. When they saw lights ahead, she turned Maximus off the road. They would circle around and approach from the other side of the wagons while the rest of the guard began at the inn.

ooo

Flynn saw lantern light on the road and veered off the main trail. A line of guards in armor took the lane toward The Snuggly Duckling. Flynn stayed off the road and made a shortcut, risking the uneven terrain to beeline toward the inn. A moment later, he saw a single rider on a white horse, apart from the others, moving steadily through the woods toward the traveling players' wagons.

Part of why Flynn had been OK with leaving Rapunzel on her own had been because he knew that Carmilla’s group would look out for her once she realized he was gone. If she had already gone to the wagons, the tiara -- if she hadn’t left it behind in the tower -- was going to be right in the midst of Corona’s guard. On the other hand, it was still early, and the performers could still be carousing at the Duckling. He had to pick one.

Too many “if”s! Flynn chose to believe that luck was tired of kicking him around and would give him a break.

Now was less a time for stealth than speed, he decided, and launched into a sprint down to The Snuggly Duckling chancing that he wouldn’t put his foot down in a gopher hole. He hoped Blondie was still there.

When he burst through the door and saw her sweeping, he was so relieved that he didn’t notice how clean the interior of the Duckling had become. He dashed down the stairs and grabbed her by the arm. “We have to go,” he insisted, “right now!” He started to pull her toward the front door, the only exit. “Where’s your pack?” He looked around and saw it hanging, with her cloak, from a hook on the wall. Not losing his hold on Rapunzel, he grabbed it with his other hand and continued to the door.

“Wait. Stop!” Rapunzel resisted. “Flynn, where have you been?”

“No time for questions, Blondie,” Flynn answered. “If we don’t go right this minute, we’re going to --” He stopped talking as Attila stepped out of the kitchen and moved himself protectively in front of Rapunzel.

Attila wrapped one mitt around Flynn’s wrist. He growled something that reverberated around the inside of his helmet.

Flynn let go of Rapunzel’s arm.

Rapunzel leaned around Attila’s mass. “I trusted you, Flynn Rider,” she accused. “Now tell me the truth. Did you leave me behind? Did you break our deal?”

“I came back,” Flynn said with a small laugh. Any minute, the guard would close off their escape. His escape. “Please, Blondie. Trust me a little longer. We have to leave!”

She pulled a folded paper out of her bodice. Unfolding it, she held it up for him to see. “Because of this?” she asked. “I found this in with the kindling for the fire. Bruiser explained to me what ‘treason’ means. Is this you? Flynn Rider. Are you a criminal?”

Her voice accused him, but her eyes made it impossible to dissemble. There was nothing in them to make him feel defensive. She simply looked at him. “Yes,” he found himself saying.

Then he heard the sounds of horses and armor outside the door. It was too late to run, too late to escape.

Rapunzel grabbed Flynn by his arm. “Here. This way,” she said.

To his surprise, she pulled him around the bar and pulled on a tap. Instead of the flow of beer, which he was ready to question, a secret door appeared in the wall behind them under the rack of kegs. Taking a grease lamp off the bar top, Rapunzel stepped down into the hidden space.

The front door of the Snuggly Duckling opened and a man’s voice called out, “Search everywhere!”

Flynn didn’t wait. A step behind Rapunzel, he climbed through the secret exit. Even more surprising than the existence of the hidden exit was that it led, not to a basement, but to a tunnel. “How did you…?” he started to ask.

Rapunzel took her woven pack from him. He’d forgotten he still held it. He vaguely realized that he’d missed the chance to check for the tiara, but somehow that seemed less important to him at the moment. Rapunzel had already traded the fat lamp for a shielded dark lantern, and she stood ready to proceed down the mysterious path.

She put on her cloak and handed the dark lantern to him. Flynn could hear the sounds from above: boots stomping, voices calling to each other. He started down the tunnel.

When they had gone far enough that he couldn’t hear the sounds from The Snuggly Duckling anymore, he thought about which question to ask her first. He meant start with the easiest one. Instead, what came out of his mouth was, “Tell me you have my tiara.”

Rapunzel gave him that same level look she had earlier. “I promised that I would give it to you after you took me to see the lanterns and then brought me home. I will keep my part of our deal.”

He tried again with the question. “How did you know about the secret door?”

“Well, the innkeeper explained it after I accidently opened it. I was scrubbing the bar,” she explained.

“That’s another thing. Why were you...? What do you mean, you were cleaning?”

“Whoo, well,” she exhaled heavily. “It needed a shine up. While I was waiting, I thought I should make myself useful.”

“What if I hadn’t come back?”

“I don’t know, Flynn,” she answered.

“Hey Blondie,” he said, after a while of walking in silence. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh. OK.” She walked along beside him, looking ahead. “Will you explain to me about how you are wanted for theft and treason?”

Flynn wondered how long the tunnel ran. It was as wide as a hallway. They were out of the rough tunnel now and and walking along a section supported with beams. Flynn thought it might be part of a mine system. He didn’t want to get lost in an abandoned mine maze, but so far, there had only been one tunnel, no branchings. “Uh, it’s a long story,” he finally answered Rapunzel.

“I’m a good listener,” she said.

Flynn was tempted. “No, I don’t do backstory,” he joked to avoid sharing something he would later regret. “Any idea where this tunnel lets out?”

ooo

The performers seemed to have nothing to hide from Elsa, although two of their number were locals and newly added to the troop, which added to her suspicion. Their spokesman was a girl close to Anna’s age. She spoke Coronan well, though with a distinct Stelese accent. The girl introduced her to each of the members of the troop, all the way down to the dog trainer and his gymnastic terriers.

Maximus seemed to think that something was amiss. However, since he couldn’t nose out anything but a paper mache head covered in shaggy yak hair, she finally turned him away from the performers. He perked up again at the tavern.

She slid off his back and pushed open the inn door, expecting the filthy hole of past inspections. The shining wood and clean, freshly scrubbed surfaces that greeted her gave her a moment’s pause. She suppressed her bemusement and swept into the inn as the Champion of Corona.

Her manner generated the reaction she wanted. Even the rough types that patronized the inn recognized her. She swept her gaze over everyone in the room, meeting eyes whenever possible. Though heads bowed, eyes lifted to sneak a glance at her.

Guardsman Nils made his way to her. “No sign of Flynn Rider,” he reported.

“None at all?” she asked, turning her question toward the inn’s customers. “Is it true? No witness of Flynn Rider?” She stepped further into the room and began to walk a circuit, taking the time to create a sense that the question was for each man or woman in the room. She knew that the people of Corona, regardless of station, saw her as a symbol. She was not a person, not flesh and blood like them. To them, she was as unearthly as a snowflake, a name in stories. In inquiries, that mystical aspect worked in her favor. To a commoner, being singled out by the Champion of Corona must have felt like attention from the divine.

“Flynn Rider was spotted this afternoon in the forest,” she said, using melodious tones rather than commanding ones. “We could greatly use your help in finding him.” She didn’t have to remind them of the monetary reward.

Still perplexed at the cleanliness of the bar, she ran her fingers over the worn down wood. A small man who was slumped with inebriation lifted his head off the table to track Elsa’s passage. A customer with a bad complexion and prominent nose, sitting on a nearby barstool, looked like he might fall off of it by fainting at his proximity to Elsa.  The big man with a hook for a hand standing behind the bar seemed less star-struck and more nervous.

“Do you know the whereabouts of Flynn Rider?” Elsa asked him, resting both her delicate hands on the bar top.

“Heese withagurl,” the drunk at the table offered, his words slurred together. “Lucky dog.”

Elsa looked to Nils. He shook his head, then looked up to the guards who had searched the upper floor where the inn had rooms. Up on the stairs, a guard confirmed, “He’s not up here.”

The front door of the inn swept open, and Maximus pushed his big head and shoulders through a doorway never intended for equines. He stepped through and maneuvered into the tavern.

“Maximus?” Elsa asked him. His ears were swiveling as if tracking a sound. His nostrils flared. He headed straight for the bar. He turned his head to give Elsa his bossy look, as if to say, “pay attention,” and then stomped on the floor a few times.

Then he started pushing his nose into the beer taps. The hook-handed thug protested and backed away, but the whole crowd went silent with him when Maximus’s nosing made a door open behind the bar counter.

“Oop! Ya found tha tunnels,” the little drunk man narrated. He ran his fingers across the table top, gesturing a person running.

Elsa stepped to his table. “Did Flynn Rider go out that way?” she asked him, even as she gestured to Nils to lead the guard through the revealed passage. They passed through the secret exit in a stream until Elsa was the last of the guard in the tavern, besides Maximus. “Where do those tunnels lead?” Elsa asked.

He seemed to fade out, too inebriated to track her questions. She lifted his face off the table with her icy hand under his chin. The cold shocked him, his eyes going wide. “Where do those tunnels lead?” she asked again, fighting to keep her voice encouraging instead of intense. A little more ice crept out of her fingers.

The man shuddered and pulled away with a little cry of “Dam!” He had sobered enough to realize he was misunderstood. “Thuh res’oir!” He slowed his words. “Reservoir. Old mines. The dam,” he clarified.

Elsa took Maximus by the reigns. As soon as they had traversed the inn’s doorway, she pulled herself up to his back and they charged toward the King’s Road, toward the branching of the road to the reservoir, intending to reach the dammed river before Flynn exited the escape tunnel.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Maximus was reckless in the speed of his gallop. The King’s Road was smoothly packed dirt, trustworthy by the moon’s light, but the stallion didn’t slow when he and Elsa turned off the wide way and onto the darker road toward the reservoir. The gold mines at the end of the road had been out of use since before Elsa arrived in Corona. The road, once wide enough for ox-drawn wagons laden with ore, was not used enough to keep it clear of nature’s creep or the pitting of weather.

The light of the moon provided a glow across the sky, but the  vegetation on sides of the road left the road surface in shadow. Feeling the need to release the surging of a building storm, Elsa raised her hands and blasted the overgrown scrub with a coating of reflective snow. It brightened the road for her and Maximus and eased the pressure ice magic she had been pushing down. The release gave her a second wind, and with renewed energy, she focused on the meeting ahead with Flynn.

ooo

From being barefoot, Rapunzel felt the vibrations in the ground. She was turning around to look before Flynn reacted to the sound of running boots coming down the tunnel behind. He took Rapunzel’s hand and they began running just as the light from their pursuers banished the shadows.

She stretched her legs to her longest stride and sprinted with a focus not to slow Flynn down. He was a criminal. She accepted that at face value. She found it didn’t matter as much to her as maybe it should. She didn’t feel an obligation to the law of the land. After all, who were the kingdom’s rulers to her?

Anyway, they had a deal; she had to give him a chance to follow through on it. So she ran with Flynn. She trusted his lead, and she trusted that he would not leave her behind again. The alternative was to find another guide, or give up and find her way home, and she wouldn’t do either of those unless Flynn was the one to break their deal.

She didn’t want another guide, she thought to herself as she ran, her breath coming in gasps, her hair trailing behind her. She had her hair looped around her arm and shoulder, and she could feel that it had done the thing again where it was shorter… well, less long… than it sometimes was. It was an aspect of her magic hair to change in length. It was always strong enough to pull Mother up into the tower and long enough when needed to safely lower her down, but it changed in weight and length. She never had to wash it, either, but she did. Washing was a challenge, and she needed challenges to fill her days.

Being on the run with a criminal was a bigger challenge. She revelled in it. It gave energy to her step as she ran.

They came out of the tunnel to a moonlit scene that would have taken Rapunzel’s breath away if she wasn’t already panting. The tunnel opened to the view of a chasm between sheer cliff faces. To one side, an enormous wall, as tall as her tower, filled the chasm. Structures made of thick, wooden beams ran along the cliff faces. A stream that glinted in the moonlight trickled down a crooked chute and along the chasm floor, pouring over a waterwheel that no longer turned.

Flynn and Rapunzel were out of ground to run on, because the level they were on ended short. Unless they went down some narrow stairs cut into the cliff face, or up a steep incline with the remains of some kind of machine on it, there was nowhere to go but over the edge. It was hard to discern by moonlight, but Rapunzel thought that the wooden tracks on the incline may have once been some kind of counterbalance to move ore up the slope. She could make out wheels that no longer held rope; they were round shapes spaced at regular intervals. The rock skin around the tracks was weathered and crumbly.

Men in brass helmets came spilling out of the tunnel. “Oh, no,” Flynn commented at the sight of them. He threw himself at the incline and started the scrambling climb.

“Who are they?” she asked, following. Climbing was easier than running. She tossed her hair over one of the pulley wheels far up at the top. When the end came back to her, she flipped a loop of slack out to wrap Flynn’s waist.

“Let’s just say they don’t like me,” Flynn said. He seemed to realize that she had him lassoed in her hair just as she pulled both of them up the incline. She swung out on her weight in a wide arc that took her to the side and up. Just like playing around in her tower, she used her hair to make her way to the level ground above. Then she pulled Flynn the rest of the way up to join her.

They left their pursuers struggling to clamber up the dangerously steep angle. At the top, Rapunzel and Flynn were far above the men chasing them. Flynn looked down to gloat at the frustrated pursuers.

“I could get used to a view like this,” he said. He turned toward Rapunzel with a grin on his face, but his grin vanished when he looked beyond her.

Rapunzel followed his gaze and saw a lone white horse and rider in the distance. Almost glowing in the moonlight, the image of horse and rider gave Rapunzel a feeling of aesthetic appreciation. They were moving quickly closer, however, so there was no time to stand around admiring their beauty.

She had never had to wait to paint an inspiration, before. As she realized it, another thought came chasing after. How could she ever paint a landscape so broad in the crowded space of her tower?

Flynn got her attention. “We’ve got to find a place to cross. This lake isn’t all that big. We might be able to make it to the end…” He started a jog down closer to where the rock and dirt met the edge of water.

“Maybe we haven’t been seen yet,” Rapunzel offered. She took Flynn’s hand so he could help her down. They began an easy run along the water’s border.

“I wouldn’t count on that,” Flynn responded.

They lost sight of the horseman when the land rose. The track that ran closest to the water looked like it would dead end, Flynn advised, so they had to follow a ridge with a ten foot drop to the water. The shine of moonlight, at least, kept the waterline in view. That same moonlight, however, made them an easy target to spot. When the horse and rider reached where the other pursuers must still have been climbing up from the chasm, the horseman turned and started toward Flynn and Rapunzel.

“I know that horse,” Flynn told Rapunzel ran with greater earnest. He looked down at the water. “It’s not far across. Can you swim, Blondie?”

Rapunzel wondered if the expanse of black water, sparkling as it rippled, would feel like bath water. “I don’t know how to swim,” she answered honestly. She wished she could, because she wanted to stop running.

“That’s a problem,” Flynn answered. Even he was running short of breath.

Rapunzel looked back. The horse and rider were close and gaining ground. They were close enough that Rapunzel could now see that the rider was a young woman.

“Give me your pack,” Flynn said, reaching his hand out for it even though his attention was turned toward the water below them.

Rapunzel unpinned her cloak. She shifted her basket off her back and handed it to Flynn without question. He turned back to look at her and said, “I’m sorry, Blondie. I’ve got to do this.” Then, putting her pack over his shoulder, he bounded off the ridge and into the water. He started moving his arms and legs, propelling himself through the water.

Rapunzel didn’t hesitate. She took a running leap and jumped, too, aiming for a space about five feet to one side of Flynn.

ooo

Elsa, seeing her quarry go into the water, prepared herself to jump down from Maximus even before he had stopped. She knew no one was watching, so she reigned Maximus in to start him slowing, then she leaped onto the slide of ice that she formed in an instant. She took the ice slide right to the edge of the ridge.

She had seen the girl jump into the water, too, but once Elsa alighted, she could only see Flynn. Then he stopped his swimming strokes, tread water for a moment, and dived under the surface.

ooo

Flynn dived. Encumbered by two packs and the darkness under the water, he still managed to get an arm around Rapunzel and haul her back up to the surface. It must have been the moonlight, because her long hair seemed to be faintly glowing.

She sputtered for breath when he brought her to the surface. He worried that she would start struggling, as drowning people do. Instead, she started a slow, smooth swimming kick in tandem with his.

“Can you do it?’ he asked her.

“I think so,” she said.

“OK, when I let you go, paddle your arms and keep your face above the water. If you start to sink, just relax and let yourself float on your back. You’ll float back up.”

“I can do it,” she said.

He let her go, and although she floundered for long enough to start him worrying, she righted herself and started a rudimentary but effective swimming. It wasn’t much farther to the other side of the reservoir. They were both tired, but they had already covered about a third of the way.

The dam plugged up a creek that wasn’t at all wide or deep further upstream in the forest. In the forest, a low bridge over the road was enough to cross the creek. But the dam made a lake that started filling at a waterfall down a hillside. Going across the lake, apart from the challenge of swimming with someone who couldn’t swim, was by far the fastest way.

Even though Flynn wanted to be angry at Rapunzel for nearly drowning herself, he felt a profound admiration for her bravery. Or foolhardiness. He couldn’t decide which, and he didn’t spend mental energy thinking about it as he continued his own swimming.

The white horse and rider were at the edge of the water, watching his progress.

ooo

Elsa wondered if she could do it: a frozen road on the water, thick and strong enough for her and Maximus to ride over. The guard were still far, stumbling to catch up.

But they would see her crossing the reservoir. They would see…

Don’t let them see.

Flynn was getting away. She would jump in and swim after him herself, if not for her heavy clothes. She clenched her fists in frustration.

Maximus whinnied just as she saw the first snowflake flutter away from her, dropping to the water and refusing to melt.

“I’m tired, Maximus,” she explained. “Frustrated. And tired.”

He whinnied again. He shook his mane and flipped his tail around.

She took one last, studying look at the figures swimming through the water. Once they were across the reservoir, they would be beyond her reach for the time. Even with Maximus’s speed, taking the route to the crossing upriver would give Rider ample time to disappear into the forest again. There was nothing more she could do but end the day and start fresh in the morning.

She went back to Maximus and pressed her forehead against neck. “He was so close. For the first time in…” she sighed, “forever.”

ooo

When Rapunzel made it to the shore, she almost didn’t have enough strength in her arms to climb up out of the water. Swimming was different from anything she had ever done before. She loved it.

With the help of her hair, tossed up to wrap around some rocks on dry ground, she crawled up onto land. Flynn had already flung the two packs up and was out of the water himself.

“That thing you do with your hair,” he commented. He scanned the lake and the opposite shore and seemed to decide that it was safe to take the time to wring out his dripping clothes. “Is that… usual?”

She shrugged, tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear.  

If Rapunzel were alone, she would have taken off her dress before squeezing out the water. She took a cue from Flynn and twisted up her skirts. It didn’t do much good. She wrapped her hair around her shoulders for warmth. Her cloak was gone, lost to the lake, and being soaking wet made the summer night feel cold.

She saw that Flynn watched her. She felt self-conscious, but at the same time, she didn’t want him to look away. “I’m a little cold,” she said.

Flynn pulled off his boots and socks, picked them up as well as both packs, and started walking. “Let’s get away from here. We’ll find a place to make camp.”

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Rapunzel found it difficult not to look at Flynn’s bare feet as he walked ahead of her. Out of boots, Flynn took more careful steps. Bare feet made him take shorter strides. He seemed like someone more like her.

Plus, she liked seeing his toes. She thought he had nice arches and strong looking tendons. His ankles teased from the cover of his trouser hems. She started thinking about what the rest of his legs would look like, noting the way his wet trousers stuck to the muscles in his legs.

“Should be lots of fallen branches under those trees, just a little further ahead. I’ll collect some firewood. You can go through our packs. Salvage whatever isn’t wrecked.” He led them to a clearing where the fallen trunk of a small tree made a natural seat for him to put his wet shoes and boots back on. “I can’t believe that you jumped in like that.”

“It didn’t look too difficult,” Rapunzel said with a falsely casual shrug, “swimming.” Mumbling, mostly to herself, she added, “I was wrong, I guess.”

Flynn ran a hand through his hair. “You could have drowned. I could have drowned. We both could have -- nevermind.”

Rapunzel felt her stomach twist with a complaint. “I don’t feel very good,” she said. “I think I’ll sit down.”

“Stay here. I’m not going far.” He stood for a minute with his hands on his hips, looking into the dark woods. “I’ll be back in few minutes with firewood.”

She started thinking about all the water she had unintentionally swallowed, especially when she first went under. Her stomach felt uneasy, and she still felt cold all the way to her bones. She had some scratches on the bottoms of her feet from running over rough, stony ground that added to her discomfort. It was a relief to be able to sit still and rest.

“I believe you,” Rapunzel said to Flynn as she watched him walk off into the dark.

Pascal crawled out of her pack. Rapunzel scooped him up and let him snuggle into her bodice. He appeared completely unharmed in spite of his time underwater. “I guess you’re better than me at holding your breath,” she said to him.

He blinked his large eyes at her. His skin hue shifted to a light purple that matched her dress as he crawled up to her shoulder.

“I do believe him, Pascal,” she murmured. “He wouldn’t swim with this heavy load and then leave now empty handed.” As instructed, she began emptying both packs. Most of her items were in good shape. Her frying pan was well seasoned, so the prolonged submersion wouldn’t do it any harm, and the tiara was made of metal and some kind of crystals, so it was fine, too.

Curious, she held the tiara up to catch the meager light in the clearing. The faceted center crystals refracted so much light that they almost glowed. Still wondering what it was used for, other than it being pretty, she wrapped it up again and hid it away where Flynn would not see it.

She made a stack of the fruit on a patch of clean moss. She was glad she had given the rest of her foraged mushrooms to Attila and eaten the bread rolls while waiting for Flynn at The Snuggly Duckling, because both would have turned to slime during the swim. The basket itself would dry out better than Flynn’s leather pack, whose contents were a soggy glob. She placed any food she could salvage next to her fruit and hung the socks over the branches of a nearby shrub.

A sticky bundle of paper that seemed to be the main culprit in the mess. It was too wet even for paper mache, but in case it had been something Flynn needed, she didn’t just toss it under a bush. She lay it over the end of the log, and prodding the edges, tried to get it to flatten out in sheets. She could almost make out an image or images, but it was too dark and the ink had probably smudged and run enough to distort the original image.

She coughed on congestion in her chest. Standing up and pacing felt better than staying seated. moving around warmed her, but her stomach still cramped. She began humming the healing incantation, hearing the words in her mind. Her hair, wrapped around her whole body, eased her chills as it began a low glow. Her hair lit up fully, and the healing power of it cleared her breathing, cured her chills, and settled her uneasy stomach. The ends of her hair curled around her feet and healed all the little cuts and scratches.

The tree cover didn’t allow much of the moonlight through. Her glowing hair, as bright as morning sunlight, chased away the dark. That, too, made her feel better. Now that she was alone, being out in the wide world made her miss the familiarity of her tower rooms. Just as she wondered how much longer Flynn would be collecting firewood, she heard a clatter. Turning an arc, she scanned around her.

Flynn stood at the edge of the clearing, silently watching her, holding most of an armful of sticks. Some had fallen on the ground around his feet. He wasn’t merely holding the sticks he had collected; he was clutching them. His feet were placed as if he had taken a step back.

“Flynn?” Rapunzel asked.

“You’re… glowing… glowing hair…” he stammered.

“Are you alright?” she asked, a little more softly. “You got firewood. That’s great!”

“What?” he asked. He still had not moved closer.

“You got firewood. For the fire,” she repeated. She beckoned him with a wave of encouragement.

His reticence gave Rapunzel a sinking feeling. He seemed afraid, and she didn’t understand why. “I’m still me, Flynn,” she said.

“Light was coming from you.”

When he still stared at her, his face serious, she told him, “I have magic hair that glows when I sing.” She exhaled with relief when he finally started walking toward her.

“How -- how long has that been happening?” His voice sounded strained. He stepped to the center of the clearing and began to arrange a pile of the smallest sticks with a ring of collected rocks around the pile.

Even though she saw Flynn flinch when she stepped closer to him, she pretended that nothing had changed between them. “It doesn’t just glow,” she said. “I have healing magic. I always have, ever since I was born.” She gave him a small smile. “Don’t freak out. Please?”

Flynn shook his head and emitted a small laugh to himself that didn’t sound happy. While he squatted down and began to pile sticks up for the fire, he continued muttering to himself under his breath. Rapunzel thought he said something about ice, which didn’t make any sense to her.

Rapunzel waited for him to say something more. She saw him reach for the knife at his belt.

“Hand me my flint, would you?” he asked, his voice almost back to its usual tone.

She turned back to the pile of his possessions and found his tinderbox. While Flynn shaved narrow slivers of wood off of one of the dry sticks he had collected, she crouched down to watch. He started sparking his knife against the flint. She was torn between watching his face while he concentrated on starting a flame and watching the process of using flint-and-steel to make fire. At home, she kept the coals in the stove always alive, reviving them whenever she needed to cook or light candles.

Minding the fire until it was strong seemed to hold all of Flynn’s attention. He didn’t look at her or say another word until a hot fire crackled around some of the larger branches he piled over the young fire. Then, still not breaking the silence, he sat down on the log to remove his boots and socks again. He began to undo the clasps on his leather vest.

Rapunzel stayed crouched by the fire. She was enjoying the warmth drying out her dress. The warm night and her body heat had gotten it to a damp state that was slightly itchy. In a moment of wistfulness, she thought about her soft linen nightgown with longing. She yawned. She would miss her cozy bed, but sleeping on the forest ground would be an interesting experience. She wished she still had the cloak to use as a blanket.

Flynn came back to set his boots by the fire. He stripped his vest off his shoulders and started taking off his shirt.

Rapunzel jolted and sat back. She felt her heart jump to a faster beat. Oddly startled and at the same time embarrassed at her response, she felt her face flushing red. She didn’t know where to look and ended up covering her face with her hands. From between her fingers, she could see Flynn’s hands drop away from the buttons on his shirt, causing her to feel a confusing mix of relief and disappointment.

He cleared his throat. “Um. Hmm.” He sat down by the fire, turned a little away from Rapunzel. He seemed embarrassed, too. “Just thought I could get my clothes dry,” he offered in a rush. “I wouldn’t -- I mean, uh. I respect your boundaries.”

Rapunzel tried to apologize. “Oh. Yes. No, I mean, I didn’t think that. That you would do anything… not nice…” Her attempts sounded clumsy and vague, just like Mother said. She stopped talking. She didn’t know what her boundaries were when they weren’t the walls of her tower.

Flynn gave her a sidelong look that made her feel light-headed. “How is a sheltered girl like you so brave?” he asked her.

“I’m… not brave,” Rapunzel protested. “Why would you think I am?”

“I thought you would have gone with Carmilla. But instead I find you alone among a bunch of thugs, who even step in to protect you.”

“They’re not thugs!” Rapunzel defended. “They’re just people.”

Flynn’s eyebrows rose. “No one would ever say that but you.”

She asked, “Wouldn’t you want someone to say that Flynn Rider is a good person?”

“Flynn Rider isn’t good. You shouldn’t think that,” Flynn responded without humor.

“Weren’t you ever good?” she asked him.

He threw some twigs into the fire. “I wasn’t always Flynn Rider.”  After she waited without saying anything herself, he supplied, “There was this kid. His parents died... so he lived in an orphanage, with too many other kids who had variations on the same story. This kid, he liked to read, and he read this one book of adventure stories over and over to the other kids. The thing is, the other kids already knew all the Flynnagan Rider stories, so I… I mean, this kid made up new ones. The only time he felt like he had friends was when the other kids hung around to listen to these great stories of Flynnagan Rider.”

Rapunzel watched Flynn’s face. She liked the way he smiled when he talked about telling his stories.

“Flynnagan Rider was daring. He lived by his own rules. He always won. He had everything he ever wanted or needed, everyone admired him, and he got it all by becoming the hero of the kingdom, saving ladies from evil magic, that sort of thing.”

“Evil magic?” Rapunzel asked.

He gave her a level look. “When I was a kid, I only knew what I was taught. People in this kingdom believe that sorcery is a bad thing, Blondie.”

“You don’t?”

“Well, there was this girl,” Flynn said.

“Oh.”

“Not like that. She was a princess,” he said. He shook his head. “It’s not my secret to tell. I shouldn’t say anything about it.”

“Tell me more about the boy who told stories. What was his name?”

“Oh, boy.” Flynn sat back and sighed. Staring at the fire, he took his time to answer. “Eugene Fitzherbert. It’s a terrible name.”

“I like it,” Rapunzel said. “I like him,” she said in a quieter voice.

“Well, you’d be the first, Blondie,” Flynn said. “Do you mind me calling you Blondie? I kind of... do that. With people I like.”

“I like your name for me. My real name means lettuce,” Rapunzel said, wrinkling her nose. She laughed a little and bit her lip. “I was pretty surprised to find that in my cookbook.”

Flynn laughed, too. “Lots of girls your age have plant names like that. It was a thing because of the princess.”

“The one who…?”

“Different princess,” Flynn answered.

“You know a lot of royalty, for an outlaw,” Rapunzel joked.

Flynn grinned at her, making the floaty feeling fill her head again. “There was just one princess.”

“Just one. Well. That makes all the difference,” she teased.

“So why didn’t you go with Carmilla?” Flynn asked. “She looked like she was taking you under her wing.”

“Oh, I did, for a little while.” Rapunzel smiled, recalling the brightly painted wagons, the marvelous ponies, and the animals that did tricks. “I met Bufon. He showed off his somersaults.”

“The little dog,” Flynn supplied.

Rapunzel nodded. “But I went back to the tavern to wait for you and eat dinner.”

“Speaking of dinner,” Flynn started. He turned to the contents of the packs. “My food wasn't meant to go swimming.”

Rapunzel handed him a bruised nectarine from her provisions. “I guess these don’t travel very well. Will you eat it?” She yawned again, unable to help herself.

Flynn accepted the offered food. “I could have just taken it after you fell asleep,” he said, and even Rapunzel could tell that he didn’t mean it. He bit into the ripe fruit.

Rapunzel curled up on the ground by the fire, surreptitiously making sure Pascal was still comfortable. “You wouldn’t do that, Eugene.” She shrugged her hair over her body like a covering blanket. She rested her head on her arm. One more yawn, and she closed her eyes. “I’m happy to share with you.”

“Goodnight, Blondie,” she heard him say as she drifted off to sleep. “I’ll stay up a while and keep the fire going.”

The next thing she knew, she was waking up to the sound of Flynn yelling.

ooo

 

 

Chapter Text

The guards could pick up Flynn’s trail in the morning. Elsa had trouble accepting it for herself even while she gave her final orders for the night to Nils. He took the guards back down the slope and back through the tunnels. They would retrieve their horses and ride back to the castle.

She rode back alone except for Maximus and her thoughts, weighed down by a tiredness of spirit. She tried to convince herself that the long day had been a success, not a failure. Not much was left of the night. She needed to use what was left of it to rest and prepare for the day coming in mere hours.

The sun would next rise on the birthday of the lost princess. Flynn’s capture could be a first step on the trail that would lead to Rapunzel, wherever she might be.

Yet the the things that Elsa told herself sounded in her head like platitudes. She had chased Flynn Rider and the Stabbington Brothers for years, and no matter how much information her efforts and leadership had gathered, the fate of Rapunzel was still a mystery. Elsa knew in her heart why. The people of Corona thought she was their champion against dark magic... not that she was hiding dark magic, herself. How could she find one shadow with that shadow over her?

Any other night, the castle would have been quiet, everyone but a few guards asleep at the hour at which Elsa returned. With the upcoming festival, however, servants still worked decorating the castle and preparing the festival food for the next day. They curtsied or bowed to Elsa as she passed through the castle corridors. Elsa returned pleasantries and greetings with manufactured cheer.

She knew that she should have something to eat, followed by a long soak in bubbles, and she knew that both would work wonders on her mood. But she was in a state of mind that made it hard to care for herself. In a habit of self discipline, she made herself wash off the smell of exertion and horse. On the way to her room from her bath, she sampled from a basket of strawberries being carried to the kitchen.

The ripe strawberries were acidic, sweet, and full of juice, and in spite of being only a small morsel, lightened Elsa’s pensive mood. She sat at her writing desk and finished the last strawberry while rereading Anna’s most recent letters. Elsa had already sent her reply, which included her opinion on some of Arendelle’s matters of state. It was an academic discussion, at least on Elsa’s part; she intended never to be queen and still planned to pass the crown to Anna, or Anna’s children, in the far future when their parents stepped down or passed away.

Elsa imagined that Anna would have children. Anna was very open with her, in the letters, about every desire that was in her heart, and that included boys -- Kristoff, primarily. She liked Kristoff best, but she had something to say about every attractive boy that passed through her busy social life. Elsa didn’t have anyone that caught her attention that way.

It was one more thing that Elsa thought came from being what she was. The only desire that a monster could feel was of the monstrous kind; that was why she never seemed to want a sweetheart. What Anna wanted -- that was normal, human. Elsa had ice where Anna had passion.

She always reread Anna’s letters before carefully destroying them. She valued privacy and secrecy enough to do it, to touch the corner of the paper to the candle flame, let it light, and then take it to the fireplace so that it could burn to ash. She watched the paper curl and blacken as the fire crawled across the paper. The flame extinguished itself with a tiny wisp of smoke. Then Elsa crushed the ash and washed the soot from her hands.

Burning the letters always felt a little like dying. Sometimes, that was a comforting feeling.

Tonight, she slipped into bed with thoughts still racing in her mind. Her agitation was like an itch that she was trying to ignore. She focused on one thought over the others, a plan to start an early search for Rider’s trail.

A different thought, though, pushed its way forward just as she began to doze, and it colored her restless dreams. It was a thought that she had mulled over many times over the years: if she did find Rapunzel, what would Elsa do, then?

ooo

The tone of this festival day felt different. The castle buzzed with activity, as usual. Her aunt and uncle, as they did every year, buried themselves in work. She had considered giving them an update of the Rider hunt, but she had been unwilling, in the end, to disturb them with questionable hope.

It would be better if she could report the points of his confession after his capture. The connection to Rapunzel’s abduction was circumstantial, at best, yet Rider had to know something, hold some clue that she could use. She would know for certain once she had Flynn Rider in custody. With that foremost in her mind, she was back in pursuit even before the sky was awake.

Maximus was less enthusiastic about the early start. He fidgeted and blew through his nostrils as she outfitted him with saddle and bridle. He fussed so much that she didn’t bother doing more with his mane than brushing it out.

“You’re a grumpy one this morning,” Elsa scolded him. Short on sleep, she was feeling cross, herself. Wary of his mood, she walked him out of the stables instead of riding him. “I was up just as late as you, last night.”

He made as if to nip her with his big teeth.

“Maximus!”

He eyed her and huffed out from his nose.

“Do we need to work separately this morning?” she asked him, controlling her anger. His body language gave her a mix of answers. “Fine. I think we can both use some exercise. Let’s see what we can pick up of the trail. In an hour, we’ll take a break for breakfast. The rest of the guard will be on task by then.” She smoothed out the hardness in her voice. “I’m counting on you,” she finished.

The stallion heaved a great sigh. As if in apology, he posed in a bow. Elsa could have mounted his back from that kneeling position, as she had done at times when she was still a child and wanted to ride Maximus without a saddle. Instead, she pat him on the shoulder. “You may rise.” She couldn’t hold back her smile even had she tried.

She rode him through town and out across the bridge. Once they reached the part of the woods near the reservoir, however, she dismounted. She began searching on foot for any evidence of Flynn Rider’s trail.

Maximus, with his animal sense of smell, was a better tracker than Elsa. When he caught a scent on the leaf littered ground, his ears perked up. He turned his head as if to make sure that Elsa noticed. Then he began a light, quiet trot through the woods, head low and nose close to the ground to follow the scent.

Soon enough, Elsa could see marks of human passage. While that in itself was not remarkable so close to town, she was also able to find footprints where bare feet pressed into soft earth or mud. The larger ones pressed more deeply, as from a heavier person. Soon, she caught the scent of burned wood: a recent campfire.

She and Maximus came within spying distance of a scene that gave Elsa pause. A young woman lay asleep on the ground by the evidence of a fire. She had a remarkable quantity of golden blonde hair. Articles of clothing had been placed near the fire -- to dry, Elsa conjectured, since the clothes lay placed flat, rather than tossed aside during undressing. Though barefoot, the woman was dressed, so the laundry was not hers.

A short ways away, Flynn also lay sleeping. The dawn sun had not yet warmed the new day. Perhaps because he wore only rumpled trousers, he was curled up like child trying to stay warm.

Elsa spared a moment to wonder at the respectful amount of distance he had put between himself and the girl. In all honesty, she would had expected to find Flynn entangled with his female accomplice. Yet here they slept, like innocents.

ooo

Maximus pulled his reins out of Elsa’s hand and bounded toward Flynn with focused purpose.

Flynn startled awake at the pounding hoofbeats. He saw Maximus bearing down on him, yelled, scrambled to his feet, and backed up against a tree. He looked up into its branches as a possible escape route.

Rapunzel woke, too, and recognized the white horse as the one that had chased them at the lake. “Wait! Stop!” she shouted. She ran to stand between Flynn and Maximus. Facing Maximus, she put her hands up. “Settle down! Easy boy!” she commanded.

Rapunzel repeated her command at Maximus, coaxing him to to focus on her. “Easy. That’s it. Now sit! Siiiit!”

Elsa, still hidden in the tree cover, would have interrupted, but she was too perplexed at the unfolding scene. A small protest of disbelief escaped her when she saw Maximus obey. The stallion sat on his posterior like a trick dog.

“You’re such a good boy!” Rapunzel praised. “Yes-you-are.” Maximus neighed with happiness. “Are you all tired from chasing this bad man all over the place?” Rapunzel asked, snuggling into his neck and rubbing his face. “No one appreciates you, do they?”

Maximus blew and snuffled at the woman rubbing her fingers through his mane.

“What?” Flynn protested. “He’s a bad horse!” Sulking, he went to pick up his dry clothes. He dressed as Rapunzel continued to pamper the guard horse.

“Oh, he’s nothing but a big sweetheart!” She answered. Scratching the underside of Maximus’s chin, she peered at the gold letters painted onto the stallion’s harness. “Isn’t that right...”

Elsa stepped into the clearing where Rapunzel and Flynn could see her. “Maximus,” she supplied, finishing Rapunzel’s sentence.

Flynn stopped and stood as if frozen in place. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.

Elsa met his eyes squarely with her own hard gaze. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Flynn continued to stare. “Elsa?”

Maximus righted himself, standing at attention and back on four feet again. With his nose, he flipped open a saddle back. With his teeth, he drew out a pair of manacles on iron chain and extended his neck toward Elsa.

“Wait!” the Rapunzel interrupted. She stepped closer to Flynn. “Please, just listen for a moment,” she entreated Elsa, using a sincere, friendly smile. “Hi! Elsa, right?”

“Hello,” Elsa replied with reserve.

“You see, today is really important to me. Kind of the biggest day of my life. All my life, I’ve dreamed of seeing the lights… the lanterns, that fill the sky on this day. And Flynn, here,” she reached a hand down to him, “is my guide. I need him to get me there and home again.”

“You will have to find another guide home,” Elsa answered, not unkindly. “This man has evaded the law for years.”

Rapunzel shrugged and offered a disingenuous smile. “One more day couldn’t matter, could it? One more day, until dawn tomorrow? Then you can chase each other to your heart’s content,” she cajoled.

Elsa prickled. “Do you realize this man is worse than a thief?” she asked. “He will stand trial for murder!”

Flynn shot to his feet. “Hold on a minute. I didn’t kill anyone!” he protested. “I wouldn’t!” He turned to Rapunzel. “Blondie, it’s a mistake!”

Elsa argued, “You were in the castle on the night the tiara was stolen. The same night the Stabbington Brothers escaped. Two guards were killed. Are you saying you didn’t have a hand in that?”

“No! I mean, yes, that’s what I’m telling you! They escaped on their own! I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Rapunzel interjected. “You can’t arrest him for something he didn’t do! What will happen to him?”

“For the theft of crown jewels alone, he could hang,” Elsa answered. She pushed past the blonde woman. Rapunzel moved out of the way.

Elsa turned away from Rapunzel, focused on Flynn. “You saw the tiara when I was wearing it. You didn’t turn yourself in, when you were accused. You didn’t come to us then with the truth.” She beckoned to Maximus. She would bring Flynn back in irons and continue questioning him once he was confined to a dungeon cell. “If you were blameless, why did you run?”

“What chance did I have?” Flynn asked in return, his manner becoming theatrical. “A poor lad with no family? No one to stand by me? You had already decided I was guilty of the worst. No one would have believed me.”

“What can I believe?” Distracted by the reality of Flynn before her, Elsa left Maximus holding the manacles between his teeth. “You haven’t told me anything. Yet.” Her tone hardened as she again recalled her duty. She took the chains from Maximus.

Flynn turned an earnest expression on her. “Believe what you must,” he said in deep, intimate tones and opening his arms in entreaty, “but know that the truth is my defense. Princess Elsa, I--” his words stuttered to a tumbling stop.

Elsa saw his eyes widen. She followed his look to Rapunzel.

“Is this what you want?” she asked Elsa while holding the tiara of the Lost Princess up so everyone could see it. She held her iron skillet in her other hand. “I’ll give it to you.” She drifted closer to Elsa.

Elsa turned her anger on Flynn. “There’s the truth,” she accused.

Flynn gave her a smile radiating charm. “I was bringing it back! Come on, why would I be heading to the castle with it if I wasn’t bringing it to you?”

“You will have ample time to explain it all to me, while you are getting accustomed to your dungeon cell,” Elsa answered. She reached for his hand to fasten a manacle around his wrist.

All at once, he grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her to the side. He dodged Rapunzel’s frying pan himself even as he shielded Elsa from being the target.

Rapunzel emitted a yelp as the skillet clanged against a tree trunk. “Flynn, run!”

“Are you out of your mind?” Flynn shouted at her. He interposed himself between Elsa and Rapunzel. Elsa was too dismayed at being rescued to remember that she was supposed to be arresting Flynn. Maximus looked thoroughly confused that the quarry had turned protector, and that Pascal, the chameleon, had climbed up to perch beside the stallion’s ear.

Rapunzel shrank away when Flynn raised his voice at her. She cringed as if she were helpless in spite of the heavy pan she wielded. She held the tiara loosely, and slightly behind her back, as if to make it unnoticeable. Her averted eyes and meek posture echoed body language that Elsa had seen people who were cruelly misused by a spouse or parent.

Elsa stepped out from behind Flynn. She ignored Flynn for the moment, counting on Maximus to keep an eye on him, and she gave Rapunzel belated attention. “You can put that pan down,” Elsa said. “It isn’t helping Flynn right now.” She made a reaching out gesture to the young woman.

Raising her pan again, Rapunzel recovered a flicker of ferocity. “I will use this,” she threatened.

“That’s not necessary,” Elsa negotiated. “Why don’t we talk? Let’s talk.”

“I tried talking. I offered you a deal,” Rapunzel answered.

Elsa used a soothing tone to communicate that she listened. “What do you want, after you give the tiara to me?”

Rapunzel shook her head. “You’re making me break my deal with Flynn. I want Flynn to be my guide, for the floating lights and then home again.”

“The castle is a stone’s throw away,” Elsa answered. “You can walk over the bridge and be where the festival of lanterns is underway. Someone else who knows the way can guide you home. I can help find you a new guide. Surely, it’s not far, since you walked the distance.” She indicated Rapunzel’s bare feet without judgment about the woman’s poverty.

Flynn interjected. “It’s way out of the way. Not easy to find.”

“And it’s… today is my birthday. Just so you know.” Rapunzel said, the rebelliousness seeping away. She chewed her lip, hesitating to say something more. She finally took a breath and said, “I don’t want to be alone on my eighteenth birthday. I want to spend it with Flynn.” Her gaze went to Flynn, then quickly back to Elsa.

“Are you really the princess?” Rapunzel asked with some alarm. Self-consciously, she smoothed her long hair and tried to hide her bare ankles and feet under the hem of her too-short dress.

“I’m Elsa, eldest of Arendelle, niece to King Thomas and Queen Primrose of Corona,” Elsa explained.

As she made eye contact, Elsa noticed the color of the young woman’s eyes. They were a rare green, not the changeable tint of Elsa’s father, but a true green like Queen Primrose’s eyes. They also conveyed a deep honesty that Elsa felt was genuine.

“Blondie,” Flynn said, “give Elsa the tiara.” Flynn turned to Elsa, saying nothing while Rapunzel reluctantly offered surrender of the tiara.

“No,” Elsa said, “to Maximus. Put it into Maximus’s saddle bag.”

“There,” Flynn said when Rapunzel traded the tiara for Pascal, who climbed up her arm and disappeared at the puff of her sleeve. “We’re not making a deal for that. It’s yours. Take it.”

“If you expect me to simply let you go, you are mistaken,” Elsa replied. “That won’t happen again.”

“Let me keep my deal,” he answered. “I said I would get Goldie here home tomorrow morning. Consider it a birthday gift to her. You can do that much, can’t you?”

Elsa’s brow furrowed. “Which is it, ‘Goldie’ or ‘Blondie’?”

“It’s Rapunzel, actually,” Rapunzel answered Elsa.

Flynn added in his defense, “Like a dozen other girls in this kingdom. So I call her Blondie. It suits her.”

“Fifty seven others, in fact,” Elsa said, recalling the census. “Not counting related names like ‘Radisha’ or variants like ‘Rampion’.” She studied Rapunzel, a question swirling in her mind. The woman was eighteen years old, birthday this day, and she had hair as blonde as the sun. Could it be a ploy? Yet her eye color was too rare to be faked. And as Elsa studied her, she saw that the woman did have a features like King Thomas and Queen Primrose.

“For one day,” Flynn was saying. “No right, no wrong, no rules. I’ll tell you everything I know about the Stabbington Brothers. You have the tiara back. What do you say, Princess?”

Elsa thought about Rapunzel. She had to test to her, to know for sure if it could be true that she was the Rapunzel, Lost Princess of Corona. Elsa couldn’t do that if she was interrogating Flynn. Elsa knew that she needed to keep the other woman close by, with no chance of losing tabs on her.

“Yes,” Elsa replied to Flynn. “You’re under my personal arrest until sunrise tomorrow.”

ooo

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Alright! Until sunrise, we’ll just be three pals spending the day in Corona,” Flynn said. He beamed an ingratiating smile at Elsa.

Rapunzel told herself that Flynn’s manner toward Elsa was simply because Elsa was a princess. He had interacted with princesses before. It wasn’t because he liked Elsa more that he’d shielded her when Rapunzel had tried to give him a chance to escape.

Elsa didn’t return Flynn’s smile. “I’ll spare the chains, but you will stay within my sight at all times,” she answered. She turned again to Rapunzel. “Maximus can carry your supplies. Why don’t you ride him into town, as well? The road is paved and becomes less pleasant for walking where many travel. Flynn, give her a foothold up.”

Rapunzel looked at Maximus, and the horse dipped his shoulders so that he was low enough for Rapunzel to step into a stirrup without help.

“Oh!” Elsa exclaimed surprise.

“Is it alright?” Rapunzel asked.

Elsa nodded slowly. “Yes, I think he wants you to get on.”

Flynn stepped over and helped Rapunzel get the rest of the way into the saddle. Rapunzel, excited by the adventure of riding a horse, was still not too distracted to note the feel of Flynn’s hands at her waist. She gathered her hair up and looped it across her lap so that it would not drag.

As Maximus rose upright, Rapunzel grasped the edge of the saddle and held on tightly. Elsa moved close and took the stallion’s reins. “Do you ride?” she asked Rapunzel.

Rapunzel shook her head. “This is my first time,” she answered. She wasn’t afraid of the height. Her tower window had a much higher view than her seat on Maximus.

“Maximus will take care of everything. We’ll go slowly,” Elsa said.

She was true to her word, for which Rapunzel was glad. After Flynn rounded up their possessions and repacked their respective bags, including tucking her frying pan away, he strapped the bags to the horse’s saddle as instructed. Then they all proceeded on a path that Maximus and Elsa knew. It led out of the tree cover, onto the end of a wide road, and finally over a bridge paved with stone.

The castle was a marvel. Rapunzel caught her breath at the sight of it. Big and grand, it was beyond her imaginings. Tapered banners in a saturated purple hue fluttered from the roofs towers as tall as her home tower. Glass windows glistened in the morning sun. And beyond the castle, an expanse of more water than Rapunzel had ever seen rippled with the wakes of countless sea vessels. “What are those called?” she asked.

The princess gave her an odd look. “The large ones with many sales are tall ships. Those there,” she indicated others, “are brigantines, and those are schooners. The smaller ones without masts are fishing boats.”

“So many,” Rapunzel said. She felt jolted by the horseback ride over the pavement, but she had a clear view of the ships on the water. “Where do they come from?”

“These in the harbor are visiting from other countries for the Lantern Festival. When the tide comes in, our fleet will return. The bay will be quite full by sundown.” Elsa had a little crease furrowing her pale eyebrows. “Have you never come to Corona Castle? Not even on market days?”

Rapunzel tried to take in the sights and memorize them. She was determined to remember everything in detail about the day so it would always be with her. “Mother takes care of all of that,” she answered.

Flynn tossed in, “Blondie hasn’t spent a lot of time away from home.”

“Is that so?” Elsa asked. “Where do you live, Rapunzel? Near to The Snuggly Duckling public house?”

“Something like that,” Flynn answered for Rapunzel.

Rapunzel shared a look with him. He would keep her secret. Elsa didn’t have to know about her tower, or Mother’s rule never to leave it. “Deep in the woods,” she answered. Changing the subject, she asked, “What’s it like, being a princess?”

Elsa smiled, which changed her entire face, Rapunzel thought. She should smile more often.

“What makes you ask?”

“You don’t seem like the kind of royalty I’ve been told about,” Rapunzel answered. Mother said that princesses were lazy, dull minded tyrants who existed only to marry off for political alignments. Mother had worse things to say about kings, queens, and princes.

“Being a princess,” Elsa said primly, “is a balance between duty and privilege. A princess represents the purest nature of her kingdom. So a princess must be a symbol, as well as herself.”

Flynn made a noisy exhalation.

“Something to say, Flynn Rider, thief?” Elsa skewered him with her arched words.

He held up his hands. “You make it sound like a rotten job,” he said.

“It’s not a job, though.” Elsa’s voice softened. “To quit it is to quit my life.”

“Then I guess I’m saying, you make it sound like a rotten life. All those regular meals and soft beds. Not to mention power.”

“Flynn,” Rapunzel interjected, “don’t be mean.” He gave her a look of shock and shame. She continued, “We don’t know what it’s like to be anyone but ourselves. Princess Elsa, what do you like most about being a princess? What do you like to do?”

“I like being able to help the people of Corona,” she answered. “And please, just Elsa if fine, Rapunzel.”

“Speaking of that,” Flynn started. “Why is the borrowed princess still in the kingdom? Haven’t you wanted to go home?”

“As I said: equal parts duty and privilege,” Elsa murmured. She shifted her focus to the gateway arch open ahead. “Here’s the start of our town. Since you haven’t experienced market, you are in for a treat today, Rapunzel.” She reached out to pat Maximus on his neck. “My friend here can tolerate the crowds. He steps lightly.” To Flynn, she warned, “Remember that we have an agreement. Don’t disappear, not even for a moment.”

Flynn grimaced. Rapunzel reached down and touched the floppy locks of his dark brown hair, running her fingers through just at the tips before she let her hand fall away. “Stay with me, Flynn,” she said, and she was rewarded with a warm look and a feeling that made her curl her toes.

Rapunzel wasn’t ready for the onslaught on her senses that happened when the reached the end of the bridge. Even before their group passed through the gate, a press of people, beasts, and carts tried to jostle their group apart. Quickly, however, Elsa’s lead cleared passage for them. Townspeople who recognized her passed the word to visitors; Rapunzel saw folks pointing out the emblem in gold stitching on Elsa’s clothes to clueless people who didn’t move with haste out of the way.

The worst of the crowd clogged the gateway, but the number of human beings beyond the gate made Rapunzel’s head swim. So many people! She wanted to take notice of every single one. Here was a tall, bony woman; there was a small man, who would stand no taller than her hip if she were beside him. Children played on and around a donkey. Cats ran along the walls. Dogs chased crows across the square. As many sounds as the multitude of colors filled her view. Strings of pointed flags, all in rich purple, ran from building to building to crosshatch the sky. More purple banners, decorated with a stylized sun, hung from window sills. Curtains fluttered from open windows. People leaned out from open windows, watching the scene below or watering flower boxes, calling down to people in the square, or in one case, tossing down small bundles wrapped in bright paper to children squealing with excitement. A pair of guards in gleaming brass armor strolled down the street on patrol.

The guards recognized Elsa at a distance and hailed her. “Good morning, Your Highness,” one called out as they approached. Flynn shrank into the shadows between Maximus and a wall. Elsa caste a brief glance at Flynn. “Stay out of sight; don't run off!” she said quietly. Then she walked ahead to meet the guard away from Rapunzel’s group. Elsa spoke with the guards for a minute, after which they saluted and went on in a different direction.

After catching their prizes, some of the children ran up to Elsa and her group. “Can we pet Maximus? Can we give him this apple? I only bit it once. Here’s a flower for you!” they yelled, voices and questions tumbling over each other. Little hands pressed tattered flowers into Elsa’s hands. She took them gracefully, all the while smiling and laughing with the children, permitting them to pet Maximus on the shoulder, “But only if you are gentle.” Maximus whinnied and made happy snorts.

The children raised flowers up Rapunzel, too, so she ended with a small bouquet of carnations and daisies, plus a sunflower so big that she threaded the thick stem through the saddlebags, and it bounced against Maximus’s rump as he walked.

Rapunzel loved seeing the children. She had so often wondered about children, having not seen a child since she stopped being one and the child who was her reflection went away. The higher register of their voices, the awkward way they ran up and down the cobbled way, the way they fought with each other, and cried, and laughed: Rapunzel wanted to shout with them, run and play with them, and hug them all. She felt like she might burst from the feeling.

A group of girls, their size graduating from little to littler, sat together at a fountain in a line, each weaving the hair of the next smaller girl. The littlest worked on the red yarn hair of a poppet. It had never occurred to Rapunzel to weave hair. She was amazed.

She had never seen a crowd. The group at The Snuggly Duckling had barely prepared her for the vision of so many more people, all of them walking every which way. Yet, there was a kind of order to the crowd. The people looked like currents, flowing and swirling like dye mixing in a bowl of water. She caught sight, through the moving bodies, of busker strumming on a lute. He could hardly be heard over the general noise, and the crowd left a pocket of empty space around him and a pinch-faced woman handing out tracts. Still, watching his hands, Rapunzel could hear, in her mind, the tune he played.

Further and in another direction, a different street musician tooted on a trumpet. Rapunzel looked around and spotted someone with a fiddle.

“I want to dance!” Rapunzel exclaimed. Before anyone could stop her, she brought her legs over to the same side of the saddle and slid down to the cobblestones. With a look back over her shoulder and a wave for Flynn and Elsa to follow her, she hurried toward the fiddler and explained her idea. He agreed, so they started together toward the trumpet player.

Her hair was suddenly an encumberment. Too late, she tried to loop it up. Instead, it was stepped on, tripped over, and suddenly a nuisance to everyone. She pushed the musicians on toward the lute player and tried to get out of the traffic herself, all the while apologizing to each person who had to avoid her obstructing hair.

She heard Flynn whistle with his fingers in his mouth, which brought her an unlikely rescue; the little red-haired girls hurried over and helped gather Rapunzel’s golden tresses out of the way. Flynn helped pick up the rest Rapunzel’s trailing hair. The little girls surrounded and moved her to a safe space, clear of pedestrians only because a laden cart and a length of planter wall blocked traffic. At once, and shrieking the shrill laughter of delight, the girls began braiding up Rapunzel’s hair until the length of it was contained in a thick braid. They used the flowers from her bouquet to decorate the weaving.

Her hair was doing the thing again, of course: changing length and weight to fit into one braid that felt no heavier than when her hair flowed loosely. But Rapunzel loved the look of the braid, as well as the looks of unbridled happiness on the freckled faces of the little girls. “It’s beautiful. You did a beautiful job,” she praised.

“You’re pretty!” the littlest girl declared.

The oldest one peered at Flynn. “Are you married together?” she asked.

Flynn grinned at the girl and gave her a wink. Rapunzel felt her heart flutter.

The three street musicians -- lute player, fiddler, and trumpet player -- found their tune together. Rapunzel navigated her way over to them. The woman with the religious tracts tried to give pamphlets to anyone who slowed down to listen to the buskers. She offered one to Rapunzel. “Do you know The Way?” she asked Rapunzel.

Rapunzel shook her head. “No!” she answered brightly. “Will this explain it to me?” The woman seemed astounded at that response. Rapunzel skimmed the badly printed text. It didn’t make much sense on the first read, and her toes were already tapping with the music. She tucked the paper into her bodice.

Rapunzel took the rest of the tracts out of hands of the proselytizer, put them aside, and took the woman’s hands in her own, much to the woman’s befuddlement. “Dance with me,” she urged. Ignoring the mild resistance, she pulled the other woman into a spinning dance. Rapunzel then reached out and grabbed the arm of a passerby and pulled her into the dance, too. Soon, she had a line of dancers shaping out a clear space in the courtyard. She twirled and kicked up her bare feet, all the while pulling other bystanders into the circle of dancers.

Flynn and Elsa stood with Maximus at the edge of the crowd. Rapunzel beckoned, waving both hands as she danced by to call them into the circle. Flynn smirked but shook his head. Elsa, however, stepped into the line the next time Rapunzel came around. Rapunzel put her arm around Elsa’s waist as they matched a rhythm of steps. She grinned at Elsa; Elsa gave her a small, curious smile. Then Elsa laughed all at once, as if she had suddenly recognized something wonderful, and continued laughing while dancing. Rapunzel was puzzled at the flow of shining tears that Elsa wiped away.

As they passed Flynn, Maximus butted Flynn into the circle. He collided with Rapunzel with an “Oof!”. Before he could say more, the configuration of the dancers changed, and Flynn and Rapunzel went in opposite directions.

She let Elsa pull her out of the line to catch a breath. “You are a miracle,” Elsa said to her. Her bright blue eyes stared at Rapunzel without blinking. “Rapunzel.” She raised her hand over her mouth, covering her lips as if to stop herself from saying something more.

“I love to dance!” Rapunzel laughed. The way Elsa gazed at her, she was starting to feel self-conscious.

Elsa stopped staring. Instead, she looked Rapunzel over from shoulders to feet. “My uniform has already drawn more attention that is good for Flynn,” she started. “A change of clothing would be good for both of us. I think you would like to meet my dressmaker. The shop is nearby.”

“If you think so,” Rapunzel replied. “Only, I don’t have any money. So I would like to meet your dressmaker, but I’ll keep my… dress,” she finished. She couldn’t stop herself from looking at the wrinkled state of her dress, or how its short hem did nothing to hide her dirty feet. She was a mess. No wonder Elsa wanted her to change clothes.

“Allow me to give you a birthday gift,” Elsa said in a soft, urgent voice. “It would be my pleasure. Oh, here’s Flynn.”

Flynn had escaped the dancers. “You look like you two are plotting something,” he said as he caught his breath.

“Let’s get Maximus. I want to get some shoes and fresh clothes for Rapunzel and myself,” Elsa told him. She took Rapunzel by the arm and started walking. The three of them moved through the crowd. When they approached Maximus, he trotted over.

“I would like to walk,” Rapunzel requested.

Elsa frowned slightly, but didn’t contradict Rapunzel’s wishes. “We don’t have far to go. Just this way, and then toward the right,” she directed.

When they all reached the corner, she pointed out a door flanked by large glass windows. Positioned in the windows were some of the most marvelous frocks that Rapunzel could ever have imagined. Colored as brightly as birds, the dresses draped in layer after layer of fine cloth. Along their hems lay rows of footwear.

Flynn looked askance at the ladies clothing in the window. “Can I wait out here for you until you're done?” he asked.

“Maximus can keep an eye on you,” Elsa replied. She opened the shop door, inviting Rapunzel into a room of beauty. “Please. This way,” she offered.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

As clearly as if someone had spoken the truth into Elsa’s ear, she knew that Rapunzel was her cousin, the princess stolen from her cradle. The revelation came over Elsa the moment that Rapunzel waved while dancing. Elsa had been resisting what was right before her eyes, but Rapunzel was like a new coin, stamped clearly with the same image as coins familiar and worn with age. Moreover, Elsa simply knew in her heart that it was true: Rapunzel was found.

With joy, she joined her cousin dancing. When Rapunzel put her arm around Elsa, Elsa thought of how the king and queen would feel when they embraced their daughter at last. She was unable to prevent a few escaped tears. They were tears of happiness, tear of longing for a reunion with her own family, tears of a feeling too large for Elsa to sort into reasons. The feeling lifted her up like an enormous wave.

“Please,” she said to Rapunzel, allowing the princess of the kingdom to proceed her, “this way.” Elsa was only a step behind, and once they were through the door, she protected Rapunzel with a half step ahead. Rapunzel was very quiet as she watched a young man wrangle a tall, oval mirror out from a back room.

Elsa waited to speak until Kay took his hands off the cheval mirror, yet he still nearly toppled it when he stepped away from it and realized the patron was Elsa. Immediately, he straightened his posture, and his sour face disappeared.

Elsa much preferred the more pleasant countenance. His cheerful nature had turned cynical over the years. Elsa believed that she was partly to blame for the change. She pretended not to notice Kay’s overtures of romance, since she couldn’t explain to him that her disinterest was not due to his faults. If not for Aunt Primrose taking note, Elsa would not have realized that Kay harbored such feelings for her. It was obvious now that it was pointed out, but Elsa simply didn’t think about her relationships with others in those terms.

“Hello,” she greeted him. She made vague introductions between Rapunzel and him, unwilling to introduce Rapunzel by name in case Kay was faster to see her as the missing princess than Elsa herself had been. He might make the assumption simply because Rapunzel was in Elsa's care. “Kay assists the glazier,” she explained to Rapunzel, “and he will soon be a master in his own right.”

Kay grimaced. “Still a journeyman, though. I’ll be watching myself in mirrors grow old as an assistant at this rate.”

“It only seems like eternity,” Elsa assured, “when training is ongoing. I have confidence that you will be where you want to be, in time.”

Kay studied her with unknowable thoughts crystallising behind his eyes, as he always did. “Where I want to be? I think I want to do some traveling, get out of Corona and see the world. After all, ‘The world’s mine oyster,’ as the play says.”

“That sounds like a fine idea,” Elsa replied with conversational courtesy. “With knowledge as your sword, you will have the blade to open that oyster and discover its pearl.”

“Maybe I will put the blade on my shoe and see Arendelle,” he said. “I could ask Gerte to change my boot order to an order for skates.”

“Is she in the back room? I hoped to find my dressmaker in, but Gerte will suffice.”

“She will be out soon enough to tell me where I should have placed the mirror this time.” He made a small gesture for patience, stepped back to the inside doorway and raised his voice. “Gerte! Patrons!”

“Really, Kay, that’s not necessary,” Elsa said. Gerte, however, was already rushing out, holding a pair of red slippers and appearing flustered. An indescribable reaction passed across her expression when she saw Elsa.

“How can I be of service?” she asked. "Oh Kay, would you please set the mirror further into that corner? It's the last time I will ask you to move it, I promise."

Kay leaned on the counter toward Gerte. “Elsa promised me the world. And a pair of skates,” he said. His teasing smile was almost a sneer.

Elsa disliked how Kay had twisted their exchange, solely, it seemed, for the purpose of making Gerte blanche. Without acknowledging Kay’s bad behavior, Elsa smiled encouragement at the young woman that she had known for so many years. “How are you, Gerte? I seem to always have missed you, when I visit Mother Gartner,” Elsa said.

“I keep busy,” Gerte answered. Her words were casual, but her tone remained crisply proper. Elsa could almost hear the unspoken “Your Highness.”

“Gerte, some of my summer dresses should be ready for delivery. Could one of them be taken in for this young lady?” She indicated Rapunzel and saw Gerte assess the similarity of sizes. Though Rapunzel was slightly taller than Elsa at the shoulder, their figures were both athletic and lean. Once again, Elsa wondered where Rapunzel had been hidden all her years.

“If you’ll come with me…” Gerte dipped in a curtsey to usher Rapunzel and Elsa to the rear of the shop.

Rapunzel released a swooning sigh as they walked into the back room, where bolts of fine fabrics lined the walls and dress mannequins held garments in various stages of completion. Elsa watched Rapunzel’s eyes grow larger the more she looked around. She couldn’t hold back the quirk of a smile at Rapunzel’s wonder. It occurred to her that she would have a lot of fun introducing her cousin to the world in which she properly belonged.

Gerte was apprenticed to the cobbler principally, not Elsa’s dressmaker, but the two artisans shared a storefront and Gerte’s services tending the shop. Elsa wasn’t stepping on the girl’s toes when she decisively selected a pair of dresses from ones that were ready. The one she chose for Rapunzel was a country dress embroidered with flowers. It had the most purple in it, a color that Elsa rarely selected but one that Rapunzel favored. Elsa picked a similar style, also white linen but with criss-crossing aqua pinstripes in the weave.

She put the flower dress in Rapunzel’s hands, causing Rapunzel’s admiration to turn to surprised glee.

“Oh, I couldn’t!” she protested weakly.

“Just try it on,” Elsa suggested. “If this one won’t do --”

“Oh no, it’s beautiful.” Rapunzel pulled the dress against her chest. She reached with one hand for the lacing at the back of the dress she was wearing, preparing to disrobe on the spot.

Alarmed, Gerte intervened. “We have a dressing salon!” she said, then gestured toward that doorway.

“We’ll retire to the dressing room,” Elsa said to her. She took Rapunzel by the elbow to lead her. “But footwear to match will be needed. Can you take measurements, Gerte, and fashion some light slippers?” Slippers would not need a mold to be made from Rapunzel’s feet. Elsa continued to take care not to indicate Rapunzel’s name.

Gerte answered with a nod. In a matter of minutes, she had collected the dimensions of Rapunzel's large (and dirty) feet.

Elsa shooed Rapunzel on through the doorway to the dressing salon. “Go on ahead. I’ll be in in a moment.” When she was alone with Gerte, she said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll leave my boots to be cleaned and my uniform to be sent up. And would you set an appointment for your master and my dressmaker to come to the castle tomorrow?” She left the request without explanation. It was a privilege of her rank that she was pleased to use.

“Of course,” Gerte answered with due deference.

Elsa considered saying something, but couldn’t figure out what she would say. In spite of all the years of contact, Elsa couldn’t say that she and the other young woman knew each other well. Gerte kept a distance that made Elsa feel as if she were the one being cold and aloof, which made her hesitant to engage with Gerte, which perpetuated the mood of tension between them… Elsa gave up, as always, and went into the dressing salon without saying more.

Rapunzel had already exchanged her wrinkled, too-short dress for the new summer dress. The sundress fit reasonably well, and the embroidered flowers matched the flowers in her hair so well that it all appeared intentional. The soft skirt fell from below her modest bust to past her ankles, the bodice curved in a fashionable line, and the otherwise close-fitting sleeves puffed at the shoulders.

“Well, that doesn’t need taking in at all,” Elsa commented.

“It’s so light…” Rapunzel said. “I’ve never worn anything like it.”

“And do you like it?” Elsa asked.

“I love it,” Rapunzel answered. She gave Elsa a wary smile. “Is it really my birthday present?”

Elsa felt the big feeling again threaten to make her tears flow. “Yes,” she said. “It’s yours.” To give Rapunzel a dress was such a small gift in comparison to the gift of Corona’s princess herself. The small, contained smile that she gave Rapunzel before passing behind the tall dressing screen concealed the enormity of Elsa’s joy.

As Elsa unbuttoned and wriggled out of her riding clothes, she felt that happiness like a tingling all over her skin. She stepped into her own lightweight, linen dress and closed her eyes. Queen Primrose would laugh tonight, and King Thomas would grin. The lanterns would rise over Corona to celebrate the kingdom’s new happiness.

The small glass buttons on her dress gave her a little trouble. They were shaped like eidelweiss flowers, and the points of the bracts were catching on the button holes. On another occasion, she would have had this corrected before she accepted the dress. While she concentrated on carefully pushing each spiky button through, she heard Rapunzel greet someone with warm surprise.

“Hello, Olaf! I wondered if I would ever see you again!”

Elsa panicked. Olaf? Had the tingly feeling of her happiness been her magic getting away from her? She froze in place, unable to look around the screen, afraid to see a little snowman standing there in plain sight of a person other than herself.

Then she heard the voice she knew well. “I remember you! Hey, where did your long, golden hair go?”

“It’s still all here,” Rapunzel replied in bright tones. “It’s braided up.”

“I like the flowers in it,” Olaf said. “You look as pretty as a summer day.”

“Thank you!” Rapunzel sounded pleased. “I’m happy to see you. I have a question. Are you made of snow?”

“I am made of snow! You’re smart. I could tell the first day I saw you. Well, the only day I saw you.”

“That’s right. You had to leave before we could get to know each other. But I remembered your name. Where have you been?”

“I’ve been with Elsa, naturally,” he said.

At the sound of her name, Elsa’s paralysis broke. Stiff with apprehension, she stepped out from behind the screen. Then Olaf gave her a wide-eyed look of awe and one of his enthusiastic sighs, and Elsa warmed with the feeling that regard gave her. A smile crept to her lips at the sight of the happy snowman.

“Elsa!” Rapunzel’s breathless exclamation was not loud enough to be heard beyond the room. “That’s right, you said then that you were too far from ‘Elsa’!” She turned from Olaf to Elsa. “You made him? You have magic, like I do! That’s wonderful!”

“What do you mean?” Elsa kept her voice low. “How have you met Olaf? How do you have magic?”

“He came to me on a cold wind,” Rapunzel answered eagerly. “But then he had to disappear. My hair is magic. It heals illness when I sing.”

Elsa understood the connection immediately. “Like the healing flower,” she murmured.

Olaf smiled and nodded, then did a double take. “What healing flower?” he asked.

“Olaf,” Elsa said to her snowman, “this is Rapunzel.”

“Oh wow! You found Princess Rapunzel! I knew you were amazing, Elsa!” Olaf praised. He wrapped his stick arms around Rapunzel to give her an excited hug. “Your parents are going to be so happy to have you back…!”

“Princess? My parents?” Rapunzel echoed softly.

Too late, Elsa gathered her magic and willed Olaf into snowflakes, and then away. That was not how she had wanted to break the news to Rapunzel. But her magic had gotten out of control, and although Olaf was a merry manifestation of Elsa’s magic, inevitable damage had happened. “I’m sorry,” she said to Rapunzel.

“Why are you sorry?” Rapunzel asked. Her confusion dampened, but could not diminish, her optimism. “Please tell me what he meant.”

“This is a lot all at once,” Elsa sighed. All at once she felt crushed by the magnitude of the day’s discoveries. She sat down on a chair and pulled the second chair close beside it. She looked at her bare hands.

Rapunzel sat down beside Elsa. “Please tell me. I want to understand.”

“I believe you are the lost princess of Corona,” Elsa started. “Eighteen years ago today, a daughter was born to Queen Primrose and King Thomas. The baby princess was stolen from them, and she has been missing ever since.” Elsa looked up and met her cousin's eyes. “The king and queen are my uncle and aunt. I know their expressions and their mannerisms. I think that you are my cousin, Rapunzel. I think you are Princess Rapunzel, the missing heir of Corona.”

“Me?” Rapunzel breathed. She surprised Elsa by grasping Elsa’s hands and squeezing them. “Mother said I wasn’t wanted. She said I was a foundling.”

Elsa shook her head. “You were stolen away. We’ve searched for you every day.”

“She said I had to be hidden because of my magic hair, because if anyone knew, they would take me to use to their own ends. And Flynn said that people think magic is bad. Even healing magic.”

Distressed, Elsa didn’t know how to answer. It was true that the kingdoms condemned sorcery of any kind.

“But you have magic, and you’re a princess!” Rapunzel continued. Her voice was starting to rise, and her words rushed together. “Did my parents not want me because of the magic? Is that why Mother protected me from everything, so I wouldn’t know? Because what does it matter to be a princess if they won’t want me? I would have… would i have been happier never knowing?” The last came out with the quality of a wail. "It's my birthday!" Rapunzel sobbed.

Elsa felt helpless as watched Rapunzel cry. After several minutes of ugly sobbing, Corona’s princess released Elsa’s hands and wiped the back of her arm across her eyes. She then seemed to notice that she had sullied the sleeve of her new dress. That shocked her tears away.

“Oh no!”

Elsa, always prepared, rose and took a clean handkerchief from the pocket of the clothes she had been wearing. She brought it to Rapunzel. “Don’t be concerned about the dress,” she said.

“It’s just… a lot,” Rapunzel said. “I’m sorry I’m such a cry-baby.”

“You’re not a cry-baby,” Elsa responded. “It is a lot to take in. It will take time to find all the answers.”

“Could finding the answers wait?” Rapunzel asked. “Just for today? I wanted a certain kind of birthday. I know it’s selfish, but could we pretend there aren’t any questions to ask, not yet? Because I’m guessing that you were going to tell me later, and this all happened too early.”

Elsa sighed. “You’re right,” she said. “I wanted to be more sure of it. I wanted to be able to control how you found out who you are.”

“So… was Olaf accidental?”

Elsa nodded. She grimaced, a small expression of chagrin. “I can control my ice magic. Usually. When my emotions are under control.” Deciding it was important to say, she continued, “I don’t show my magic to anyone. You shouldn’t show yours to anyone, either.”

Rapunzel gave her a long smile. “It will be our secret,” she said. She paused, thinking, then added, “But Flynn knows.”

Elsa, looking away, nodded. “I hoped he would not remember. Yes, he knows.”

Rapunzel sat up straighter. “I meant that Flynn knows about me. He knows about you?” The pieces seemed to fall together for her. “You are the princess he knew from before!”

“Wait, you meant that Flynn knows about your magic?”

Rapunzel nodded confirmation.

“What’s more, Flynn has told you about me?” Elsa wondered what Flynn would have said. Then she wondered who else he might have told.

“He didn’t, not exactly,” Rapunzel answered, easing some of Elsa’s worry. “Because of you -- a princess he once knew -- he doesn’t think like everyone else does about magic. How… how well did you know each other?” She asked her question with the boldness of a challenge.

“Hardly at all,” Elsa replied. She could never allow anyone to truly know what she was, she thought to herself. Flynn had seen a glimpse of her sorcery, but he couldn’t possibly have understood the monster that she was, or he would not have tried to help her or shown concern. “For years I’ve believed he was culpable in the murders of my friends. I’m not certain of that, anymore. So, you see, I hardly know Flynn Rider at all.”

Rapunzel bit her lip. “I haven’t know him very long, but I feel like I know what kind of person he is.”

“He’s almost certainly a person that is growing impatient waiting for us,” Elsa supplied as a change of subject. She looked down at her bare feet. It had been quite a long time since she had braved mud without shoes, and she had never dared the streets barefoot. “Rather than wait for footwear here, I think we can find a straw sandal seller in the market.” She took hairpins out of her hair, releasing the braid that she had pinned in place so that it fell across her shoulder, and ran her hands over the now loose locks around her face. The softer look would suit the ensemble better. Now she was more of a match to her cousin.

“Let me get Pascal, and then I will be ready to go,” Rapunzel agreed. She dug in the folds of her old dress. A small green creature ran up her arm, scuttled around her decolletage, and finally settled perched on her shoulder.

Elsa looked askance at the creature. She wasn’t sure what kind of animal it was, and she felt that she should not ask, at least, not yet. Questions and answers were on hold. She collected her personal effects from the pockets of her riding clothes. There would be a purse to put them in, somewhere in the shop, and another purse for Rapunzel to stow her green companion.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

They left Gerte confused, but again, Elsa could not be questioned. Kay had left. Elsa was glad of that.

Flynn’s reaction upon seeing the girls was quite enough for Elsa. His gaze shuttled between Rapunzel and Elsa, specifically between Rapunzel’s fine dress and Elsa’s pale, bare feet. His mouth opened like a stunned fish, emitting a sound like a cat being squeezed too tightly. Elsa withheld comment.

Maximus had the horse-sense to make no comment but the pricking up of his ears. In three steps, Elsa was up on his back and settled in the saddle. She reached down to take Rapunzel’s arm, lifting her to sit behind with Flynn’s assistance. Having been given something to do, Flynn stopped acting like village lad at his first cotillion.

“You-- that looks good on you,” he stumbled into saying to Rapunzel.

Maximus made a kind of equine snicker. Because Rapunzel was sat behind her, Elsa could not see how Rapunzel reacted to the tongue-tied compliment. Elsa chose not to turn and look.

She realized that Flynn Rider, with his Casanova ways, could be a problem. Elsa had interviewed enough of his conquests over the years to have a sense of his typical technique, but she wasn’t sure if she would recognize it in action. He appeared, to her, sincerely impressed by Rapunzel. Regardless of however Flynn felt, Rapunzel seemed to regard him highly.

Rapunzel leaned around Elsa’s shoulder when Maximus started trotting along. “Couldn’t I walk?” she asked. She pointed at a youth who was carrying smaller child piggyback. “Or Flynn could carry me on his back, like that. You would, wouldn’t you, Flynn? There’s so much to see, and I can’t see through any of the windows from here.”

“It wouldn’t be polite to go looking in windows,” Elsa answered, saving Flynn from having to make an answer of his own. “Some are shops, but most are dwellings. We’ll soon be at the marketplace. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to be a little patient.” When the crowds in the street pushed Flynn ahead, Elsa turned to Rapunzel again. In a low voice over her shoulder, she said, “Carrying like that is only for children or emergencies. It wouldn’t be good manners for a young woman to be carried about like that.”

“Why?” Rapunzel asked.

“Can I explain when we are in private?” Elsa felt strange about having to answer Rapunzel’s innocent question at all. She was certainly going to postpone it until they were out of earshot of all-and-sundry.

“OK,” Rapunzel replied. “I have a feeling you’re going to have to explain a lot of things for me.”

Elsa made a noncommittal  noise. “Etiquette is just a matter of training,” she said while scanning the street for a sandal seller. “Flynn!” she called down. “There’s a sandal maker about thirty feet ahead who seems to be heading off toward the other avenue. Would you run and bring him this way for us?” Flynn raised a hand to show that he had heard her, then dashed between the other pedestrians toward his target.

“I thought we were going to the market?” Rapunzel asked.

“We are. I think you’ll like it,” Elsa answered. She guided Maximus over to the side of the street where they would wait for Flynn’s return. “Sandal sellers don’t sell from tents in the market. They walk around at the outskirts of the market carrying unfinished sandals. The sandal maker will take quick measure of  each of our feet, then finish up a pair of sandals from the incomplete ones closest in size.”

So warned, Rapunzel stayed put when Flynn returned with a small, skinny man who immediately selected woven straw shapes from the rack on his back and held them up to the ladies’ feet. Elsa took some copper coins out of her purse. With only a slight hesitation, she handed them to Flynn to pay when the sandals were ready.

Elsa brought her leg over so that she sat side saddle during the final fitting of her sandals. She shifted to the opposite side and slid herself down off of Maximus. Emulating Elsa, Rapunzel turned sideways so that both her feet were side by side. She stifled a giggle when the sandal man knotted the toe strap that secured the first sandal to her foot. “Thank you,” she said to him, after he finished the knot on the other.

While the footwear did not hold up like a leather or canvas shoe, it was lightweight and made to order in minutes. The style of simple sandals from common straw had come to Corona through traders from afar; the craft had become the skill of poorer folk, often immigrants from neighboring countries, who didn’t have the training and could not afford the materials of finer wares.

Rapunzel wiggled her toes in the new footwear. Experimentally, she bounced her feet. One of the sandals bounced off. The sandal maker stooped to pick it up and moved to put it back on Rapunzel’s foot, but Flynn intercepted. He traded the coins for Rapunzel’s sandal, exchanged a few words in Stelese with the man, and put the sandal onto Rapunzel’s foot himself. Rapunzel expressed a little sigh when Flynn’s hands touched her foot and ankle.

“What did you say to him?” Elsa asked in a conversational tone after the sandal seller had walked away.

“I thanked him for his work, and asked him how he was doing,” Flynn answered.

“I didn’t realize that you could speak the language of Stele,” Elsa replied. “Picked that up in recent years?”

“Something like that,” Flynn responded. He offered Rapunzel a hand down from Maximus.

“And how is he doing?” Elsa persisted.

Flynn gave her a contemplative look. “He said he was getting by.”

Rapunzel spun in small circles, testing out her new sandals. “These are wonderful! It feels strange to have them on, but interesting!” She leaned against Maximus when she stopped, clearly a bit dizzy. “Whoo hoo!”

“And now, we walk,” Elsa said. “Maximus can sit aside and wait for us. The market is too crowded for him, especially with all he is carrying.” She exchanged a significant glance with Flynn when he caught her eye. The tiara was still in the stallion’s pack, and the tiara was still Flynn’s bid to stay out of the castle dungeons.

Rapunzel hooked her arm around Flynn’s. “Let’s see everything!” she said.

ooo

Rapunzel did not try to contain her excitement. Why would she? The marketplace was a crowded thoroughfare lined on each side with canvas canopies or the occasional tin roofed shed. The air was a blend of salty humidity from the harbor and amazing food smells. She oggled trinkets imported from all over the world. Stalls with unfamiliar, tantalizing fruit called her to smell and touch them. More than once, the merchant seemed ready to scold her for handling the produce, but then Elsa would step close and be recognized, which always made any protest vanish.

Rapunzel spotted a glass case filled with what she recognized right away as cupcakes. They looked as splendid as Atilla’s baking. She rushed over. “They’re so beautiful,” she praised. “Could we…?”

“They will be very sweet. Are you sure you want all that sug--” Elsa started. “Oh, there’s chocolate!” She took a silver coin from her purse. The cupcake seller protested payment from Corona’s Champion. Elsa countered by placing an order for two dozen to be brought up to the castle in the next week, which satisfied everyone, not the least of which because Rapunzel, Elsa, and Flynn all strolled away bearing cupcakes.

Flynn suddenly pulled Rapunzel away into an alcove. They peeked out to watch Elsa exchange greetings with the guard that approached. Flynn pressed himself against the wall. He looked at his yet unbitten cupcake.

Rapunzel caught his eye, and they shared grins. “What flavor is yours?” Rapunzel asked. “Butterscotch? What does that taste like?” She took a small bite of hers and savored the flavor of toasted hazelnuts in the buttercream frosting.

Flynn proceeded to take a large bite of his. “Like delicious,” he said around a mouthful.

“Mmm,” said Rapunzel.

Flynn shyly offered it to her. “Bite?” he asked.

Rapunzel offered hers in turn. “Share mine, too,” she said. They traded cupcakes and took bites. Flynn’s bite of the hazelnut buttercream was smaller than the one he’d taken of his own. “This is good, too,” Rapunzel commented. She wondered if he noticed that she’d taken her bite from the edge of his bitten part. It gave her a little thrill to do it, putting her mouth where his mouth had been.

They were handing their original flavors back when Elsa stepped over to the alcove. “Wendel is gone,” she said. “I’ve asked him to tell the rest of the guard that I am taking the day for other activities.” She looked at their already half eaten cupcakes. A small frown pinched her features, but then she took a bite of hers and pleasure replaced the frown. “Heavenly,” she said.

“Would you like to taste the hazelnut?” Rapunzel asked.

“Just a taste,” Elsa agreed. “Do try the chocolate. It’s my favorite.” Elsa took a nibble of the hazelnut cupcake. “Mm. Very good.”

“I like this one, too,” Rapunzel said. She ate the last of her cupcake. Licking crumbs and frosting from her fingertips, she added, “I haven’t met a cupcake yet that I haven’t liked.”

“Wait until you have seven layer cake,” Elsa commented.

“Is there some here?” Rapunzel asked. She looked up and down the street in case she had missed such a wonderful thing among all the other wonders.

“I think we should eat something more substantial,” Elsa said, “because I completely skipped breakfast, and this chocolate cupcake is making me feel as if I drank a whole pot of black tea. Let’s go this way.” She pointed a direction away from the waterfront and market.

The new goal was not without detours. On the way to the more substantial meal, a scrumptious smell lured Rapunzel off toward a fried shrimp vendor, where she experienced waiting in line for the first time. Waiting in line was the definition of anticipation. She felt a thrill every time the front of the line customer received his serving of fried shrimp, because then her place in line moved forward, putting her that much closer to what she soon discovered was a divine new flavor. If she had known about deep fried foods before, she would have deep fried something in batter daily.

She added a flower to the pile of wildflowers that children were making in front of a tile mural depicting a man, woman, and baby. She was going to ask Elsa about the mosaic but was distracted when an excited little boy jumped off the platform and skinned his knees landing badly. His parents didn’t appear to be anywhere in sight.

She crouched down beside the wailing little boy. “Ooh, that looks like it stings,” she said. The boy suddenly stopped crying at stared at her. “Can you stand up?” she asked.

With a solemn nod, the boy got to his feet. He continued to stare at Rapunzel as if she had two heads. Then, fast as an arrow, he shot off into the crowd.

Elsa joined Rapunzel. She whispered, “I was afraid you were going to heal him with magic.”

“You told me not to use it,” Rapunzel answered. “Could we get some more fried shrimp?”

“Flynn’s holding our place in line,” Elsa assured.

ooo

Flynn must have noticed that Rapunzel had been eyeing the festival souvenirs, because he stepped aside and came back with a small purple flag with the same sun pattern as the festival banners. When Elsa gave him a look of suspicion becoming anger, he protested that he had purchased the flag.

“I wouldn’t steal from a little kid!” Flynn told Elsa.

Elsa didn’t budge. “What about the money you used? Ill gotten gain?”

“As a matter of fact,” Flynn said, “I earned that.”

Elsa folded her arms. Then she unfolded them and smiled. Rapunzel saw the effort in the smile. Rapunzel grasped one of each of Flynn’s and Elsa’s arms and dragged them both off toward an open door. There was a sign hanging beside the door, so she hoped that meant it was a shop, not someone’s home.

Once inside, she released Flynn and Elsa. Her hands were almost on the covers of a book when she stopped. She looked to the craftsman sitting at his workbench. “May I?” she asked, suffering with her self-restraint. After the craftsman nodded, without pausing from his stitching, Rapunzel picked up one of the thick books and opened it, wondering if it would be Cooking, Geology, or Gardening.

Slowly, she turned the pages. “It’s blank,” she noted.

“These are journals,” Elsa explained. “They are for recording your thoughts or observations, such as sketches and descriptions of nature.”

“Or filling with your bad poetry,” Flynn supplied. He stepped close to Rapunzel. “You seem disappointed, Blondie. This store sells stationery, but we can go to a bookstore next.”

“That’s alright,” she said. “I have all the books at home.”

ooo

 

Chapter Text

When Flynn saw the kid selling purple squares with the Corona sun, he knew Blondie would love one as a souvenir. It was a small thing that she could tuck away. Flynn knew what it was like to need to keep things small and to travel light. He had seen where she lived; something small was the right souvenir for her.

Later, he thought it was telling that running off didn’t cross his mind even once. He was even briefly out of Elsa’s line of sight. There had been a woman who had caught his attention; he couldn’t place her, at first. He had the impression that she was following his group. So when he stepped away to buy the souvenir, Flynn lingered back for a minute to get a better look at the woman.

She was tall and well dressed. It was her black hair, curly and long like Carmilla’s, that helped him remember where he had seen her before. She had crossed his path, traveling alone in the forest.

He couldn’t think of a reason why she would be following him. In the end, he decided that it could be simply that she had noticed him in the crowd, recognized him, and followed for an opportunity to say hello. He recalled that in the forest, she had looked at him like a scrumptious piece of manflesh. Maybe she was just an aggressive woman.

After he caught up with Blondie and Elsa, he kept an eye out for the mysterious woman but didn’t see her again.

ooo

To Flynn, the day seemed to race by in a swirl of color and music. Blondie couldn’t get enough of dancing. Flynn joined in because the alternative would have been to sit out with Elsa and the horse. He didn’t want to be alone with the horse. It looked like it was thinking about ways to hurt him. Flynn didn’t relish the idea of being alone with Elsa, either. She kept giving him a scrutiny that made him feel like he was coming up short on an invisible measuring stick, like she was ticking off a list and every check mark put him closer to an unknowable fate. He still had to wriggle out of being arrested, when the truce expired.

Get Blondie home. Don’t get arrested. And until then, make sure Blondie had a great birthday.

Late in the afternoon, when the sunlight turned golden with the slide toward sunset, Flynn tried to steer their group toward getting a boat to take out onto the water. “It will be the best view of anywhere for the lantern show,” he said.

Elsa nixed his plan, just like she had shot down his suggestion to find Blondie a bookseller. “A rowboat would be a bit small for all four…” she adjusted count for the Blondie’s small pet, “five of us.”

“We’re not taking the horse,” Flynn countered.

At the same time, Blondie said, “Flynn and I could go in one…”

“I’m sorry, no,” Elsa said. She used a nicer voice addressing Blondie than when shooting down Flynn’s plan. “Even if you can swim, I can’t let you go out alone, where I could lose sight of you.”

Elsa seemed to actually care about the girl who had been a stranger to her as of that morning. Flynn wondered what it was about Blondie, that charm that made everyone like her. He liked her. He genuinely did. He opened his mouth to argue with Elsa that the birthday girl deserved to get her dream in the best possible way.

Elsa said, before he could get out a word of argument, “Besides, I have a perfect place in mind, with the best view in the entire kingdom, for you to see the lanterns launch.” She made a regal gesture toward Corona Castle. “A royal view,” she added with a smile that put sparkles in her eyes.

Once again, Elsa -- Princess Elsa -- had trumped him. It burned, Flynn had to admit. All day long, Elsa had thrown money around, buying clothes and gifts and experiences for Blondie. Elsa probably couldn’t even see what she was doing. And Flynn had to accept it, he had to take the blows to his pride, because Blondie did deserve what enormous piles of money could buy.

“Is that safe?” Blondie asked. “I mean, for Flynn? You’ll make sure he’s safe?”

“Yes,” Elsa answered. “My agreement with you, Flynn, extends to all the guard. You have my word and protection. Anyway, tonight of all times, the castle will be full with visitors. You and Rapunzel will blend in with the crowd. We have food, and music, and dancing.” Again, her face glowed with a broad smile. “I’ll make sure that you have a lantern to launch, yourself,” she said to Blondie.

Elsa turned to Flynn, again. “You need a fresh shirt. At the least.”

ooo

He was nervous when Elsa deposited him in a room with a couple of manservants. She had managed to choose one without windows, and no door but the one that he had passed through. He could only guess that she and Blondie had gone through one of the other doors of the central room. The one he was in seemed more like a storage closet, in spite of its size, than the other rooms of the suite.

The castle was as he remembered it, too: luxury everywhere. The manservants made him bathe in a portable tub, but the water was comfortably hot, and the soap smelled like something manly. They provided a fancy mirror and a sharp razor for shaving. They tried to help him dress into new clothing after his grooming. He didn’t need the help, but the undergarments were soft, the overgarments were even softer, and by the time he was ready for them, his vest and boots were returned to him cleaned.

Flynn should have felt like a new man. Instead, he couldn’t shake the dread that he was a goose being dressed for roasting. Uncomfortable in his comfortable new clothes, he waited for the ladies on a silk upholstered settee, casing the room for an emergency escape route while trying to look nonchalant. He was still winning his battle with himself not to pace when Elsa swept into the central room.

“If you call me ‘Sparkles,’ I’ll do something dreadful to you,” Elsa said. Her voice had a lot less ire than Flynn would have expected.

She had exchanged the earlier fancy dress for one even fancier. Flynn had a flashback to how she had looked the night he had stolen the tiara. Elsa hardly looked like the same girl. That girl had worn her shiny dress like it had been too large for her. As he recalled, it had been acres of sparkly stuff in which she could barely move. The dress she wore now, while still twinkling with enough glitter to provide for a poor family for months, looked like it wouldn’t slow her down if she were, say, chasing a fugitive from the law.

The way Elsa was dressed, Flynn could guess what was coming next. His pulse jumped to a faster rhythm even before he saw Blondie in her latest fashion display. He took a deep breath and held it, all the while smiling like a drunk even while his pride took another kick to the gut.

A lifetime of assessing value gave him something to cling to even while his heart felt like it might explode. He made himself think about the cost of all the silk that made the long, flowing evening gown, let alone the dye artistry that gave it a purple hue as deep as dusk, at the hem, that gradually lightened through amethyst until it was the pale color of some rare lavender jade he had once liberated from a wealthy trader. Around her neck, blue and pink cloisonne beads alternated with what had to be eighteen karat gold links. Her hair was freshly braided. The wilting flowers had been replaced with fresh ones.

She stepped toward him. She had matching purple dance slippers on her feet. “Flynn, you look, um, really good,” she said.

“It will do for now,” Elsa said.

Blondie put her hand into his in that moment, otherwise the sting of the verbal barb might have been too sharp for him to keep back a reply. Her hand in his reminded him that they were alike, regular folks having a taste of the rich life. They were only visiting Elsa’s world of wealth.

He realized: he never wanted to let go of her hand. In the morning, he would take her back home, but he wouldn’t leave her there. He wouldn’t take her back to that cloistered life.

Blondie kept hold of his hand while Elsa led them from the private rooms out to public spaces. Even when their hands became slightly sweaty together, her grip stayed tight. She was scared, he started to guess. In spite of her radiant smile, in spite of the laughing conversation she carried on with Elsa, the grandeur around them must have been frightening Blondie. Maybe it was the size of the place. He didn’t know what she was thinking, but he did know that she had reached for him for courage.

Flynn waited for a break in their giggling exchanges. “I’m feeling a little jumpy, Elsa,” he said, keeping his delivery flippant. “What happens when we round one of these corners and run into a gendarme?”

“While you were being made presentable, I made arrangements for our special circumstances,” Elsa answered.

“I wasn’t in the bath all that long,” Flynn countered. He really did feel the pressure of risk. Normally, risk energized him; he loved it; he lived for it. The bigger the stake, the more exciting the victory. Even with a couple of failures and his string of bad luck, he shouldn’t be anxious.

Blondie commented, “It was strange to have help getting this dress on. Without the handmaids, I think I might still be trying to figure out where to put the garters.”

Flynn tried not to laugh when he saw the expression change on Elsa’s face at the forbidden mention of ladies underclothes. Blondie may as well have hit her with the frying pan. Flynn didn’t laugh, but he did grin. Blondie didn’t care about rules, and he loved that about her. He loved her.

She met his grin with an uncertain grin of her own. What he saw in her eyes was more than flirtation or swooning admiration. Flynn was certain, from the way she looked at him, that she loved him back. He wondered if she knew.

Elsa had recovered from her vicarious embarrassment. “You will be able to enjoy the evening like any other guest, although I’ll ask you to stay on this terrace,” she said. They had come to the end of a corridor, where a room let out onto a large open space that looked over a harbor painted in the last of sunset’s color.

They wove through the crowd of people that had already gathered to fill the terrace. Still, it was not so crowded that their group couldn’t find a place to stand. On the balconies above and the courtyard below, even more people waited for night to fall. Ready paper lanterns lay on every rail and ledge, with small lamps and sticks supplied with which to light the lanterns’ lifting flames.

“It’s going to happen any minute now, isn’t it?” Blondie asked. Her hand tightened around Flynn’s.

He squeezed back. “You’ll love it,” he said.

Elsa said to her, “I’m going to need to step away for a few minutes. When night falls, everyone will be silent, and all will be dark -- but only for a moment. Look up, then.” She pointed toward a balcony above them. “I will be back before long. Stay right in this spot.”

“OK,” Blondie replied. She sounded uncertain.

Elsa gave Flynn an unreadable glance, then gave Blondie an encouraging smile. Looking reluctant to leave, she still turned away and made a path toward one of the stone staircases that led to the upper levels.

“I’m scared,” Blondie said. With her pupils dilated in the dimming light, her eyes looked even larger than before. “What if it’s not everything I dreamed of?” She looked out at the darkening sky, then back at Flynn. “What if it is? I’ve been dreaming of this one thing for… it feels like, my whole life. What do I do when it’s over?”

Flynn had this answer. “You’ll find a new dream,” he said. “After you put this one in your pocket, you’ll be able to see the next dream after it.”

“You promise?” she asked.

“I promise,” he answered.

He was about to saw something more, but then a hush, an almost sacred quietness, fell over the people gathered at the castle. The night grew darker as unnecessary lights were shielded or put out.

“Oh!” Blondie whispered.

Above them, one bright lantern floated silently out toward the water. It twirled and turned on invisible currents. It reached the boundary of the castle and continued on.

Then, like a wave reaching shore, the crowd was in motion around them. Flaming lamps passed from person to person, used to light the sticks that in turn lit the burnable ring of each paper lantern. A flood of glowing lanterns lifted into the skies above them. The cloud of lights flowed out to join others, also answering that one lone lantern that first brightened the dark.

It was spectacular. Flynn had never seen it from the center of the cloud. He looked at Blondie. The lanterns, that glowing, growing light, were like the feeling he had when he looked at her.

Some of the lanterns launched from the higher balconies and windows dropped down within reach. Blondie released Flynn’s hand so that she could touch one that was descending and give it a lifting push out to join the others.

The people on the terrace crowded forward to watch the lights after releasing their stock of lanterns. Flynn guided Blondie a step back away, giving the two of them a sense of more privacy. “Happy Birthday, Blondie,” he said.

“It is,” she murmured. “Because of you.” She looked into his face. The lanterns floating above reflected in her green eyes.

Flynn didn’t let the moment pass unmarked. He slipped his arm around her waist. His other hand cradled her neck, he swooped in, and he kissed her.

ooo

Chapter Text

 

Elsa started up the stone stairs with her skirts in hand. She cast back one last look, knowing that Rapunzel would be out of sight for the minutes until Elsa reached the upper balcony. Her cousin waited with her face upturned toward the night sky, one hand clasped against her heart. Sure that none of the guest would see her do it, Elsa dashed up the curving flight of stairs with practical, unladylike speed.

Arriving at the balcony where King Thomas and Queen Primrose stood prepared to launch the first lantern, Elsa slowed to a pace that would not draw too much attention. She smoothed out her appearance as she crossed the balcony. Wouldn’t Anna would love a moment like this, she thought to herself, preparing to spring the joyful surprise on the king and queen. But I can be much more composed than she ever could. Anna, she remembered, could never hold back excitement. She would hop in place, or wiggle her little body, ready to burst from waiting.

Anna. Anna wasn’t a little body anymore. It struck Elsa, all at once, that she and Anna had both grown up. Anna would not look as she did when Elsa left Arendelle.

She had known that, of course. Of course she had known. Why did the fact of it suddenly seem so strange?

The king and queen saw her approach. Her uncle’s expression had turned to worry. Elsa realized that her troubling thought must have shown on her face. She thought of Rapunzel, and her expression lightened. She clasped her hands together.

Queen Primrose smiled a subdued smile. “We’re ready,” she said, indicating the lantern waiting to be lit.

Elsa knew that lighting the first lantern came with a wish. She was certain of what her aunt and uncle wished each year: that the light, symbolic of their undiminished love, would call Rapunzel safely back to them. “Aunt Primrose. Uncle Thomas,” Elsa addressed them. Her smile tugged harder at the corner of her lips.

Her uncle raised his arm in an encircling gesture, guiding their group of three toward the waiting lantern. The gesture completed as a loose embrace. Though his hand rested on the queen’s back, and Elsa stood on the other side of Primrose, Elsa felt included in the hug. Her aunt and uncle tended to remember that Elsa still preferred not to be touched, even by loved ones; in that acknowledging way, refraining from touching was an even greater expression of love than an embrace would have been.

She wanted to watch their faces in the glow of the lantern’s new light, to study the last moments when their wish was still only a wish, but she was sure that she would become overwhelmed. Instead, Elsa searched for Rapunzel among the guests on the lower balcony, and watched her face, instead, as the king and queen released the first lantern out to the night. Light filled the kingdom as the people of Corona answered with lanterns, and hope, of their own.

Now was the time to tell her aunt and uncle the wonderful news. Elsa began to say, “Look,” but before she could turn to call their attention to Rapunzel, Primrose took a sharp step toward the balcony railing.

“That young lady! Who is she?” Queen Primrose asked, tense in voice and posture. “Thomas, look!”

The king followed his queen’s stare. His expression froze.

“She’s someone I brought to meet you,” Elsa said. She was suddenly unsure about having waited to tell them.

Primrose’s face took on an anxious expression. She rushed to the staircase leading down. King Thomas followed. Elsa cast another look at Rapunzel, and saw that she and Flynn had stepped back, away from the crowd of guests. Hundreds of lanterns filled the sky and floated out over the harbor.

Elsa hurried to catch up to King Thomas and Queen Primrose. She had been careless. What had she been thinking, leaving Rapunzel with Flynn Rider? The king and queen might not identify his face in this setting, but they would be horrified when they heard the name top on the list of wanted criminals.

Though the guests watched the lanterns, they were not so engrossed that they did not respond to the presence of their monarchs. Deep curtsies and bows greeted the arrival of the queen and king. Only one person did not lower her head. At her side, Flynn tugged on Rapunzel and urged her into belatedly copying the curtseying women around her.

Thomas and Primrose moved toward Rapunzel. Primrose looked at her closely. The queen’s face showed a mix of wonder, worry, and forlorn hope. She reached out, laying her hands on each side of Rapunzel’s face, and Rapunzel looked up. The queen studied Rapunzel’s features. She looked deeply into the girl’s eyes.

“Can it be…?” she asked in a whisper.

Elsa stepped closer to the tableau. Flynn took a step back. Elsa said, “Your Highnesses, this is Rapunzel.” She smiled a small smile at Rapunzel. “Princess Rapunzel, meet your father and mother, the King and Queen of Corona.”

Flynn took another step back. “Princess?” he echoed. He looked at Elsa with alarm and confusion.

“Hi,” Rapunzel said in a small voice.

Primrose, uncaring of onlookers, threw her arms around Rapunzel and pulled her into a close hug. Thomas stepped up and joined the embrace with his own intense joy.

Elsa stepped back. She felt happy tears well in her eyes. They rolled onto her lashes, then froze in tiny, lacy snowflakes. She wiped them away with her bare fingers.

Rapunzel disentangled from her natural parents enough to reach an arm out toward Flynn. After a second of hesitation, he took a long stride back to her, and he put his hand into hers.

“Who is this?” King Thomas asked Rapunzel.

Rapunzel further disengaged from the embrace. Before Flynn could say anything, she supplied, “Eugene is the man I love.”

“Well!” Queen Primrose laughed. She opened her arms to include Flynn. When he didn’t move, she took his arm and pulled him into their circle.

King Thomas beckoned Elsa closer. “How did you find her?” he asked with wonder. Then he held up a hand, as if to stay his own question. “Inside. I imagine we will all want a more comfortable setting.”

When Rapunzel saw that their group would leave the terrace, she stopped them with a request. “Wait.” She bit at her lip, and looked to Elsa. “I would like to finish watching the lanterns. Until I can’t see them anymore.”

Elsa turned around and looked at the view, seeing it as if through Rapunzel’s eyes, the realization of a long-held desire. “We could go up to the balcony,” she suggested. She exchanged looks with her aunt and uncle, and saw that they agreed to follow her lead. The group proceeded up the stairs to the upper balcony.

There, the king had chairs, a small table, and refreshments brought out for their group. Rapunzel started to drag one of the chairs to the railing, but a pair of servants rushed over, picked it up, and waited for her orders. Shyly, she pointed toward a spot alongside the railing. The servants carried the chair over, set it down, and waited to be dismissed.

“Thank you,” she said to them. With a look back at the others for their approval, she climbed into the chair and curled up her legs.

Elsa left her seat. She went to stand beside Rapunzel.

“Every year,” Rapunzel said, “I would sit at the window and watch the floating lights until they were gone. They would disappear behind the mountains. I wondered if they were really gone, or if I just couldn’t see them anymore.”

Elsa leaned on the railing. “I used to make a special lantern with the crocus of Arendelle. I would keep my eyes on it, and keep looking for it when the wind currents carried it where all the other lanterns were. I would keep watching it until the light went out.”

“Why don’t you do that anymore?” Rapunzel asked.

Elsa answered with a shrug. When she thought of it, she didn’t like the truth of the answer. She was saved from answering by the fussing of servants. They were carrying the rest of the chairs closer to Rapunzel’s.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to…!” Rapunzel started.

King Thomas waved away her dismay. “We don’t appreciate the festivities enough. Primrose and I will be quiet company.” He settled comfortably into his seat.

“We’ll be very quiet,” the queen assured as she sat down.

“I don’t mind, if you like to talk,” Rapunzel said. “I like talking to people.”

Elsa gave a nod of thanks to the servants before they left. Then she left Rapunzel, Queen Primrose, and King Thomas talking among themselves. Flynn had lingered back, though a chair had been brought forward for him, too. He seemed unsure whether to stay or go.

She approached him. She stood next to him, looking at the reunited family. She wasn’t sure what to say to him. “Our agreement was until sunrise,” she ended up saying.

“I didn’t know this was the kind of story where you kiss a girl and she turns into princess,” he said.

Elsa asked, agast, “You kissed Rapunzel?” She had heard Rapunzel say that she loved him. She hadn’t thought it was so much of a certainty.

“You didn’t tell me she was that Rapunzel. The Rapunzel. How long did you know?” he accused. He glowered. “You bought her that dress. You knew already, then.”

“I knew as soon as I saw her, but I didn’t believe it right away.”

Flynn shook his head. “What am I going to do?”

“You’re going to leave,” Elsa said. She knew it was unkind. Flynn knew it, too, and he looked into her eyes with anger. “Tomorrow,” she continued, “after you tell me everything you know about the Stabbington Brothers, you’ll go. I believe I was wrong about your involvement in their escape, and if your statement supports your innocence, you will be free to go. And you will leave.”

“She will want me to stay.”

“You can’t. There’s no chance for you to associate with a princess.”

Flynn laughed. “What? What about you?”

Elsa scowled. “I’m different. Our association was different.” She didn’t like what he implied. They had barely been acquaintances.

“I’m not leaving her,” he said.

“You’re not good enough for her,” Elsa said.

Flynn fumed at that, but possibly because of the proximity of the others, he restrained venting his anger. “I’m not leaving her,” he repeated. “Don’t you get it? I’m not going to abandon her because of something she didn’t choose to be. I love her for herself. And she loves me.”

“Don’t you get it?” Elsa countered. “You didn’t know what she -- who she really was. You didn’t see all of her. She’s no different to you than the girls you coerced to hide you while you were on the run. All those poor, ruined girls! Do you know how many of them wept and said they still loved you? I won’t let you do that to Rapunzel.”

“They weren’t like that! Anyway, Blondie’s different. She’s--”

Elsa cut him off. “This isn’t a debate you can win.”

Flynn couldn’t meet her eyes. He stared out at the horizon. “It’s done,” he said, finally, in a hard voice.

“Yes,” Elsa replied. “It’s done.”

“No. The lanterns. They’re all dark,” Flynn clarified in the same flat tone.

Lights from inside the castle brightened the balcony. The king, queen, and Rapunzel moved from their chairs toward one of the doors leading inside. Flynn and Elsa followed.

“That’s why,” Rapunzel was telling the king and queen, “I thought I wasn’t wanted by my birth parents.”

“Yet that’s not true,” Primrose emphasised as if she repeated herself. “You were taken from us. I don’t understand why the woman who found you didn’t take you to an orphanage, even if she didn’t know who you were.”

“There are, um, reasons,” Rapunzel evaded. “She felt that she was the only one who could care for me properly.”

“She was kind?” King Thomas asked. “This woman cared for you?” He shared a concerned look with Queen Primrose. “She couldn’t be the person who stole you away.”

“No!” Rapunzel answered instantly. “Mother is --” she looked at Queen Primrose. “I’m sorry. I call her Mother.” She drooped, her posture revealing uncertainty.

“Don’t be distressed,” Queen Primrose said in a gentle voice. “This must be such a shock.”

Rapunzel started again, but her voice was a shadow of the laughing voice Elsa had heard all day. “Mother is good to me. She makes sure I am safe. She loves me.” Expressions ran all over her face. She looked for Flynn and found him. Her posture relaxed a degree. “How will I tell her?” She examined the faces of king and queen for an answer. “Will you tell her?” She looked away. “No. I mean, I have to tell her. Now that I’m older, Mother just might…” She caught Elsa’s eye. She seemed to want Elsa to finish her thought, or somehow have an answer.

Elsa felt sympathy for Rapunzel’s struggle accepting her truth. “Let me go, with Rapunzel tomorrow morning, and talk to the woman,” Elsa said to the king and queen. Before they could protest at the risk, she assured them. “I’ll take,” she was about to say “guards,” but changed her wording, “precautions.”

“Rapunzel, you looked tired,” Elsa continued. “It’s been a long day.”

Rapunzel gave her a smile of gratitude. “I am a little tired,” she admitted.

“I’m a little tired, too,” Elsa said. “We should say goodnight.”

Queen Primrose gave her daughter a kiss on her forehead. Rapunzel seemed bemused by it. King Thomas pat her on the shoulder. Then the monarchs of Corona let Elsa lead Rapunzel and Flynn away.

“I’ll show you where your room is, Flynn. Be up at dawn. I’d like to get an early start,” Elsa said.

“Where is your room, Blondie?” Flynn asked, although the question was really for Elsa.

“You don’t need to know that,” Elsa said.

“Like hell I don’t,” Flynn replied. He turned to Rapunzel. “I have a bargain to keep that includes a safe return. I’m going to watch over you.”

“Flynn could sleep in my room,” Rapunzel said.

“Outside the room. In the hall,” Flynn said, cutting off Elsa before she could begin to speak.

“Fine. In the hall,” Elsa sighed. She was too tired to argue, she decided.

Rapunzel asked her, in a small voice, “Could you stay with me, too?”

Elsa considered. She had intended to put Rapunzel in the suite they had used to dress, but there was an unoccupied double room in the same area that could be shared. In fact, it was the old nursery, and that seemed oddly appropriate, as if they were winding back time to alter the stories of their lives. The old nursery was now a pair of guest bedrooms, joined by an open doorway between them.

There was even a long, padded bench in the hallway outside the room, assuming Flynn was serious about guarding the door. “Yes, if you would like me to,” Elsa answered. She waylaid a castle servant and gave him instructions to have Rapunzel’s possessions moved to the old nursery. Flynn’s bag, less the tiara that was now back in the throne room’s vault, could stay in his assigned room until morning.

Rapunzel must have been exhausted, because she hardly looked into the room when Elsa opened the door. “Thank you,” she said, and then, with a look back at Flynn, “Goodnight, Eugene.”

When the door closed behind them, Elsa asked, “Why ‘Eugene’?” She wanted to ask, “Why Flynn Rider at all?” but she could see that answer herself. Flynn may be a rogue, but only because he used his charisma for shallow pursuits and selfish gain.

Rubbing her eyes, Rapunzel answered, “It’s supposed to be a secret, but-- you already know mine.” She reached into a hidden pocket of her dress and Pascal ran up her arm, changing colors as he climbed from sleeve to shoulder. “Flynn Rider is a made up name. Eugene is his real name.”

“Eugene is a respectable name,” Elsa commented. Of course he had chosen a flashier pseudonym for his criminal career.

“I like it,” Rapunzel said, yawning. She started to unbraid her hair.

Elsa helped her remove the flowers, pins, and strands of beads. A knock sounded at the door to announce a group of maids bringing Rapunzel’s wardrobe and sleepwear for Elsa. They quickly fluffed the pillows and freshened the linens on each of the beds.

Elsa would take the bed on the side with the French doors and the balcony beyond; Rapunzel chose the darker room without windows. Before either of the cousins retired to their beds, Rapunzel sat at the foot of Elsa’s, brushing out her hair. Elsa opened the balcony doors to let in some cool, fresh air before climbing onto her bed and perching next to Rapunzel.

“This is all so unbelievable,” Rapunzel said as she ran a brush over blonde strands that already looked like burnished gold.

“Like a fairy story?” Elsa asked.

Rapunzel looked at her with curiosity. “Like what?” she asked.

“Like make-believe? Fairy stories always seem to have unbelievable coincidences. Like the way I found you because I was chasing Flynn. That is, Eugene.”

Rapunzel smiled at the name. “I mean, I don’t know what fairy stories are,” she said.

“You don’t?”

Rapunzel shook her head, no. “I don’t know what you mean by make-believe. Do you mean, a lie?”

“No, I mean fiction. Stories that aren’t true, but not lies.” Elsa frowned, trying to understand what Rapunzel implied. “Stories to entertain. Full of fantastic, made up things.”

“Oh,” Rapunzel said in a small voice.

“I still need to show you our library,” Elsa said.

“Why would you want to tell a story that wasn’t true?” Rapunzel asked, after she stopped brushing her hair. “Mother,” she hesitated, then continued, “says that if a person can’t say true things, then that person shouldn’t speak at all.”

“Well…” Elsa started. She recalled her lessons. “Tales may use fantastic elements to explain a larger truth. A truth about the world or society. There is an allegorical fable, for example, about animals who goad to each other into a race. In reality, animals neither talk, nor compete in races, but in the fable, the animals are symbolic of people. By making the characters of the story animals, the storyteller highlights a lesson about human nature.”

Rapunzel fiddled with her brush, frowning to herself. Then she failed at stifling a sudden and large yawn.

“I’m keeping you from rest,” Elsa said. “I will have an early start. I should sleep, too.”

Rapunzel stood up, gathered her hair, and walked to her own bed for the night. “It’s been a nice birthday,” she said. She climbed into bed and pulled the covers over her shoulders. “This bed is so deep and soft,” she murmured.

Elsa closed the balcony doors and drew the curtains. She liked the cooler air, but she didn’t want Rapunzel to sleep in a draft. She extinguished the lamp, and the room became dark and quiet. She stood by the lamp a moment longer to let her night vision adjust. She could hear the soft sounds of Rapunzel breathing in sleep.

After a minute, a faint glow brightened the room. Rapunzel’s hair emitted a low light while she slept. Elsa stood in the doorway between their rooms and looked at her sleeping cousin with a pity she usually saved for herself.

Magic hair, she had said. It was like candle flame, warm and comforting, not strange and unworldly like the luminescence of some sea animals or odd plants. It made a saintly nimbus around Rapunzel’s head, where her hair showed above her blanket.

She would have to warn Rapunzel. Rapunzel wouldn’t be able to conceal her magic for long, not when castle staff worked like invisible servants, tending fireplaces in the cold months, laying out clothing, and the like. If Rapunzel covered her hair when she slept, she might keep her secret safe longer. Like Elsa, she would have to forbid servants from entering her room when she was in it.

Elsa turned away and climbed into her bed for the night. Years had passed since she had shared a sleeping room with someone else. In Arendelle, Anna’s sleeping sounds had echoed in the room they shared as children. She talked in her sleep sometimes. When she had a cold, she snored like a wheezing bear. She was always up at the break of dawn, looking to play.

Elsa closed her eyes, willing herself to sleep. If she stayed in the posture of sleep, she eventually would slip off into oblivion.

ooo

She had dozed, but now the sound of whispering woke her. She stayed motionless, as if still asleep, and listened. Elsa remembered that she was not in her own room. Princess Rapunzel slept in the other half of the conjoined room.

One of the voices sounded like Rapunzel. The other was a woman’s voice, too, but a lower register.

“Quickly. We must go now, Flower,” the other voice urged.

Elsa heard a rustling, a sound of bedding being pulled aside, and of bare feet on the floor. Rapunzel whimpered.

“No, Mother,” she protested in a whisper.

Elsa opened her eyes without any other movement. A curtain fluttered in a gust blowing through the open balcony door. No light but starlight shined through the crack. It was enough light for Elsa to make out figures: a tall, cloaked shape pulling a smaller one toward the glass door.

Quietly curling her fingers, Elsa closed her hands around folds in the light blanket over her body. She readied herself to spring into motion. She waited until the taller figure reached behind to push the French door further open.

While Rapunzel’s captor restrained Rapunzel with only one hand, Elsa bounded up from her feigned sleep and threw the satin blanket over the tall woman’s head. Twisted ends served for a rope, and Elsa used her body weight for leverage to keep the makeshift sack tight. The woman yelled in protest. She began struggling to free her arms from Elsa’s trap. Elsa kicked into the small of the tall woman’s back, knocking her to her knees, and pulled backward on the slack cloth.

Satin did not make an ideal bag. As the woman bucked and fought, she freed a hand from the cover.

Rapunzel shouted, “Eugene!”

Elsa spared half a thought to be irritated. She took her irritation out on her opponent. Grabbing the woman’s wrist before the woman could pull the satin blanket off, Elsa twisted the culprit’s arm behind her. Elsa’s knee jabbed at the woman’s spine.

Flynn dashed into the room. Bright light spilled in from the hallway. He pulled Rapunzel away from the fray, for which Elsa would later think to be grateful.

“Call the guard!” she ordered him.

Instead, Flynn threw himself down on Elsa’s captive and got his arm around the tall woman’s neck. Furious at his interference, Elsa nevertheless perceived the advantage of Flynn’s greater mass and let him stand in.

She slammed the balcony door shut. She pulled a thick cord from the curtains and used it to bind the woman’s kicking legs. She used the second cord to tie the woman’s wrists. Flynn shifted to let Elsa work, but afterward, he put a boot on the woman’s back to hold her down.

Tying her wrists required pulling the blanket off of the woman enough that her continued struggling made the slippery cloth fall away completely. She was no one that Elsa recognized, a dark-haired woman with patrician features. Her eyes were wide with the insult of her situation. She breathed in heavy, frightened-seeming exhalations.

“You!” Flynn accused.

Elsa lit a lamp. She strode to the bedroom doorway and shouted down the hall, “Guards!” She could hear the cold anger in her own voice. She returned to crouch down beside the woman, holding the lamp close to her face. “Who are you?” she interrogated.

In a worried tone, Flynn asked Rapunzel, “Are you alright?”

Elsa glanced at Rapunzel. The girl was shaking her head, slowly. Flynn moved to her side and pulled her into a sheltering embrace. Elsa heard the sound of running boots entering the room. She gave her attention to the dark-haired woman. “Who are you?” she repeated.

“You monsters! Give me back my daughter!” the woman wailed. “I’m her mother!”

ooo

Chapter Text

Elsa let the guards carry the woman out. She may have been Rapunzel’s adoptive mother, but the woman had been attempting to take Rapunzel away under strange circumstances. Elsa shepherded Rapunzel back toward the inner room. She was desperately tired and felt as brittle as thin ice, and she did not know how long she could stand there in her sleeping clothes, with men coming and going, and pretend to be unruffled. “If you could wait outside,” she said to Flynn.

For an answer, Flynn pulled a chair in front of the balcony doors, sat down, and crossed his arms and legs. He looked worried, stubborn, and immovable.

Elsa felt as if she might explode into a thousand sharp pieces. It was an after-effect of the fight with the intruder, she told herself, and weariness from multiple nights of poor sleep, and not because of any personal weakness. It was certainly not from Flynn’s disregard of her authority. The thought came to her that his free manner was her own doing; she had told him to regard her as “just Elsa” since long ago; naturally, he would take that to mean that a request from her was not a command.

Diplomacy, Elsa, she told herself. In a nightdress or in full formal dress, she was still a princess, whether she wanted to be one or not. “Mr. Rider,” she said, as if offering him tea, “your vigil in the hallway put you close enough to be helpful already once tonight. And it would be best for you as a guest,” she put a slight emphasis on the word, “of Rapunzel’s parents,” -- emphasis again -- “to consider propriety.”

A look of something like chagrin passed over his face. He darted a look over at Rapunzel, then unfolded his arms, slapped his knees, and stood up. “I’ll be just outside, Blondie,” he said.

His intention to say a final word to else or simply leave the room was interrupted by the entrance of Queen Primrose, with King Thomas pausing at the doorway before he took a step into the room. The king extended an arm to Flynn. “I heard that you were key in apprehending the intruder,” the king said. With the same motion of welcome, he guided the young man out of the princesses’ rooms, taking only a quick assessment of his daughter’s and his niece’s well-being. He closed the door behind himself and Flynn.

Queen Primrose wasted no time in embracing her daughter. “Thank providence that you were with her,” she said to Elsa.

Rapunzel tested pushing the queen away, and when Primrose yielded, the Lost Princess diffidently stepped out of arm’s reach. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.

“Nonsense. You’ve just met me.” The queen managed a smile. “I’m very glad you are safe. I should let you return to sleep.”

“No, I understand,” Rapunzel said. “Mother,” she added.

Primrose made a face of sympathy. “If it’s easier, you can call me Primrose,” she said. “What matters is that you are home, and safe. Please don’t feel that you have to be anyone but yourself.”

Elsa asked, trying to keep the tiredness from revealing itself in her voice, “Maybe you could stay with Rapunzel, Aunt Primrose, while I find out more about the intruder.”

Primrose raised an eyebrow. “Oh no, Elsa. You have been going too long at this pace. It’s four in the morning, and both you girls still need your rest.”

“I don’t think it should wait until daylight,” Elsa started to argue.

“Dear child, there has been no sleep for Thomas or I this night,” Primrose stated. “How could we sleep? Better that we put our energy toward interviewing our uninvited guest.”

In a small voice, Rapunzel interjected, “She is my mother.” She didn’t look up from the floor. “The woman that was here is the one who took me in.”

“Ah,” Primrose sighed. “Rapunzel,” she spoke slowly, “we will take due care to discover the truth with respect to that fact.” She moved forward, as if to hug Rapunzel again, but stopped herself. Instead, she repeated for Elsa to go back to sleep, said her goodnights, and then left.

Rapunzel climbed into her bed. Elsa took that as a sign that the other young woman would go back to sleep and returned to her side of the double room. She snuffed the lamps that had been lit when the guards came in. She left the twisted, ruined satin sheet on the floor where it lay, and, lying down on the bed that was temporarily hers, she closed her eyes and tried to visualize a calming stroll through Mother Gartner’s flower garden.

She opened her eyes when she heard a muffled sob. It was too familiar a sound, except that it wasn’t her own private sorrow that she was hearing. Elsa debated for a minute. It wasn’t as if she was going to be able to fall asleep again easily, or that she wasn’t accustomed to sleeping only a fraction of the night. But Rapunzel might not want the attention.

Slowly, Elsa slipped out of bed. Quietly, she crossed the space between her and Rapunzel. She sat down on Rapunzel’s bed and heard Rapunzel’s inhalation. Rapunzel went silent.

“You don’t have to be quiet,” Elsa said softly. Thinking about what her aunt would do, even though she felt awkward offering consolation, she pat the blanket over the lump that was Rapunzel. “It’s alright.”

Rapunzel sat up. In the dark, Elsa couldn’t see her wipe her face, but she could hear the sniffling and gasping breath altered by the gesture. Rapunzel’s voice was thick; her nose was swollen from crying. “I’m sorry. I’m not letting you sleep,” she said.

“It’s alright, really,” Elsa repeated.

“No,” Rapunzel said, “it’s not. Nothing is-- is alright.” Her voice rose in pitch, and a sob escaped with force. “I don’t know what I’m doing! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!”

Elsa soothed, “You don’t have to do anything. Just take a deep breath. It will help.” Rapunzel took a shuddering breath. “Good,” Elsa encouraged, “like that. Keep taking deep breaths, and try not to think about anything else. Just for now.” While Rapunzel obeyed, Elsa inhaled deeply herself.

“The market was grand, didn’t you think?” Elsa asked. She wanted to get Rapunzel thinking about something concrete and happy. “We see trade from around the world all year, but there is always something special at festival time. It’s the unofficial beginning of summer.” She yawned, surprising herself. “More and more people visit every year.”

“I’ve never seen so many people.” Rapunzel snuffled. “I liked it.”

“Where have you been living, Rapunzel?” Elsa asked the question lightly.

“Not around a lot of people,” Rapunzel mumbled, her comment seeming more to herself than to Elsa. “In the forest. In a vale.”

“Have you always lived there?”

“For as long as I can remember.”

“Is there a river nearby?” If she could identify the landmarks, Elsa thought she might be able to explain how Rapunzel and her “Mother” had slipped through the census. Flynn would supply an accurate location later, but Elsa could relax if she had the answer sooner.

“Yes?” Rapunzel answered, her tone rising like a question. “We have a stream that I can see from the windows. It isn’t very big.”

“Deep enough to swim? Did you learn to swim in it?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Rapunzel denied. “I didn’t learn to swim until last night in the lake, anyway.”

Elsa straightened. She took a long breath to control her alarm -- and her tone. “Do you mean in the reservoir lake, when you jumped in?”

Rapunzel shifted position, making the bedding rustle. “Eugene taught me,” she said simply. “I swallowed a lot of water, first. I think I hit my head on something, and it was really dark for a moment.” She breathed more easily, and her hitching sobs had gone. “I’m still not very good at it. Eugene might teach me to be better at it, now that I’m… not going back home.”

“You are home,” Elsa said, pushing aside the thought that Rapunzel could have drowned. “Your true home is here, with your true parents.”

“Is it?” Rapunzel asked. The fear was back in her voice. “Do I really belong here?”

“Yes, you do,” Elsa answered. “This is your birthright.” She heard the coldness of those words, so she continued, “The one great hope of your father and mother has been to find you.”

“And now that they found me, what does that mean?” Rapunzel asked in a murmur. More clearly, she asked, “What’s going to happen to Mother?”

"Rapunzel, what did she say to you? I heard you talking, before she tried to take you away." Elsa asked without demanding an answer. If Rapunzel didn’t want to talk about it yet, Elsa would wait until she was willing. It did not look good for Rapunzel’s adoptive mother. Not only had she tried to steal Rapunzel away in the dead of night, but the woman had stolen into an upper floor room without calling the attention of the guards on watch. That hinted of the same dark magic that had abducted the infant princess eighteen years past.

Unexpectedly, Rapunzel answered without hesitation. “She told me I didn’t belong here,” she said, a note of anger in her voice. “That I was thinking too highly of myself. Putting on airs. That I was being… a fool…” The uncertainty returned, stomping over her anger. “I’m not, though, am I? She said that I couldn’t be with people like you because of my magic. But Elsa, you have magic,” she whispered. “You’re like me. Andyou’re here.”

Elsa didn’t reply with the thoughts that sprang into her head, that she did not belong in Corona, or anywhere, that -- in contrast to Rapunzel -- her parents did not want her with them.

Rapunzel continued, “Mother doesn’t listen to what I have to say. She wouldn’t wait until daybreak. I told her I was safe, but she wouldn’t believe me. She said we had to go right away, without saying goodbye, and I… couldn’t!” Her voice resonated agitation shaded with desperation.

“You were right to resist,” Elsa said, “though if you had called for the guard, they would have come sooner.”

“I thought I could reason with Mother, still. I mean, she was upset. I wasn’t supposed to be… here. I wasn’t allowed to leave…” her voice trailed off. She was silent for a while longer. “She didn’t find me abandoned as a baby, did she? She’s the… the person who took me from my parents, isn’t she?”

“We don’t know yet,” Elsa answered.

“What will happen to her, if she is that person?” Rapunzel asked again.

“It will be up to the king and queen to decide,” Elsa said softly.

“Will I get to see her in the morning?”

Elsa sighed. “I don’t know. If the king and queen approve it, yes.”

“The king and queen. My parents.” More rustling, and the mattress shifted. Rapunzel seemed to be sitting on the edge of the bed, mirroring Elsa. “I always wondered how they could have cared so little for me. I was just a baby. Having magic wasn’t my fault. But I’m older now, so I can hide it. I can pretend it went away, right?”

“Rapunzel, I don’t think they ever knew,” Elsa said. “That was a lie, too.”

Rapunzel sighed. “She gets so angry at me for lying. But she’s been lying to me forever.”

“I think,” Elsa said carefully, “that hiding your magic from everyone is still the right course.”

“Do… your parents know about you?” Rapunzel asked.

“Yes, my parents know.”

“Do my parents know about you?”

“No,” Elsa answered. “No, they don’t.” She followed up with more truth, as much as it hurt her to say it. “I have been away from Arendelle for eight years.”

Rapunzel’s sharp intake of air made Elsa cringe, and she was glad for the dark. They sat in silence so long afterward, Elsa thought of returning to her bed.

Finally, Rapunzel cracked the silence. “When is your birthday, Elsa?”

Elsa replied, “Next month. I’ll be seventeen.”

“Good, then I have a month to plan your birthday celebration!” said Rapunzel. Elsa started to make a noise of protest, but Rapunzel spoke over it. “It’s going to be my first decree as princess,” Rapunzel insisted. “I’m going to bake the biggest pie you’ve ever seen. And there will be dancing and games. And presents, lots of presents.”

“Princesses don’t typically make decrees,” Elsa laughed, in spite of herself.

“Well…” Rapunzel mused, “I’m still going to bake you a really big pie. What do you like, rhubarb or plum?”

“Anything would be fine,” Elsa said, planning to make sure blueberries and strawberries were readily at hand whenever Rapunzel gathered her pie ingredients. “Which do you like?”

“Apples make the best pie, but we won’t have them until the end of summer. I usually save making apple pie until winter starts, though. Autumn is a good time to stay busy, drying herbs and making pickles and preserves. Mother trades them for butter, salt, and things we need that I can’t make, like sewing needles and my paint.”

“So you foraged?” Most commoners farmed on the land lots where they lived, but the poorest of the kingdom often subsisted on the bounty of the woods during the fair months, then came into town for work and shelter in winter and early spring. Queen Primrose utilized the cold, wet months as an opportunity to improve the literacy and well-being of the poor.

“Mother did. She gathered our food, firewood, everything.” Rapunzel let out another audible breath. “I wasn’t allowed to leave home. Mother… what do I call her, if I don’t call her ‘Mother’?” she asked, distressed.

“You never knew her name?” Elsa asked.

“No, I guess there is a lot I didn’t know about her.” She sounded as though her mood had fallen, again. “I’m sorry that I’m so much trouble,” she apologized gloomily. “You must want to get some sleep, after all this. I talk too much.”

“Don’t,” Elsa said. “You don’t have to apologize. And don’t think you’re too much... anything but wonderful. You don’t know yet how important you are to my uncle and aunt.” She knew the queen wouldn’t be happy if they stayed up talking until the sun came up. “That said, we both do need to try to sleep. I often find that if I can clear my mind and imagine a peaceful scene, I can trick myself into falling asleep.” She smiled, even knowing that Rapunzel could not see it in the darkness of the room. “Leave the thinking until the morning. Any problems will still be there in the light of day, and easier to see for what they are.”

“I guess they will,” Rapunzel said. “Could you tell me about the peaceful scene you imagine?” Her blankets rustled, indicating her shift back into a position to sleep. “Right now, I keep thinking of my bed at home… and how I’ve lived, never even knowing how things really were. Not peaceful thinking.”

“My favorite thing to imagine,” Elsa started, speaking softly, “is a garden that I know. I remember the first time I saw the blooming trees, the way the white petals fluttered down in the wind. It’s a calm, quiet place, where only the sound of water and birds singing echoes. The air is cool. The trees shield the brightness of the sun…” She trailed off, thinking of the flower garden at Mother Gartner’s house. The hyacinths would have given way to summer foxglove, and the delicate, snowflake-like plum blossom would now be replaced by nubs of green fruit. And yet, the paths that Elsa liked to walk remained cool even in the hottest months. The garden was a refuge, when she took the time to visit as well as in her imaginings.

The room began to lighten. Rapunzel had drifted off to sleep; her hair was glowing again. Elsa sat still a few minutes longer to be sure that her cousin slept. She draped the top of Rapunzel’s blanket over the glowing hair, dimming the magic light, and then went back to the adjoining room. Instead of going to bed, however, she carefully dressed and put on shoes, then slipped through the balcony doors to watch the night until it became morning.

A breeze blew the scent of woods across the sleeping town. Elsa caught the scent of summer grass and rich earth, mixed with the frigid saltwater of the bay. All was quiet. Soon, the town would begin to wake, townspeople and servants starting their work before sunrise, then the light of day would seep into the world, adding color. For the moment, however, points of starlight twinkled from the sky and the reflections in the bay, and where they changed from stars to reflections, Elsa could not separate.

She stepped away from the door until she could see nothing around herself but night and starlight. She looked up, and the Milky Way was a star-strewn road, so close that she could step onto it.

She opened her hands and looked at them, and tiny crystals of ice sparkled there like stars. She blew on her hands, the way someone might to warm them, and the crystals tumbled away as snowflakes that disappeared into the night’s darkness.

ooo

Chapter Text

Flynn didn't take his post as soon as the guards took the captive away. King Thomas pat him on the shoulder before he left with the guards. Two new guards already replaced the ones taking the intruder away. A few moments later, Queen Primrose stepped out of the room and closed the door behind herself.

"Eugene," she said, motioning for Flynn to join her, "walk with me."

Flynn would argue with Elsa, but the queen was another matter. She was not only the queen, but Rapunzel's real mother. He couldn't say no.

Flynn intended to stroll, or take shorter strides, to accommodate Queen Primrose. Instead, the queen walked at a quick clip, a steady, graceful glide through the castle like one of Corona's ships in full sail. Flynn had to go with purpose, no exploring, no skulking, not being dragged, unconscious, toward the dungeons...

He decided it was a good sign that he walked freely. The sight of guards everywhere still made him tense, but the presence of his royal escort meant that he passed through the castle without skulking. At this rate, he was going to forget how skulking through the castle felt.

He wasn’t sure he liked that idea. Skulking was one of the thing he did best. He was a very good thief; he could take a certain amount of pride in all the harrowing, daring jobs he had pulled off in his lifetime. He recalled a few occasions of sneaking through houses, sometime going out through a bedroom window, if that was how the night played out.

 "We have a concern about you, young man. Who is Eugene? And who is Flynn Rider?”

Queen Primrose's inquiry landed on Flynn as hard as if she had shoved him. He stumbled on the smooth flooring. The queen, unperturbed, did not yield her pace for a second. He picked up his pace to catch up.

“Your Highnesses, I’m --” he started to defend himself. He stopped, changing his mind, wondering how fast he would have to be to escape being thrown in the dungeons if he started running. Then he thought about Rapunzel, the way she had called to him for help.

“They're both me, Your Highness.” Flynn saw no way out but the truth. It was a bigger risk than any stunt in pursuit of a big score, but Blondie wasn't a shiny knick-knack.  “Eugene Fitzherbert is the name I was born with.” He straightened up further, squared his shoulders and tried to look like he wasn't a raggedy commoner with no parents. “Flynn Rider is the name I gave myself when I went out on my own.”

"You were in a robber gang, as I understand it," the queen said. Flynn noted that the royal "we" had become "I." "Are you done with thievery?"

"I'm more than a thief, Your Highness," Flynn answered. "But I did what I had to do to get by. I took the opportunities that came my way."

"When you ran away from the orphanage, Eugene, you cast aside much better opportunities."

The softening of Queen Primrose's tone didn't give Flynn any edge to meet with his own. He tried not to sound defensive when he replied, "What kind of opportunities was a kid with my name going to have? Living on charity wasn't what I wanted out of life. I was lucky not to be the kid with the crooked eyes or the one with the club foot, so I made my own opportunities with that luck."

“Eugene is an honest name that your mother -- whatever her situation -- chose for you, unlike the one you chose for yourself,” Queen Primrose said, surprising Flynn by her bluntness. “An honest name, to lead an honest life. Luck is a capricious companion, with no moral compass.” She continued to berate him in melodious tones that cut like piano wire.

He had to admit, he wasn’t seeing the resemblance to Blondie, but he could see where Elsa had learned her argumentative style.

“My daughter knows you as Eugene. I hope, at least, that you can say in honesty that you have not deceived her regarding the life you’ve chosen. We are grateful for your action this night when it was needed." She stopped walking and half-turned to look at him.  "Nonetheless, a notorious outlaw can have no place beside Rapunzel. We can find a place for Eugene Fitzherbert, but not for 'Flynn Rider.' You will need to make your choice.”

Although her eyes were as green as Blondie's, her firm, unyielding look was unlike Blondie's steady, nonjudgmental gaze.

“You’re right. Blon... Rapunzel deserves the best life anyone can give her, even if she wasn’t a princess. She’s amazing.” He grinned, thinking of the way her eyes shone when she studied whatever little bug or rock caught her interest. “She hasn’t had a great life, but she’s kind and brave and the smartest person I’ve ever met. I would do anything to keep her safe and make her happy.” He took a second to swallow the tightness in his throat. "I'm more than a name. I'm not Flynn or Eugene, I'm both. I'm me. And I hope that you will give me the chance to show you, all of you, what that means."

"It seems you will have that opportunity, young man," Queen Primrose said. "Of course, we would not be having this conversation if not for Elsa. Corona trusts her judgement very well." A nearly imperceptible sigh followed. "The orphanage always had my personal attention, Eugene," she said as they approached the big double doors of the throne room. "I am glad that you haven't turned out to be one of the privateers plaguing merchants in our waters. It seemed a likely escalation from highway robbery."

Flynn ran a hand through his hair. “To tell the truth, the last thing I, uh, took without asking was the princess's tiara. For the last few years, I've been anything but a thief, from courier to actor."

Queen Primrose cast him a speculative look.

One of the guards at the portal held a door open for the queen, and the queen proceeded through to the room beyond. Flynn paused, but he strode through when the other guard made a throat clearing noise and an unnecessary motion toward the sword at his hip.

So much for hospitality, Flynn thought.

The first guard ushered him over to stand at one shadowed side of the room. Center in the throne room was a heavy chair, and in the chair the dark-haired woman sat. Guards watched over her, and she had been put in chains. It must have been the way the lamp light fell on her, but she seemed older. Grey hairs streaked her curls.

“Please, my daughter,” she wheedled even before Queen Primrose settled into the throne cushions. “Your Highness! Please let me see her! She'll tell you I'm her mother.” The chains hanging from the manacles on her wrists clattered as she fell to her knees, hands clasped together in supplication. “She is all I have. We are just poor folk. We haven’t caused any trouble.”

King Thomas gestured to the chair. “Rise, madam, and sit. We will hear you out. What is your name, and where do you live?”

“Johanna Gothel. I am called Mother Gothel,” she said. As if pained, she returned to her chair. Flynn wasn't sure it was an act. She had struggled hard against capture. “Oh, mercy! What kind of mother can be, with my child taken away from me?” She turned a sly eye on Queen Primrose. “Surely, your highness, you can understand my pain?”

Queen Primrose appeared calm, but her cool exterior was a change from her manner moments ago with Flynn. “Your child is not taken, Mother Gothel,” Primrose said. “Nor will your freedom be, if you answer to our satisfaction.”

Gothel interrupted before the queen could say more. “Ah, the king’s question! Yes. Forgive me, I am so upset, my daughter suddenly gone from our home. A simple home, in the woods where we could live.”

“Here, in Corona?” King Thomas asked. “And yet, you did not recognize Rapunzel as our princess?”

“I’m foreign born, you see,” Gothel simpered. “I heard that the kingdom was good to those who come from afar. And you had a princess…”

“Elsa,” Primrose noted.

Mother Gothel’s manner was assuming and disrespectful. Flynn tried to believe that she was acting in ignorance, and yet, he couldn't believe that it was anything but intentional. His skin crawled.

“Well, I don’t know anything about royalty,” Mother Gothel answered.

King Thomas cleared his throat. “Speak plainly. Tell us how Rapunzel came into your care.”

“Why, has she not told you already? I found her in a rubbish heap. Naked as an egg. Dirty, full of lice, too.” Again, her glance shot like a dagger at the queen, and Flynn was sure that Gothel sought to upset Queen Primrose with the description. Gothel continued, “I combed out each nit and louse myself. I cleaned her, fed her, and clothed her. As I will need her to care for me in my old age, when I can no longer hold a spoon in my own hand! Oh, what will become of me?”

“At what age?” King Thomas demanded, his voice revealing his tension. "What age was Rapunzel?"

“A child. A babe. It’s hard to say. She’s a simpleton, you see. She’s like a child, even still.”

“You said she had lice,” Queen Primrose challenged. “Did you not cut her hair to clean them?”

“Oh no,” said Mother Gothel, shaking her head so that her own full hair bounced like a fleece. The skin under her chin wobbled, too, as it did in older women. Flynn was sure that it wasn't just tiredness making her face seem more slack. She had wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, now. “No, no, I could never cut it. A woman’s hair, when she is so very poor as we are, is all the dowry she may ever have.” Mother Gothel groaned. Touching a hand to her forehead, she mock-fainted over the arm of the chair. “But no one will have her now. She is ruined, keeping company with that thief!”

The woman turned suddenly to point an accusing finger at Flynn. Up to the moment, she had not given any indication of noting his presence in the room.

“Flynn Rider, the thief!” Mother Gothel gasped. “Can you not know him? He was in her bedroom, this very night! Too late! I tried to save her, but it was too late!” In spite of what she implied, the hatred in Gothel's flashing eyes was finally something that Flynn could believe as sincere. “I saw them together. I hurried to follow, but she was taken into this castle arm-in-arm with that thief. Girls, these days, and her so weak minded, I had to do whatever it took to get her away.”

King Thomas leaned forward, calling her attention back with his deep voice. “How did you climb up to an upper story balcony? You appear hale, madam, but not so young that such a climb would be easy.”

“It wasn’t easy…” Mother Gothel sighed, deflating further in the chair. She rolled her eyes up, blinking as if overwhelmed. She rolled her gaze from King Thomas to Queen Primrose, then back to the king. “Not like a thief plucking a flower…” she muttered.

Then,  eyes narrowing, she cracked a grin. She sat up. In a stronger voice, without feminine posturing, she said, “No, it wasn’t easy the first time, either, when I took her out of her crib!” She stood up. She laughed at the horror on the king’s face and the ferocity in the queen’s expression. “Sorry, can’t keep up this ridiculous act! ‘Please, Your Highness!’ Ha! And you. You weren’t buying it, anyway,” she said to Primrose. "Buying! You don't buy. You take. Like mother, like daughter; both of you carrying on with thieves."

“You traitorous monster!” King Thomas bellowed.

“You are not my king!” Mother Gothel spat back. “I was here before your miserable, greedy bloodline grabbed up the shores of these woods! I was here! You stole from me!” Her rant turned to an enraged screeching. “The flower is mine! Planted in dirt or planted in flesh, it is my rightful property, and you are the thieves!”

“You’re a madwoman,” Primrose said.

“Guards, take her to the dungeons!” Thomas ordered. “Lock her well!”

Mother Gothel fought the guards, all the while screaming and cursing at the king and queen. A kind of green fog seemed to trail and evaporate in her wake. Flynn stepped back from it. The two guards nearly dragged her across the floor by her chains. “Return what’s mine!” she howled with wrath. “What’s left of it!” She caught Flynn's eye before being pulled out of sight. "She will never be yours! You'll bleed out your life while she watches!"

“Thank Provenance she was in irons,” King Thomas said in a quiet voice intended for Queen Primrose. “Dark magic. I feared the possibility of it. The iron will contain the sorcery.”

“And what of our daughter? Could she have been tainted by it?”

“Elsa would have known. She would have seen the signs,” King Thomas answered.

Gothel's harsh voice still seemed to echo in the throne room when King Thomas turned his attention to Flynn. Flynn bowed, sinking to one knee.

"Rise, Eugene, and leave us. Speak no word of what you witnessed here."

"Yes, Your Highness," Flynn responded. The words and formal tone felt odd coming from his mouth. Still, he was glad to go.

ooo

Chapter Text

The sky lightened with the foreshadowing of dawn, but Elsa didn't realize that night was lifting until she turned at the sound of the glass-paned door opening and registered that she could see Rapunzel stepping out onto the balcony. "It's still very early," Elsa said in subdued greeting.

"The sun is coming up," Rapunzel replied. She matched Elsa's near whisper. "Do you mind if I watch it with you?"

"Not at all." Elsa gave her a hint of smile.

Rapunzel stretched her legs with long strides. She lifted her arms above her head, hands laced together, and stretched tall. "I love the colors. They're so different from sunset." She studied Elsa. "Didn't you sleep at all?"

Elsa twined her fingers together. "It's OK. I'm used to it," she said.

"You have trouble sleeping?" Rapunzel asked.

Elsa contemplated the horizon. "I don't sleep well," she answered.

"Sometimes I wake up early, so that I can see the sunrise. When Mother isn't home, I can go all the way up to the roof. The view is amazing." She moved past Elsa and sat on the precarious railing. "This view is amazing, too. In a different way. I am still trying to believe that this is where I'm meant to be."

"Rapunzel, I would feel more comfortable if you didn't sit on the railing," Elsa said, her worry over the dangerous seat tinting in her voice.

Rapunzel hopped back to her feet. She took a long step away from the balcony edge. "Sorry," she said, her eyes directed at her feet.

Elsa shook her head. "You didn't do anything wrong. I was just nervous."

Rapunzel looked up. She gave Elsa a shy, grateful smile.

"Here's the sun, now," Elsa pointed out.

The top edge of the sun's disk rose up over the horizon. The pinks and oranges transformed into new hues reflected on the rare streak of cloud, and the sky started to show the light blue of day. Rapunzel stretched her arm to point at a spot above the horizon. "There's a star right there sometimes, but it disappears after my birthday," she noted.

"That's Venus," Elsa corrected. "It's a planet. A 'wandering star.' It becomes the evening star until midwinter, then it goes back to the dawn sky."

Rapunzel's face bloomed with a look of epiphany. "That makes so much sense!" she exclaimed. "I charted the stars as well as I could, but I didn't really know what I was doing." She bit her lip with excitement. "What else can you tell me about them? Oh, gosh. You must know so many things!"

"I did promise to show you the library," Elsa said. "I would show you right now, but normally I train for a bit before breakfast, and I did skip that yesterday. We'll also have some practical concerns to address, this morning," she apologized. "After that I think Aunt and Uncle might like to spend time with you."

"What kind of training do you do in the morning?" Rapunzel asked.

"Stretches and warm ups, first. Then swords, before the men begin, when I can have the training room alone."

She started to say more, but Rapunzel latched onto the activity she could share. "Could we do stretching together? I'm ready to get started."

"Yes, we can," Elsa encouraged. "I can lend you some athletic clothes. We are in luck that you fit my dresses so well." She gestured for Rapunzel to follow her back inside. Outdoors, it was now fully light, and servants had begun to move industriously around the castle and perimeter.

"We'll need to go to my room, for those clothes," Elsa said.

Rapunzel would have walked out into the corridor in her sleepwear, but Elsa prevented that. Only after Rapunzel quickly dressed in her flowered sundress and soft shoes did they step into the hallway. Rapunzel carried her loose hair rather than delay the excursion with the time needed to braid her tresses.

Rapunzel saw Flynn's droopy posture and tired face and rushed to the bench where he sat. "You didn't sleep," she said, distressed, "did you?"

Flynn shrugged. "I got in a few winks. I couldn't really unwind with Corona's finest right here." He indicated the guards in the hall.

"Because of me, nobody is getting any rest," Rapunzel worried. "I'm so sorry, Eugene."

"Blondie, it's OK," he answered. He wove his fingers into hers and looked into her eyes. "How did you sleep?"

"The bed was very soft," Rapunzel answered.

Elsa cleared her throat. "We do have a room set aside for you, Flynn. Eugene," she said. "I would still like an interview with you regarding the Stabbington Brothers, but why don't you take advantage of the room and catch some sleep?"

"Eugene can have breakfast with us later, can't he?" Rapunzel asked. "I can share mine."

A short laugh of surprise slipped out from Elsa, and she raised a hand too late to stifle it. "There will be ample. And yes, I think under the current circumstances, we can extend the hospitality of the family. Fl... Eugene, come with us. I'll point out your room."

Flynn stood, slow with fatigue. He held Rapunzel's hand still and helped her rise from the bench. Rapunzel asked, "Which way?"

Guards marked the turnings of every length of corridor. When Rapunzel, Flynn, and Elsa reached a middle point between sets of guards, Flynn rearranged their group into a close set, with one girl on each side. He matched Elsa's easy stride and pulled Rapunzel close.

"Ladies, I don't want the guard to overhear, but you two need to know something," he pitched only for Elsa and Rapunzel to hear. "Mother Gothel confessed to being a witch. I'm sorry, Blondie. And you two should tell each other something important. Something you, uh, don't tell just anybody," he hinted.

Rapunzel said, "We already know about each other."

Elsa said nothing. She looked straight ahead down the hall, but her pace slowed further.

"You already know," Flynn repeated flatly.

Rapunzel nodded.

"That's... great," Flynn said. "Great. So you already know." He took three more slow steps down the corridor before he added, "Don't tell your real parents."

Elsa asked, "How did she confess?"

"It was bad," Flynn said. "She threatened the king and queen, and everyone in the room saw... I guess magic is all different, but it was definitely magic. So, just be careful," he directed the last primarily toward Rapunzel. To Elsa, he said, "You have to help her keep anyone from seeing the glowing thing. Blondie, you glow when you sleep, by the way."

"I do?" Rapunzel asked.

"You do," Elsa confirmed. "I saw last night. Eugene must have the night before. Don't worry, I will help you conceal it."

"What if I don't want to hide it?" Rapunzel asked, just as a maid came out of a room. The maid curtsied, then hurried away when Elsa gave her a dismissing nod.

"For now, just -- keep a lid on your abilities," Flynn advised Rapunzel. "Give yourself some time to see what the world is like before jumping in."

"He's right," Elsa said, making Flynn stare. Elsa met his eyes for only a moment before looking away. "It's important to see how things are. Then you can make a decision for yourself, but..." Elsa left her thought at that, unfinished.

They came at last to Flynn's room. "Please, stay here until we send for you," Elsa said.

"We need your help," Rapunzel added to Flynn, which forestalled any argument from him. "Don't worry. I'll save all the best breakfast for you, I promise."

Elsa pulled Rapunzel away before Rapunzel and Flynn's lingering gazes on each other could become another intimate moment between them. Flynn gave them a short wave. Rapunzel watched him over her shoulder as she walked away.

Rapunzel waited until she and Elsa were behind the door of Elsa's room before asking, "Why are you angry at Eugene?"

"Have I given that impression?" Elsa asked, busying herself with the contents of her closet. "Here, I believe these will fit you." She laid out a simple full skirt and blouse. She selected a similar set for herself and began changing into them.

"You do seem mad at him," Rapunzel pursued. "I noticed it yesterday. But I think you're more angry at him now, just colder about it. What did he do?"

Elsa sighed. Her brow furrowed. "We argued last night," Elsa admitted. "About you. Maybe we could talk about this later? It's important, and it deserves attention."

"But other thing are more important, first," Rapunzel concluded. "Like what happens to Mother, now."

"Yes," Elsa replied.

Rapunzel hid her next words in the folds of the blouse going on over her head. "I love him," she declared. "I want to marry him."

Elsa sat down on her bed. “You can’t marry someone you just met." She wondered if she was going to have to echo Mother Gartner's talk about womanly flowering, or her Aunt Primrose's talk about marriage and duty. "That is, you can, but you can’t be in love with someone after one day. You can't be in love with him," she decided not to start that argument with Rapunzel, "yet.”

Rapunzel finished getting the shirt on and began tucking it into the skirt. “It’s love. What else could it be?”

“Lust,” Elsa said. Her expression turned apprehensive.

“Oh…” Rapunzel bit her lip. She knew what lust was. First had been all the frightening stories of men's beastliness that Mother Gothel had told her, then later, her natural own urges. She sneaked a glance at Elsa, concerned about what Elsa thought of her.

“I suppose,” Elsa amended, “that’s normal, though. Physical desire is a normal thing.”

“It’s like an itch," Rapunzel admitted, testing Elsa’s acceptance. She focused on the skirt's waist buttons. "It won’t go away until you scratch it.”

Elsa blushed. “Yes. An itch. Scratching. When I feel the need to scratch, it’s something to get over with privately.”

“Don’t you ever want to do it not-privately? Oh, I don’t mean in public!" Rapunzel rushed to add. "But with someone else. Someone like Eugene.” She bit her lip again and mumbled, mostly to herself, “I’ve thought about Eugene a few times already.”

“No,” Elsa answered. She looked at her hands.

“That’s normal too,” Rapunzel supplied as she watched Elsa’s expression sadden. “Isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not. I’m not.”

“Well, I think it’s fine if you don’t want it,” Rapunzel declared.

Elsa looked up. “Do you? Sincerely?”

“Yes! You are who you are.” Rapunzel smoothed her hands over the simple, lightweight clothes. She began to braid her hair, a difficult task alone.

Elsa got up, went to her dresser, and came back with hair ornaments. "What about loops?" she asked. "Could we pin it up?"

They spent a few minutes trying with various combs and pins. Soon, Rapunzel settled on wrapping wide ribbon around her hair from waist height and onward at intervals, to make a contained tail. It still trailed, but her hair had magically shortened again to give the impression that the wrapping controlled the length.

They made their way down to the practice room where Elsa trained, and both spent the next half hour in mostly quiet stretching. At first, Rapunzel tried to continue conversation. Elsa gradually answered after longer intervals, and with shorter answers and less focus on the subject, so Rapunzel let the silence take over. She started with her own stretches, but moved on to copying Elsa.

Rapunzel watched for a while when Elsa began the steps and lunges of sword practice. Elsa began empty handed, as if she held sword that could not be seen. She was very focused on herself and her movements, and Rapunzel thought that Elsa had temporarily excluded Rapunzel's presence from her reality. Acting as if she were alone, Elsa changed. Her body language became more open, more aggressive, and even more graceful as she fought an invisible opponent. She bared her teeth, and her blue eyes shone.

In the second of passing through a shaft of sunlight from the high windows and back into shadow, Elsa held a slim sword in her hand. It gleamed blue and silver, but when she passed it through sunlight again, the light revealed the sword’s clarity.

Rapunzel looked around the room and spied a rack with wooden swords in it. Careful not to disturb Elsa's concentration, she made her way to the rack and selected a practice weapon. Watching Elsa, she tried to copy Elsa's forms. She draped her hair over her shoulder to keep it from being underfoot. Staying in the corner of the room away from Elsa, she soon began to mimic Elsa at nearly the same pace. Rapunzel began smiling. She loved to learn something new, and the swordwork was fun.

She could see how the repeated forms were made to fit into each other: a strike, a block; a lunge, a step. Elsa followed a repeating pattern. Rapunzel knew just when it was the right time to run up and catch her on a turn, when the ice sword began the end of an arc. She dashed into place to block the blade.

As the ice blade came down, and Elsa saw Rapunzel, Elsa's face changed to horror. She threw her sword to the side and screamed. The sword shattered against the ground, not like glass. It broke into motes of magic and pebbles like hailstones. Frost burst out along the floor from under Elsa's feet, a slick of white ice that spread like liquid dropped and splattered.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Rapunzel cried out, even as she stepped out of the way. "I'm sorry!" she repeated again, cringing with remorse.

Elsa covered her mouth with both hands and crumpled to the floor.

"Are you... are you hurt?" Rapunzel asked, shaken out of her own distress by concern for Elsa. She stepped closer, reaching out.

"Don't," Elsa said without looking up, moving a hand away from her mouth in the open handed gesture to stop. "I'll... I'll be alright."

"Maybe... Olaf could help?" Rapunzel suggested.

"Not right now." Elsa slowly stood back up. She turned away from Rapunzel until the ice under her feet and any hailstones left from the broken sword vanished as if they never were. Then she said, "That was really dangerous. I should have been paying more attention to where you were."

"I'm sorry," Rapunzel said again.

"The responsibility is mine," Elsa replied. She turned to face Rapunzel.

"I'm clumsy. I shouldn't have gotten in your way. It was my fault."

Elsa folded her hands together. She looked at Rapunzel with a small frown crease between her pale eyebrows. Finally, she said, "A princess of Arendelle and the princess of Corona should both know better than to cross swords, even by accident." The frown disappeared, and a tiny smile quirked the corner of Elsa's mouth.

Rapunzel sighed with relief.

Elsa took the wooden sword from Rapunzel and set it back in the rack. "Are you hungry?" she asked.

"Ravenous," Rapunzel said.

"Let's wash up and see about breakfast."

Rapunzel skipped toward the doorway. She clapped her hands together and said, "Show me the kitchen, and I'll make you the best breakfast you've had all day."

ooo

Author's Note:

In-progress updates will be posted to my journal, butterflydreaming, on Dreamwidth and tagged "fanfic": http://butterflydreaming.dreamwidth.org/

I'm struggling with time demands, but I do have this fic plotted & planned through to the ending. I have a draft of the ending. Thank you for reading! And thank you so much for your comments and kudos, because they really do remind me to carve out a little time for this fic, even if it's ten minutes here or there.

Chapter Text

Elsa put on a calm demeanor. She made herself smile. She pushed the inner voice shouting self-recrimination away from the her toner of her speaking voice. She kept up her side the conversation with an occasional word in response to Rapunzel's merry chatter.

Rapunzel exclaimed over the royal bath, as much over the generous size of the tub as over the pump system that brought the water in and heated it for bathing. She pelted Elsa with questions while the big, deep tub filled. Elsa answered them as thoroughly as she was able, though her mind still tumbled over the near disaster.

"You can bathe first," Elsa urged. She had been too selfish already. If she hadn't put her desire to train first, she could have chosen a safe kind of exercise inclusive of Rapunzel. If Elsa hadn't been so self-absorbed, she chided herself, she would have seen Rapunzel mirroring her sword moves sooner.

The ice sword had seemed to be such a good solution as a way to focus and control her magic, but it was dangerous. Of course it was dangerous: she was dangerous. A sword was always a weapon, regardless of its precision, and she was always a monster, regardless of her control. She had been fooling herself because the lie got her through the days.

Rapunzel escaped the borrowed exercise clothes and slithered under the hot water and bubbles shoulder deep. On the previous evening, her bath had been a large metal tub brought in to the room. Elsa, though she had rushed to clean up, dress, and return to the newly found princess, had made use of the royal bath without thinking to offer it to Rapunzel.

"This is the best!" Rapunzel sighed. She lifted her hair mostly up and out of the way while she stretched under the water. "If I had one of these, I would stay in it all day. Get in." She motioned for Elsa to join her. "There's lots of room. We'll both fit!"

Elsa demured. "I can wait." She picked up Rapunzel's discarded clothes, tidied them, and set them aside.

Rapunzel made a stern face. "I can hear your tummy growling from here. Let's get washed up fast so we can have breakfast."

"I don't mind waiting, really."

"Then I'll hurry," Rapunzel said. She began vigorously scrubbing with a washcloth.

Expressing a small sigh, Elsa undressed, put her clothes with the ones from Rapunzel, and carried two large towels closer to the tub. She hadn't bathed with anyone since she and Anna had both been very young. She hadn't needed to undress in front of anyone else since leaving Arendelle.

She eased into the water, keeping to an end not to crowd Rapunzel. She began her scrubbing her arms and neck with efficiency. "You do have one of these," she said. "This one. This is all yours, Rapunzel."

"I keep forgetting," Rapunzel answered. She closed her eyes, leaning back until her neck rested against the rim. "This is yours, too. You can stretch out." Without opening her eyes, she smiled. She stretched further and poked her big toe into the side of one of Elsa's feet.

Elsa jolted. She stared at Rapunzel, unable to hide her shock at the contact.

"Sorry," Rapunzel said quickly, her playful smile vanishing. She pulled her legs in, bending her knees.

"I don't like being touched," Elsa said. She rinsed herself off in the flow of fresh water and removed herself from the bathtub; she had made good use of the time and was satisfactorily washed. She wrapped herself in a towel. She used one end of the towel to dry off her face and arms. She could feel Rapunzel watching her. "You don't need to apologize," she told Rapunzel. "I know it was harmless." She glanced behind and saw that Rapunzel leaned her arms across the edge of the tub, with her cheek rested against her arm. Rapunzel observed her as if Elsa were a cloud or a sunrise.

Rapunzel said, in soft voice, "Mother has rule about being dressed all the time. She yells at me if I don't have clothes on, even if I'm wrapped in a sheet or towel. I have to wash clothes when Mother isn't home. At home, we don't have a clever system for water like the one." She swished a hand through the bubble foam. "I came up with a way to collect rainwater, but most of the water for cooking and washing has to come up with Mother by bucket."

She rose out of the bath and dried her body with a towel. She didn't bother to cover her body for modesty while she dried. "I'm not going to miss that," she said, a note of iron in her voice.

ooo

Rapunzel genuinely expected to cook breakfast for Elsa and herself. She did not anticipate that by the time she and Elsa washed up and dressed in yet another combination of dresses that there would be nothing more to do than to sit at a long table and be served by castle staff.

Accustomed to the one nice dress she owned being adequate for most things, she found all the changing extravagant. It seemed an indicator of all the ways she was unprepared for the sudden turn her life had taken. She had planned to be home in the tower this morning, anticipating Mother Gothel's return home and a routine changed not at all by the secret of her adventure. Mother Gothel would have been tired from her three days of traveling. More gray would show in her black hair. She would have crow's feet in the corners of her eyes, wrinkles and sagging skin as signs of her exhaustion.

Rapunzel and Elsa arrived in the breakfast room just as King Thomas and Queen Primrose prepared to sit. They had called for Flynn to join in breakfast; he was in conversation with King Thomas when the young women walked in.

When Rapunzel took her seat, she noticed the fine lines around Queen Primrose's eyes. The queen had strands of silver in her hair. The king had gray even in his beard. Neither the queen nor the king wore their crowns or finery. They looked like people, just ordinary, approachable, marvelous people to Rapunzel. "Are you tired?" she asked Queen Primrose, seated beside her.

Her question brightened the queen's eyes, and Primrose smiled before she answered, "A little. Forgive me, if I have seem distracted. How are you this morning, Rapunzel?"

"Oh, I'm great!" she answered. Breakfast arrived. She was relieved to see that the food was normal food, fruit and eggs and potatoes. The bread was not too much different than the breakfast bread she made with rolls of dough left to ferment overnight. They became full of bubbles so that when cut in half, the circles had dips and crannies for the butter to melt into. She emulated King Thomas and topped hers with marmalade. The queen's plate cleared after one serving of poached egg, toast, and fresh fruit. Elsa's breakfast was much the same, and she only ate a few bites. Rapunzel and Flynn took their cues from the king and accepted as much as they could eat.

King Thomas seemed to approve. He ordered more bacon when the first platter emptied, and both Rapunzel and Flynn had extra helpings when more crisp, smoked deliciousness arrived. Rapunzel caught Flynn's eye across the table. She would have liked to sit beside him, but the seating order put him on the other side of the queen. Rapunzel liked the shine she saw in his eyes when he looked at her.

Rapunzel realized that she was the only one still eating. Flynn had slipped some uncut fruit into his pockets when no one else had been looking. He didn't add any more to his plate. Rapunzel chewed her bite of buttery omelet and looked around at everyone else. She looked down at her plate. She really wanted to eat the food that was on it now. It wouldn't be very good later.

"Eugene and I had a fine conversation this morning," King Thomas said. He settled back into his chair, in no rush to leave the table. "Rapunzel, how would you feel about Eugene filling a diplomatic capacity for us? His experience in Stele would be invaluable."

Rapunzel could hear her inclusion in the "us" the king -- her father -- used. "I think that would be wonderful, if it's something you want to do, Eugene," she said.

"Uh, well, I'm thinking about it," Flynn said. He seemed more confused than uncomfortable.

Queen Primrose noted, "It deserves careful consideration. That in itself is the mark of good diplomacy." She expressed as much ease as the king, and appeared in no hurry to leave the table. Rapunzel made good use of the time and cleaned her plate.

Only Elsa folded her napkin and shifted to rise from her chair. "If you'll excuse me, I would like to have my discussion with Fl...Eugene before too long." She stood up. "Eugene, if you will follow?" Her manner was gracious, but also very reserved.

"Oh, but..." Rapunzel started to question. The thought of being without Elsa made her realize that she had not been without Elsa since the adventure to see the lanterns had transformed into a discovery of herself as the Lost Princess.

"You'll be all right," Elsa said to Rapunzel, but Elsa's mood wasn't the encouraging one it had been. It had become sad, and Elsa's eyes stayed downcast. "You'll be with your family, Rapunzel."

Flynn was more encouraging. "You're due a tour of your castle, Your Highness." A wry twist to his mouth and a shine in his eye gave his words a teasing tone.

"Well, yes, I'd... I'd like to spend more time with you," she said to her parents, remembering her earlier conversation with Elsa. "Do you... have some time?"

Primrose leaned toward Rapunzel. "We would love to spend the morning with you."

"A splendid idea," Thomas agreed.

"Show her the library, if you would, Uncle," Elsa said as she ushered Flynn out of the breakfast room.

ooo

Flynn strode along beside Elsa, letting her lead the way without letting her get ahead of him. It was a little petty of him, he knew, to use his longer stride so that he didn't trail behind her like a stray dog on a string. He expected her to throw a verbal barb or two his way. Instead, she seemed closed off, more introspective than angry.

She was starting to remind him of the girl he found hiding in an empty upstairs room, alone in a party dress and borrowed tiara.

She was probably just tired. A few hours of sleep in a feather bed had done Flynn wonders. He might still want an afternoon nap after lunch, like he used to do when he regularly stayed up all night. But he had been sharp enough to percieve that the king and queen were keen to position him in a good light. He got none of the judgement from them that he had gotten in spades from Elsa.

"I expect you to tell me everything," Elsa said, opening a door and indicating that Flynn needed to pass through ahead of her. She stepped in immediately after him and shut the door. "I want all the details of the night you took the tiara. Sit there." She took a chair behind a desk after he sat down where she pointed.

The room was a study. The furnishings were set up for comfort, so while Elsa's chair was plush and high-backed, it looked like a chair meant for long hours of reading. The desk had a blotter, writing instruments, and a lamp. Flynn's chair was a sturdy armchair. He considered kicking his feet up onto the paired footstool and leaning back. Judging Elsa's mood, he restrained from getting too comfortable. She might decide that the dungeon, after all, made a better interview room.

"There's not much to tell," Flynn said. "Once I had the jewels, I high-tailed it out of the castle. I decided that the boys -- the Stabbington Brothers -- could take care of themselves. I sure wasn't going to stick my neck out for them."

"Take care of themselves? Did you think that they had a means to escape?"

Elsa was asking the right kind of questions, but she still seemed distracted. Flynn answered, "I had no idea they would escape."

"When did you last see them?"

"Four years ago," Flynn said. "The last time I saw them, they were being marched into your dungeons. You don't seriously think I've had anything to do with them since then, do you?"

"Why don't you try being helpful, Eugene?"

Now Flynn did lean back. He crossed his arms. "I plan to be. You could give me a chance, Princess."

Elsa didn't rise to his bait. Instead, she took paper out from a desk drawer and uncapped an inkwell. Continuing in a spiritless manner, she said, "Why don't you just say what you are going to say? Anything that you think might be helpful in finding them now."

Flynn uncrossed his arms but didn't sit up. "I never knew much about them. They were supposed to have gone off to one of those eastern lands with a sultan that has miracle doctors. It's been a lot of years. I don't remember which one, but it was somewhere that he could get his eye fixed up."

"His eye?" Her eyes flashed upward. They were bright blue and alarmed. The little bit of color in her cheeks fled.

"One of them had a bad eye." Flynn left it at that, sorry he had made any reference to Elsa's explosion of magic when the Stabbington's went after her on road.

"They were on their way to find a surgeon, then," Elsa said, regaining composure but not color. "That means they would have tried again for medical care after their escape. This is good information. I recall now the report that one of them was bandaged. With the border crossing watched, they would have had to go by sea." She frowned. "It would have been good to know this four years ago. We have a record of the foreign ships and their outbound routes. The ships were all searched, but only as much as allowed by the captains." She gave him a measuring look. "It will be a good opportunity for our new diplomat to follow up on the information we have."

"You getting used to the idea?" Flynn asked.

"My aunt and uncle seem to want a place for you. If they see the makings of a diplomat in you, then I accept their experience and judgment of character." Elsa bit her lower lip. "I guess they like you," she said, with a great exhalation. "Rapunzel is their daughter. To be honest, I never considered that you would care to be anyone but Flynn Rider, a swashbuckling blackguard."

"I figured Flynn Rider would retire someday."

"In the lap of luxury, I image," Elsa commented.

"Yes. In the lap of luxury," Flynn replied, preparing to argue. "And before you say it, that's not my goal here. In some ways, Blondie has traded one ivory tower for another. It's not the life I would give her, if I could. We'd have freedom. We'd have time to know each other before deciding the rest of our lives together." He sat up and put both hands on the edge of the desk, leaning forward toward Elsa, who stared at him with a face as bland as a mask. "We'd be happy because we'd be free to be whoever we wanted to be."

Elsa's eyes narrowed slightly. "No one gets to freely be whoever they want, poor or wealthy. Everyone has a role to play. So tell me that you are done being Flynn the scoundrel, so that I can trust Eugene the way this royal family already seems to trust you. Because if you are playing on their good will--"

"You'll have me executed? Banished?" Flynn interrupted. She was never going to trust him. What was the use?

"If you are playing on their good will," Elsa repeated, "you will break their hearts. The hearts of good people who have born a terrible sadness for eighteen years."

Flynn retreated back into his chair, sighed, and rested his arms on his knees. "I can see that they are good folks," he told her. "I think Bl...Rapunzel accepts them already. I know how I would feel in her place. Never knew my father. Barely remember my mother. It would be something, to suddenly get such a great family."

"We've digressed," Elsa said. She shuffled the papers on the desk and fussed with the ledger and the ink blotter.

"Let's get back to it," Flynn agreed.

"I'm going to give you a chance," Elsa said, surprising Flynn. "Nearly everything I know about you has been testimonial. It hasn't been things that put you in a good light. So if I see who you are firsthand, I might find out that I had a wrong image of you." She didn't smile.

"You're protective. I get it," Flynn said. He could meet her halfway. "A real chance is all I'm asking from you. So we're good for now?"

Elsa nodded, and this time something almost like a smile did touch her lips. Her spirits still seemed muted. "For now."

"Get your pen ready," Flynn said. "I think I can remember some more things about the Stabbingtons. They played their cards close to their jerkins when it came to personal information, but recall coming up with theories based on whatever they dropped. Give me a minute to think about it."

"Take the time you need," Elsa answered. "The trail is four years cold, and we have all morning."

Chapter Text

ooo

Rapunzel saw the yawn that Thomas tried, but failed, to suppress. Both Primrose and Thomas were short on sleep, she could tell, so Rapunzel decided that she would try to coerce them into taking a rest somewhere on their tour of the castle. However, in the excitement of all the new things presented to her, Rapunzel forgot that decision. Not until she saw Thomas hide the yawn did she remember.

She felt guilty again for being an inconvenience. She wouldn’t keep causing trouble for everyone, she promised herself.  “I can look around on my own,” she told Thomas and Primrose. They had come to the corner turning of a long corridor. “You don’t have to stay with me.”

Concern crossed the king’s face. “We don’t want to be overbearing,” he began uncertainly.

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean that,” Rapunzel was quick to interrupt. “You’re not overbearing at all. I mean, I like spending time with you. I don’t want to take up too much of it.”

“You couldn’t possibly take too much.” Relief, and a warm smile, filled his expression. Primrose nodded, wordlessly agreeing.

Rapunzel felt warm happiness in response. “But I can’t take up all your time,” Rapunzel replied. “You must have a lot of things you need to do.”

Thomas opened the double doors before them. “For today, those things can wait, at least until afternoon. You haven’t even seen the library yet,” he said, indicating the high-ceilinged room into which they entered.

Rapunzel stopped just beyond the door and looked around. “How colorful!” The walls seemed to be decorated with short stripes of color, a mosaic of some kind. Based on the height of the room, which accommodated two sweeping staircases, she guessed that they were in one of the large, corner towers of the castle. She started touring the room, marveling at the space.

“I understand that you like to read,” Primrose said.

Rapunzel was about to answer, but she had drawn close enough to the walls to see that they were, in actuality, shelves.

The colorful stripes in the shelves appeared to be books, tightly packed into the shelf space. More marvelous yet, they had different names on each spine.

She stepped closer. She reached to take one from the shelf, and it slid out from its fellows. She opened it and felt her breath catch. It was not a blank journal. It was a new book. It was a book she had never read.

It finally hit her. She looked at the shelves further up, and yes, they too were filled with books, further and further up as far as she could see. Each of those colorful stripes was a different book! The room was filled, wall to wall, with books she had never read!

She couldn’t stop herself. She let out a yelp of shock.

“Are you alright?” Thomas rushed to her side.

Rapunzel looked at her parents with wide eyes. “I’m… I’m amazed,” she said. “I don’t understand. How can you have so many books? I didn’t know there were this many.”

“Our family has collected them for generations,” Primrose answered, smiling, “and I am fond of reading.” She took Rapunzel’s limp hand and guided her toward a section of shelves near one of the curved staircases. “The newest novels are here. Fantasies, romances. I indulge in the occasional mystery tale, too. Maybe you would like to read them?”

“I would love to,” Rapunzel answered. “What about geology, cooking, and gardening? Do you have those?” She half hoped that Primrose would say they did not. Then Rapunzel could bring her books and add something to the library. She half-hoped that Primrose would say they did, and that Primrose and Thomas had read them many times, so that they would have that in common with her.

“Philosophy, criticisms, history, and dramaticals form the middle section, here.” Thomas walked toward the bookcases directly opposite the door. Rapunzel followed. He then guided Rapunzel along the shelves toward the side of the library opposite the novels. “Nonfiction begins here,” he indicated, “Here is a particularly fine encyclopedia of minerals.” He pulled down a tome from a shelf well above Rapunzel’s head. He offered it for her viewing, open to reveal colored drawings and neat text.

She took the heavy book into her arms. Carefully, she turned the pages. Every listing included a painting, in ink if not full color, of the rock described. Each went into far greater detail than the book she had read and loved for years. The quartz section alone was nearly as thick as her entire Geology. Her shoulders drooped; she could not help it. She should have been happy, but she felt on the verge of tears.

Thomas reached forward to take the book from Rapunzel’s arms. “Better for reading while its resting on a table than by holding in hand,” he said. He carried it off to a table with a lamp upon it.

If only, Rapunzel thought, she had lived her childhood locked up in this library tower, instead of being trapped in one where she thought three books -- four, if she counted the first cookbook -- were all the books in the world! Had she been happier, never knowing?

Primrose moved to put an arm around Rapunzel’s shoulder. “Are you alright?” she asked.

Her soft voice made the tears retreat. As confused as Rapunzel was about how different the world outside the tower was from Mother Gothel’s telling, the real world came with a kind, warm, real mother in Primrose. Rapunzel leaned into Primrose, and Primrose wrapped her in a full embrace. The queen pet Rapunzel’s hair while Rapunzel hugged her.

She took a deep breath and held it. She would try to be like Elsa, Rapunzel decided, a perfect princess that Primrose and Thomas could love. She would strive to be serene and strong, like Elsa. She let out the breath instead of tears.

After that, all she had to do to bring back a smile was to think about how much fun she would have, in this new, big world. Unexpected truths could be good! She could be excited about the promise of learning new things.

“It’s an amazing surprise,” she said, pulling away from Primrose so that she would include Thomas. Seeing the worry flee his face at the sight of her smile, Rapunzel felt the warm glow inside her deepen. She felt her resolve to be positive root firmly, too. She had left her tower to set off on a journey greater than she had ever imagined. Her life had begun. She wouldn't let misinformed expectations wreck the adventure.

ooo

As she walked down the corridor, Elsa silently fought with herself. She could easily turn and go up the stairs, and if she escaped into her room and sleep, no one would disturb her. She could explain it away as simple exhaustion. But Elsa couldn’t allow herself to give in. She would slide like an avalanche if she ever gave in to the storms that howled inside her.

And so she fought with herself and won, as she always won,and went out to the stables instead to see to Maximus. He needed grooming and exercise. Besides, the apple in her dress pocket was for him, his share in the feast celebrating the return of a lost princess.

If she were unable to attend to him, he would still be well cared for, just like all the other horses in the stables. She gave that thought consideration, her steps slowing as she strode through the orchards, a shortcut to the stables. He was a horse in the castle guard, after all, and though she might consider Maximus her dear friend, he did not exist only for her attention. He would not languish if she were gone.

Gone from Corona, or gone from the world, Elsa would not leave anyone bereft, she thought to herself. For a moment, she let herself float in that thought as a snowflake might float when the wind stopped blowing. She closed her eyes. The breath she inhaled, although filled with the scent of the orchard, settled in her chest like the crisp, clean air of a mountain cloud.

Eyes closed, Elsa leaned against a tree trunk and simply breathed.

When she opened her eyes after the long moment of quiet, Olaf was standing in front of her, staring at her open-mouthed. “I thought you fell asleep, or something,” he said, becoming lively. “I thought you were an Elsa statue!”

“Which one, Olaf? Asleep or a statue?” Elsa asked in an airy voice.

“I dunno,” Olaf answered, his bucktoothed mouth turning into a lopsided grin. “I could stare at you all day long.”

Elsa grimaced. She straightened her posture. “I don’t want anyone looking at me all day.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m nothing to look at,” Elsa said, knowing even as she said it that it wasn’t the reason. “It doesn’t matter,” she said.

“Why not?”

She raised an eyebrow at Olaf. "Where do all these questions come from, Olaf?"

"I dunno," he said.

"Nevermind," Elsa said, unable to keep back a small smile. She reached out and fluttered her fingers over the snowman. "This summer weather has never been very good for you," she commented. "You should go."

"Go where?"

"I don't know," she murmured. Then she waved him away into snowflakes.

She went on and found Maximus. The stallion dozed in his stall, but not deeply, because when Elsa took the apple from her pocket and sent a not-too-cold current of air spinning out from it, his nostrils quivered. He awoke with the smell of his favorite fruit.

She walked the rest of the way in to the stable and handed the apple over. Maximus took it between his broad teeth and chomped down. Elsa simply watched him, happy for his happiness. “I wish I could focus more on the little things,” she said to him.

He snorted and gave her a look.

“No, it’s nothing,” she answered his wordless question. “ ‘The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!’” she quoted at him. She sighed. Maximus snorted again. “That’s Shakespeare,” Elsa answered back with false distain. “Is that my thanks for calling you a paragon?” She leaned on the stall door. “Why can I never stay happy, my friend? What a lovely delusion it is, to be happy.”

This quintessence of dust,” she mused without a smile.

Finished with his apple, Maximus put his nose close to Elsa’s head and whuffled at her hair.

“Rapunzel is with Aunt and Uncle,” she said. “Flynn is… roaming freely wherever he wants. He will probably find them. I suppose I could go join them all, too.” She lifted her head. “Or... we could go for a ride. Flynn told me where he found the hidden tower, more or less. He got turned around, but I think we can pick up the trail. What do you think?”

She unlatched stall door without waiting for an answer. She buckled on his saddle when he stepped out, then put herself in the saddle and gave him the cue to trot out. Before leaving the castle grounds entirely, she left a message for Nils, in case anyone looked for her while she was gone.

They passed through the town and over the bridge at a canter. Once they reached the woods, Elsa gave Maximus rein to run. Soon the world washed by in a blur. They left the King’s Road after about two miles, though well before then Elsa had slowed Maximus to a more sustainable gait. In the shade of the forest trees, on a twisting path lumpy with tree roots, Maximus was content to amble along. Because they kept a steady pace and direction, they still covered the distance quickly. Elsa soon spotted the stream that she believed flowed near Rapunzel’s tower.

They followed the trickling waterway upstream. It grew wider and deeper, becoming a stream supporting fish and frogs. Soon, however, Elsa and Maximus came to a place where the stream flowed out through a pile of large boulders. A wall of rock blocked progress further upstream.

Elsa looked for the growth of ivy vines that Flynn had described as hiding the passage through the rock. The ivy grew densely in spite of the obscured sunlight, no doubt aided by Mother Gothel’s witchery. Maximus sniffed along the ground. He caught Flynn and Rapunzel’s fading scent, but he walked past the secret entrance twice. Elsa found it by walking the length of the wall near where Maximus indicated that the trail disappeared. She pulled at the ivy vines until she at last found the loose ones that formed the obscuring curtain.

“If I cut these, it might release dark magic. I wonder if they will just grow back thicker,” she thought aloud. “I think I will be smarter about it than that.” For the purpose of leaving a marker in case passing through the entrance activated some kind of magic defense, Elsa worked with Maximus to create clear evidence of their presence at that place in the forest. They moved large branches and rocks into an unnatural formation that would be obvious to searchers, if it came to that.

At the last moment, their precautions were not enough for Elsa. She stopped Maximus from following her through the ivy curtain. She took a whistle from one of his saddle packs and tucked it into a pocket in her dress. “I’ll whistle when I’m through, if all seems well, and again when I reach the tower. I don’t want you coming through after me.” She put her hands on his neck and spoke close to his ear. “I mean it, Max. If you don’t hear the whistles, go back to the castle, but don’t let them endanger themselves looking for me.” She pat his neck to calm his restiveness at her plan. “I’ll be fine, but promise me just in case, OK?”

She waited only long enough to be sure he wouldn’t be stubborn. She wasn’t frightened, but the possibility that Mother Gothel had the kind of magic that could be left as a trap made her cautious, at least for Maximus’s safety.

Nothing unusual happened when Elsa passed through the vines and the short tunnel that passed through the rock wall. She entered the valley and looked behind her. The tunnel was still there. She could the the silhouette of Maximus through the vines.

 She turned back to the view of the valley in front of her. Perhaps it was as serene as it appeared.

 She blew a short note on the whistle so that Maximus would know all was well. It was not far to the tall tower that stood in the center of the valley, and she started toward it, remaining vigilant against the unexpected.

 Which would be... what? she wondered. Putting aside the legend of role as champion, meeting Rapunzel was Elsa's first contact with magic other than her own. Rapunzel had been making a point of wanting to learn from Elsa, but Elsa knew that her cousin held knowledge about magic that Elsa didn't have. What kind of witch was Mother Gothel? How did her magic manifest? She seemed like an ordinary -- though physically strong -- human woman when Elsa fought and bound her.

 Elsa knew that she could get caught up in her wonderings if she allowed herself. Now was not the time for thinking in that direction. Still, the valley around her was grand and natural, without a mark of magic's sickness. Even the tower's strange architecture had a quixotic beauty. Beyond the tower, the shining path of a waterfall cut through the surrounding stone cliffs. The waterfall disappeared into low trees and emerged as the stream passing through the valley. At the base of the tower, the stream collected in a pond.

She easily spotted the ground-level door. It was surrounded by broken mortar and stone. When she reached it, Elsa picked up a handful of the mortar. It crumbled in her fingers like dry, unfired clay. She examined the mortar of the stones that made the walls of the tower and found it to be firm, normal mortar. Up close, the tower seemed to almost be an ordinary building.

She took out the whistle, raised her face to the clear sky, and blew again. She was going to go into the tower.  She would signal again when she reached the window above.

The door opened easily. Wobbly on its hinges, it closed with more difficulty. When closed, the interior of the tower filled with a gloom. She left the door open a few inches to provide more light, but not so much that she could be followed without a flood of light alerting her to the opened door. The dust on the stairs showed the recent passage of bare feet scuffled with shoe prints in two sizes. Elsa added her own shoe prints as she made her way up the stairs.

Neglect and disuse decorated floor after floor as she moved up the levels of the tower. That seemed peculiar until Elsa got to the final, highest floor, and saw that it was the only one that showed evidence of anyone living in the tower. Clearly, only the highest floor had been used in years. Unlike the lower floors, the inhabited floor connected to the penultimate level with a ladder, not stairs. Elsa climbed back down and found where a flight of stairs had been removed, and the passway boarded over.

She returned to the top level and went to where the missing stairway would have ended. The space was disguised by the flooring. A heavy closet cabinet stood directly over it.

Elsa opened closets and cabinets. As she made her way around the small space, her curiosity and apprehension changed to a dismay. In fifteen minutes, she walked through all the world that Rapunzel had known for eighteen years. Only one room had a door that could be shut and locked. The locks on the furniture were simple; a skeleton key was enough to get them open. The wardrobe and chests in the room held a wealth of clothing, shoes, hats, jewelry, and personal mementos. It was the only room whose walls were plain. Everywhere else in the tower, murals covered every bit of wall and ceiling.

The plain room must have been Mother Gothel's bedroom. Elsa found a bed in another room that only had a curtain across the doorway. She shuddered when she realized the impossibility of privacy. Many families lived without privacy, all in one room together with perhaps no more than a sleeping loft. Wealthier homes might have interior doors and multiple rooms. Rarely had Elsa seen the imbalance of Rapunzel's tower, and certainly not with a household of two women.

Rapunzel's room was little more than a large bed inside close walls, though the walls themselves were a marvel. For a long while, Elsa leaned against a bedpost and looked at the painted images. The lower parts of the walls showed having been painted over many times. Elsa imagined that Rapunzel had started painting them as a child, and as she grew in height and skill, she painted over her earlier art.

Gothel's bedroom could have belonged in a completely different home from the rest of the tower. It was clean, but slightly untidy inside the lockable furnishings. Gothel's vanity drawers held beads and bangles in careless disarray. In the central room, the orderly contents of any drawer Elsa opened implied that Rapunzel had tidied every square of space that she could tidy. She found Rapunzel's box of paints and her box of sewing. She paged through the three old books she found on a shelf. In the kitchen, she found that the oven still protected live coals. Thinking about the isolation Rapunzel's life must have held, Elsa easily extinguished the coals with a crawling frost.

 The largest window in the tower was as large as a door. Elsa stepped onto the low windowsill and looked out at the view. The window more-or-less faced the direction of Corona Castle, though nothing of the castle or harbor was visible. A pulley with no rope hung over the window. Elsa blew on her whistle. To her surprise, it did not echo as it should have done.

 The valley was almost certainly ensorcelled so that it would not be easily found. Maybe it had also been charmed to prevent sounds from carrying. Sounds such as a crying child, singing, or shouts would not be heard from outside the valley. Experimentally, Elsa took in a deep breath and then yelled out her loudest, "Hello!" Not the least sound of echo answered back.

She returned to Mother Gothel's room and became convinced that the tower was not Gothel's only abode. She had the same feeling as when she had been called in to settle a domestic dispute between a townsman and his wife and discovered through investigation that the townsman had been keeping a second household and family who knew nothing of the first family. The same sense of incompleteness resonated from Gothel's room as it had from the man's second home. Somewhere, Gothel must also have a house or cottage where she kept the truest part of her nature, possibly with the garden that supplied food for the tower. A small farm was unlikely, because a farm could not be run alone, though Elsa would not eliminate it from possibilities.

 Since it seemed that Maximus would not have been able to hear her whistles, Elsa determined that she should return to him quickly. The tower seemed safe enough to send men later to bring back anything that Rapunzel might want from it. Elsa gathered up the books and the box of paints to take immediately. They seemed like possessions that would be dearest to Rapunzel.

She took a final look at Rapunzel's small world. In spite of all the bright paintings on the walls, the place gave Elsa a lonely feeling that squeezed her heart. Only one door in the space had a lock, but the tower itself was like an all-encompassing lock, with the window like keyhole through which Rapunzel had peered out at the world denied to her.

Elsa shut the trap door and hurried down the levels of the tower. She shut the bottom door behind her to prevent wild animals from entering. They could have the tower after Rapunzel had taken away anything she wanted.

 Jogging back to Maximus, Elsa wondered if Rapunzel would miss the tiny world that had been her home.

 

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Rapunzel’s first thought when she woke in the morning was that four days ago, Mother Gothel had left the tower after their argument for a three day round trip. Three days was the longest she and Mother Gothel had ever been apart. After a separation that long, Mother Gothel would be very tired, her hair gone all to gray and her skin full of creases.

She would need Rapunzel to sing to her right away, after three days. Rapunzel woke up thinking that four days had passed, and she had never gone so long without singing to Mother. Once, she had tried refusing. She had been a small child, but the memory of the punishment was as bright as a new painting. Mother had pulled her by the hair and sung the song herself, and then… then Rapunzel had learned that healing herself only took the physical pain away. The memory gave her such a cold shiver that she still didn’t feel warm hours later.

“Sorry, Your Highness,” Gerte apologized.

Rapunzel gave the shoe girl her attention. “About what?” she asked.

“I’ll be more careful not to tickle your feet,” Gerte replied. She blew on her hands and rubbed them before fitting on the second shoe.

“Oh, I’m not ticklish,” Rapunzel explained. “I must have shivered, but it wasn’t because of anything you did.”

One of the maids hurried to the open window. “Please, don’t close it,” Rapunzel interrupted her. “I love the fresh air. I’m really not cold. Maybe I just need to move around.” She gave Gerte a smile of thanks before she stood up. “These fit perfectly. Just like all the others.” She was starting to wonder if she would ever wear the same pair of footwear two days in a row. The new shoes were firm leather, with a sturdy sole and low, solid heel. She took a few steps around her bedroom to feel how they changed the way she walked. Her full pockets bumped against her legs, reminding her that she wanted to sew pockets into all of her new clothes. Pockets were useful.

A light knock sounded at the partially open door. Flynn called in, “Am I clear to enter?”

“Come in,  Eugene!” Rapunzel tested out running in the heeled shoes. She pulled Flynn into the room by his arm.

“How’s the shopping?” he asked.

“I think we’re done,” answered Rapunzel. She looked at Gerte for confirmation, but the girl looked back with uncertainty, not understanding that the princess was asking her permission. “Eugene, this is Gerte. She and Elsa have been friends since childhood,” she added. “Gerte, this is Eugene.”

Gerte curtsied. “Your Excellency,” she addressed him.

Flynn understood why Gerte was suddenly flustered. Her offered her his hand. “Nice to meet you. Don’t mind the fancy duds. I showed up at the castle door with shabby clothes and nothing but what I carried in my pack. Like you, I’m one of the regular people mixed in with the highborn. No title necessary.”

“We’re all regular people,” Rapunzel argued.

“No, Blondie. You’re royalty,” Flynn said gently.

Rapunzel shrugged. “I’m me,” she answered. To Gerte, she said, “I’d like for us to be friends, too.”

“Your mom and dad asked me to get you, Blondie,” Flynn said. “I want to get your opinion of where we stand with some of the smaller isolationist kingdoms. Can we go?”

“I really don’t know what I can contribute,” Rapunzel replied. She was already moving to the exit. “I’ve been reading up on current events but I feel that I’ve read everything and forgotten it all again,” she joked as she passed through the doorway.

Flynn followed, and they started down the corridor together. As soon as they were out of sight of anyone else, Rapunzel moved Pascal out of his hiding place in her bodice and into one of her pockets that had less stuff in it. She bustled Flynn into an alcove and snuggled in close.

“My parents didn’t send you to get me, did they?” Rapunzel teased.

“I missed you,” Flynn said. He tightened his arms around her waist.

“I missed you, too.” Rapunzel wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her chest to his. She stared into his eyes. Then, as she hoped he would, Flynn went dreamy-eyed and tipped his head down to kiss her.

For a too-brief time, she forgot about anything else but kissing him. She melted in his arms. He was the one to break off the intimacy and gently separate from her.

“Where are we off to?” Rapunzel asked.

“Where do you want to go? I’ve been given a reprieve for the rest of the afternoon.”

“I am going on a charity visit with Primrose, this afternoon,” Rapunzel replied, “but we have a few hours until then.” She leaned her head on his chest. “Actually, there is something I need to do. Will you come with me?” She breathed out. “I’m afraid.”

“What’s scaring you?” Flynn asked. He lifted her chin. “You know I’ll go anywhere with you if you need me.”

“I need to see Mother.” Rapunzel looked into Flynn’s eyes.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. I have to see her. For my peace of mind, at least,” Rapunzel answered.

“Then,” said Flynn, “we’ll go together.”

He took her hand. She let him lead her to the passageway that led to the dungeons below the castle. Her heart pounded in her chest. When the first guard stopped them, she felt as if her heart skipped a beat.

The guard appeared surprised to see them. “The prisoner isn’t allowed visitors, Sir, Your Highness,” he said, addressing Flynn and then belatedly addressing Rapunzel.

“Princess Rapunzel wants to see her,” Flynn responded. “I’ll be with the princess, and if you have extra guards to spare, we’ll take the company.”

“I can’t do it, Sir,” the guard answered. He looked at Rapunzel. “We want to keep you safe, Your Highness.”

“Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?” Flynn cajoled.

The guard shook his head. “Sorry. I have to follow orders.”

Rapunzel tugged Flynn’s hand. “Let’s go, Eugene,” she said sadly.

They returned up to the main floor of the castle before either said anything else. “Can we sneak in, like through a window?” Rapunzel asked. “You must know a way.”

“It would be a bad idea to try,” said Flynn. “You, they would only yell at you, maybe. But me? Goodbye, second chance. No, there’s got to be a legitimate way. Can’t we ask your parents?”

Rapunzel looked at the ground. “I kept trying to ask, but I… I don’t know. What if they say no?”

“What about Elsa?” Flynn asked with a change to the tone of his voice. Rapunzel looked up, followed his line of sight, and saw Elsa passing across the hall.

ooo

Elsa’s routine of the morning felt purposeless, now, but she could not stop herself from following a habit of years. She rose early, trained, ate a light breakfast, then took Maximus out on patrol. The kingdom no longer needed her to find their lost princess. In the change, she felt like the princess that was now lost, a placeholder exchanged for the real thing.

The Champion of Corona seemed an ever more hollow title. Perhaps she would join the navy to help address the pirate problem. She disliked the open sea. She imagined icy waves looming and crashing in a gale-tossed ocean and shuddered.

She returned to the castle mid-morning, unsure of what to do. She thought she might look for Rapunzel. Rapunzel was also having difficulty with the upheaval of her life, and just like Elsa, she had been doing her best to hide it from King Thomas and Queen Primrose. Rapunzel spent hours, daily, in the big library.

Elsa spotted her, but she was with Flynn, so Elsa decided to leave the sweethearts their privacy. However, Rapunzel called out to her.

“Elsa!” They walked toward each other. Before Elsa could ask, Rapunzel explained her anxious appearance. “I tried to see Mother but the guard said no visitors. I know you said it was up to my real mother and father, but I can’t bring myself to ask them. Could you help me see her, just once? Please,” she finished.

Elsa looked at Flynn, who appeared to be supporting the idea, then back at Rapunzel. “Why do you need to see her ever again? She was cruel to you. She kidnapped you from your real family,” Elsa said.

Rapunzel flinched as though she had been struck. Then, with a slow breath, she lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders. “She gets sick if I don’t heal her. I’m afraid she will get so sick after this long that she will die,” she said, “without me ever seeing her again.”

“Oh, Blondie,” Flynn said. Pain of sympathy filled his expression.

“You can’t heal her,” Elsa said. “No one can discover your magic.”

“I really need to see her,” Rapunzel said. “At least that much. Won’t you do this, for me?”

Elsa admitted to herself that she had been harboring a morbid curiosity to see the monster in the dungeon. Mother Gothel was a dangerous witch, though the iron bindings appeared effective against whatever kind of sorcery she had. Elsa had wondered about her. The guards reported that she would not talk to anyone, not a single word, but she had flown into a mad rage when King Thomas had gone to inspect the security of her imprisonment.

“Let’s go,” she said. “But you have to do as I say,” she added. “You should stay here, Eugene.”

“I’m going with you,” Flynn said. “There’s no way I’m leaving you ladies with the witch.”

Elsa considered arguing or simply refusing to allow the visit. The look on Rapunzel’s face, however, convinced her of the importance to Rapunzel. She nodded agreement at them both and started toward the entrance to the dungeons with Rapunzel beside her and Flynn following.

The guard looked confused at seeing Rapunzel and Flynn again, but he didn’t argue when Elsa ordered him to let them pass. He locked the first gate behind them. She greeted the on-duty guards as her group passed them. The doors at each section where unlocked for her and locked again behind their group.

“Seems pretty secure,” Flynn commented.

“We learned,” Elsa said, a shard of sorrow still cutting her heart.

At the last section, just before they came in view of Gothel’s cell, Elsa asked the last pair of guards to stand on the other side of the door. They hesitated only moment before yielding to the order. They were both younger guards who had always known her authority.

Rapunzel took unsure steps closer to Gothel’s cell. When Flynn moved to stay with her, Elsa held him back. Rapunzel cast a wide-eyed glance back at her companions. Elsa made a sign to indicate that she and Flynn would remain hidden from Gothel for the moment. Mother Gothel would not be able to see them if they stayed close to the egress. Elsa suddenly thought that it could be revealing to witness what the prisoner would do when she saw Rapunzel if she thought she came alone.

“Is that you, my Flower?” A creepy whisper floated out from within the prison cell. “Where have you been?”

Rapunzel rushed to answer. “I’m here.”

Long minutes later, a pallid, wrinkled hand curled around the bars. Then Gothel pressed her aged face to the opening between the bars.

Her head hung like a vulture’s head between her hunched shoulders. She appeared as shrunken as a woman of many years, far older than the strong woman who had fought Elsa on a few nights past. Her nails were yellowed, and her hair had bleached to a yellowy gray with only a few streaks of black in the brittle strands.

“You’ve come for me, my Flower,” the old woman sighed, like a wail. “You haven’t forgotten your poor Mother who cared for you all your years. You haven’t been beguiled by promises of luxury that that the modest home we had could never hope to give you.”

Rapunzel toyed with a lock of her hair between her fingers. She bit her lower lip. She radiated fear, uncertainty, and guilt.

“I hoped a mother’s love could  be enough,” Mother Gothel sighed.

Rapunzel wavered, as if she would step closer to the bars. “You don’t look well,” she said in a small voice.

“Speak up, Rapunzel!” the old woman suddenly snapped. Just as quickly, her attitude changed back to plaintive again. “The cruel conditions these tyrants are keeping me in have ruined my hearing and my sight. But you have a song for your dear, tired Mother, don’t you?”

Elsa stepped into the prisoner’s line of sight. “No,” she stated.

Gothel screamed and turned away, covering her withered face. Then she whipped back, her hands pulling away to reveal a visage twisted with a sneer. “Pretty face. I know who you are.” She pushed her hair back: a young woman’s gesture of vanity that was unpleasant to witness. “This is your fate, pretty face.” Gothel cackled.

Her filmy eyes frightened Elsa. They looked at her as if they could see all her secrets.

“This is what you will see in your mirror until death,” Gothel’s breath caught, and her sneer faltered for a moment, “has his way with you. You’ll get old and ugly, and no living man will want you again.”

“Mother, don’t,” Rapunzel intervened with a plea.

“Don’t what, Flower?” the crone asked in a warning tone.

Rapunzel looked away. Her hands stilled on the lock of hair she had been twisting. “Elsa isn’t like you said,” she murmured. Her voice grew louder, firmer. “The world isn’t like you said it was. You were wrong about many things, Mother.” Anger flashed in her eyes. “You lied to me about so many things!”

“Oh, Rapunzel knows best, is it? Don’t let them deceive you. Why would they like you? Come on, now, really.” Rapunzel flinched as if cut by each of Gothel’s words.

Flynn didn’t keep himself back any longer. “Don’t listen to her, Blondie,” he told Rapunzel. He stepped up beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t give in to her manipulation.”

Gothel’s eyes narrowed further as she observed Flynn with Rapunzel. “Oh, I see how it is,” she hissed. “Go ahead, show them what you can do. Sing, Flower.” Her eyes roved over the group. A mean smile pulled her dry lips off her yellowed teeth. “Well!” she said at last, when Rapunzel made no move or reply, “I was saving this for that thieving king, but a woman must make the most of her opportunities!”

Her body had withered to the point that the manacles hung loosely on her wrists and ankles. This became obvious when she wriggled them over her emaciated hands and pulled them over her feet. Though still imprisoned by the bars of her cell, the witch stood free of the iron restraints that dampened her ability to do magic.

A sickly green, sorcerous fog began to swirl around her as she chanted strange words under her breath.

“Stop her!” Flynn barked at Elsa. He looked around the room as if for something he could use as a weapon.

“Mother, no, stop!” Rapunzel moved quickly. She pushed her hand through the cell bars. The coiled up end of a long lock of hair dropped within Mother Gothel’s reach.

Mother Gothel stopped her spell. Instead, she grasped onto the strands of golden hair with an expression of victory.

Rapunzel began to sing. “Flower, gleam and glow…”

“Blondie, don’t,” Flynn said, putting his hands on her shoulders. “You don’t have to do this.”

A wave of aversion crashed over Elsa. She lost her mask of calm. Panicked, she backed away from the cell. Would the guards come at the noise? Would they come in and witness their princess casting magic? She balled her hands into fists, pressing them against her middle, desperate to keep her own magic from frosting out. She could feel the temperature around her dropping.

Rapunzel was still singing. The sunlight of her hair flowed through its length. When the end that Gothel held filled with the magic light, all residue of the magic green fog vanished. Then golden magic glittered over the old woman. She was no longer old. Instantly, she had changed from a haggard crone to a young woman who looked only a few years older than Rapunzel.

She stood straight and tall in her cell, gloating. She began to wrap the lock of hair around her hand, taking up the slack.

Flynn had won back his composure. “Let go of her hair,” he warned. “You got what you wanted.”

“I want what’s mine!”

Elsa, still fighting her panic attack, could see what the witch was about to do, but she couldn’t move to stop it. Luckily Flynn anticipated Gothel, too. He grabbed hold of Rapunzel right before Gothel yanked on Rapunzel’s hair to pull her closer to the cell.

Rapunzel cried out at the pain. She grabbed the lock of hair and tugged back. Mother Gothel was unable to drag her close.

Elsa saw the handle of a pair of embroidery scissors poke out of one of Rapunzel’s pockets. She was unable to make out Pascal, who had blended his colors with the surrounding cloth. The scissors bobbed up and down, then tapped against Rapunzel’s side. Rapunzel reached down with one hand, her other still holding her hair, and took the scissors.

Gothel screamed with dismay even as Rapunzel snipped the lock of hair free. Her restored youth remained because the rest of Rapunzel’s magic hair remained whole, but swath of hair Gothel held had altered to a brown color. The cut strands on Rapunzel’s head were a walnut brown streak amid the blonde. The brown was the same color as her father’s hair.

Rapunzel slipped the scissors back into her pocket without commentary. Eyes downcast, she turned and walked quickly out of the prison cell area, passing through the section doors without another look behind her. Flynn followed closely.

Elsa moved to follow, but she took a final look at Mother Gothel. The woman’s eyes were wild. She paced around in circles, frequently looking down at the brown lock of hair still wrapped around her hand.

Elsa’s hands were still full of frost. She kept them pressed against herself. “Rapunzel’s magic… negates yours, doesn’t it?” she guessed aloud. “You trade your magic to stay young, instead. To keep death away. That’s how it is, isn’t it?”

Gothel resisted answering for a long moment. “What would you know about it?” she hissed, as if she couldn’t keep the response in.

“You’re right,” Elsa said. A bleak quiet settled on her. “I want nothing in trade.” She pulled her hands away from herself, letting the ice sword forming between them focus her composure again. Gothel’s eyes widened, then narrowed as Elsa pointed to sword tip toward her. “If Rapunzel wants to see you again, I’ll make that possible, as long as you are well-behaved. If you try to hurt her in any way again, even with words, youth won’t spare you from death any more than it spared my friends.” Remembering the young guards, whose murders she still could not avenge, she dismissed her ice sword and turned to go before her tears of grief could fall.

“Wait!” Gothel called. She pressed herself to the bars. “I accept. Come with Rapunzel again. I’ll do as you say.”

Elsa had her hand on the door when Gothel called out one last thing.

“Bring a mirror with you!”

ooo

 



 

Chapter Text

Overhearing what the captain and the first officer were discussing, Anna slowed to a stop. She pretended to admire the view of the fjords so that she could listen. When they moved their conversation to other subjects, she strolled away as if unconcerned, though she clutched her letter with an intense grip. She felt that she could burst from the news.

Rumor travels faster than any official announcement. The story -- the reunion of the monarchs of Corona with a mysterious young woman who must certainly be the Lost Princess -- traveled out to sea with the first visitors to leave the Lantern Festival. The rumor caught up with ships that had been out to sea for days. Anna, having overheard the officers’ talking, learned of something that hadn’t happened when the letter she was holding had been put to sea.

She spotted Kristoff, further down on the docks, and headed toward him. The young shipwright saw her when he looked up from his work. He smiled and waved.

Enthusiastically, she hopped in place, waving back and beckoning him to come down from the ship. She caught the eye of his master and waved in greeting at him, too. Kristoff’s boss bowed his head to the princess of Arendelle. He made a sign to Kristoff indicating permission to take a break.

Kristoff used a handy rope to climb down to dock level. “Hi, Anna.”

“Hi right back at you.” Anna grinned. “You look busy.”

“You look pretty,” Kristoff answered. He turned a bashful pink. “Um, I mean, you’d better be careful with your dress.” He was careful not to get too close to Anna. His clothes were sticky with pitch from his task painting the new ship. “You always look pretty.”

“Oh?” Anna pulled at one of her braids.

“Yeah.”

Anna sighed. She looked at Kristoff with a dreamy smile.

“Anna, I have to get back to working.” He lowered his voice to prevent being overheard. “We’ll be together later, right?”

“OK, later!”

She ran off, opening Elsa’s letter as she went. It was a long one. Anna took a minute to hold it to her chest and let out a little cheer. She loved when the letters were multiple pages. She started reading as she walked, and her pace slowed to a stroll.

She passed between clusters of tradesmen loading and unloading wares from the ships; she managed to pass through them without running into anybody or looking up from the letter. Mainly that was because people knew to get out of Anna’s way. She ambled along reading what any of them would assume was foreign writing. Anna could read the cypher more easily than any language she had studied. She practiced it twice a week by writing and reading correspondence with her sister.

“Oh, Elsa,” she sighed. She had finished the first time read-through. She would read it at least once more before she wrote back. “I miss you so much.” Elsa had sounded sad again, as she too often did. The letter had been a confession of worries over things that Anna knew Elsa did perfectly, though somehow Elsa never seemed to believe in her own capability. She rarely talked about her upcoming tasks without referring back to some small mistake she perceived that she had made in the past. She hardly mentioned anything, in this letter, that she anticipated positively.

Several pages had been about preparations for the Lantern Festival, all in a with concern to make the upcoming days easy on the queen and king of Corona. Anna tried rereading that part while imagining Elsa writing it. What she pictured in her mind was her sister hunched over her desk, leaning on her elbow with her hand against her cheek, looking as if an enormous weight sat on her shoulders. Anna had seen her father at his desk in that pose, at times.

She wondered if Elsa’s outlook had improved with their cousin’s return, assuming that the news was true. Anna made a quick decision to hold off starting her reply to Elsa’s letter. First she would find out what parents thought about Princess Rapunzel’s return. Within the hour, the ship’s captain would be making his report to her father. She wanted to see his reaction and hear if he would start planning a visit to Corona. Elsa would come home with them!

ooo

 

Later that day meant after dinner, when the work day was over and the day’s light had faded to a sleepy gold. Anna waited for Kristoff at their secluded place, a patch of meadow that caught the last of the sun’s rays long after the shadows of the mountains lay over Arendelle castle. It was a great place to watch for wishing stars.

Anna lifted her head from the crook of Kristoff’s shoulder. She scooched away an inch and lay back down in the flattened patch of meadow grass, her hands folded on her stomach, her eyes watching the sunset painted clouds float by.

Kristoff gave himself a sniff. “Do I stink?” he asked.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Anna said. “But I was starting to feel light-headed. Not in the good way.” She turned her head toward him and smiled.

“It’s the tar and pitch from painting the ship, stinking up everything,” Kristoff explained. “I swear this is a fresh shirt.” He pulled the cloth of the offending garment up to his nose, sniffed, and frowned. “We did the last of it today. She’ll be ready to sail before the summer solstice.”

“Are you worried the pirates will get her?” Anna asked.

Kristoff rolled his head from side to side. “She’ll be faster than any pirate’s ship, even with guns and a full load of cargo. She’ll outrun them. She’s the first of a whole new line.”

“I’m proud of you, Kristoff.”

Kristoff pushed himself up to one elbow to lean over Anna.

She grinned up at him. “When we travel around the world together, will we sail in a ship you built, I wonder?”

“I didn’t build the whole ship myself,” Kristoff denied. “I’m still learning my trade.”

“You’re too modest.”

“I’m the right amount of modest,” he protested. “I can’t take credit for all the work.”

“I think,” Anna said, “that you’re the smartest, hardest working fellow in all the kingdom. If you weren’t building ships--”

“Helping to build ships,” Kristoff interrupted.

“If you weren’t doing that you would be working hard at something else. Mining sapphires or driving a team of horses, or…”

“Harvesting ice,” he supplied. “My father was an ice harvester. That’s how he died, too. It’s dangerous work. Tough work.”

Anna rolled to her side so that she could push Kristoff back down flat on his back. “Lie down. My head needs a pillow.” They formed a T shape. When she had comfortably settled her head against his stomach, she commented, “I’m glad you’re not an ice seller.”

“It’s an honest living,” Kristoff said.

“But if ice was your life, you’d be up in the mountains all the time. Then who would I talk to about important things?” Anna teased.

“How about your sister?”

Anna exhaled a dramatic sigh. She flopped her arms to both sides, unintentionally smacking Kristoff in the process.

Used to Anna, he didn’t even flinch. “You still get letters from her, don’t you?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah, of course. Every week. It’s weird that she sounded sad in her last letter again, but by now she must be super happy,” Anna said sadly. Her lip began to tremble. She sniffed at threatening tears.

Kristoff tentatively pet her hair. “Hey. What’s upsetting you?”

“I thought we would be going to get Elsa. But all my father said to my mother was that we would wait for confirmation from Corona about the news. Do you think it’s true about the Lost Princess?”

“It is only a rumor at this point. You know that messages passed that way can get really crazy?”

When ships known to each other passed, they drew close enough to exchange news and gossip. More often, however, word passed through signals made with lanterns and mirrors, a system whose use had increased with the increased threat of high-seas piracy. Merchant vessels could exchange messages without putting themselves into vulnerable closeness with other ships. This meant that ships shared their news even at night or when only in sight of each other by telescope.

“But what do you think, Kristoff?”  She plucked a blade of grass and nibbled at the broken end. “She’s been missing from since before my sister was born.” She spotted the first star of evening in the darkest part of the sky. “What if they couldn’t remember her?”

“Of course they’ll remember her,” they boy soothed.

“But what if they don’t?”

“I don’t know,” Kristoff answered so that Anna would know he was listening to her.

“What if I’m the only one who remembers her anymore?” Anna asked in a frightened voice.

“Princess Rapunzel?”

“No.” Anna sat up and breathed out an exasperated huff. “Elsa! Maybe they don’t care because they’ve forgotten her!” She saw the look on Kristoff’s face. “I’m sorry for shouting, Kristoff. I just feel so confused!”

Kristoff sat up and rested his arms on his bent knees. “I feel confused, too.” He stood up and offered her a hand. “Come on, it’s dark now. I’ll walk you home.”

After a minute, Anna took his hand and stood up. She looked up at the sky in time to spot a falling star streak white against the dark blue.

She closed her eyes and made a wish right away. Then she decided: wishing wasn’t enough. “I’m going to make them remember,” she vowed. She looked at Kristoff. “If I don’t say anything, who will?” She started toward home at a determined pace.

ooo

Her resolved remained steady all the way to door of her father’s office. There, it faltered for a moment at the closed door. Anna took a deep breath and knocked.

“Enter,” came the king’s voice from within.

He was alone, Anna found. Although intimidated, she walked boldly up to his desk and stood before it. Standing there, her knees started turning to jelly and her palms started to sweat. “Father?”

King Marius put down his pen and gave his younger daughter his attention. “What is it, Anna?”

“Elsa has to come back!” she blurted out. When her father stayed calm, she started to feel bolder. “She belongs here, in Arendelle, with us.”

The king lowered his eyes in thought. As he so often did, he seemed tired. “Your sister will be back in Arendelle when the time comes,” he replied. “Your mother explained this to you years ago.”

Anna frowned. “I feel like you forgot about her,” she said in a small voice.

An array of emotions played over her father’s face before he answered. “I haven’t forgotten Elsa, not for a minute,” he said. “Nor has your mother. Elsa is only a seven-day journey away, Anna.”

“Then why don’t we ever go to see her?” Anna asked. “ My sister would never hurt me. I mean, she didn’t do it on purpose when we were little, and anyway I’m big enough to take care of myself. I’m almost fourteen…” she saw the look on her father’s face and stopped talking.

“How did you know about that?” he asked as he half-rose from his chair. “Did you remember?” His face displayed fear and something Anna thought looked like shame.

“No, Elsa told me,” Anna answered. Too late, Anna remembered that the confession was meant to stay a secret between the sisters.

“She told you.” Marius exhaled and sat back down in his chair. He presented an appearance of complete self-control and calm. "She told you," he repeated, and his shoulders sank with something like relief.

Anna made herself brave. “We should go to Corona. Instead of waiting for official word, we could be there to see for ourselves and meet Rapunzel if they really found her. And see Elsa. And Elsa could come home!” The last came out as a plea.

“Anna, I hear what you are saying.” He wove his fingers together, steepled, and tapped his index fingers against his lips. “Elsa’s eighteenth birthday is very soon. We must not impose on Corona beyond that, so I will call for Elsa’s return then.” He smiled in a way that didn’t clear the tiredness from his eyes. “Elsa will be back in Arendelle in another month.”

“Why can’t she be here for her birthday? It doesn’t seem right,” she entreated.

“Anna, the right thing often isn’t clear to see. Sometimes the hardest choice is the right choice. This is true in being a ruler,” he said, “and also in being a parent. Sometimes there is no right choice, but a decision must be made.”

“So that’s your decision,” Anna sulked.

“Young lady…”

Anna turned on her heel and ran out of the room. She ignored her father calling after her.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Rapunzel tried not to start crying until she had left the dungeons entirely, but before she reached the last steps leading up and out, she was wiping a stream of tears off her face as she ran. The new shoes made her stumble. Flynn was there to catch her, but she pushed away from him, picked up her skirts, and made her way up the stairs with greater care.

On the first floor of the castle, she pulled the shoes off her feet. She carried them under her arm as she ran again, through the halls of her new home, to the place where she felt most at home: the library. She knew Flynn was behind her, but he was giving her a lead and distance that she was glad to have. She was afraid that he would ask her to explain her tears. He would think she was ridiculous, stupid.

She had a good, kind mother now, her real mother. Mother Gothel had lied to her in every way. How could she still love her? How could she love someone so clearly willing to do evil?

With a great sob leaving her, she sank to the floor at the base of one of the curling staircases. She leaned against a step and lay her head against her arm.

After a minute or two, Flynn came through the library doors. He went right to her and sat down on one of the steps above.

She lifted her head and leaned it against his leg. “You have a nice leg,” she sniffled. She blinked to clear the tears from her eyes, then smiled up at him.

He reached down to touch the short lock of brown hair that lay against her cheek. “Did I ever tell you that I have thing for brunettes?” he asked in a soft voice. The words joked, but the tone comforted. “Not that a change of hairstyle  would change how I feel about you, by the way. It’s what’s inside your wonderful head that counts.”

“So, if was bald…” Rapunzel tried joking.

Flynn leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “You know the answer to that. Hey, I love you even with you being a princess and all.”

“You’re the best,” she answered. “Eugene Fitzherbert.” Her mood dipped again, and she didn’t want him to see that he couldn’t keep her smiling, for all he was trying. It was the “and all” that he added on. Though just a figure of speech, it reminded her that he accepted her magic hair, too.

She wanted to be like Elsa, but not like Mother Gothel. She needed to send Eugene away so that she could think. Elsa spent a lot of time thinking quietly.

“Eugene, could you go tell Primrose that I’ll be here in the library until she wants me to go with her?” she asked him.

“Right now?” he asked.

“If you don’t mind going,” she answered.

He got up. As he made his way around her down the stair, he bowed with excessive arm waving. “As you wish, my lady,” he said in a silly voice. He sounded like one of the more foppish nobles who had come to pay respects to the royal family in the last few days. In his normal voice, Flynn asked, “So where are you off to, today?”

“Well… the orphanage,” Rapunzel confessed. She hadn’t wanted him to know, but she couldn’t prevaricate.

“Taking medicines, clothes, stuff like that for the kids?” His voice had an odd note to it, and he wasn’t making eye contact.

“Yes, I think so.”

Flynn took a storybook down from a shelf. He made eye contact then, his face serious as he handed the book to Rapunzel. “Take them one of these. It will do them more good than those other things.”

Then his mirth came back as if the solemnity had never happened. He gave her another kiss, this time on her mouth, before he sauntered off to do her bidding.

She moved up to the step where he had been sitting. It still felt warm from his body. She opened the book and flipped through it. Pascal came out of her pocket; he sat in her lap.

She looked up when she heard the whisper of the door brushing over the rug. It wasn’t Flynn, coming back, nor Primrose yet. It was Elsa. Elsa glided directly over to Rapunzel.

“I envy how you walk,” Rapunzel said to her.

Elsa gave her a doubting look. “What?”

Rapunzel leaned on her hand. “You float. I clomp around.”

“Don’t envy me anything,” Elsa replied. “The way I walk is something I learned with practice.”

“OK,” Rapunzel responded.

“I didn’t mean to be snappish.” She notice the book in Rapunzel’s hands. “You’re enjoying the library.”

Rapunzel looked down at the book. “Yes.”

“That looks like one of Queen Primrose’s favorites. What is the story about?”

“Far off places, daring swordfights, and a prince in disguise. But you don’t find that out until chapter three.” Rapunzel looked up from the book. When she caught Elsa’s gaze, she continued, “These fictions. They’re another way of telling lies. Eugene told me that I should give the children at the orphanage a book of lies. He has lived most of his life in a lie, pretending to be someone he made up.” As angry as she was feeling, she still put the book aside with care. “Are lies all anyone has?”

Elsa seemed taken aback. “No, they’re not lies.” She looked at all the books on the shelves. “It’s not the same thing.”

“Do you know what else is in this story?” Rapunzel’s strident voice echoed against the boundaries of the cavernous room. “Magic spells.” She let the words sit heavily between them.

“You’re upset about what happened with the witch,” Elsa said quietly.

“You told me not to!” Rapunzel answered.

“I know. Except,” Elsa had become very quiet. “You have to keep doing it.”

“What?” It was Rapunzel’s turn for surprise.

“When you use your magic on her, it keeps her under control,” Elsa said. “No one has to know but us. How often did you need to use your magic on her before?”

“I sang to Mother every day!” Rapunzel stared at Elsa. “I thought I would be begging you to let me sing to her, but now you’re telling me to do it. She will still be imprisoned for the rest of her days, won’t she?” The question had a note of challenge.

“Rapunzel, it hasn’t even been a week. The crown has to decide what to do with her.” She crossed her arms. “I just don’t know. I do know that it has to be a secret. It will be just the two of us. I can protect you alone.”

“I don’t want to see her every day. Every other day would be enough, three or four days apart at most,” Rapunzel said.

“The difference is too dramatic after four days. We’ll go every other day.”

“That’s settled, then.” For comfort, Rapunzel took Pascal up from her lap and pet his head with her finger.

Elsa sat beside Rapunzel. “Aunt Primrose once told me that stories are like dreams. Some are scary, some are full of nonsense, and some make you shut your eyes again when they are done, so you can hold on to the feeling it gave you. Some make you realize something important. Lies aren’t like that.”

Rapunzel continued petting Pascal. Pascal had turned a calico of contented colors. “I don’t understand why we can’t be accepted for who we are. Why hide what we can do? Why pretend to be someone else?” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “If Mother only pretended to love me, why do I love her honestly?”

Elsa didn’t answer. Instead, she asked, “I’ve wanted to ask you about Pascal. Where did you get him? I’ve never seen a lizard like him before.”

“Pascal? He’s been my friend for years and years.” She offered him to Elsa. “He’s a chameleon.”

Elsa frowned. “I don’t think he is,” she countered.

“Yes he is. He changes colors.” She scoffed at Elsa’s disbelief. “There was a plant in my book named for color changing lizards. Ergo, Pascal.”

Slowly, Elsa rose and searched through the bookshelves until she found something in the section near the atlases and geologies. She carried it back to Rapunzel while flipping through the pages. Rapunzel saw the cover, Marvels of Africa, as Elsa turned the book toward Rapunzel without comment. The page said “Chameleons,” but the color illustration looked different from Pascal.

“Well, Pascal’s a variation, of course,” Rapunzel said. “Isn’t he?” Pascal looked at the image in the book, then scrambled away to hide in Rapunzel’s clothes.

Elsa gave her a puzzled half-shrug.

Rapunzel closed the book and handed it back. “Is anything what I thought it was?” She looked around at the book-lined room. “If this had been my tower, I wonder if I would ever have wanted to leave. There’s so much. I wonder if I would have ever looked out the window, or if I would have been satisfied to stay inside. I was afraid. The tower was small, but it was safe, I thought.”

“You never, ever left your room?” Rapunzel asked.

“I could never leave the tower. My whole childhood was a room and a window,” Rapunzel confided.

“That must have been horrible,” said Elsa. “I can’t imagine what it would be like. It must have awful to be locked away alone.”

“I had Pascal!” Rapunzel said. “I looked forward to Mother’s visits, though. I thought she was sincere. I didn’t know she was a monster. Even a monster is someone to talk to.” Rapunzel’s cheer vanished behind the cloud of the betrayal. “I guess you never know what secrets someone might be hiding. I guess everyone has secrets.”

“I have to leave,” Elsa said. Without another word, without another look at Rapunzel, she left the library.

Rapunzel picked herself off the floor. “I don’t care if Pascal isn’t a chameleon,” she said to the empty room. “He’s my friend. Nothing matters more than that.” She paged through the rest of the book as she strolled across the room to return it to its place. She ended up taking a few more animal books over to a window seat.

There, she spent the hours until Queen Primrose arrived for their excursion. She was engrossed in a book about lions when the queen came in to the library.

“Are you ready?” Primrose asked.

“Ready!” Rapunzel answered brightly.

“We can walk, or we can ride.” The queen was dressed without fuss, in practical garments and with very little jewelry. Her neck was bare of her favorite necklace of pearls and gems. Her hair was pinned back with a simple barrette. Her wedding ring and the small, gold earrings she wore hardly indicated her wealth and status.

“I would love to walk. Am I dressed alright?” Rapunzel asked.

Primrose sad down on the other half of the window seat. “You’re perfect. Did you want to tie up your hair?”

“I should, shouldn’t I?” Rapunzel’s fingers ran over the cut lock. She tucked the short strands in, hoping that Primrose would not notice them. From a pocket, she took out a long ribbon. She started looping and tying up her hair with it.

“Here,” Primrose offered, “let me help.” She motioned for Rapunzel to turn around in her seat. Rapunzel turned, and Primrose continued binding Rapunzel’s hair so that it wouldn’t drag on the floor. “Such healthy hair,” she commented. “It’s good to see evidence that you had enough to eat.”

“You can tell from my hair?” Rapunzel asked.

“Yes,” Primrose replied. She exhaled a small sigh. “Children who have suffered often have brittle hair and bad teeth. Illness, or poor nutrition, causes damage that can never be undone. I wish I could say that the cause was only poverty or misfortune.” Finished with Rapunzel’s hair, she lay her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “We are visiting our kingdom’s unfortunate children today. I hope you can see how we try to cure what ills we can.”

“I want to see where Eugene grew up,” Rapunzel said. She turned to her mother with a hopeful smile.

Primrose smiled back. “I know,” she said. Her eyes were bright with teasing.

“Can we go now?” Rapunzel stood up, ready.

ooo

Four guards escorted Queen Primrose and Princess Rapunzel on their walk through town, while a pair of guards took a wagon of food and other donations to Corona’s orphanage. Rapunzel engaged the guards in conversation. She noticed they were reticent at first, but that they soon spoke with her freely. She didn’t catch the exchange of unspoken permission from the queen to the guards, allowing them to converse with the princess on her own level.

Rapunzel had not been out in the town since her birthday. Her fascination with the sights, sounds, and smells of the kingdom’s subjects made the walk a tour of marvels. Her questions and investigations made for slow progress, and the orphanage was located past the last street of town houses. Their group arrived long after the goods the royals were meant to have presented. The wagon sat empty at the orphanage wall, already unloaded and carried inside by the guards who now stood waiting beside it.

Before Rapunzel could begin apologizing to the queen for causing delay, Queen Primrose looked over the empty wagon and commented, “Excellent work.” She put a hand on Rapunzel’s back, and they walked together through the gate.

Up in the windows of the building, little faces peeked out. Heads bobbed as the children jostled each other for the best view of the visitors. Some of the bigger children lifted the littlest in their arms. Rapunzel waved. All the faces retreated. Rapunzel made a sound of disappointment.

The senior woman in charge of the children met Primrose and Rapunzel in the yard and welcomed them. Primrose returned the pleasantries, then passed into the building. Rapunzel stayed close beside her.

Just inside the doorway, the interior was a large, simple room with two long benches and tables, a clean, bare wood floor, and chalk boards on walls. Light came through small windows high along the exterior walls. One door led to an adjoining room, another to a staircase. The room was spotlessly clean and tidy.

Rapunzel looked through the open doorway. The adjoining room was a kitchen. A group of older children busily worked preparing or storing food supplies. A blonde girl cutting onions reminded Rapunzel of herself at about ten years old.

“Hello,” Rapunzel called.

The children all stopped what they were doing. The blonde girl finished a slice and carefully laid the large knife down before she wiped her hands on her apron. She was the last to curtsey.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Rapunzel apologized. She retreated to rejoin Queen Primrose, who was on her way up the stairs.

In each of the next floor dormitories, the children stood in rows along their beds. They looked restless, some with excitement because of the visitors, some with standing in one place. They ranged in age from toddler to adolescent. Only the babies, in their own dormitory, did not formally wait for their visitors.

Rapunzel noted that the bedrooms were just as tidy as the downstairs. The upstairs did have more windows at a height for looking out, but it lacked cozyness. The plain walls begged for color.

Primrose inspected the room and the orphans. She knew many of them by name, and often stopped to crouch down and speak to a child for a few moments.

Rapunzel noticed empty spots in the lines, where one of the beds didn’t have anyone standing at the foot. “Are some of the children somewhere else?” she asked her mother.

“When one of the children gets sick, he is moved to the infirmary in the back house,” Primrose explained. “To keep the rest of the little ones safe.”

“So they’re all alone?”

“The special children are there, too,” Primrose answered.

Rapunzel remained curious about what that meant, but she kept further questions to herself until they left the main house. The back of the property served as a small farm and orchard. There was a barn for storage and a second, single story building with more windows than the primary building.

Rapunzel thought about the children working in the kitchen. She would have loved to have a garden larger than a window box when she was growing up. “I don’t see many adults. Do the children do everything?”

Primrose explained, “As orphans, the children benefit from learning to be self-sufficient. The work is shared respective to their ages.” She gave Rapunzel an apologetic look. “It might seem harsh, but it’s practical. Regardless of their late parents’ station, every able child learns the foundations of scholarship and householding.”

Rapunzel asked, “Do they get to choose what they do when they grow up?”

Primrose gave her a knowing smile. “Yes, they do, when they come of age. However, sometimes I suppose it can seem that there are a lot of rules and restrictions. For example, to a boy who yearns for adventure and freedom.”

“Eugene told me that a storybook would be more valuable than all the supplies we brought today.” Rapunzel took in her surroundings, trying to imagine it from young Eugene’s perspective. “I think I understand what he meant. I was always watching from my window, waiting for something. For my life to begin.”

“Most of the children can leave the grounds on occasion.” Primrose fretted.

“Most?” Rapunzel asked. “Who can’t leave?”

Primrose raised a hand toward the building at the back of the property that was at the end of their path. “We are about to visit them.” Primrose clasped her hands. “You mustn’t touch the sick children. We must leave that to the nurses. And the other children,” her eyes showed her concern, “don’t let them see your pity.”

When they entered the infirmary, a nurse handed each of them an apron to put over their dresses. The room was alive with activity, a marked contrast to the discipline of the other orphans. Primrose to Rapunzel by the elbow to lead her along, but Rapunzel didn’t need leading. She saw that many of the children appeared healthy, but their bodies were different from the other children Rapunzel had seen. They reminded her of her friend, Attila, from the Snuggly Duckling, whose face was distorted with scars.

Most of the healthy children played together. A few sat by themselves, some by a window, another in a shadowed spot away from the noise and action. A boy missing a leg from below the knee ran around using a crutch to substitute for his missing leg. A younger girl crawled after him, laughing when she almost caught him.

The sick children, of which there were only three, had beds along a row of windows. Their beds were separated from the main room by long curtains. One of the children sat up in her bed; she stared out the window with an expression of longing. When Primrose went over to talk to her, Rapunzel went to introduce herself to the scamps playing in the main room.

A girl with a broad face pulled at Rapunzel’s skirt. Rapunzel understood the girl’s raised hands and lifted her up to her hip. “Hello,” Rapunzel said to the girl. “I’m Rapunzel. What’s your name?”

Suddenly shy, the girl hid her face against Rapunzel’s chest. She mumbled something. She spoke as if her tongue had difficulty making words.

“That’s a nice name,” Rapunzel told her. She pet the girl’s hair. Looking at the other children, she wondered what Primrose had meant about pity. They seemed to be making the most of their single room, and there weren’t so many of them in it that it was crowded. Plus, this building had more light than the other, because of the many windows.

“OK, you’re heavy for me to hold too long,” she said to her charge before releasing the girl back to sit on a pillow. “Don’t worry. I’m not going far.” Rapunzel went over to the boy sitting in the dark corner. He didn’t acknowledge her at all, so she sat quietly beside him for a few minutes, then went back to the fray in the middle of the room.

The crawling girl, who looked to be seven or eight years old, asked, “Are you Princess Rapunzel?”

“I am,” Rapunzel replied. She sat down on an untenanted spot that appeared mostly clean.

“Do you like to draw?” She excavated a chalk tablet from a pile of dolls and pillows. She wiped it clean with her arm. “Do you want to draw together?” she asked, offering Rapunzel a stick of chalk.

“I’d love to,” Rapunzel answered with sincerity. “But my mother is calling me over.”

“I wish I had a mother,” said the boy with the crutch. His statement was echoed with “me, too” by some of the other children.

“I’m sorry that you don’t have mothers and fathers. That makes me feel sad,” Rapunzel said to the children.

“It’s OK,” said the boy. “It’s not your fault.” He pat her on the arm. “You should go to your mama now.”

Rapunzel went to Primrose, who briefly introduced Rapunzel to the invalids. The queen didn’t let Rapunzel linger with the sick children, but guided her out of the infirmary. They left their aprons in a basket by the door, and washed their hands with the soap and basin there.

Away from being overheard, Rapunzel asked, “What’s wrong with them?”

“Well,” answered Primrose in regretful tones, “most are born that way. Some with always be like children because that is their defect. The others will be alright when they are grown. A defect of the body, such as a club foot, is not a barrier in many trades.”

Rapunzel frowned. “It doesn’t have to be a defect,” she mumbled. “I meant the sick ones.”

“Sorry?” Primrose asked. “I didn’t catch what you said.”

“What are the sick children sick with?” Rapunzel asked.

“Rose has consumption. Ivo suffers from fits. Little Ivy will be better soon; she had the pox, but she is on the mend.”

“What will happen to Rose and Ivo?”

Primrose shook her head. “If Ivo stays in the dark, the fits don’t happen as often, I’m told. But there is no rhyme or reason. Rose might improve if she stays indoors.”

“It’s too sad!” Rapunzel exclaimed.

“It is,” Primrose agreed. “Do you see why we must remember, when we rule our subjects, the inequity of our situations?” She pulled Rapunzel into a sudden hug. “For so long, I counted my misfortune as great as any of theirs.” She pulled away so that she could hold Rapunzel’s face gently between her hands. “Now I am reminded never to give up hope. I didn’t give up hope in you, and I won’t give up hope in these poor children. Let’s smile. We shouldn’t let them see us weep.”

Rapunzel reached up to touch the teardrop trembling in the corner of her mother’s eye. The tear fell and streaked down Primrose’s cheek. “I think they should know that we cry, too,” Rapunzel said.

She looked back at the infirmary, where little Rose sat in the window, watching them. Rapunzel waved. The sick girl waved back.

Primrose waved to the girl, too. Then she and Rapunzel turned away to leave.

Their visit over, they rode back to the castle in the front seat of the wagon. Rapunzel would have walked up the hill, but she didn’t want to push Primrose into it. The queen took in the view of her kingdom during the return. She held her daughter’s hand the whole time.

Rapunzel kept the silence. The day had been one of heartache. She looked forward to when she could next put her arms around Eugene, and hug him closely for all the hugs he had missed when he was a child.

ooo



Chapter Text

“I want to go somewhere, and I want you to go with me,” Rapunzel said as they walked out of Elsa’s room. “Will you?”

“Where do you want to go?” Elsa asked.

“You’ll need paints,” Rapunzel said. “Lots of colors.”

Elsa raised her pale eyebrows at her cousin. “And why will I need colorful paint where we’re going?”

Rapunzel avoided making eye contact. “To paint some blank walls with fun designs.” Elsa  stopped walking and stood with her a hand on one hip, waiting for a real answer. “OK! OK. The walls at the orphanage are really bare and plain, and I thought that they could use some paintings.”

“Like the way you painted the walls in your tower,” Elsa concluded.

“You saw the tower?” Rapunzel asked.

“Yes, I’m the one who brought your books and paint box,” Elsa said.

Rapunzel took and squeezed Elsa’s hand. “I never said thank you! I know you asked me what I wanted brought here, but, um, I didn’t know, when all the other things from the tower came I thought the guard had packed them up with the rest. I’m sorry, Elsa. Thank you!”

Elsa gave her a little smile. “You’re welcome. What did you decide about the rest? Your room isn’t jammed full of odd furniture and cookware, I hope.”

“Primrose suggested that I could donate the housewares to families in need. I agree, it’s a good idea…” She let her hand slip out of Elsa’s and clasped her hands together. “I haven’t decided yet, though, except for the furniture. Eugene suggested that the furniture could be given away on the way to the castle instead of brought all the way here.”

Elsa realized that she should thank Flynn on behalf of the castle guard for that consideration. She mentally inventoried the heavy, awkward furniture that she recalled: beds, a wardrobe, several chairs and tables, that mirror…”

“I mean, I have all new, nicer things but I...” Rapunzel continued, “I don’t feel ready to give all the familiar things away.”

Elsa had nearly forgotten about the mirror for which Gothel had asked. “I am guessing you didn’t keep that mirror,” she conjectured.

“I think it went to The Snuggly Duckling with the other big furniture,” Rapunzel answered. “Oh, no. Mother asked for her mirror, didn’t she? Oh, no.” Rapunzel bit her lip. Her shoulders slumped and her steps slowed.

“Any mirror,” Elsa replied. “We have ample mirrors in the castle. Don’t worry, alright? Wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.”

She conscripted a few strong servants and had them carry down the tall mirror from her own room. In the afternoon hour, when the castle was alive with comings and goings, there was nothing strange about a group of servants moving an item of furniture from one place to another.

“But now you won’t have a mirror,” Rapunzel protested.

“We have plenty of mirrors in the castle.” Elsa liked the idea of not having to look at herself until she sent for a replacement mirror. She didn’t share that thought with Rapunzel, or tell her that she always kept the mirror in her room tilted away unless she needed to check her clothing. Instead, she said, “You were saying that you wanted to do some painting. At the orphanage?”

“Yes.” Rapunzel’s posture improved with the happier thought. “We will need lots of brushes for everyone, too.”

“Rapunzel. Most littles don’t have the artistic talent you did. If we turn them loose on the walls, it will be a mess.” Elsa tried to soften her argument with a smile, but she could tell from Rapunzel’s response that the smile came out more like a grimace of distaste.

“Oh. But, I wasn’t any good when I started out, either. I just kept painting, and it got easier.”

“We will work something out,” Elsa said.

“The place is so dreary, Elsa,” Rapunzel complained. “Everything in rows and lines. Even the garden. Some of the children can’t go outside, either. The windows in the classroom are too high to look out of.”

“Do you think that Fl-- Eugene would have turned out differently if the orphanage hadn’t been such a dreary place?” Elsa tried again. “Do you think about Eugene when you think about the orphaned children?”

Rapunzel shrugged. “It’s not just about Eugene, but, well -- couldn’t they have a better childhood than Eugene and I did? I cleaned, made candles, cooked, and whatever else Mother said to do. But I could dance, and make music, and paint, too. Painting let me go to the places and things I imagined. I felt that I could make things better than they were for me.”

“I like clean lines and rows,” Elsa said, “orderly things. They have a lot of uncertainty in their lives, and there’s so much chaos when that many children have to all be in one place, that I think the order shows that we have them in our care.”

With hesitation, Rapunzel answered quietly, “I really wanted to make things better for them.”

Elsa thought a while. “What about teaching? The orphanage doesn’t have an art tutor.”

“Would it be OK?” Rapunzel asked.

“I’m sure it would be allowed, if it’s important to you,” Elsa said. “Rapunzel, you’re Corona’s princess. You don’t have to ask permission to make your kingdom a better place for the people.”

Rapunzel’s eyes lit up. She danced her steps from excitement. “I still want you to come with me, today,” Rapunzel said. “They can’t say no if we’re both there!”

“They can’t say no at all,” Elsa responded wryly, but Rapunzel was too excited to pay attention.

They caught up to the mirror-carriers at the stairs and waited for the servants to make their way down before following. At the entry to the dungeons, the servants carrying the mirror stopped and waited for a couple of guards to take the mirror the rest of the way in.

Rapunzel went silent while she and Elsa walked ahead of the guards. Preparing to see Mother Gothel again, she tugged a lock of her hair loose from her braid.

“Let’s get this over with,” Elsa said.

Rapunzel nodded agreement.

ooo

Gothel’s dress showed wrinkles from being slept in, and it had the stiffness and smell of a garment worn continuously for a week, but Gothel stood in her cell as if her imprisonment gave her no discomfort. She strolled close to the bars. She leaned against them as if at ease, a smile somewhere between a sneer and a smirk turning her lips at the sight of Rapunzel and Elsa. However, as soon as the burly guards followed the princesses in with the full-length mirror on its oak stand, Gothel’s attention went to her reflection.

She pushed her body against the bars as if she could get closer to the image of herself. The guards set down the stand and left.

Rapunzel’s usual vivacity would not return until the task was out of the way. Still, she stood in front of Mother Gothel, with her posture straight and her head up. She kept her hands at her sides; she didn’t fidget with the lock of hair left loose.

Elsa tipped the mirror, just enough to turn the glass downward so that Gothel could no longer see her reflection. Gothel’s attention turned to Elsa, then. Elsa had made her point without saying a word: like the mirror, Rapunzel’s presence was a gift, and Elsa controlled how much it benefitted Mother Gothel.

Gothel’s slid her gaze over to Rapunzel. “Hello, my flower. How I’ve missed you.” She didn’t pretend humility, this time. “That brown hair looks awful,” she said, flicking a finger toward Rapunzel’s cut lock. “Really, it wouldn’t take any special effort to tuck it away. But, what else can anyone expect from you, I suppose? You were always slovenly.”

“It’s…” Rapunzel’s voice at first came out nearly without sound. “It’s a reminder,” she said, stronger on the second start. “So you remember what will happen if you don’t cooperate.”

Mother Gothel hid an angry reaction under lowered lashes, but Elsa saw the way her posture had gone rigid at Rapunzel’s defiance. “Is this how it’s going to be, then?” she asked, her tones deep with a current of threat. “Princess Rapunzel commands. Or so you think, Flower.” She turned her head toward Elsa. “All the pretty jewels and dresses will never adequately cover your true nature.”

Elsa hid her flinch with a deep breath. “We aren’t here to waste time listening to you. Don’t bother with your attempts at manipulation.”

“Manipulation! Me!” Gothel laughed, sincerely. “Why, it’s too late. You’ve been manipulated, but not by me. Look at each other. You’re a matched pair of dolls. You’re the same doll in different dresses!”

Elsa stepped close to Rapunzel. “Don’t listen to her.” She carried the loose length of hair over to the barred cell.

“No, don’t listen to me. What do I know?” She stared at Elsa. “Are you sure you don’t want to know what I know?”

“What do you mean?” Elsa couldn’t resist asking.

“Princess…” Mother Gothel purred, “Elsa of Arendelle, isn’t it? The Borrowed Princess, so far from home. Arendelle sent you away, didn’t they? You must want what’s yours back.”

“Enough,” Elsa warned.

“That little trick sword. I know what you are,” Gothel continued. “Did they? But. You didn’t come here to listen to what I know.” She beckoned Rapunzel. “Come, Flower. Mama needs her pick-me-up.”

Elsa put the lock of Rapunzel’s hair into Gothel’s hand. She watched Gothel closely as Rapunzel sang, and Gothel, in turn, watched Elsa with a confident gaze. The magic light of healing poured down the conduit of Rapunzel’s hair. The strands in Gothel’s hand looked like liquid sunlight. It passed into Gothel through her hand, and when Rapunzel was done singing and the light faded, Gothel seemed as fresh as a maiden waking from her beauty sleep.

Gothel extended her hand to offer the hair back to Elsa. When Elsa didn’t reach for it, Gothel let it spiral to the ground. Rapunzel pulled it back.

“A marvel, isn’t it, this magic,” Mother Gothel said in a low voice. “This sorcery. Witchery, men call it. Conjuring.” She smiled. “Power. Woman’s power, Princess, the freedom to make your own life.”

Elsa felt Rapunzel take her hand. Rapunzel began to lead them both from the room, and Elsa went with her after only a small hesitation.

Mother Gothel spoke louder, “You have power, but you’re like crabs in a bucket. They’ll boil you up soon enough!”

Elsa turned back. “What do you mean by that?”

Mother Gothel pressed against the bars. “Crabs are dangerous, you know, with those vicious pincers, the fisherman must not let his catch scramble away. Do you know how a fisherman keeps a crab in a bucket? He puts in another crab! They pull each other in so no one of them ever escapes!”

As she looked at Rapunzel, Elsa let go of her cousin’s hand.

“It’s how they control us women of power. You know it’s true,” Gothel said. “Rapunzel is only a vessel for the golden flower’s magic, but you -- you are genuine, aren’t you? I can see it. You have real sorcery. But it’s stunted by all this frippery, the princess dresses and flashy jewels, the balls and feasts. Seize it. Seize your freedom!”

Rapunzel’s voice rang out like an echoing bell. “No!” She turned and faced Mother Gothel. “No. Shut up, Mother.” She shifted the swiveling mirror so that Gothel could see her reflection in it again. She went back to Elsa. “Remember what will happen if I decide not to sing for you.”  Rapunzel offered her hand to Elsa.

Elsa took it. She entwined her fingers with Rapunzel’s. Without another glance back, they left before Mother Gothel said anything more.

ooo

If Rapunzel hadn’t held her hand, Elsa would have rushed off to be alone. She should never have let her ice magic show at all, she thought, and especially not in front of the witch. Mother Gothel wanted Elsa to use magic. That was confirmation, if any had been needed, that Elsa’s magic was wrong.

“She shouldn’t have said those things to you,” Rapunzel told Elsa. “She’s mean. She always has been. I never knew how much.”

“Let it go, Rapunzel,” Elsa said softly. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She felt her lip quivering, and the lump in her throat was as hard as a stone.

“Well, we’re not crabs!” Rapunzel declared. She slid a sideways glance Elsa. She nudged her shoulder, and when Elsa nudged back, Rapunzel giggled. She turned so that she stood in front of Elsa. She crouched a little so that she could look into Elsa’s downcast face. “Let’s be princesses. OK? We can do a lot of good. Someone smart told me so less than an hour ago.”

Elsa nodded and let herself be led. Together, they went and collected a supply of safe paints, pigmented chalks, and stacks of now useless “Wanted: Flynn Ryder” posters to use for drawing paper. On their way out, King Thomas spotted them.

“Hello, Father,” Rapunzel said boldly.

King Thomas’s face colored an array of pinks, and his mouth twisted with an emotional smile. He started to reply, but had to clear his throat first. “Hello, my daughter.” He gazed on Rapunzel with misty eyes. Collecting himself, he noted, “You seem on your way to somewhere, dear girls.”

“We’re on our way into town,” Elsa said.

“Good, good,” Thomas replied. “Elsa, I have hardly had a minute in these last days. How strange it is that I have a rare moment, now. I am so glad to have run into you.”

“Uncle Thomas, you can summon me whenever I’m needed,” Elsa said.

“Summon you! You make us sound so formal,” Thomas laughed. “Elsa, you have my deepest gratitude for all you have accomplished for Corona. You took on more than was ever required. There are no words to adequately express how happy Primrose and I have been to be reunited with Rapunzel and have the four of us here together as a family.” He paused a moment to reach out and pat Rapunzel on her shoulder. “I know we don’t say it enough. We cherish this time all the more, knowing that having you with us is borrowed time.”

“Thank you, Uncle,” Elsa replied. It almost felt as though he was saying goodbye. Her heart felt as if it flipped over. She half expected him to say, next, that they were sending her home to Arendelle.

“Enjoy your day,” he said, instead. He gave them both a look of affection, and then continued on his way. The princesses continued on their way, too.

“He liked that you called him Father,” Elsa said to Rapunzel.

Rapunzel pretended nonchalance. “I noticed,” she said. Then she broke out in giggles. “Father!” she exclaimed. “Oh, it felt good to say. I’m going to start calling Primrose Mother, too. Or Mama. Do you think she would like ‘Mama’?”

“From you?” asked Elsa. “She would be over the moon.”

“Ooh, good.” Rapunzel didn’t walk; she pranced. She stayed light on her toes all the way to the stables. Elsa had decided that it made sense, with all that they were carrying, to take a wagon or ride. Rapunzel wanted to walk, so they had compromised on taking Maximus. He wouldn’t mind carrying their supplies, as long as the proud stallion didn’t catch on that he was not going to be ridden, and only being used as a pack horse.

On the walk through the town, Rapunzel stayed interested in everything going on around them. Elsa preferred not to talk, and Rapunzel seemed to have picked up on that. She continually greeted the people they passed, however, when any of them exchanged eye contact. Maximus trotted along beside Elsa with a proud step, as if they were a small parade.

“I wonder what I will do.” Elsa, lost in her thoughts, hadn’t realized that she had spoken aloud until Rapunzel responded.

“Do about what?” Rapunzel asked, conversationally.

“It’s nothing,” Elsa said. She could feel the worry showing on her face, although she was trying to hide it.

“It is something,” Rapunzel coaxed. “You can talk to me, you know. I’m really good at keeping confidences. Just ask -- well, I won’t tell who.” She grinned at her own joke.

Elsa took in and let out a long breath. She wondered if Rapunzel would understand -- not that Elsa had nowhere to go, that she couldn’t return to Arendelle, but just understand some of what Elsa was feeling. “Its,” she started. “I worry about things,” she confessed.

“What kinds of things do you worry about?” asked Rapunzel.

“I worry about… doing the wrong thing. Getting things wrong. Making bad choices. Temptations,” Elsa said.

“Temptation. I get that,” Rapunzel commisserated. “Whoo! Do I.” She made herself serious. “Sorry, sorry. I’m not really joking.”

“I don’t mean like temptations to eat nothing but chocolate for breakfast,” Elsa said. “Well, yes, I do mean that, too. That would be…”

“Delicious,” Rapunzel said under her breath.

That pulled a smile out of Elsa.

“You know, everybody worries. I worry, too,” Rapunzel said.

“Not Eugene. He doesn’t think twice about the past or the future,” Elsa said. Maximus snorted. Elsa gave him a conspiratory pat on the shoulder.

“He lives in the moment!” Rapunzel said. “But really, he does worry, too. After all, he was a wanted criminal a week ago. But my parents have had time to get to know him, and after all, we put the tiara back, and it was mine, anyway.” She laughed.

“It doesn’t bother you that he used to steal from people?” Elsa asked.

“We weren’t talking about Eugene until a minute ago. Are you trying to steer the topic away from you?”

Elsa gave her a wide-eyed look. “You sound like Aunt Primrose,” she said.

“I’m learning from the best. So, Elsa,” Rapunzel leaned in toward her cousin, “you have a lot on your mind, and it’s making you sad.”

“I didn’t say I was sad.”

“You didn’t have to.” Rapunzel expressed sympathy. “You have been so supportive of me. I want to do the same for you. You’re my role model for good reasons.”

“Oh, don’t take me for your role model,” Elsa sighed. “You have a great future that’s just going to unfold in front of you. Me, I’m just -- I don’t know what’s going to happen with me. I don’t…” she swallowed. Her throat felt tight. This was a bad conversation to be having, out on the street, but she still wished she could tell someone everything.

"The past is in the past.” Rapunzel said. “No one knows what will come in the future. But now, this moment right now, is a gift to us. That's why it's called the present."

Elsa laughed in spite of herself. "That... was awful," she said.

"I know! I couldn't help myself. I've been waiting to use that pun on someone since I thought of it."

“You,” Elsa continued laughing, “are a dangerous woman.”

She realized that they were already at the orphanage. She looked at the stone walls and iron gate with a different perspective. Perhaps it did look like a place to keep children in, not to keep them safe. She thought she understood how Rapunzel could see it like a variation of the tower in the woods.

Elsa wrapped the reins she had been carrying over Maximus’s saddle. She knew he would follow them in, and she always trusted his calm demeanor, even around small children. In fact, she knew he loved small children, for all their squealing.

A crowd of children of various ages hovered at the door of the primary building, watching the princesses arrive. Rapunzel called out a hello and waved for the children to come over, which they did like champagne bursting out of a freshly uncorked bottle. They swarmed around Maximus, petting and cooing.

“I want everyone to see the art in the building with the rest of the children,” Rapunzel called out. “Does everyone want to come with me?”

One of the older children piped up. “That’s the infirmary. We’re not supposed to go.”

“It will be alright,” Rapunzel said. “Just look in through the windows! It’s small inside, but painted so prettily. Have you seen it yet?” The children responded in a wave of shaking heads.

“What are you up to, Rapunzel?” Elsa asked. “We should meet with the director about teaching your art lessons.”

“Oh, the children don’t mingle with the other children. I want them all together when I tell them,” Rapunzel said. “Anyway, I want to show you the painted walls, here,” she led Elsa and a flock of orphans to the secondary building. “Expression doesn’t have to be perfect to be art.” She opened the door and let herself in.

Elsa assured the nurse in attendance that all was well. Together, they were able to keep the healthy orphans from coming inside. The children ran around to the front windows, where Rapunzel had already drawn back the curtains. Dozens of curious faces looked in on Rose, Ivo, and Ivy in their sick beds. Most of the other isolated children ran, crawled, or were carried by buddies into the sickroom so that they could stare back at the children on the outside of the glass.

Rapunzel sat down on Rose’s bed. “I’m sorry if the attention makes you feel shy. I wanted everyone to meet,” she said.

Rose didn’t speak. She simply put her face against Rapunzel’s side. Ivy hopped up on the bed and crawled into Rapunzel’s lap.

“Your hair is pretty,” Ivo said to Elsa. “You both have pretty hair. It looks like flax on a spindle.”

Emboldened, a boy who was missing the lower part of his leg added, “You look like the moon and the sun.” Some of the other children nodded with agreement.

Rapunzel began to unbraid her hair. “Would you like touch it?” she asked. “It’s softer than linen.” She handed a bundled inch to the boy. Ivy reached up to take a handful of Rapunzel’s hair, too. Rapunzel gathered up a loop and playfully wrapped it around Rose’s wrist. Soon, a few other children made noises over Rapunzel’s long, golden hair.

“Now we’re going to learn a song,” Rapunzel said.

Elsa stopped playing peekaboo with a toddler that had a lazy eye. “Rapunzel? What are you doing.”

“First, listen. Then sing it with me, OK? Here, let’s lift the window so that the others can hear and sing, too.”

“Don’t,” Elsa protested.

Rapunzel met Elsa’s eyes. “My magic is good,” she said. “I won’t use it only to heal Mother.”

Don’t!” Elsa repeated, her voice rising and cracking.

Rapunzel began to sing her healing song. “Flower, gleam and glow,” she sang, as sweetly as a lullaby. “Let your power shine. Heal what has been hurt. Bring back what once was fine.” She was singing a different incantation than she used with Mother Gothel. “Clear the skin of pox. Ease the coughing chest. Flow now through my locks. Bring out health and rest, health and rest.”

Rose gasped. “It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “And Ivy! Your face!”

Ivy pat her face. Then she pushed up her sleeves to see her arms. “Yay!” she cheered.

“Why didn’t it fix Ann?” Ivo asked. He pointed at the girl who crawled.

“Ann, were you sick?” Rapunzel asked.

Ann rolled onto her back. “There’s nothing about me that needs fixing,” she said stubbornly.

“No, I didn’t think so,” Rapunzel agreed.

The boy with the stump was sitting on the floor, crying. “It hurt me. Your hair hurt me,” he sobbed.

Elsa ran to him. “Does it still hurt?” she asked. She thought of Anna and her streak of white hair, where Elsa had struck her with magic.

“No! I let go when it stung me and it stopped!” the boy cried. He rubbed at his stump.

Rapunzel carefully moved Ivy off her lap. She joined Elsa. “I’m so sorry. You were right to let go.” She touched his arm, lightly. “That was fast thinking.” The boy looked up at Rapunzel, the suspicion in his eyes softening.

“Are you magic?” he asked.

“Yes,” Rapunzel replied. “I am.”

ooo

Red sealing wax squished from under Anna’s seal. She dropped the letter onto the pillow of her unmade bed, at first, but then decided that if it was found by the servants, the letter might be given to her parents too soon. She cleared a space on her desk, instead, and propped it up against the inkwell.

Her pillow was still warm. The urge to climb back under the bed covers nearly made her put her plan off for another week. But no, she was ready, she decided.

“I was born ready,” she said to herself. She picked up the small bag packed with the bare essentials that she would need for a week at sea as a stowaway.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Anna shivered from the early morning cold off the fjords. She hurried through the gloom before dawn, intent on finding the messenger ship that was leaving with the tide.

What a surprise Elsa was going  have, when instead of a letter, she saw her sister stepping off the ship in Corona! No doubt Anna would cause trouble by stowing away, but everyone would forgive her. She only had to remain hidden until the ship was a few hours out at sea. Then it would be more trouble to go back than to continue on, and Anna’s parents would have received the note she left behind for them. Her plan was flawless.

“Anna, is that you?” came a voice that she identified as Kristoff’s after two words.

“Kristoff! You startled me,” she giggled.

“What are you doing here? It’s still night. You should be sleeping,” Kristoff scolded. “The dock can be dangerous. If it was just sailors, that would be one thing, but there are rats and stuff at this hour.”

“Ew,” Anna said with distaste. “Rats?” She wasn’t going to be put off. “No. Kristoff, I have to swear you to secrecy.”

“What do you mean?” Kristoff stood next to Anna now, and he spoke in a low voice.

“I’m getting on that ship. I’m going to see my sister and bring her back.”

“That’s not a good idea, Anna,” Kristoff said. “She,” he meant, the ship, “might take passengers, but the accommodations aren’t up to princess level.”

“I don’t need princess passage,” Anna insisted. She pat her bag. “I’m good.” She started toward the ropes dangling from the side of the ship. Rubbing her hands together first, she grabbed a knot and began trying to pull herself up.

“Wait… are you planning to stow away?” Kristoff stood below her, watching Anna’s lack of progress.

“Whatever. I. Have. To. Do.” Anna struggled to move up the rope without making much progress. It was harder than it looked. Not that she would admit it. “Please tell me I’m near the top,” she said.

“Hang on,” Kristoff said. Then, like the expert climber he was, he leaped up to a different rope and shimmied up and over the deck railing. He took hold of Anna’s rope and hauled her up. When she was near the top and got her hands on the railing herself, he reached over to grab her by the waist and finish bringing her up.

“Thanks,” Anna said.

“This is going to get us in trouble, you know,” Kristoff said.

“Come on. We’d better hide before we get caught out here,” Anna responded. She began to sneak across the deck.

Kristoff tugged on the strap of Anna’s bag to pull her in a different direction. “Cargo is this way,” he whispered.

“OK,” Anna whispered back. “Lead the way.”

Kristoff shook his head and in the dark Anna didn’t see him rolling his eyes. Still, he encouraged Anna to be stealthy as they made their way together toward the cargo hold. He helped her crawl down the the ladder into the hold.

When he passed her bag down, he said, “You think you have enough in here for seven days? What about water, Anna?” He climbed down into the hold after her.

Anna took her bag and began investigating the storage space. “Oh, I don’t need  supplies for the whole trip,” she explained.

“Why?” Kristoff drew the single word out in a long sound.

“Because…” Anna answered in the same way, “once we’re on the way, I’ll present myself to the captain and ride in style for the rest of the trip.” She smiled at Kristoff, proud of her solution.

“Uh-uh,” Kristoff disagreed. “The first thing the captain would do is order the ship back to the port, or into the closest friendly port if going back wasn’t possible. I think you’d better get off the ship now, if you don’t want to cause a lot of trouble for others.”

“You don’t understand,” Anna protested. “I have to get to Corona. I have to get to Elsa! Even if I… I have to hide down here until we get there.” She gestured at the crates and bags around them. “Most of this looks like food. I’ll get by.”

Kristoff sighed. “Anna, I feel like it’s my duty not to let you do this.” He reached for her, as if to grab her around the waist.

Anna jumped back. “Kristoff!” she hissed in a whisper. “You wouldn’t!”

“Come on, Anna. What else can I do?”

“Well, you can help me,” she argued. “You know things about ships! You could come with me and help me hide!”

“That’s crazy,” Kristoff said.

“Fine. I’m crazy. But I’m going,” Anna insisted. “I could really use your help. But if you’re not going to support me in this, then I think… I think you should go.”

Kristoff crossed his arms. “I’ll tell the captain he has a stowaway,” he threatened.

“You wouldn’t!” Anna gave him her most pitiful look. “You’re my friend. I trust you. I believe in you.”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” Kristoff grumbled.

Anna found a comfortable seat on a thick burlap sack. “We could have an adventure together. A real adventure,” she cajoled. “The worst that will happen is that we’ll get caught before we’re halfway to Elsa. But if we don’t, just think! You and me, out on the sea, and then we’ll get to sightsee in Corona! Doesn’t that sound grand?”

Kristoff scuffled his feet. He opened his mouth, as if to lodge another protest, and then closed his mouth without saying anything. “I still think this is a crazy idea,” he said, finally.

Anna reached out to him. “But you love my crazy at least a little, don’t you?” she flirted.

Kristoff took a step back. He ran his hands through his hair. “I do,” he said. “I mean, I’ll do it! We had better hide before the crew boards, though. It’s almost dawn, and sailing.”

“Yes!” Anna cheered in a hush. “I bet we can make a hiding place behind some of these bags.”

ooo

Stowing away turned out to be harder than Anna expected, because as it turned out, she was the kind of person to get seasick. Not very seasick, at least, not so much that she had to vomit. The nausea, however, but a real damper on her adventure. She spent the first two days sleeping more often than not. Kristoff brought her water and made her eat some plain, almost tasteless biscuits. He let her use him as a pillow. He held her hand and told her she would be alright once she became accustomed to the rocking of the waves.

After a few days, she did feel better. The ship’s crew rarely came down to the hold. The ship’s cook sent a couple of sailors for provisions twice a day on a schedule. The hardest part about hiding, for Anna, was her restlessness. Kristoff helped with that, too. When they knew they wouldn’t be overheard, they talked together. He told her a few secrets. She told him a few secrets.

They sneaked looks into the cargo. The crates that weren’t food held wares bound for trade, such as stacks of painted porcelain dishes nestled deeply in wood shavings, sets of fine silverware, and heavily embroidered, colorful wool clothing. Some of the casks were drinking water, but most of them held liquor. They each tasted a few sips and decided that they would stick to water.

She discovered that a really comfortable position in their hiding place was if she sat between Kristoff’s long legs and leaned up against his chest, like the back of a chair, and if he put his arms on each side of her, like the arms of a chair. She could sit comfortably like that for the longest time, simply daydreaming. It was nice for naps, too. Kristoff tended not to talk much when he was her armchair, but when she turned her cheek to his chest, she could listen to his heartbeat.

On the fourth day, in the evening, they were discovered. Kristoff had been taking their waste out and tossing it over the side of the ship, in the quietest hours at night, but after four days their potty inevitably smelled enough to give them away. The sailors who sniffed them out thought they would find rats. They were shocked to discover the younger princess of Arendelle and her fellow stowaway.

The ship’s captain, a young man who had only recently been awarded his rank, turned a terrible shade of gray when he saw who had been hiding away in his cargo. When Anna saw his expression, it occurred to her, for the first time, that the captain could lose his position because of her actions. Later, she told Kristoff, “No matter what happens, I’m going to take full responsibility for doing this. Whatever happens is on me and nobody else.” She considered their situation. “The captain can’t get in trouble. Didn’t he say we’re already on a different course to stay ahead of that storm? There’s a whole crew to witness that we couldn’t turn back to Arendelle!”

Kristoff’s response was a helpless look. There had been nowhere to put Anna but the captain’s cabin, so Anna had already insisted that Kristoff sleep in the cabin, too, as a chaperone, since he had already been alone with her for days. They were confined to the captain’s quarters, so the result was something like comfortable imprisonment. Kristoff slept on a bed of burlap sacks on the floor. Anna had the captain’s bunk. She didn’t know where the captain had slept, because she had been asleep before he retired for the night, and he was already out in spite of the dim light of predawn. She suspected that he had slept at his desk on the other side of the compact room.

“You’re reasoning doesn’t surprise me anymore,” Kristoff answered, “but how do you think you’re going to do that?”

“What do you mean?” she asked. Under her blanket, she pulled her wool skirt on over her chemise. She stuck her bare feet out over the side of the bunk.

“I mean your parents are the king and queen, the highest law. Even when you tell the truth, there’s nothing you can do if they decide to punish anyone who helped you.” Kristoff slept in his clothes, even his socks. Sitting on the cabin floor at her feet, he looked up to catch her eye. “I knew that when I said I’d come with you.”

“My parents aren’t unreasonable,” Anna said. “Hm. What am I saying?” She bit her lower lip. “Well, I don’t know right now. I’ll think of something when the time comes.” To herself, she decided that she would do whatever it took to make her parents take her seriously, even if it meant not going home until they did.  

A deep rumble shook the ship. “What was that?” Anna asked, standing up to look out the paned window. The dawn sky was as gray as ashes. Her question was answered when a flash turned the gray briefly white, followed a heartbeat later by another unearthly growl of thunder.

“It looks like the storm caught up to us,” Kristoff said.

The ship bucked on a high wave. Anna yelped as she fell backward. Kristoff shot to his feet and caught Anna before she landed on her posterior. Another wave hit the ship. The view in the window became a dizzying maelstrom of heavy rain while the ship rose and fell on dramatic ocean waves.

“Oh… this is bad,” Anna said. Her stomach felt like it was pushing it’s way up her throat. She was sure the contents were. She pushed out of Kristoff’s arms and leaned against the captain’s desk. Like all the furniture, it was nailed to the floorboards. She didn’t want to vomit all over the captain’s blotter, so she pushed off and threw herself at the cabin door.

“Anna, wait!” Kristoff called after her.

The rain and wet boards of the deck chilled her bare feet, but the furious wind carried off the edge of her nausea. She stumbled toward a pile of barrels covered in rope net, got her fingers around the rope, and held on. In a moment, Kristoff wrapped himself around her to shelter her from the storm’s savagery. “Get back inside!” he shouted into her ear. The ship was skirting the edge of the storm. Within sight, the water was as placid as a lake. In a few minutes, they would be safe again.

Anna nodded. The storm had all of the ship’s crew battling the sails, working to save the ship from being torn apart by the ferocity of the wind. No one had time to notice Anna and Kristoff. But when the ship lurched to sideways, knocking men off the rigging and sending deck cargo flying, Kristoff left Anna to lunge after a sailor who been thrown over the railing. He got a grip on the larger man and struggled to help him clamber back onto the ship side.

They were not far away. Anna inched along the netting, her vision obscured by rain soaked strands of her hair slapping at her face. When she was close enough, she reached out and took a firm hold of Kristoff’s waistband. Her feet slipped out from under her, and she lost part of her grip on the netting. Kristoff fell to one knee and used his weight to leverage the sailor onto the deck. Safe, the sailor helped Kristoff and Anna to their feet.

The ship dropped out from under them as the ship fell into a valley between enormous waves. Anna couldn’t hold back her sharp need to vomit. Without thinking clearly, she stepped toward the rail to heave over the side. The wind pushed her from behind, luckily carrying her spew away instead of throwing it back. The thought made her vomit again. Then she looked down at the angry slate waters below and saw how the storm had already ravaged the ship.

Foaming water rushed in through a horrible crack in the ship’s side. The crack seemed to be lengthening. The shadow of the other wave looming over them darkened as the top of the wave curled.

Kristoff grabbed Anna, and at the same time, Anna threw herself at the pile of barrels, where some empty ones had escaped the rope net. They both twined into the net just moments before the wave slammed the deck, submerging them in frigid water. Anna couldn’t prevent herself from gasping, but she did stop herself from inhaling water.

She held on to the net while the water rushed back, but a terrible sound like a troll chewing through timbre filled her with fear. She felt Kristoff close to her. The deck of the ship, however, disappeared. It crumbled away. The barrels under the netting escaped and began to scatter. Most sank. A few bobbed on the waves. A piece of one of the spars crashed into the sea behind her, trailing loose sail.

Anna swam for a floating barrel. The water was cold, but not as cold as the waters in which she had learned to swim. In her periphery he saw Kristoff doing the same. The ship was falling into pieces all around her. She reached the top of a crate before the barrel for which she aimed and climbed on top of the makeshift raft. Kristoff made it to a barrel that trailed a piece of rope, and before the waves carried them away from each other, he threw the rope end to Anna. She tied to her raft with one of the sure knots Kristoff had taught her.

Wave after wave tried to pull them apart even as the waves pushed them further from the wreckage of the ship, but the rope held tight. The wave dunked Anna repeatedly. Her wool skirt became heavy with absorbed water, but it helped keep her warm. When the waves became smaller and calmer, she used her crate top as a paddle board and kicked closer to Kristoff. They lashed the barrel and crate top together and kept an eye out for other barrels that they could use to stabilize their raft. They collected anything floating to build out their raft.

As morning lightened one side of the sky to pink, the storm moved further southwest on the horizon. From their floating raft, Anna and Kristoff could make out pieces of the broken ship, scattered in the water. Anna cried while she pulled off her skirt and shared it like a blanket over their shoulders. Kristoff put his arm around her and held her while she sobbed with small hiccups.

After what seemed like an endless passage of time, Kristoff kissed her forehead. “Look, Anna,” he said.

The sky was still colored with dawn, and the new day’s light sparkled on the waves and on the brass fittings of an elegant schooner cruising over the waves. Anna saw the reflection of light on a telescope lense. A rowboat was lowered over the side and the rowers made a line toward Anna and Kristoff’s raft.

ooo

Rapunzel lifted the little girl, Ivy, who she had cured of pox, onto her hip to carry her out of the children’s infirmary. In her other hand, she held Rose’s small hand. “Alright. Ready to go?”

“Rapunzel!” Elsa got to her feet and followed after her cousin.

Rapunzel turned and waited. “I’m going to take the girls back to their rooms, for a start,” she said. “Then I want to talk to the director about moving all the children into the same building.”

“I don’t understand,” Elsa pleaded with her. “Why…?” She looked around. “No one was supposed to know. How can you not understand that?”

Rose spoke up. “We won’t tell anyone about the magic.” Some of the other children made statements of agreement.

“Oh, no, you don’t have to hide anything,” Rapunzel told the children. “I’m your princess, and it’s time for some things to change for the better. Now you have seen that magic can be good. That’s something I want you to tell others about.” She smiled at the children. She smiled at Elsa. Then she led the way out.

Elsa matched step. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”

“I’m not,” Rapunzel answered. “Elsa, this is about me, not about you. I need to do this. Just wait. It’s going to be great,” she said. “I can be myself, finally. What anyone else,” she looked into Elsa’s eyes, “wants to do is still up to that person herself.”

“You won’t say anything about--”

“No, I won’t,” Rapunzel interrupted firmly. “Like I said. This is about me. You’ll support me, won’t you?”

Elsa exhaled, letting go of a breath held tightly in her chest. “I’ll support you,” she said.

“Good. Because after we’re done here, I want my parents to know.”

ooo

Anna put her skirt back on, and Kristoff gave her his shirt to cover the top of her chemise. Their clothes were salt water sticky and damp. The seaman in the rowboat helped Anna and Kristoff board, but when Anna started to tell him what had happened to their ship, he shook his head and said, “The captain will want to hear your story, but it’s not for the likes of me.” Soon enough, they reached the schooner.

At the ship, the sailor hitched a loop in the rope hanging from the ship and indicated that Anna should step into it. When she did, the sailors on deck pulled her up. Kristoff and the sailor from the rowboat began to climb up after.

When she reached the deck, a hand in a white glove gave her the final assistance up onto the ship. She took the offered hand, stepped aboard, and looked up… into a pair of deep green eyes that made her catch her breath. The man was simply stunning: chestnut hair with red undertones, white teeth in a perfect smile, and long lashes around his amazing eyes.  The dusting of freckles on his light complexion only served to highlight his overall perfection. Unlike the other crew, he was dressed in gentleman’s clothes, from polished boots to spotless gloves. He removed his bicorn hat.

“Welcome aboard my ship,” he said, with a sweeping bow. “She’s called Sitron. My name is Hans, and I’m her captain.”

ooo

 

Chapter Text

On the restless waters, the wreckage of the ship spread between Corona and Arendelle, though the moving storm pushed most of the flotsam toward Corona’s harbor as the storm traveled in that direction. From onboard the Sitron, Anna could see pieces of broken ship spread behind them. Han’s ship traveled in the opposite direction of the storm.

“We’re going the wrong way,” Kristoff said. He turned away from the view. “I’m going to tell him.”

“Let me,” Anna said. “Just stay here.” Their savior had provided fresh clothes for them. Kristoff wore a set of clean sailor’s slops. Hans had found a loose dress for Anna, heavily embroidered in gold thread and brightly colored silk. She would have accepted a set of sailor’s canvas clothes like Kristoff’s, but after finding out she was Princess Anna, Hans had insisted on better dress. He lent her mirror and an ivory handled brush for her hair. Borrowed hair sticks, inlaid with abalone shell, tamed her auburn hair in a braided bun.

She left Kristoff at the rail and walked across the deck to where Captain Hans stood majestically at the wheel. He stood with his chest out, his chin proudly pointed toward the ocean view in front of him, and his right hand relaxed in a loose fist behind him against the small of his back. Anna couldn’t stop herself from sighing at the dashing figure he presented. She imagined Kristoff in the same role. Anna was confident that someday, he would be captain of his own ship. Eventually, Admiral of Arendelle’s navy, she decided.

Hans smiled broadly when he caught sight of Anna. “Don’t you look breathtaking,” he complimented.

The comment made Anna bashful. She lost the impetus she had to confront him about the ship’s progress. “Oh. Well.” She struggled to contain her giggles. “Um. It’s the dress, really. I’m surprised there are such pretty things in your cargo.”

“Nonsense,” Hans crooned. “A czarina wouldn’t look finer in that attire than you, my dear princess of Arendelle.”

“So… is this a merchant ship?” Anna asked.

“We do a small amount of trade,” Hans replied. Keeping his hand lightly on the wheel, he reached his other hand out to her, and Anna found herself taking it without a cautious thought. He brought her closer as he guided her hand to the ship’s steering. “What do you think, Anna? May I call you Anna?” He gazed into her eyes. His green eyes sparkled like the sun on the waves. “Isn’t Sitron a fine vessel? So much power.”

“Yeah, a little schooner like this is mostly built for maneuverability,” Anna said conversationally, glad to have a topic on which she could speak.

Hans choked. He cleared his throat. “I'm surprised by your knowledge of nautical design,” he said.

“Oh, gosh. Kristoff can wax lyrical for hours,” Anna said.

“Hm. Kristoff,” Hans said. “He seems quite loyal to you.”

“He’s my best friend,” Anna answered proudly. “From since we were little kids.”

“I see. Hmm.” He opened his mouth to say something more.

Anna, remembering all at once why she had approached him, interrupted. “Excuse me, Captain Hans, but we appear to be going the wrong way.” She took a deep breath and barged on. “I really, really grateful for all your help, but I have to get to my sister. So if you could please maybe turn the ship around…” she took another breath, “and take me to Corona that would be, um, really great.”

Hans smiled, a slow and indulgent smile. “Oh, Anna. We simply can’t turn around. That storm would,” he laughed lightly, “tear this ‘little’ ship apart just like the one you were on. Don’t forget, everyone on that ship perished, except for you lucky two. If we hadn’t been cruising this way--”

It stung, the reminder that everyone else had drowned, and Anna took in a sharp breath at the painful reminder. She pulled her hand out from under Hans’s gloved hand. She clutched her hands against her stomach. The fancy dress crinkled.

Hans put a hand on her shoulder. “Now don’t fret. We’ll put to port in Southern Isles to resupply, and by then that deadly storm will have passed on.”

“Southern… Isles?” Anna repeated. That sounded familiar.

“Only a short journey. Then you’ll be back on your way, Princess.” His face lit up. “Come to think of it, what an opportunity for a Princess of Arendelle to meet with the royal family of Southern Isles!”

“Oh?” Anna said, to fill the need for a reply. It had come back to her. Captain Hans. Prince Hans of Southern Isles. Elsa had warned her years ago to watch out for him. She needed to tell Kristoff. “I’ll… I’ll give that some thought,” she said, as if she genuinely meant her words. She took a few steps away. Hans had to release her shoulder.

“Going somewhere, Anna?”

“I’ve taken too much of your time already,” Anna answered. “I’m sure you’re very busy.” Before he could keep her, she twiddled her fingers in a wave and strolled back toward Kristoff. It was all she could do not to run, but she didn’t want to give herself away. When she made it back to Kristoff, she grabbed his arm and leaned against him as if cuddling.

Kristoff’s face became dreamy. He put his arm around her waist. “Anna, isn’t this kind of public?” he asked, blushing around the ears.

“Don’t look at him,” Anna said only for Kristoff to hear. The wind was coming in light gusts. She didn’t know if their voices would carry, so she murmured against his shoulder, “There’s something fishy about Captain Hans, or Prince Hans, I should say! I think we need to start thinking about escape.”

“What do you mean?” Kristoff asked, mumbling his question.

“He wants to take us to Southern Isles.”

“But we have to--”

“I know,” Anna cut him off. “Let’s play along and keep our eyes open for a way off this ship.”

ooo

Their opportunity came near twilight that same day, when a larger, heavier vessel hove into view. Anna and Kristoff had been using their time secretly conducting a survey of the ship. Kristoff was below decks when the ship’s crew sounded visual contact with the other ship. Anna was keeping an eye on Hans.

“Signal lamp!” Hans called out impatiently. He snapped at his fingers for the sailors to hurry. One of them scuttled up to the captain with one of the mirrored lanterns used to send messages from ship to ship at distance.

Anna positioned herself far enough to the side to be able to see the flashes of code he began sending to the other ship. She knew she was risking his notice. She hoped that he would be too intent on his signaling to catch her in his peripheral vision. If he did, he might call her to him, or he might send her inside. She itched to explore the captain’s cabin freely, but she didn’t want to miss the messages between ships.

After the customary greeting, the ships exchanged news. The other ship had been at sea for some time. Their news was out of date. Hans asked if they were in need of limes, meat, or fresh water. The other ship indicated that they would soon be docking in Corona to unload wares and re-provision.

Hans told them of the sunken ship. He told them of the survivors he had picked up. The survivors were Corona bound when the wreck happened; would it be possible to transfer them to the other ship?

After a pause for deliberation, the other ship signaled back with an invitation for Hans’s vessel to pull up alongside, to allow for the passengers to come aboard. Hans called out the order to change course to intercept, and, oddly, for the crew to “be ready”.

She hoped to slip away before she could be spotted and met up with Kristoff when he snuck out of the hold. She had no such luck.

“There you are, Anna!” said Hans. He came toward her. He took hold of her by the elbow in a mannerism less about flirtation than dominance. “The sea is becoming rough, and with night falling, the deck is too perilous for a princess. My cabin will be much more comfortable.” Reacting to her expression, he said, “You will have all the privacy you wish, but I do hope that you will join me for dinner, later?”

Anna didn’t want to give herself away, so she looked down at her hands as if shy. If she and Kristoff were transferring to the other ship, how could she be having dinner with Hans? He was definitely up to something! She seized the opportunity to look for answers. “That’s a good idea. Thank you. I’ll just, um, lie down for a nap or something until later.” She let him guide her toward the captain’s cabin. “Are we sailing toward that other ship?”

“We are sharing some fresh water and other supplies with them. Don’t trouble yourself worrying. This is commonplace for us.” He opened the door and ushered her in. “I trust you not to disturb my maps and charts. However, you will see that I have a few fine picture books that might be to your tastes.”

“That sounds great,” Anna said, doing her best to make her smile appear sincere. “Just in here?” She stepped into the dim room. Hans closed the door behind her. Anna heard the sound of a key in the lock. He had locked her in! He had locked her away, and he lied about the other ship. She scrambled to the porthole window. It opened, but of course it was too small for her to escape through.

In the meantime, she went through Han’s cabin like a storm. She found a short, dull knife for clipping candle wicks. She didn’t find any ink or paper to sneak out a letter somehow. Once they attacked the other ship, which she had concluded they were going to do, all pretense would be over. She worried that Hans would find Kristoff before Kristoff found her. She was afraid that he would use Kristoff to control her, or worse, get him out of the way and make her friendless on the ship.

She didn’t have long to worry. Kristoff found her. Or rather, he walked by the porthole, looking for her.

Anna reached out and grabbed him. She was on her tip-toes to reach. Kristoff immediately ducked over to the round window.

“You smell like salt cod,” Anna said, wrinkling her nose.

Kristoff held up a flat piece of dried fish. “There’s a lot of this stuff down in the cargo hold, enough to cast off suspicion if the cargo was inspected. It’s hiding some serious stuff, Anna. Gunpowder, weapons, and crates of other things that aren’t food or water.”

“They’re moving the Sitron to meet up with that Galiote out there. They told them it was to move us over to that ship, but Hans lied to me about it and locked me in here.”

“You’re locked in?” Kristoff exclaimed in a whisper. “I’ll get you out!”

“No, you have to warn that ship. I think these guys are pirates! That explains the fancy clothes and stuff he had for me, and the cargo you saw. There is still some sunlight. Hang on.” She pulled back into the cabin, blinking. When her eyes had almost fully adjusted to the dim interior, she found the hand mirror that matched the ivory handled brush. She rushed back to Kristoff. “Can you use this to send them a warning message?”

“I can, but you know we’re going to be in hot water when the pirates find out what we did.”

“I know. I think I’ll be OK but Kristoff, you have to get off of this ship. Give me that codfish.”

Kristoff, dismay evident on his youthful face, handed her the dried fish without questioning the request. “I can’t leave you here by yourself!”

Anna used the knife to carve writing into the dry salt fish. “You take this to Elsa. It’s in our cypher, so she’ll know it’s from me and proof of what you tell her.”

Kristoff understood what she planned. “I’ll flash them a message and then go overboard.”

“Swim as fast as you can,” Anna said. “Hurry. The sun’s almost gone.” He started to go, but she called him back. “Wait!”

She didn’t have to pull him to the window. He put his hand under her chin and brought his lips down to her waiting lips for a soft, heartfelt kiss. “I’ll be OK,” she told him.

Kristoff tried to reply, but his face screwed up with emotion. All his reply was in his eyes before he turned and ran silently to enact their plan.

Anna only had moments alone before the cabin door unlocked and Hans strode in. He was fussing with his gloves, but his expression was smug and anticipatory. He frowned at the condition of the room. Slowly, he turned and stared at Anna.

“I shouldn’t have expected better manners than your cold older sister, I guess,” he said in an acid voice. “Here you are, a guest at my discretion, and -- no thanks?”

“You’re a pirate,” Anna accused.

“I prefer the term ‘privateer’. Don’t act so sheltered, Princess Anna. Even you can’t be so naive that you don’t know how hard Southern Isles has suffered from Arendelle and Corona’s cold shoulder. It’s been a cold, silent war since your monster of a sister threatened me and mine.” He threw his gloves down on top of the disorder Anna had made of his map table. “Not silent for much longer, now that we have you as a prize.” He grinned. “I’ll be bringing my brothers two fine conquests. That Galiote will make a fine acquisition for Southern Isles. Our navy is coming along so well. Thanks to my contribution.”

He continued to stare at Anna.

“She’s a beauty. I’d love to keep her for myself. Still, I can use her for a while, until I turn her over. I’ll enjoy that.”

“I’ll bite your tongue out if you touch me,” Anna warned.

Hans’s face wrinkled with disgust. “What is it with you Arendelle vixens? Mouths like doxies! Mean as cats.” He threw open a trunk and retrieved a fresh pair of grey gloves.

They both heard an angry shout sound out on deck and the commotion that followed. Kristoff must have made it into the water. Anna smiled with hope. Hans dashed to the door, asking Anna in a growl, “What did you do!” He threw the door open. “You’re going to be sorry you crossed me,” he threatened, just before he slammed and locked the door behind him, leaving Anna to pray that Kristoff would make it safely to the other ship.

ooo

Rapunzel trotted down the hall until she reached Elsa’s room. The door was closed, not unusual for the after-dinner hour, so Rapunzel knocked. There was no response. She waited outside the door a minute longer, biting on her lower lip, her arms crossed over her chest, making circle patterns with her toe. Then she started to walk away.

“Wait,” came Elsa’s call, muffled by the closed door. “Come in.”

Spirits perked up, Rapunzel turned the knob and entered. “Hello,” she called as she walked in. She closed the door behind her. “Did you know it was me?”

Elsa, standing by the windows and looking out, slightly turned her head and shrugged. “It’s the way you knock,” she said. Her attention never fully left the slate gray sky and the icy rain splattering against the window glass.

“I told them,” Rapunzel announced without preamble.

That got Elsa’s attention. She faced Rapunzel, and her eyes grew wide. In a voice that came out not much louder than a whisper, she asked, “What did they do?”

Rapunzel finished crossing the room. She sat down on the corner of Elsa’s desk. “They were surprised,” she said, “I mean it was kind of a shock, I suppose.” Her lip quivered. “Mama Primrose cried.” Rapunzel inhaled and exhaled a deep breath. She brightened again. “She didn’t come to dinner either. You should have come to dinner. It was amazing.”

“I’m not hungry,” Elsa said. She returned her gaze to the rainy night.

“Well, it was amazing, and I bet Cook would warm up a plate for you if you changed your mind.”

“What about Uncle Thomas?” Elsa asked.

Rapunzel studied Elsa’s face and posture. Elsa was hiding her feelings, and not very well to Rapunzel’s perception. “I promised it would be alright, didn’t I?” Rapunzel asked in a sympathetic tone. “My father accepted that he has a magic daughter… pretty well.”

Elsa shook her head. What she meant by the gesture, Rapunzel didn’t know. Rapunzel continued, “Things have to change sometime, right? Something that’s pretty amazing about people is that once an idea is out there, people adapt. I keep seeing all the different ways that people live. People from far away, who speak a completely different language, start learning our language one phrase at a time. I’ve learned about all kinds of things I never imagined, too.”

“This is different, though,” Elsa said.

“I don’t think it is,” Rapunzel argued. “I really don’t. It will take time for people to accept good magic. There’s no rush.” She waited silently and watched Elsa.

She didn’t want to stare. She followed her cousin’s gaze to the storm outside the window. She examined the papers on top of Elsa’s desk. She tried to make out the cryptic writing, which didn’t look like any language she had yet seen.

Elsa said, at last, “This isn’t me.” She put a finger against the glass. “Do you think this is me?” She cast an expression of worry at Rapunzel.

“Maybe it’s just a storm. A natural storm,” suggested Rapunzel. “I know you’re worrying about my coming out with my secret. I wish I could keep you from worrying. Does it feel like your magic?”

“I don’t know,” Elsa answered, a plaintive note in her voice.

“You have control of your magic. I don’t think you made this storm happen.”

“But the ice,” Elsa insisted. “The rain is turning into ice. It’s summer. What if it is my fault? What if I my powers are getting too strong for me to control?” The intensity, but not the volume, climbed in her voice. “When I was younger, I used to make ice in my sleep. It could be happening like that again, happening without my control.”

“Haven’t you spent hours and hours training, every day since I healed those sick children? You have control, Elsa. Believe in yourself.” Rapunzel got off the desk and went to stand behind Elsa so that she could put her arms around her.

Elsa emitted a surprised laugh. “What are you doing?” she questioned. Rapunzel didn’t let her escape.

“I’m hugging you,” she said in a laughing voice. Elsa made a resistant whimper that started to turn into a giggle. Rapunzel squeezed her tighter. “I’m not going to let go until you stop staring out the window and making yourself sad.”

Relaxing into the hug, Elsa moved away from the window. Rapunzel kept her hold and walked with her for a few steps. Then, laughing, she let Elsa slip free. Elsa sat down at her desk and the smile stayed on her face.

“Thank you,” Elsa said.

Rapunzel leaned on the desk. “What kind of writing is that?” she asked.

“Oh this?” Elsa moved the stationary from the top of her desk and into a drawer. “I was writing to my sister.”

Rapunzel’s interest grew. “Is it a code?” She wished Elsa hadn’t put the unfinished letter away.

Elsa hesitated before she answered. “Yes,” she revealed. “We write to each other in our own code.”

“I love it. Will you teach it to me?”

“It’s… our special thing,” Elsa answered. She picked up a miniature portrait of Anna that she kept on her desk. “Perhaps it’s strange to feel so close to a sister I haven’t seen in years. Except that Anna and I have carried on a conversation the whole time, in a way that only she and I can read. I know my sister is always waiting for my reply, and I, hers.” Her smile faded away. “It’s gotten me through the worst times, knowing that if I missed sending a reply… I know how I would feel, if there was no letter from Anna.”

“I’ll go. You can finish writing your letter,” Rapunzel said.

“I have another day before the ship from Arendelle is in,” Elsa said. She stared into the distance, thinking. “By now, Arendelle has received the good news about your reunion with your parents. I wonder what my parents said to each other afterward.” She closed her eyes. “I miss them all so much, sometimes.”

The icy rain fell harder against the window. The slushy drops had become hail, bouncing like white pebbles off the window frame and glass. A strong wind lashed outside in the night.

“It really is getting bad out there,” Rapunzel noted.

“I think I’ll have some lavender tea and go to bed early,” Elsa proposed. “I’m feeling tired.”

Rapunzel made a sympathetic face. “That sounds like a good plan,” she said. She stood up. “I’m going to find out if any townspeople need better shelter tonight.”

Rapunzel left Elsa. She found Flynn and told him her idea of checking on the townsfolk, and then they both spent the remainder of the evening rousting drunks and vagrants from inadequate, leaky, and makeshift shelters and into better protection from the unseasonable weather. Rapunzel commandeered an empty storehouse for the night. She made sure that everyone, including the guards posted to keep order, had a warm meal, too.

By the time she reluctantly bid goodnight to Flynn, she was a good measure of tired, herself. It was a good kind of tired, she thought to herself as she unbraided and brushed out her hair, not Elsa’s kind of tired, that tiredness that took all the color out of her cheeks. Rapunzel dressed in a warm nightgown and put on a long, thick robe, but instead of snuggling into her own cozy bed, she took a candle to Elsa’s room to check on her cousin.

Elsa had gone to bed, but she wasn’t asleep. She got up and let Rapunzel in. “Is something the matter?” she asked.

“I was going to ask you,” Rapunzel replied. She set down the candle. “I came to tuck you in. I thought you’d be asleep.”

Elsa said, “I never sleep very well.” She climbed back into her bed and under the covers.

Rapunzel climbed under the covers, too, only kicking off her slippers, first. “Let me sing you a lullaby,” she said. She blew out the candle. The mild glow of her hair illuminated the area of Elsa’s bed. She put her arms around her cousin again in a gentle, sympathetic hug.

A shallow sigh exhaled out of Elsa. She curled into the circle of Rapunzel’s arms until the two girls were as cozy as a pair of teaspoons in a drawer. With her head sharing Elsa’s pillow, Rapunzel softly hummed, not the tune she knew best, but an improvised, soothing melody to help Elsa fall asleep. She thought about shady meadows and clear moonlight as she made her lullaby. Her hair continued its low glow. It didn’t shine as it would have had she sung her healing song.

She wasn’t sure who fell asleep first: Elsa, listening to the wandering tune, or Rapunzel herself, listening to the cold rainstorm that continued to rattle against the windows of Elsa’s room.

ooo

Chapter Text

Elsa woke before the first lightening of dawn sky. When she crept out of her bed to dress for morning training exercises, Rapunzel — also an early waker — sat up, yawning. Elsa was surprised; she remembered that her cousin had come to snuggle with her, she just didn’t expect Rapunzel to have stayed after Elsa dropped off into sleep.

“I need to take Maximus out riding,” Elsa said. “We can find a horse for you if you would like to come along, but we don’t have any that can keep up with me and Maximus.”

“That’s OK,” Rapunzel answered. “I’m helping Cook this morning. So come back hungry! What’s your favorite thing for breakfast?”

“Can I have chocolate for breakfast?” Elsa joked in a low voice.

Rapunzel pulled her knees up and hugged her arms around them. “I think I can come up with something,” she promised. “It was nice having someone to sleep with. It’s been just me and Pascal,” the chameleon seemed to appear out of nowhere, crawling up onto Rapunzel’s shoulder, “most of my life, but I like company a lot. There’s something relaxing about sharing a bed.”

“You really like people,” Elsa observed. “You’re not afraid of anyone.”

“I do like people!” Rapunzel unwound from the bed and started getting dressed out of Elsa’s wardrobe. “All that time in my tower was plenty of being alone. People are interesting. Everyone has their own history, their own reasons for being the way they are. That’s interesting.”

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” Elsa said.

“What if I bring breakfast out to you? I feel like going out for a walk. It’s great to walk and just keep going!”

“You mean, like a picnic?” Elsa asked. She considered and couldn’t think of a reason to turn it down. “Sure. Alright. We’ll meet at the fountain in two hours.” They agreed on the plan. She left Rapunzel in her room and headed to the stables to roust Maximus.

The stallion greeted her with a good mood, and soon Elsa felt her own mood lighten. They traveled out to where Maximus could run. The air had the same crisp snap of fresh laundry, with a scrubbed clean scent from the storm that had passed over and passed on during the night. The sun warmed the day with summer’s kiss.

By the time they circled back toward the castle, Elsa felt the soft wings of hope in her heart. For what, she couldn’t say. However, the thrumming of hoof beats and the birdsong in the forest worked a quietness in her mind. She was a person built for solitude, the opposite of her gregarious cousin Rapunzel, or of Anna for that matter. Maximus gave her the unjudging companionship that she liked. As they cantered, the coil of an idea began to unfold.

The sea was a solitary place. She had, in passing, wondered if she should join Corona’s navy in the pursuit of pirates and other threats, and now she considered the idea again. The sea joined Corona and Arendelle. If she had no real place in either, wouldn’t the water between serve?

Since she still had time before meeting up with Rapunzel, Elsa detoured Maximus down toward the harbor. Maximus clopped along the docks while she toured the ships preparing to go out on the next tide. She and Maximus continued on to the shipyard.

Her arrival caused a stop in the work going on. The workers stopped to bow for the visiting princess, and few of them had any practice with the appropriate degree of obeisance. She dismounted from Maximus and went to observe the finishing of a fine, small vessel. The ship builders were hanging new sails from the two masts.

“Tell me about this one,” she asked the yard foreman.

“Our newest snow, Your Highness,” he told her. “She’s ready to go out. Fast and light, easy for a small crew.” He smiled with reticent pride. “She’s a northern design. Do you fancy her, Princess Elsa?”

“I do,” Elsa admitted. She made up her mind. She loved the outline of the ship, its sharp bow and the almost dainty quality of its size, in comparison to the merchant and navy vessels in Corona’s harbor. “Save her for me,” she said decisively.

She walked Maximus back along the dock, her step saunter that exuded her cheerful frame of mind. Her moods could be so dark, but when her spirit lightened, she sometimes wondered how her mind could swing so widely on the pendulum of emotion. Which was the real Elsa, the one who smiled at the dockside workers, merchants, and sailors on this morning, or the one that raged and wept?

She didn’t know.

Her mind was plucking at the question when she spotted Kay coming down from loading a merchant ship. The sour, superior expression on his face vanished when he saw her. His face brightened with a smile, and he dusted off his hands and jogged up toward her. “Elsa!”

“How are you this morning, Kay?” Elsa gave him a smile in return.

“Up too early,” he complained. “Last night’s downpour set us back, and this order had to go out. They’re just about to sail, too.”

“Off to faraway lands,” Elsa conjectured.

“To someone who wants a lot of mirrors. Enough for a whole room of them. Imagine that place,” he mused, a tone of covetousness in his voice.

“It would be beautiful,” Elsa commented. She wouldn’t want to see herself reflected so much, but the idea of a hall of mirrors did sound like architectural grandeur. “Like Versailles.”

“Well, I’d love to live in a palace,” Kay said. He lowered his voice. “Depending on the company, that is.” He looked at her, all at once shy.

“Speaking of company, I’m due to meet Princess Rapunzel.” She gifted him with another smile, in parting. “I haven’t seen you at Mother Gartner’s in some time. Will you be joining us for tea tomorrow?”

“Like when we were kids?” Kay considered. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

“It will be nice to see you and Gerte again,” Elsa said. She hoisted herself back up to Maximus’s saddle. “'Til tomorrow, then, Kay?” She rode off with a friendly wave of her hand.

Arriving at the courtyard fountain in front of the castle, Elsa looked around and found her cousin waving from an upper story window. Before Elsa could call up to her, Rapunzel hopped out of the window, twirling down like an acrobat on the golden tether of her hair and swinging to a stop in front of Elsa. She held a large covered basket under one arm.

Maximus sorted at her surprising entrance. He was answered by Pascal hopping out of Rapunzel’s skirt pocket; the chameleon clambered onto a spot atop Maximus’s head.

“Nice to see you two getting along,” Rapunzel noted. She pulled a plump yellow apple from the basket for Maximus to crunch.

“Don’t inhale it, Max,” Elsa admonished. Maximus gave her a look.

Rapunzel handed her basket to Elsa. It was heavy. Then Rapunzel hopped up behind Elsa, and Elsa moved forward in the saddle to make room. “Are we ready?” Rapunzel asked as she took her basket back and settled her free arm around Elsa’s middle.

“I half expected Eugene to join us,” said Elsa. They headed down the castle rode at a canter.

“He’s still asleep!” Rapunzel laughed. “Not a morning person, Eugene.” She hummed contentedly. “He’s so cute when he’s sleeping,” she said.

Rapunzel couldn’t see Elsa’s raised eyebrows. “Oh?”

“Like a cute, sleeping thing,” Rapunzel answered. “I just want to keep him in pillows and bon-bons forever.”

Elsa couldn’t stop the snort that blew out of her. “He’d love that,” she giggled. “A life of luxury. I think that’s been his life’s goal.”

“He calls it luxury, but it’s security, really,” Rapunzel said. “Not having to worry about where he’s going to sleep, or how he’s going to buy food, or what happens to him in his old age. Who will take care of him if he can’t take care of himself. I never worried about those things.”

“Yes, but you locked in a tower, so you didn’t have it easy, either.” She looked forward again. “Where are we going, by the way? Did you have a spot in mind?”

“Weeeell,” Rapunzel hedged. “It’s funny you should mention the tower.”

Elsa stood up straighter. “No. I think that’s a bad idea.”

“I’d like to see it again. I don’t want to be afraid of my past. It’s just a building, after all. And I do have good memories.” She shrugged. “I don’t need to go inside. I just want to sit in the valley and take a look.”

Elsa thought about how the tower’s valley held sound in. “It’s enchanted. For all we know, it could be a trap, if you go back.”

“Oh!” Rapunzel sounded genuinely shocked. “That didn’t cross my mind!”

“Let’s just find a nice spot with a dry place to sit.”

“Someplace near a stream,” Rapunzel requested. “I wonder if we can go swimming.”

“We can go wading.” Elsa could just imagine Rapunzel jumping into the stream, clothes and all, for a swim – or worse, skinny dipping like a peasant girl.

“Oh, I know. Follow this rode up for a little bit,” Rapunzel said. She pointed to a side rode that branched off into the woods.

It was the road that led to the pub where Elsa had first caught up with Flynn and Rapunzel. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yes, if we can, I’d like to visit some friends. But first we can picnic. There are a lot of nice spots.”

 ooo

 

Chapter Text

 

ooo

“So, Elsa,” Rapunzel said to break the silence, however peaceful. Elsa had a faraway look on her face, and she had been staring at the rippling stream for a long while without the least bit of fidgeting. Rapunzel continued, “That tree,” she pointed, “looks like it would have an amazing view from the upper branches.”

“It’s a tall one,” Elsa answered.

“What d’you say? Wanna climb?” She drew out the last word like a tether to pull Elsa along.

Elsa stood up, brushing off her backside and smoothing her clothes. “You would get along so well with my sister Anna,” she said to Rapunzel. She didn’t quite roll her eyes.

“I suppose I will!” Rapunzel agreed cheerfully. She trotted to the nearby tall tree and felt the trunk for footholds. “Will she be coming to visit, or,” she threw a loop of hair over a lower branch and used it to pull herself up to the first perch, “will I be going to Arendelle?” She gave Elsa her full attention. This conversation was her primary reason for getting Elsa out of the castle and alone, where they could talk freely.

Rapunzel looped her hair again, this time to catch Elsa up and pull her toward the tree. Once Elsa was at the base, Rapunzel offered down a hand. “Come on up,” she said. Her hair remained loosely wrapped across Elsa’s hips.

“Fine,” Elsa mock-complained as she took the boost up. She got a boot into a gnarl in the trunk, and with the support of Rapunzel’s hair and their linked hands, she clambered up to a branch near Rapunzel’s branch. “I’m not really dressed for this.”

“Will you let me help you?” Rapunzel asked.

“Yes. OK,” said Elsa.

Together, they went up the ladder of branches. The organic shape of the tree provided a desired challenge for Rapunzel. “I’ve been climbing a little with Eugene,” she said as she made room for Elsa on a wide branch, “but it’s nice to climb something that doesn’t have an architectural shape. There’s such a nice geometry to trees.”

Elsa looked up at the remaining distance. “You haven’t been climbing around the castle,” she asked with genuine dismay.

Rapunzel bit her lower lip. “Just a little,” she admitted. “When no one was watching.” She continued climbing, taking several branches before turning back to Elsa. A swath of hair remained around Elsa the whole time, as a safety rope, loose enough not to impede.

“It’s not a skill set that transfers to statesmanship,” Elsa said, following. “Ambassador Fitzherbert has plenty else to tackle. And don’t you keep your hands full with enough, yourself?”

“But it’s fun,” Rapunzel answered, grinning. “Fun is important.”

“If you say so,” Elsa responded. Nevertheless, she wore a smile as Rapunzel took both hands to pull her up to the branch with a good view over the other treetops.

Rapunzel took in the view. The morning was already a fine, sunny summer day. The breeze fluttered her skirt and made her hair billow. “Just look at all of it,” she sighed with joy. “Feel that. The wind and sky! And the waves on the water shine prettier than jewels. Look at those ships! Look at the castle!” Being up high felt like home, the best of all her homes, with both a view and freedom. Elsa sat, and Rapunzel leaned against the trunk of the tree. Elsa watched her and retained a smile. Ample tree continued above them, but the branches became thinner, and their current perch was satisfactory.

“What are we going to do?” Rapunzel asked.

Elsa responded without much inflexion. “What do you mean?”

“Am I going to Arendelle with you? Shall I make the official visit and meet my uncle and aunt for the first time? That I can remember, at least?”

“Oh... oh,” Elsa exhaled. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Do you want to tell me why you haven’t gone home, after so long?” Rapunzel asked. “It’s not usual, as I understand it.”

Elsa shrugged. Her face lost its smile. She shook her head before speaking. “I can’t... if I need to be here in Corona, then...”

“Elsa, I know you’ve been amazing for the kingdom,” Rapunzel said. “I wonder about what you want. I mean, you’re welcome here forever. I don’t understand why Arendelle hasn’t summoned you back, but Father said that after your next birthday, it will be too strange if you don’t return to your country.” She intentionally did not say home or family. Corona could be Elsa’s home, and Rapunzel felt she was Elsa’s family, as much as Elsa’s parents and sister. “So if what it takes is for me to act in an official capacity as princess, then we will go together. Eugene will even come, as ambassador.”

“Let me think about it,” Elsa said.

“You don’t sound like you’re going to think about it. You sound,” Rapunzel said as she sat down beside her cousin, “like you’re attempting to put me off.” She reached out, and touching Elsa lightly under her chin, encouraged Elsa to lift her head. “Look at the view instead of the ground.” Rapunzel hugged herself and grinned. “Remember, you can’t fall. I won’t let you.”

Elsa’s eyes reflected the sun and the open water. “You’ve really taken to your role,” she said softly without looking at Rapunzel.

Rapunzel took the comment as a compliment.

“Getting down might be harder than coming up,” Elsa said. Carefully, she stood and began scouting a foothold down.

“I’ve got you if you need me,” said Rapunzel.

Elsa didn’t seem to acknowledge the assurance. “I knew there was a reason I didn’t climb trees,” she said. In spite of her fussing, she made it to the next lower branch without difficulty. She climbed down ahead of Rapunzel, her careful step never slipping in the slightest.

When Rapunzel reached the grass, Elsa said, “Could we hold off on stopping by your friends? I have a few things to attend to at the castle...”

“It’s OK if you want to go on ahead,” Rapunzel offered. She wanted to mingle Elsa with her friends from the Snuggly Duckling, but it could wait. “I can go on my own.”

“Oh, no,” Elsa rejected the proposal. “I can’t leave you alone with ruffians.”

“They are a little rough around the edges,” Rapunzel acknowledged, “but I’ll be fine. Attila keeps everyone in line.”

“No, Rapunzel,” Elsa insisted.

“Then you’re coming with me, because I am going to see my friends,” Rapunzel argued back. “We’ll compromise,” she wheedled. “Half an hour, at most.”

Elsa gave in. Rapunzel wouldn’t have budged until she did. “I just want to stop by and invite Attila up to the castle to meet Cook. We need another baker, and I think he’d be great,” she conversed as they walked.

“If you think so,” Elsa answered.

“Come on. Don’t be sour,” Rapunzel prodded.

“I’m not,” Elsa responded. She fluttered her lashes in embarrassment at her huffy tone when she heard herself. “It’s going to be awkward,” she explained.

They passed the wooden sign and spotted the pub down the lane. “I don’t see why,” Rapunzel said.

The hour was early for The Snuggly Duckling’s usual crowd, meaning that inside the dark tavern was nearly empty. A red-nosed drunk slumped by the desultory fireplace, as much a fixture as the stuffed chair whose leg he used for a pillow. A door opened and shut on the upper floor.

“How did it get so dirty already?” It actually bothered her to see how the filth had accumulated again, when she considered her hours of scrubbing and sweeping. Dishes from the previous night or longer sat stacked under food-spattered tables. Ash piled up and spilled out of the fireplace. She ran lightly down the muddy stairs and toward the kitchen. “Good morning!” she called in ahead of her entrance.

Attila sat by the oven with his helmet down on the floor beside the tall, skinny barstool that served as his seat. He was eating a morning bun, drinking from a steaming mug, and reading a newspaper. When Rapunzel announced herself, he stuffed the roll into his mouth and quickly reached for his helmet. Then he saw who she was and stopped.

With care, he stepped down from the stool and bowed deeply and stayed bowed.

Rapunzel laughed. “You don’t have to do that. It’s just me,” she said. Elsa stepped into the kitchen behind her. “And Elsa,” she added. “Attila, you can stand up.” After a delay, he straightened. Elsa’s presence made Attila immediately nervous.

Elsa said, “He does have to bow. You’re a princess.”

“So are you,” Rapunzel countered. She cringed, wishing she had thought before speaking.

“Exactly,” Elsa said.

“Oh.” Rapunzel crossed the kitchen and gave Attila a small hug, which he did not expect. It nearly sent him into a panic. “It’s OK! It’s OK,” Rapunzel soothed. She tried to make eye contact, but he looked anywhere but at her. “You liked me when you didn’t know I was a princess. I didn’t know I was a princess! You still like me now, don’t you? We’re friends?”

Elsa said, “This was a mistake, Rapunzel. We should go.”

Attila wasn’t a verbose person, Rapunzel knew, but his expression was troubled and he seemed to have something he wanted to say but could not. He kept looking at his helmet with a kind of longing. Rapunzel stepped back to give him some space.

“You’ve kept it so clean in here,” Rapunzel noted, “and it smells fantastic.” She took in a deep breath. “What did you bake today?”

Shyly, he pulled over a basket. “Wild currant and tarragon,” he mumbled, indicating the honey-glossed buns. “Would you like one?”

“Thanks!” She took a bite and wasn’t disappointed. “Elsa, you should try this,” she said while still chewing. She offered the rest of the sweet roll to Elsa.

Rapunzel was glad that Elsa went along. “Alright, but we did just have breakfast,” Elsa said. She pinched off a piece of the bun and handed the rest back. “Mm!” she said when she tasted her piece.

“I know!” Rapunzel agreed with enthusiasm. “Attila, I want you to come to my home and bake for us. Can you come by in the next day or two?”

The big man gave up on donning his helmet. Instead he shuffled back toward a defensible corner. “To the castle... no... no, I couldn’t go,” he declined. “Too many fancy strangers,” he added under his breath.

“Please? You’ll love the kitchen, and everyone,” Rapunzel cajoled. When Attila continued his reticence, she looked to Elsa for assistance.

Elsa put a hand on her arm and gently pulled her away. “How much do you want this?” she quietly asked.

“A lot,” Rapunzel answered.

Elsa spoke to Attila. “Your princess commands,” she said. “Corona requires that you present yourself to the castle kitchens by the day after tomorrow.”

Rapunzel protested. “I didn’t mean it as a command...!” She said to Attila, “You know I didn’t mean it that way!”

“If you won’t accept this man’s no, then it has to be,” Elsa said.

“Oh, but,” Rapunzel started. She didn’t quite know what to say. “But that’s how it is, not how it has to be,” she argued. “It would mean so much to me if I could bring everyone together,” she explained. She turned her plea to Attila. “Maybe if you give the idea some thought?” she suggested.

Elsa turned and walked out of the kitchen without another word. Rapunzel gave Attila a smile of optimism that she didn’t completely feel, herself, and hurried after Elsa. She caught up to her outside.

“Did I do something wrong?” Rapunzel asked.

“You can’t be royal only when it suits you,” Elsa said. “It’s not a suit of clothes. And you can’t expect others to be as ready for adventure as you are, or see the world the way you do. You’re changing things too fast. Maybe you could spend more time settling in before you change anything else!”

“Elsa...” Rapunzel felt the remonstrance like a dousing in cold water. It froze her in place.

Elsa looked at her, sighed regretfully, and said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

Rapunzel opened her mouth to apologize, but she couldn’t form words. She shook her head, instead.

In a softer voice, Elsa repeated, “I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I have noticed how hurts you if someone yells or scolds. I will try harder to remember that.” She took a step toward Rapunzel. “Let’s not fight,” she said.

“S-sorry,” was all Rapunzel could manage. She hated herself for saying it. Elsa was right; to Rapunzel, a raised voice was worse than a raised hand. “That is...” she made herself say, “why did you get angry? I don’t want to fight. I want to understand.”

“I’m not angry.” Elsa sounded calm, but Rapunzel didn’t think she was telling the truth. Elsa explained, “The privilege of a princess is also her duty. You want a friend, but the people need a symbol. To someone like Attila it means far more to know that the crown looks out for his well-being.”

“But that’s all I was saying,” Rapunzel replied, still confused. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a princess, because I’m his friend, too.”

“If you were a commoner, he would only have to be concerned about hurting a friend’s feelings by turning down your invitation. Even then, I think it wouldn’t be right for you to pressure him to do what he clearly is very uncomfortable doing. Those are his feelings. Don’t they count as much as yours?”

 “If he just gave it a chance, though,” Rapunzel tried. Even while voicing the weak rebuttal, she could see Elsa’s point.

“Let him have the life he has chosen without pushing him to something according to your timeline,” Elsa said. “Leave the invitation open. Maybe he will later want to take it, or something like it. It could be enough just to know that you offered.”

No matter how Mother Gothel had frequently disparaged her, Rapunzel wasn’t so witless than she didn’t see the parallel to her plan of going to Arendelle. Elsa hadn’t said no, but she hadn’t seemed enthusiastic about it, either. Like her offer to Attila, it hadn’t gone the way Rapunzel had imagined in her head that it would.

She wasn’t ready to give up on going to Arendelle, but she realized that she needed to give it more thought. First, however, she dashed back into The Snuggly Duckling. Attila had his helmet on, but she imagined that she could see the dread in his body language.

“If you don’t want to, you don’t have to come up to the castle,” she said quickly. “But if you ever want to, I’ll be so happy to introduce you to everyone.” His posture stiffened. “Or not! You can come up to visit me, and you don’t have to meet anyone!” she assured. “If you need anything, ever, let me know what it is.” She gave him her most winning smile.

He mumbled something under his helmet. It might have been, “Thank you, Your Highness,” but she could not make it out.

She wanted to give him another hug. Instead, she asked for another currant bun, which he was pleased to give her. She said her good-bye, not knowing when she would see Attila again, and she returned to Elsa.

ooo

Chapter Text

 

Elsa knew intellectually why she felt the push of ice itching her hands and stirring in her center. It crawled up her spine from the small of her back and sat between her shoulder blades like a weight pushing down on her. The pressure made her feel out of balance, no matter how strong and graceful her stride through the castle corridors continued to be.

The causes had been piling up on top of each other. She felt uncomfortable in her skin from the weather’s shift to hotter days, which always brought a longing for the cool of snow-capped mountains and crystal blue fjords of memory, and in turn, the memories stirred currents in other childhood memories. Pressures small and large lay on top of the general malaise she felt when she thought about her future. Elsa felt the weight from Rapunzel’s public demonstration of her healing magic, and from Rapunzel’s headstrong ideas about rushing off to Arendelle. On the day of her picnic with her cousin, she considered and discarded the idea of discussing her half-formed plan to take to sea with Rapunzel. It just... didn’t feel like the right time.

Knowing the reason for her anxious mood didn’t conquer the dangerous insistence of her ice, it never did, but picking the reasons apart implied that it could be diffused; if the mountain of ice had built in layers, then logically, it could be taken apart one ice block at a time. Queen Primrose had taught her to confront problems with that approach. Queen Primrose and King Thomas had shown her, every year on their missing daughter’s birthday, that distraction could have value, too, when judiciously applied. Since everything in Corona seemed to be attached to Rapunzel’s activities, Elsa focused on anticipating the ship from Arendelle coming with her sister’s weekly letter.

She hoped it would be early by hours, so that she could lock herself away in her room after the dreaded visit to Gothel in her dungeon cell. Elsa thought she might be growing to dread the visits more than Rapunzel dreaded them. Gothel had taken to watching Elsa with an unwavering stare and a smirk upon her lips, whether they were thin with aging or plump again from Rapunzel’s restorative magic.

Elsa’s duty was escorting Rapunzel to work the healing spell on Gothel; however awful, she had to do it. Rapunzel had busied herself after breakfast, and now Elsa collected her from the solarium, where the royal princess sat talking with the king and queen. Rapunzel gave Elsa a sheepish look when she saw her in the doorway, but she stood up to go with Elsa right away.

Rapunzel said, to her parents, “It’s time for me to do what I have to.”

“I don’t like it,” the queen said. To Elsa, she seemed frightened.

King Thomas said, “It keeps the woman controlled. That is so, isn’t it, Elsa?”

Elsa nodded, her face grim. “What Rapunzel does negates Gothel’s dark magic.” Deeply uncomfortable with the topic, she rushed through her assurance. “It’s over quickly. Rapunzel is never alone, and our guardsmen are vigilant.”

“Elsa’s always with me,” Rapunzel chimed in. “It’s alright, Mama. This has been helping me sort out my feelings.”

“We should get it over with,” Elsa said. The king caught her eye. She gave him a small smile. She understood that he probably wanted to discuss the situation with her, sometime soon, now that Rapunzel’s magic was known. Long term plans for Mother Gothel could not be discussed with Rapunzel until the king had considered the options, and King Thomas had sought Elsa’s input on matters of justice at times before.

Rapunzel reached the door, and Elsa followed her out. Rapunzel walked slowly down the hall.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” she began. “About how I need to see how things are before I start trying to change them. You’re right,” she brightened, “of course!” She gave else an engaging smile. “I might still want things to change, but if I really wait until I understand why they are the way they are, then I will be a better princess for Corona.” She looked straight ahead. “My mother – Mama Primrose – said, ‘Observe first, then act.’”

“You talked to her about it?” Elsa asked. She was uncomfortable with her aunt knowing how Elsa had berated Rapunzel.

Rapunzel nodded. Her matter-of-fact manner showed that she had no idea she had put Elsa in a bad light. “My life has changed so much, so fast, since my birthday. My birthday was like being born, I guess. I feel like my life began that day. I could never talk to Mother... Gothel the way I can with you, and Eugene, and my real mother and father – but especially Mama Primrose. Gothel wasn’t like a mother. I can see the difference, now.” She chewed her lower lip. “I wasn’t allowed to ask questions. I got in trouble when I did.”

“She couldn’t let you know anything, I imagine,” Elsa said, “that would help you if you ever escaped her.”

“I did figure some things out,” said Rapunzel. “As long as I didn’t ask directly or act interested. Even in the bad stories she told to scare me, there were hints about things I wanted to know.”

“You are exceptionally smart, Rapunzel. I don’t know that you realize,” Elsa said.

Rapunzel laughed. “Me?” She shook her head. “I’m a dope. My head is always in the clouds.”

“Gothel said things like that to you, didn’t she? She told you that you weren’t smart, or pretty, or capable of doing things right, didn’t she?”

“Well I’m not...” Rapunzel stopped what she had started to say, and instead thought quietly, frowning to herself.

“I can’t think of myself as smart or pretty,” she said, finally. Their progress had brought them to the entrance to the castle dungeons.

An odd thought popped into Elsa’s head. “You should think you can, instead.” Olaf had said that to her, more than once when she was a child.

Gothel looked worse than Elsa expected. When they arrived at the witch’s cell, the witch seemed all the more horrible. She had aged more quickly than before from the same gap of time between healings. Her hair appeared brittle and had more yellowy gray strands, her skin ashier, and her eyes more clouded.

Those clouded eyes looked Elsa over with knowledge and certainty. Elsa hated the kinship those eyes implied.

Most of all, she hated her own certainty that Gothel was right. They were both monsters. Gothel was old, centuries old she claimed. For all Elsa knew, in her first decades she may have tried, as Elsa tried, to keep her magic from breaking free. Or perhaps not. Her dark magic may only have been kept at bay because Gothel’s desire for youthful beauty was a greater force, the dark magic suppressed as a consequence of the magic flower’s golden light. Elsa would not ask her. She would not slip into the trap of seeking advice from the witch.

Rapunzel sang. She was efficient, but not hurried. Though Elsa felt horror toward Gothel, Rapunzel’s golden song held notes of sadness, perhaps regret, and something like pity. Her eyes went to Elsa when she took the strands of her hair away from Gothel. Gothel, refreshed in youth, yielded the strands without lingering.

“We can go now,” Rapunzel said to Elsa. “Let’s go.”

Something would have to be done with Gothel, Elsa thought. Justice would have to be done. What else could be, keeping her locked up until Rapunzel herself aged, an grey queen – perhaps grandmother to the monarch reigning then – continuing to visit her abductor? The image was absurd and awful.

As if in answer to Elsa’s unspoken thoughts, Rapunzel said, as they left the dungeon behind them, “I don’t hate her. I wonder if I will ever understand her enough to understand how I feel about her.”

“She only cares about herself,” Elsa said. It was the kindest way she could think of to tell Rapunzel that any love Rapunzel had for the woman who had played the role of adoptive mother was a love without reflection.

“I believed that she loved me,” Rapunzel answered softly. “Does it matter if it wasn’t real? I felt loved.”

Elsa didn’t know what to say to that. She kept her thoughts to herself.

ooo

No letter for Elsa arrived. No ship arrived from Arendelle at all. The day faded and Elsa’s concern grew. The alteration from schedule wasn’t, in itself, a great cause for alarm; a ship could be delayed for any number of reasons.Yet it gave Elsa a terrible unease.

She walked back from the docks as the sunset sky darken to night. Back at the castle, she couldn’t prevent herself from looking out windows, and she ended up out on the grand balcony, which had the furthest view of the bay and the sea beyond. Her uncle found her there and came out to join her.

“Has there been any advanced message from the Arendelle mail ship?” she asked him without preamble. Her question flowed out of her thoughts. “They’ve been like clockwork, all season, always here in time to go out with the next tide.”

“Delayed by the recent storm, no doubt,” King Thomas suggested. He took a moment to absorb the view: the lamps of the ships in the harbor reflecting on the calm waters. “Other ships have just arrived that should have been here days ago, but they were put off their course or had to take refuge in other ports. I’m sure the mail ship will cruise in before long. Maybe on the next tide.”

Elsa tensed when King Thomas referred to the storm of a few days past. It had been a storm with the sharp touch of ice in it. “But no word of them,” she repeated.

King Thomas responded to her concern. “I will send someone to the docks to ask,” he said, but when Elsa shook her head, he gleaned the meaning of her gesture. “You already have,” he concluded. A silence sat between them for several minutes.

“I had hoped to have a letter to read,” Elsa said, dismissing her own concerns, as if her mood came from nothing more than a thwarted whim. She changed the subject all at once. “How was your day, uncle?”

“Uneventful,” said the king, “and I understand from Rapunzel that your day was not so pleasant.” He did not pat her arm to extend comfort, and yet there was something in the way that he half-turned toward her that implied that he would have, had Elsa not disliked being touched. “It feels like cowardice to make you stand in my place —“

“She goes mad even at the thought of you, uncle,” Elsa interrupted. “You can’t go anywhere near her, if we hope to keep her controlled. I don’t mind, really,” she finished in a smaller voice. She did mind, but it was her duty.

King Thomas made a noise from his broad chest, “Hm. A decision will need to be made about Gothel,” he said. He rubbed his ringed hand across his eyes. “Primrose is against execution,” he revealed.

“She is?”

“I was amazed, too, initially,” King Thomas said. “It’s a hard thing, to order someone’s death. You know we not tyrants, here, and we don’t delight in spilling blood. However. In this case. My feeling was: there can be no place in the kingdom for such sorcerous evil, and the penalty for abducting Corona’s daughter must be death.”

Elsa couldn’t imagine it otherwise. She listened, holding her questions in.

“But Primrose has pointed that justice against Gothel will be a shock to Rapunzel. I won’t do anything that will harm my daughter, not even if it brought a plague of witches to the kingdom,” Thomas declared.

A plague of witches. Elsa felt a knot in her stomach double. Did her uncle still think of anyone with magic, even Rapunzel, as a witch, but accepted Rapunzel regardless, because she was his daughter? And if so, how long would it be until a reversal of which one outweighed the other?

“Then what will the kingdom do,” Elsa asked, “keep Gothel in the dungeons indefinitely? Rapunzel has to sing to her every three or four days. How long can that go on?”

“I will let that go on only as long as Rapunzel wants to continue,” King Thomas said. “Before she told us of her healing ability, we thought our daughter required some contact with the woman to help Rapunzel come to terms. A notion you let us have,” he said, and though he raised his eyebrows, his voice remained gentle. “This application of magic doesn’t sit well with me. If iron isn’t enough to contain Gothel, then we can find additional methods. Mother Gartner has suggested preparations of a certain pungent herb, or tar of poppy, as sedatives.” He appeared to consider. “If possible, once Rapunzel no longer wishes to see her, we could remove her to the tower in which Gothel imprisoned our daughter, and keep her there under heavy guard.” He considered further, a hard expression forming on his face. “She could be made to cook and clean for herself. Too easy an imprisonment, but I like the symmetry. For the guards, a comfortable garrison could be built in the valley.”

Elsa said, “I don’t think that Rapunzel will want stop.” She rephrased, in her mind: Rapunzel might want to stop, but she wouldn’t feel free to stop.

“Give her some months,” King Thomas advised. “She is quickly taking to her role. One day soon she will choose the sunny schoolroom, teaching art to children, over the dungeon’s gloom. She will soon be so busy with her projects that she will forget whatever hold Gothel had on her.”

“You may right,” Elsa said.

ooo

At first, she thought the morning would be another of disappointment and shadowing worry. She would, at least, be having an early luncheon at Mother Gartner’s home. The luncheon would be like one of those teas from her childhood, but with the happy addition of Rapunzel and Flynn. Kay could not attend, but certainly Gerte would not disappoint Mother Gartner.

The old woman’s abode was still a place of comfort to Elsa. For the social call, Rapunzel and Primrose wore coordinating dresses patterned in summery purples accented with green, and Elsa had chosen a similar gown of airy layers, but in tones of sky blue. Thomas dressed with his usual subtlety, and Flynn wore one of his fine, new suits.

They walked: Primrose had no need to insist on it, because it was simply their custom. Elsa knew that the streets of their path had been cleaned thoroughly, that fresh curtains would be hanging in the windows of the houses they passed, children bathed, and gardens tended – walking, the royal family did not just pass through the town unseeing, as might be seem case if they had traveled in a coach.

Before they left the vantage point of the castle’s hill, Elsa couldn’t resist scanning the harbor. She was rewarded with the sight of a ship flying Arendelle’s colors cruising in to the dock. “There it is,” she said aloud, relieved.

Flynn, who was not directly in conversation with the others, followed her attention. Before he could comment, Elsa claimed the attention of the others, as well, saying, “I will meet you all ahead in a few minutes.” She had already begun to walk quickly away, in the direction of the boardwalk, before her aunt suggested an escort.

“Go with Elsa, if you would, Eugene,” Queen Primrose said.

“Will do,” Flynn agreed. He jogged to catch up with Elsa, then strode beside her matching her fast pace.

“This will only take a few minutes,” Elsa said to him. The detour would make her late to their luncheon. She would need to apologize to Mother Gartner.

“Not a problem.” Flynn sounded sincere. “So, you and your sister have been writing to each other every week? Neither of you ever missed a boat leaving, ran out of stuff to say, anything like that?”

“Never!” Elsa affirmed with a lilt of affection for Anna in her exclamation. Flynn seemed impressed by her answer. “I love my sister more than anyone,” Elsa said. “She reminds me what’s important. It makes being an outsider bearable.” She didn’t mean to say the last out loud. Flynn, however, didn’t contradict her. He would be one person who could understand the feeling, so maybe that was why she had let it slip.

They turned a corner, and there was Kay, closing the gate on the glazier’s wagon. Elsa, energized with anticipation, thought of a way to speed up her errand. She called out to get her friend’s attention. “Could you give us a lift?” she asked. “Down to the docks and back to Mother Gartner’s?” Kay, naturally, agreed to serve Elsa in any way he could.

They reached the dock, and Flynn and Elsa were just stepping down to the saltwater-worn boardwalk near the Arendelle ship when a man in an officer’s uniform came hurrying toward them. That in itself was unusual, and the fine hairs on Elsa’s nape prickled with apprehension. She could feel Flynn try to exchange a look with her, but she didn’t turn toward him.

“Something’s up,” Flynn said, his tone cavalier, as it tended to sound when a situation had taken a serious turn.

Elsa closed the distance to the officer, who wore the crocus-emblazoned uniform of Arendelle. The man did not slow his pace until he reached her. She knew with sinking certainty that he would not be rushing to deliver a letter from her sister. “Your Highness,” he said. He seemed out of his element. “The captain went to the castle to find you.”

“Find me?” Elsa repeated.

“You, and the king and queen. We carry terrible news,” the first mate said. “If we could... ah... adjourn to some privacy...”

Flynn cut in. He was watching Elsa. “You had better just say it,” he said. “Waiting isn’t going to make it easier on anyone.”

“It’s my father. It’s the king, isn’t it?” she corrected. “Is he ill?” Anna had complained that their father overworked himself. Anna used it as a warning for Elsa not to do the same. King Marius was still a young man, but his father had been struck down at fifty-three, putting Marius on Arendelle’s throne merely years before Elsa was born. “Tell me!”

The first mate squared his shoulders. “Princess Anna, your sister, has been lost at sea.”

Elsa had no words. It seemed that Flynn answered for her, his voice bellowing, “What?!”

“Princess Anna... Princess Anna sailed ahead on The Messenger, unknown to our king and queen, your royal parents...” he rushed his words, “and we set sail immediately after The Messenger. That very morning. A storm came up midway, and we were put off course. After the passing of the storm, we continued on. We had no hopes of catching The Messenger at sea, but intended to follow her into Corona.

The Messenger sank in the storm. We had no sight of her, you must understand,” he continued, a plea for the rescue they did not give the wrecked ship. He blundered on. “No sight at all until we came upon the wreckage, the drow—” He stopped himself. “All were lost,” he finished.

Lost.

All were lost.

Anna.

Flynn reached out for Elsa, to put a hand on her shoulder, but he pulled back with pained inhalation. He stared at his frostbitten hand.

Anna, on a ship that sank in the storm.

A storm with ice in it.

The storm sank the ship with Anna on it.

Elsa made a sound. She thought she said, “No.” She thought she screamed. But what came out was a weak, hollow noise, a strangled, helpless sound. The ice came with such force behind her cry, filling every corner of her soul, that she quickly felt nothing at all.

Her thoughts froze.

She ran.

Elsa ran, not from Flynn or from the ships officer, not from the news. She ran because she could not stay where she had been.

She was aware that Flynn didn’t chase after her. Good. But Kay did, leaping down from the driver’s seat of his wagon and dashing down to catch up with her on the dock. She was nearly at the end where her snow was moored. A direction to run to formed in her mind as fast as frost crawling across a winter glass.

Kay reached her. He reached out, but didn’t touch her. He stood, nearly blocking her way. “Elsa. Elsa, where are you going?”

“I have to go to Anna!” Elsa cried out, but her voice was little more than a thin wail. She ran toward her ship.

He followed her at a run. She didn’t turn him away. She knew where she had go. She had to go to Anna. Anna, drowned, under the blue waters, midway between Elsa and Arendelle. The sails of the snow billowed with the sudden, frigid wind that gusted into them. The snow rocked as if eager to break free.

Elsa reached the ship an stopped running. She watched the sails fill. The wind pushed at her back. The ice pushed to come out. She threw her hands forward, and the ice flowed outward and upward, making her path up to the ship. She stepped on the frozen ramp.

“I’ll follow you anywhere!” Kay called.

She climbed aboard, hardly aware of Kay boarding behind her, paying no attention when he released the mooring ropes and the ship, untethered, shifted with the pressure of the wind in the sails. She walked through the ship, toward the bow, and in the rising sleet storm around her, she saw shadowy shapes taking their places as crew.

All the drowned sailors... their phantoms will take me to Anna, she thought. The indistinct shapes could have been made of patterns in the blowing sleet. The snowmen drew in the anchor and readied the snow for sea.

In her mind, she saw her sister’s face. Anna’s lips were blue with cold death. The white streak in Anna’s hair waved in currents, tangling in floating seaweed. I wasn’t close enough to catch you; then I wasn’t far enough away to protect you. Apart all these years, for nothing. I’ll be with you, now.

Elsa raised her arms, and the wind rose to a shriek. Elsa saw her thin summer dress crust with glinting frost until it seemed she wore a gown of mirror shards. The magic ice poured off of her, glazing her ship. Even as the ship heaved forward, the ice spread from the ship into the harbor. The harbor, the docks, and the town behind her froze with a violence that locked all other ships where they were, but Elsa’s ship surged through the waters ever faster, moving with sorcery out to the open sea.

ooo

On one of the ships entering the harbor, Kristoff watched the magic storm rise and engulf his destination. Then the ice ship passed: shining like glass, with waves freezing solid in its wake. A figure, standing alone on the foredeck, made Kristoff rub his eyes even before the chilled wind made him squint. Her white hair was a cloud obscuring her face. She seemed to be dressed in crystal – ice crystals, he realized with disbelief – with a cape as sheer as mist snapping in the storm wind. He could not focus on the crew. For a moment he saw impossible creatures, sailors made of hard snow and blue ice like thorns, with dark gaping holes for eyes and misshapen bodies. Was there a crumpled body of a man, too, on the deck at the woman’s feet?

The unnatural freezing of Corona’s harbor caught up to Kristoff’s ship, jolting the ship upward as the ice froze all around it and the storm descended over it. He rushed to help bring in the sails before the wind tore the spars off the masts. After tense minutes where it seemed that they would lose to the blizzard, the air stilled all at once. The storm left the harbor as if tethered to the ship of ice.

Kristoff surveyed the irregular field of hard ice that the waters had become. It looked stable, at least for the moment, and to reach the castle on the hill above, he would have to chance that he could reach shore on foot before the ice cracked. He shivered. “I’d better start walking,” he said. He could find out more about the weird storm ship – a snow, he recognized by its rigging – later. The longer he waited to get Anna’s message to her older sister, the longer Anna remained as Hans’s prisoner.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Anna was in a pickle. Even in her daydream adventures, she had never considered being simply locked up and left alone. Hans hadn’t tried any greater villainy. She hadn’t needed to fight off unwanted advances, but she hadn’t been given an opportunity to bargain, or threaten, either.

Hans had left her imprisoned in his cabin, ignoring her discomfort while her needs became more and more dire. The chamber pot smelled up the small room whenever an ocean swell set the nasty contents sloshing against the lid. After she discovered that it hadn’t been empty to begin with, Anna had withheld adding to it for as long as she could, averse to mingling even her waste with any aspect of Hans. It was a small bucket, though, and she had been imprisoned for more than a day. She was considering the tiny porthole window, wondering if she could muster enough vivacity to heave the mess out, and whether the attempt would make the problem worse by splashing more on the wall than out the porthole.

Her tirade against the locked door after the first hours of neglect only served to leave her emotionally exhausted and physically drained. Nothing in Hans’s cabin could be turned into a tool of escape. She tried picking the lock, attempted taking the pins out of the door hinges, and searched every crack in the room on the chance of finding secret way out, all to no avail. She did find a canteen with some stale water still inside, which she rationed in sips until it ran out.

She felt thirsty and hungry and couldn’t keep her eyes open. She had slept on the floor and woken up still unrested. Other than the cold floor, there had been nowhere else to sleep except in Han’s bunk. She refused to sleep in it even on top of the covers, however clean they appeared. When she slept near Kristoff, his scent had filled her nose and his presence had filled her dreams. If she ended up dreaming about Hans, she would never feel clean again.

Her stomach hurt, and it didn’t feel like hunger anymore, just pain. She sat on the floor of the cabin, head drooped against her arms, conserving the strength she had and still hoping for an opportunity to put it to use. When the lock turned in the door, however, all she was able to do was to lift her head enough to see Hans step into the room and wrinkle his nose at the interior odor. She wanted to leap up and claw at him, but she felt as insubstantial as spiderweb.

“Pick up the bucket. Carry it out to the deck and clean it up.” He lifted his foot and tapped her hip with his boot. “You’ve made my room stink.”

Anna stared at Hans. She was truly surprised. She wondered at his rudeness, but the opportunity to escape, or at least to be free of the cabin, couldn’t be passed up even if she had to do something awful. She had never had to clean anything dirty with excrement in her life, not even a baby diaper. She tried to stand, but she wobbled, and drooped back down onto her knees. “I can’t walk,” she said, her words too dry to make much of a sound.

“You can crawl,” he said, watching her.

Energized by anger, Anna pulled her skirt into a bunch so that she wouldn’t trip, and she crossed the floor on her knees. If she used the furniture to get to her feet, she would be challenged to pick up the chamber pot without dropping it, or worse, spilling on herself. Instead of lifting it up or pushing it, she took hold of the oilcloth mat under the covered bucket and dragged everything toward the door.

She was afraid that Hans would deem her pace too slow. Instead, he seemed pleased to watch her slow progress. He stood at the doorway with his arms crossed, his thin lips twisted with cruel amusement.

She had to lift the bucket over the border of doorframe. It look nearly all the energy she had. She tried to rest for a moment, but Hans growled and lifted a foot as if to boot her backside. The rush of fresh air, which smelled like freedom, gave her strength to crawl forward on the deck toward where her captor pointed. She guessed that the rags and buckets of sea water that she found there, by the railing, were her cleaning tools.

Hans leaned on the rail and watched her struggle with the disgusting job. She couldn’t lift the bucket over the railing to dump it out, so she waited until the motion of the ship tipped the deck favorably, then quickly moved the lid and pushed the bucket so that the contents would pour out and slide into the sea. She had to jump out of the way when the deck tipped back. Hans laughed.

She gagged. If her stomach hadn’t been empty, she would be cleaning up her vomit as well as excrement. She tried not to breath until she could turn her head aside, and while she rinsed with the bucket of seawater and scrubbed with the ready brush, she filled her mind with the fantasy of dumping a full chamber pot over Hans. She hadn’t been tempted in reality, not for a second. She was sure he would retaliate in a far worse way. She was angry, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid.

When the job was done, her thirst reasserted itself with force. She splashed the last inch of seawater out and squeezed her eyes shut with desperate pain.

“Water,” she begged, “to drink!”

“Perhaps, if you ask nicely,” Hans taunted.

Anna wanted to kill him. She pretended she didn’t hate him. She pretended it was a game. Kristoff would get help and come back for her soon; she needed to hold out until then. “Please,” she said without volume, still on her knees, with her head bowed.

He took a silver flask from his waistcoat, unscrewed the cap, and took a drink. He extended the flask toward Anna, tipping the opening toward her lips. A taste of water, body warmed but heavenly anyway, poured into her mouth. She reached up to take the flask in her hands.

Anna gasped when Hans splashed the water on her face. He drew the flask away. “Ask nicer.”

She was grateful that her sob had no tears. With the back of her hand, she wiped the splashed water toward her mouth and licked her lips. Her mouth was still too dry for words to be easy. She had to wait until she could think of what to say, too, not what she had about to say but something that wouldn’t antagonize him. She didn’t know what he wanted to hear.

“Well?” Hans asked impatiently, in a tone indicating that he thought she was being stupid. “Not much a princess, are you? No,” he pretended to muse, though she could tell by his smirk that he was acting out lines he had ready, “more like a serving girl. A maid.” His expression clouded again. “You had a chance to be my guest, but you had to cause trouble. I want my cabin back. So from now on, you can be my servant. You can keep my boots polished.” He lifted his foot and placed his boot against her shoulder.

Anna grimaced. Hans responded with a shove of his boot before he removed it. “You know, he drowned,” he said harshly. Anna looked up, afraid of his meaning. “Yes, your companion drowned,” he said. “He didn’t make it to that ship. What a shame.”

It was too much for Anna. She fainted.

The good, clean water poured into her mouth didn’t restore her fully. She was only marginally aware of being manhandled, picked up off the deck and carried. She wouldn’t have been able to say how much later she roused at the scent of food. When she did, she saw that she was again in Hans’s cabin. She lay on his bunk, the covers beneath her a layer between even the pillow under her head. Her dress had wound around her legs, proof of a degree of decency, and she was silently grateful. Her clothing was exactly as it had been, though her slippers lay on the floor beside the soft bed as if they had fallen there.

Hans, freshly dressed in different finery, sat at a small table. He served himself from an oval platter of sliced meat and bread. Next to the platter was a second place setting.

The room had been cleaned and reordered. Wondering how long she had been unconscious, Anna looked through the porthole and saw a blue sky. The time didn’t much matter, she realized as her thoughts cleared further.

Testing her situation, she straightened up,  pushed off from the bed, and walked toward the table. She felt sick and hungry at the same time, and wobbly on her feet, but a stoppered jug stood on the table, too, and that drew her to the empty chair. She would fight to escape, she told herself, but first... first, she would have a sip of water. Water, wonderful water, and then some of the cold ham slices... she could smell the vinegary mustard Hans daubed on his meal.

Anna eased into the chair. Hans poured from the jug into a cup for her without looking directly at Anna. It wasn’t water, but some kind of deep red tea. She wanted to take it with caution; instead, she grabbed it and gulped, unable to stop herself. The drink filled her mouth with a sour and tangy flavor. She couldn’t drink it fast. It was weird, but refreshing nonetheless.

She looked at the food on the table. Then she began to weep so hard that she dropped her empty cup into her lap. She heaved great, dry sobs, thinking of Kristoff drowned and dead. Her face twisted up with her grief and her eyes shut against the reality in front of her. When tears and snot started to flow, she wondered how she could have any moisture; she still felt parched. The thought set her to refilling her cup, which she had a lot of trouble doing, because she shook as she cried for the loss of someone who had always been by her side.

Hans huffed an irritated sounding sigh before he took the jug away from her to fill her cup again himself. She squinted her swollen eyes open and saw the expression on his face: uncomprehending, disgusted. “What do you want from me?” she asked, able to sound almost normal by fitting the question between sobs.

“Just – do as you’re told!” Hans exploded at her with a kind of exasperation.

“You haven’t told me anything!” Anna shouted back. She remembered her horrid cleaning task and was suddenly glad for her still-empty plate. “I didn’t ask to be here!”

Hans pointed his gloved finger at her. He looked insulted. “I rescued you,” he said.

“I wish you hadn’t,” Anna said. “Someone else would have come along. Or--” she broke with another wave of anguish.

“Look,” Hans said, “all you have to do is – behave. Be nice. Use your manners.”

“What does that even mean?” Anna’s voice came out shrill and despairing.

“This is my room,” Hans said as if Anna was too stupid to see the obvious. “I can’t have you wrecking it and smelling it up. There’s nowhere else to put you. Unless it’s over the side, into Davey Jones’ Locker.” He held up his hands to show that the answer was clear. “What can I do?”

“I want to go home,” Anna said.

“Well, that’s not happening,” said Hans.

“Are you taking me to Southern Isles?” Anna asked, emboldened.

Hans huffed again. “Not yet. You lost me a prize. So you can be bait for the next one.” He took a bite out of bread folded around a piece of seasoned pork, then licked the smeared mustard off his lip. “I doubt you’re any good at it, but you can make yourself useful polishing my boots and keeping my room tidy to earn your meals. Not that you could do enough to deserve my generosity. Be nice and stay out of my way.” He looked Anna over with sneering disregard. “My brothers were never so magnanimous,” he stated.

Something in his tone prevented Anna from pursuing details. She didn’t want to know what he meant. He continued eating. She realize that the food was nearly gone.

“I’m hungry,” she admitted. She should have eaten when the chance was before her.

Hans stopped chewing. He looked at the ham and bread in his hand and then at her with a meaningful smile. He arranged the leftover pieces together on his dish as he finished his mouthful, and then he stacked his plate on top of her empty plate. “Now, say thank you,” he said. He daubed a napkin at his mouth.

Anna hated herself, but she complied. “Thank you for your generosity.” She ate in forced, small bites, starting with the end opposite Hans’s bitten side.

He stood up from the table, leaving her to finish his meat and bread. “I’m sure you came across the boot polish when you overturned this room. My spare boots are in the corner.” He tugged on a clean pair of gloves. “One of the crew will be by to collect the dishes. Don’t forget your good manners. Understood?”

“Yes,” Anna said. She wished there had been more left to eat. “I understand.” She understood. She understood that she had a better chance of escaping now than before. She understood that Hans was crazy in a mean way, not just mean natured. He liked pushing her around, but it was less about giving her orders than about being the one in power. “Thank you, Captain Hans,” she said, but she couldn’t pretend to smile at him.

“I like you, Anna,” Hans said. “You’re nothing like your two-faced sister.”

ooo

Elsa’s ship charged through the waters, indifferent to currents, powered by a howling storm. Yet the storm could not be sustained without lagging, and as the day began to end, the storm slowed. Night began to fall with a sluggish, grey snowstorm salting the waves. Between the clouded sky and the ragged sea, the horizon was a thin strip of flame orange sky.

Her knees bent, when she could no longer stand, but something unexpected prevented her from sliding down to kneel on the deck. Someone was already there, a lump, covered in a thin layer of frozen stuff. She brushed the snow off the person.

A snapping pain lanced through her chest as she realized it was Kay. She shook him, a hand on his shoulder, willing him to wake. His clothes felt cold, but his body moved with some resistance. She could feel his body warmth coming through the layers of cloth. His breath made a thin cloud by his face before it dissipated.

She looked around, feeling frantic. She and Kay were alone. She didn’t know how long he had been lying at her feet, unconscious from the storm. She hadn’t been aware of anything since rushing onto the ship. Her mind still felt sluggish, as if her thoughts moved through a slow slurry of anguish. She couldn’t think about Anna drowned, and yet if she tried to think at all, that thought moved in front of all others.

She covered Kay with her body, but no – that was no good. She was cold, cold all the way through, an ice witch, a monster. Kay needed to be safe from her. She needed a place to put him, out of the grim snowfall.

Elsa pushed at the wind and it swirled. The snow gathered up in mounds and hills that floated around the ship. Elsa tried to pull the storm in. If she could put it back inside her, then Kay would be alright.

For only a minute, it seemed she would succeed. The storm wind stilled, the waves became flat as a mirror, and the clouds stopped shedding snowflakes. Her control held only for the briefest time.

When it exploded out again, Elsa’s storm raised the waves, with the ship on it, into towering peaks of dark water. Every crashing wave threw the delicate ship forward. She was forced to grab Kay to prevent him from going over the railing, thrown from the ship into the violent sea.

The waves stopped falling in on themselves. A peak formed, carrying the ship up to the crest, then solidified for the space of a heartbeat before becoming seawater again, curling and crashing down. Each wave stayed solid longer than the one before it.

Elsa saw see how they formed like hills of snow, thrown ahead of a leaping child to catch her. She had never forgotten. Elsa wailed into the wind, for Anna, who she had not been able to catch, who she had not been able to keep safe. “Anna! Anna!” she wept her sister’s name. Kay’s weight tried to slide away from her. Elsa raised a hand to the storm. “Stop!” she cried out. “Just... stop!” She brought her hand down to cover her face. “Don’t!”

The next wave loomed up in front of the ship, but the ship stopped. This time, it was not carried up on the rising water. The water had risen and frozen solid, and the ship rocked in place at the base of a mountain of sea ice.

Elsa couldn’t go on any longer. Greying out, she collapsed against Kay’s form.

The storm wind broke apart as currents gusting snow over the iceberg. As if transformed into the last of the snowfall, the clouds faded away. Natural waves splashed against the side of the ship. Before the daylight disappeared, the sunset sky tinted the iceberg with flashes of orange, then lilac. Color traded with starlight reflections twinkling on clear ice.

Eyes unfocused and mind vacant, Elsa saw none of the fleeting beauty.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

A small number of people climbed down from their ice-locked ships to join Kristoff in a trek across the frozen bay. Most of the passengers and crew on the ships stayed onboard, choosing to stay put out of caution, fearfully watching the progress the walkers over the enchanted ice. Kristoff noted that the ice underfoot had an unnatural pattern, frozen outward from the path of the passing ship. As he made his way toward the iced-over docks, the footing became more difficult.

“Like an explosion went off,” he muttered to himself as he clambered over jagged, blasted ice. “At least it’s thicker here.”  Around the vessels farthest from land and closest to open water, the ice appeared more opaque with trapped air and was slushy in spots. “Whew. Almost there.” On some level he knew he should be freaking out after witnessing what had to be sorcery. Magic! That was something from troll stories for kids! When he was little, stories about trolls up in the mountains gave him something scarier to think about than being fatherless.

Maybe he wasn’t freaking out because he had really believed in magic all along. After all, he had been saved from poverty by a princess, and had a life with opportunities because of her. Being with Anna was magic, the good kind of magic that she claimed to believe in.

Or nothing mattered more to him in the moment than getting to Anna’s sister and going back with reinforcements to rescue Anna. Kristoff would have fought an army of trolls if they stood in his way. Hiking over magically frozen water wasn’t much of an obstacle. Close to the shore, it seemed as solid as any ordinary lake in midwinter, despite the bright sun  in the clearing summer sky overhead.

The first group, made up of the most sure-footed, reached the docks after they wound through a maze of unmoving sea vessels of all sizes. Apart from needing to find a way up from the frozen water surface to the boards of the dock, Kristoff and the walkers around him had reached land.

He looked around and saw a wave of  sighs, the people relaxing somewhat now that the most dangerous part of the trek was past. Most of the adventurous appeared to be northerners, like himself, familiar with ice conditions. All had stayed quiet on the journey, no doubt listening for changes in the ice, as Kristoff had been doing, aware of each other without needing to look away from their own path ahead.

Up on the dock was another world. It was a chaotic scene, fraught with activity and noise. All manner of people -- none of them dressed adequately for the frosty surroundings -- ran and slipped along the iced boards, some calling out in search of missing loved ones, others hurrying to tend to injured people, and some opportunists – no doubt -- taking advantage of the untended boats to steal from them. It was impossible to discern one intent from another.

Kristoff hoisted himself up at the first foothold. He wove through the fray and look for someone with authority. The confusion on the dock included dozens of uniformed men. Kristoff didn’t know who were foreign military and who were local peacekeepers. He needed someone who would take him to the castle and to Elsa.

Someone in one of the ships shot a blunderbuss at one of the opportunist thieves. The shot pellets hitting the ice at angles set off the peculiar sound that occurs when stones skip across ice: tones something like a cheeping flock of strange birds, but with an unworldly quality. The sound unnerved enough of the crowd who were from warm climates, where lakes didn’t freeze over, into silence. The melee on the dock hushed, so that the shout of, “No! No, don’t start shooting at anybody!” was clearly heard. The man who gave the order leaped up to the top of a stack of crates. He cupped his hands, one of which was loosely bandaged with a pocket handkerchief, around his mouth like a bullhorn and repeated, “No shooting, and no looting! Let’s be civilized in a crisis, people!” Then he quietly gave some directions to guards in crimson and gold nearby, sending them off to tasks.

Kristoff made his way toward the dark-haired man. The man had jumped down from the boxes and was back in the crowd making efforts to restore order. “Excuse me,” Kristoff said. He was very glad that Anna had taught him the language of Corona while she had lessons herself. “You seem to be someone in charge.”

“I could be,” Flynn answered. “How can I help you?”

Kristoff put out his hand. “Kristoff Bjorgman,” he introduced himself. “I need to find Princess Elsa of Arendelle right away.”

The man started to extend his bandaged hand to shake Kristoff’s, but remembered his injury and patted Kristoff on the shoulder with his good hand instead. “Eugene Fitzherbert here. I’m sorry to say, but Elsa just left.” He gave a significant look toward the frozen harbor.

“No,” Kristoff shook his head with disbelief. He started to panic. “No! It’s about Anna--”

“Unfortunately, we got the news. That’s what set Elsa off. Listen, the guard can get this,” he gestured around, “under control. I need to go to the king and queen and tell them what’s happened. Tell me what you’ve got while we walk.”

Elsa gone wasn’t good news, but Kristoff wouldn’t think about that if there was still a way to rescue Anna quickly. That is, if he could convince the monarchs to go after Prince Hans. Without Elsa to decipher Anna’s peculiar message, Kristoff had no way to validate his story. He would have to hope his sincerity reached the king and queen and they would believe him when he explained that their niece was in danger. “You can get in to see them? The king and queen of Corona?”

Flynn gave Kristoff a look of assessment. “As a matter of fact, yes. So what’s your story? We already had one report from the Arendelle fleet about their lost ship. You came off of one of the other ships frozen on the harbor, didn’t you? I noticed that you were helping some of the others get through the ice obstacle course. Good work, by the way.”

They reached the street. Flynn increased pace once they were out of the frantic crowds. He aimed them toward Mother Gartner’s home, where Corona’s royal family would be having tea, as yet uniformed of the disaster and Elsa. He couldn’t hold back from speeding up further until he and Kristoff jogged down the street.

Kristoff groaned as he thought about what must have happened. Of course there would have been a ship sent after Anna once Arendelle found Anna gone. Anna and Kristoff were on Hans’s ship already by the time the pursuing ship came upon the one wrecked by the storm. “We were on that ship. Anna and I – we survived the sinking. The ship that picked us up –”

“You – Princess Anna is alive?” Flynn interrupted. He stopped in shock. “She’s on a ship,” he asked as he pointed back at the harbor, his look one of horror, “that Elsa passed...”

“No, Anna isn’t with me! She was taken captive by pirate Hans!”

“Back up a minute,” Flynn said.

Kristoff forged through Flynn’s skepticism. “I have a message from Anna,” Kristoff said in a voice as calm and clear as he could muster, “that only Elsa can read.” He took out the flat, salted cod with Anna’s scratched marks. As soon as he did, he saw the expression on Flynn’s face change, and he knew it had been a mistake. “I’m not crazy! Anna is in a lot of danger, and we have to go to her!”

Flynn continued walking, somewhat faster than before. Kristoff followed Flynn’s brisk stride down a side street.

“Aren’t we going to the castle?” Kristoff asked, wary now himself.

Flynn, shaking his head said, “They’re not at the castle. There’s a house down this way—”

“Wait a minute, now!” Kristoff stopped him angrily. He should have seen it was too easy, too good to be true. Anna’s freedom was at stake, and he had been taken in by a conman. He grabbed Flynn by his shirt.

The men were interrupted by a blonde young woman running up the street toward them. Kristoff would have let go of Flynn, but somehow, Flynn had already slipped out of his hold. Flynn’s eyes spoke clear warning.

“Eugene, is it true? Oh no, you’re hurt!” she took Flynn’s hand and began to unravel the makeshift bandage.

“I’m OK. That can wait.”

“It will take just a second,” Rapunzel said. She replaced the bandage with a swath of hair pulled loose from her complex braid. She quickly sing-chanted under her breath. The winding hair glowed.

First a storm of ice, now glowing hair – Kristoff wondered if magic was commonplace in this kingdom. “What just happened?” he asked. He shook his head. “No, Nevermind.”

The woman gave Kristoff a quick smile while she unwound her hair from Flynn’s healthy hand. “Hi. I’m Rapunzel, and I have magic hair that heals.”

“Kristoff Bjorgman,” Kristoff introduced himself again, still distracted. He couldn’t get sidetracked, he reminded himself, by a conman or a conjuring accomplice. He needed to get real help for Anna. He started to edge away.

“Is it true that Elsa froze the harbor?” Rapunzel asked Flynn quietly, taking him a few steps away from Kristoff. “When you both took so long, we sent a guard to make sure nothing was wrong, but he came back moments ago saying that a freezing storm had turned the harbor to ice. It’s Elsa, isn’t it?” Her worry was clear.

“It was Elsa,” Flynn confirmed. “She ran off. Sailed, off. She’s gone.”

“Oh, no. Oh, no.”

“This guy claims that her sister isn’t dead,” Flynn started. He sounded reluctant to mention it.

Rapunzel gasped, “What! Anna?” She looked from Flynn to Kristoff. “Who thought something had happened to Anna?” In high contrast to Flynn, Rapunzel attended Kristoff without any indication of distrust.

“The captain must have gone up to the castle,” Flynn surmised. He explained, “The crew told Elsa and me that Anna’s ship sank in a storm.”

“It did sink,” Kristoff interrupted, pulled back by Rapunzel’s manner. “But Anna and I made a raft. Then we were picked up by pirates. This is what I have to tell the king and queen. We have to rescue Anna from Hans, before he takes her back to Southern Isles.” Kristoff still had the codfish in his hand as he gestured for emphasis. He looked at it. “So if you really know the royal family,” he said, looking at Flynn, then Rapunzel, “please, please believe me and let me tell them what happened.”

Rapunzel reached her hand out for the fish. “May I see that?” she asked in curiosity. “That looks like Elsa’s code!”

“You can read it?” Kristoff asked.

“I recognize it,” Rapunzel said. “A secret code that Elsa and Anna use in their letters to each other.” She gave Kristoff her direct gaze. She stood up straight, and clarified, “I am Princess Rapunzel, and I believe you. We will send help to Anna right away.”

“No offense, but how do I believe you?” Kristoff asked. He couldn’t waste any time on niceties.

Rapunzel grinned. “I’ll think you’ll believe when I take you to my parents.” Just as quickly as it shone, her grin went away. She began to proceed them back toward Mother Gartner’s, her posture drooping and her face pensive.

“We have to help Elsa, too,” Rapunzel said. “We have to go after her. What is she thinking? Oh, what are we going to do?”

Flynn nodded. “We’ll do it,” Flynn said. “We’ll figure it out.”  He reached out and touch Rapunzel’s arm, echoing the gesture that caused Elsa’s chill to burn his hand. He laid his arm across her shoulder and pulled her close.

“It has to be us.” She looked into Flynn’s face. “No one else understands her like the two of us,” Rapunzel insisted.

Kristoff had to contradict her. “Anna does,” he said. “When we rescue Anna, she can get through to her sister. Nothing stops Anna when she sets her mind to it.”

“That might be true,” Flynn said, “but Anna could be anywhere. We’ll look for both of them. We won’t be able to leave the harbor unless we can use a ship that isn’t frozen in the ice.” They had nearly reached to house’s front door, and Flynn quickly set their plan. “We’ll need to commandeer a ship, if we want to start after her before any of the incoming fleet get the order to turn around. You were surefooted on the ice, Kristoff. Can you lead us back over it, to the edge of the frozen part?”

“I can do it. I’m sure there’s a ship that can break out of the thinner ice. I want to be on that ship,” Kristoff said.

Rapunzel paused on the doorstep of the garden house. “Let me break it to them, Eugene, about Elsa,” she said, meaning her parents. “They can’t get too upset if it comes from me, right?”

“They’re going to be upset no matter what, Blondie.”

Rapunzel bit her lip. “I know,” she said.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

Anna, standing with eyes downcast, had been doing her best to imitate the meekest of castle servants back home. Because of the day’s humiliation, the borrowed dress she still wore looked far less elegant than it had started out, but she couldn’t do anything about it. Hans looked her over. She thought he would be angry about one of his pirated treasures being wrecked, but he seemed oddly pleased, instead, at her diminished appearance.

“Anna,” Hans said in a slow, contemplative tone. He surveyed her work. He smiled. “You may dine with me.” He pulled out a chair for her.

Hating the feeling of gratitude that welled up in her, Anna sat. Maybe she was pretending too well and fooling herself, too.

While Hans was around, she pretended obedience. She pretended he had broken her spirit, and that she was afraid of him. She was afraid of him, but under her grief for Kristoff was a need to avenge him that blazed like the hottest fire. She wasn’t going to wait around, wishing for rescue. It didn’t matter that she was a princess. She was Anna; she was clever; she believed in herself. Most of all, she needed to see Hans pay, even if it was the last thing she ever did.

“See, isn’t this nicer?” Hans asked. “You do what I say. We have a nice meal together,” he enumerated. “It’s pleasant. You’ve lost guest privileges, but you don’t have to suffer. And the work isn’t all that hard.” He flicked a gesture at their surroundings. Anna had tidied the cabin per instructions.

It had given her an opportunity to closely study the maps. Unfortunately, Hans had taken away the one charting their course. She was good at geography, so the remaining maps didn’t give her any new information. As for the rest of the cleaning, Anna had done the minimum needed, then made use of the time by sleeping, so that she could stay awake through the night. She didn’t know anything about polishing boots. She had rubbed them shiny, then put her attention to polishing up the reflective bottom surface of a small, metal box, used for holding char cloth, that she had found among Hans’s possessions. It would work as a signal mirror.

Hans must have wanted to be satisfied with her efforts. The appearance of her obedience meant more than the quality of her work.

She kept her hands in her lap. The smell of the food, nothing fancier than slices of meat, cheese, and bread again, nonetheless made her mouth water. She didn’t know how much of her hunger she should let Hans see. She licked her lips but didn’t stare at the food on the table.

He poured her a glass from a decanter of dark red liquid before sitting back. His smug gaze rested on her as he sipped his drink. Anna sipped. It was the same cold herbal tea that was served before. Anna’s curiosity made her ask, “What is this made of?” before she considered her query. It seemed harmless enough, anyway. She risked a glance up at Hans and saw that he liked her question.

“Hibiscus flowers,” he said. “My personal stash. I like it sweeter, but we’re running low on sugar at the moment.”

“It looks like red wine,” Anna commented. She had wanted it to be wine.

“It tastes better though, don’t you think?” Hans asked. “I hate the taste of wine”.

Anna mentally crossed off plan A, which relied on Hans drinking himself into a stupor. Better to find that out about him sooner than later, she thought. In adventure stories, the villain always drank heavily with his meals. One more reminder not to assume he would act a certain way.

“Especially warm, mulled wine.” He prattled on. “Yule is the worst holiday.” His glance flickered her way and he sneered. “You and I both have monsters for old siblings, you know,” he said. “You’re lucky she was sent away.”

She wanted to ask why, after all these years, he was still fixated on her sister, but she held back. It didn’t matter. She didn’t want to get to know him, no more than she needed to in order to trick him and get out of the locked room. She carefully ate the food on her plate and thought about something to say that he would like to hear. She needed him to stay in a relaxed mood and let his guard down.

Hans laughed suddenly. “I wonder if you know about your sister,” he said. “Did they keep you in the dark, I wonder?”

Anna couldn’t help herself. “What do you mean?”

“No,” Hans responded dismissively. “It will ruin dinner.” He portioned out a plate for each of them.

Although Anna was used to being served, she nevertheless noted that Hans was serving her, instead of the reverse. It didn’t strike her as deliberate. He still seemed distracted by his own thoughts. It occurred to her than Hans was used to being the one to do the serving. He was a youngest child, she remembered because of his earlier comment. Southern Isles wasn’t a wealthy kingdom, but they still should have had servants tending the princes. His comments about his brothers made her wonder if they had made him serve.

In different circumstances, she might have asked him about his childhood, if his family had been cold to him, if his brothers had bullied him, and why. They might have had common ground, as youngest children. She would have known a lonely world, had she grown up without Kristoff for a friend.

Without Kristoff.

All curiosity about Hans snapped back like a broken thread. No matter what kind of life had made him as he was, he was her enemy. He had been horrid back when Elsa first warned her about him. Now he was a pirate: a thief and a murder of innocent people. The reason why didn’t matter to Anna, and it never would.

ooo

After dinner, Hans left again for many hours. Anna guessed that it was past midnight when he returned.

The rocking of the ship had lost the smooth rhythm of calm travel. The ship rode uneven waves. Through the little porthole, she couldn’t see much, but there was no rain or lightning. The sky was mostly clear, with the clouds moving quickly, only briefly covering the starry sky in patches.

She had given more thought to what she could do once she escaped the cabin. There were too many possibilities, and not a lot of chances for successful escape. Her best chance would be to get out to the deck at first light. If there was any land or ship in view, she would signal them with the polished surface of the metal box.

Wisely, he had left her without a lighted lamp. The escape plan that included lighting the ship on fire had been lower down the list, but Anna had been prepared to start it by casting swaths of burning mattress filling out the little porthole window until one of them caught fire to the tarred ropes. Instead, she kneeled on the cabin’s bed and observed what she could of the night sky through the porthole, looking for the north star or a bright planet or any star pattern that would indicate where the ship was on the sea, and which direction it was heading.

She heard Hans inserting the key in the lock and scrambled down from his bed. He caught her smoothing the blankets.

“I’m not sharing my bed,” he snapped at her. He had spoken out of tiredness, revealing genuine feeling, it seemed. The ghost of uncertainty passed through his countenance, uncertainty quickly chased away by snobbish posturing. “You’re a little young for me,” he said. “Maybe in a few years.” He locked the door and tucked the key back away in his vest pocket.

“Where will I sleep?” Anna asked. It was a mountain of effort to keep all disgust out of  her expression at Han’s insinuation. She kept her eyes averted, watching him from the corner of her eye.

He put down the lantern he carried and flopped onto his bed, still fully dressed, as if to punctuate his ownership. He kicked off his boots; each dropped to the floor with a thud. “Your vixen sister would be a different matter,” he persisted. “You’re more of... a nipping pup.” He laughed. “Or a puppy, really. Yes... and like a good puppy, a blanket by your master’s door will be your reward.” He was clearly pleased by his own wit. He sat up just long enough to grab the blanket off the trunk at the foot of the bed and toss the blanket at her before flopping back again.

Anna darted a glance at him as she picked the blanket off the floor. Plans Q through Z, where she had to use her feminine charms on him, were no longer needed, and she was infinitely glad to never find out if she could go through with any of those desperate plans. She was honest with herself, admitting that her first impression of Hans had been attraction. If she hadn’t already been in love with Kristoff, she would have been captivated by the classically handsome nose, brilliant green eyes, perfect body, and auburn hair nearly the same color as her own. Now, he was like rotten fruit full of bugs wrapped up in pretty packaging, and she was repulsed by the slime.

Lying back with his hands behind his head, Hans appeared comfortable for the moment. She doubted he would fall asleep still dressed from coat to hose, however. Inevitably, he would have to get up and disrobe, and the cabin didn’t have a dressing screen.

Moving casually, she carried her blanket toward the locked cabin door. As she passed the lighted lamp on the desk, she snuffed the light. Without the flame, the cabin was dark except for a little illumination from the porthole.

“Hey!” Hans yelled. “I haven’t readied for bed yet!”

“Oops. Sorry,” Anna said.

Hans growled in irritation. “It’s too much trouble to light it again,” he complained. “Now I have to undress in the dark.” Almost as an obligation, he added, “Stupid girl!” She heard the sounds of buttons and buckles and Hans huffing in annoyance as he climbed under the covers. He didn’t drop his coat and other layers on the floor, and as her eyes adjusted, she discerned a pile laid out at the foot of the bed.

She put her blanket down on the floor. It was a drafty spot. The wet, salty air pushed through the cracks around the door whenever ever a gust whistled past. She could hear noises of rigging being shaken in high wind. It would have been awful to try to sleep in the draft.

Sleeping during the day had been a good idea for many reasons. She needed to be awake. Once Hans was deeply asleep, she would sneak the key out of his clothes. At first light, she would unlock the door and begin her escape.

Hans tossed and turned in bed. Every few minutes, he shifted his body around, fluffed his pillow, or flipped the covers on or off. Anna listened with growing frustration. What a jinx on her plan it would be if Hans couldn’t sleep. He needed to be asleep so she could steal the door key!

“Are you still awake?” he grumbled, after a while.

Anna feigned sleep. She didn’t answer.

“Anna?” Hans insisted, slightly louder. “Anna!” She heard him sit up.

“Hmm... what?” she answered, pretending she had been woken from slumber.

“In a few years, you’ll be old enough to marry,” he said. “No one will want your sister. You can make a strategic marriage that would benefit two kingdoms.”

Anna didn’t comment.

“If you were obedient to your royal husband, you could have a nice life. One day, you would rule a kingdom together. Maybe even both.” His voice took on a tone of glee. “You and I were just meant to be,  Anna. What a lucky thing that I picked you up after that shipwreck. War is a dangerous time, even for kings and princes. If they aren’t killed in battle, there’s always the danger of assassins.”

What is he saying? That’s crazy! Anna thought, muffling her involuntary reaction noise. With the blanket pressed to her face, she held her breath until she calmed down.

“Well?” Hans asked.

She had to say something crazier. “I know I won’t get to choose my husband, when you take me to Southern Isles. If only it could be you.” A knot in her throat made her feel as if she might throw up. “I guess there’s nothing I can do about whatever happens when you leave me in Southern Isles. It will be up to your older brothers.” She wasn’t subtle. He had to get what she was hinting at.

He must have, because of the displeased noise of consideration he made. The restless sound of his shifting his weight around gave further evidence of his thoughts.

Staying on the ship until they put in to port somewhere she could find an ally was plan N, not a plan she was thrilled about, but if she could lay the foundation for any of her escape plans, she had to do it. It had a better chance than making contact with a ship, and then getting away on that ship from the pirates; if Kristoff hadn’t been able to succeed, she didn’t have a lot of hope that it would work for her.

Hans growled out, “I can’t go home empty-handed, anyway. Which means, as I said before, a ship. After I plunder some easy targets, I’ll think about what to do with you. You can use that time to show me how well-behaved you can be.”

Now, to Anna’s dismay, Han’s bare feet sounded against the floor. He was out of bed. He struck a light and the lantern brightened the room again. Hans wore only his shirt, the hem brushing just above his knees. He carried his pants and coat to the closet, hung them up, fished out the door key, and took the key back to tuck it under his mattress.

Jinx again, Anna thought. What bad luck!

When he sat down in a chair, the shirt draped further, like a short nightgown, for which Anna was grateful. The sight of his bare legs gave her an odd feeling she didn’t want to acknowledge. He rotated his shoulders back with a pouty frown on his face.

“Come here and rub my shoulders. I can’t sleep.”

Not seeing any way out of it, Anna got up and crossed the room to Hans. She stood behind his chair. Thinking of her father or anyone else at all, she put her hands on Hans’s shoulders, pressed her palms against his collar, and massaged with her fingers. He was tense. The muscles felt more like wood than flesh.

“Really get your thumbs in,” he demanded.

Her father would let her soften up his stiff neck and shoulders, at times, when he had been sitting at his desk for many hours. She felt an intense longing to see her father and mother again, to see home again. She became lost in thought, wondering what they thought had happened, what they were thinking, what they were doing with her gone. If they thought she was dead, would they go through her room? Would they find her diary? Would they find all the letters from Elsa that Anna was supposed to have destroyed? Elsa would be so angry when she found out! Everyone would be angry with her, when she turned out not to be dead!

Hans, complaining, broke her reverie. “Not so hard!”

“Sorry,” she whispered around the tightness in her throat. Since her hands were already forming into fists, she lightly pummeled Hans’s back.

“OK. Enough,” Hans said, finishing with a yawn. “Sleep.” Without giving her any more attention, he carried the lamp over to the bedside, climbed under his covers, and put out the light, leaving Anna standing in the dark.

Glad he wouldn’t be able to see her choking back tears, she stumbled along the floor until she found her blanket. She hid her face into it and forced herself to be silent.

ooo

“Kay. Get up. Wake up, please.”

She couldn’t lift him. She lacked the strength of body and of spirit to move Kay from the deck of the ship to the ice mountain. She sat beside him and watched snow coat the iceberg until it looked just like the peak of a real mountain, full of shadowed crags and forbidding slopes that ended in abrupt cliffs.

She couldn’t feel any difference between the cold of her surroundings and her own temperature. She wouldn’t even know for certain that it was cold, if not for the thin clouds if Kay’s warm exhalations. He shivered, though he remained unresponsive to her attempts to wake him up. She touched his wrist, and his skin felt prickly. Her own skin felt smooth as bone china and neither cold nor warm, but inside her felt cold, and hollow now, as if the storm had all gotten out and left her with emptiness.

Kay would have to stay on the ship. Elsa would have to go. She thought of jumping over the side of the ship, dropping into the restless, dark water. Where was Anna? She didn’t even know if she was close to where Anna had drowned. Would they be reunited in death, if Elsa drowned herself? She had no guarantee. Perhaps she would only succeed in killing her humanity, leaving what remained to be fully a witch, maybe a monster in the deep, a menace in the sea, sinking innocents as her storm had done.

It seemed so easy. One small step over the edge, like one small step into the ravine. And yet... and yet...

The ice crystals in the air forming from Kay’s breath had knit together in a kind of covering  that tented over Elsa’s shoulders. Elsa pushed herself up, made herself stand, and the sheer covering draped like a long cloak. She pushed it back off her shoulders, but it clung to her dress as if stitched on. She let it drag behind her. It weighed nothing, gossamer.

The ship rocked against the iceberg. She stepped up to the ship’s railing, and then launched off – not into the sea, but onto a filigree staircase of ice that she made with a flick of her wrists. The ice stairway climbed up the slope with the twisting path of frost on a window, but fast, urged on as Elsa ran up its steps, new steps appearing moments before her feet made contact. She ran until she reached the peak, the last slope. There she spun around. She turned her power downward, letting go her despair and horror and self -hate as a blast of magic that shattered the staircase.

She spread her arms out and the hillside slid away.

She raised her hands and the ice mountain crumbled around her. Snow blew upward in a cloud. Ice dust crusted her arms and her clothes, and her hair, pulled loose, blew wildly in the explosion. When the air cleared, Elsa looked down.

Below, pushed by the tumultuous waves caused by the splitting iceberg, the ship – with Kay on it – floated away. Soon he would be clear of her storm. He would be safe from her. Churning with snow and broken ice, the water around what was left of the iceberg looked like a field of stones, obscuring the wide base of the iceberg still beneath water level. What was left of the iceberg jutted up, a tall, transparent column, wetly catching and refracting the pre-dawn light.

She sat down on the roof-like slope. Ice spangles coated her body like a ballgown. Only her hands were bare. She rubbed them together. She pulled her knees in close and dropped her face onto her folded arms.

When she looked up, there was the dawn sky. The silhouette of a ship bobbed on the waves. She thought it was Kay, drifting to safety, and gave it no further attention. The sun broke over the horizon.

On the sea between the kingdoms of Arendelle and Corona, a single tower stood on what appeared to be a small, isolated island. From base to roof, the tower sparkled from the colors of a new day reflected on its hard surfaces as if covered in cut crystal and gems. There were no doors into the tower, but there was the frame of a window, implying a room beneath the pointed roof where someone might dwell, away from the world.

Atop the tower sat Elsa, a young woman with loose hair catching the wind. When she could no longer bear the wind and sky, she made her way down through the window and shut herself away.

ooo

 

Chapter Text

 

As soon as Rapunzel, Flynn, and Kristoff passed through the doorway into Mother Gartner’s cottage, Queen Primrose quickly noticed who was not in their group.  On a strident note of worry she asked, “Where is Elsa?”. She targeted Flynn for an answer. “Eugene?” The queen and King Thomas were clearly hurrying their way out to address the situation in the kingdom. Their hostess watched from the doorway of her parlor, and within the room, Gerte cleared the table of dishes.

Rapunzel began, “Mama, Father, I have to tell you...”

“A moment, Rapunzel,” Primrose stopped her. Her gentle but firm manner made it clear that she required Flynn’s answer.

Flynn looked down to avoid meeting the concerned queen’s eyes. It would have been better, all coming from Rapunzel. Some ambassador he was, he though with chagrin. He couldn’t think of any other way to tell it but straight. He looked up at Queen Primrose, then at King Thomas. “Elsa left,” Flynn said. “She’s taken a ship, and gone out to sea.”

“Alone? How could you let her go alone?” Primrose’s voice rose as she crossed the room.

“He couldn’t stop her,” Rapunzel interjected. She stepped closer to her mother. “The harbor is frozen.”

“That headstrong girl!” said Primrose. “Thinking she can go after the witch alone! We’ll send her the support of the navy if I have to chip them out of the harbor with my own hands!” Shaking her head at her own intensity, she said, calmer, “The fleet at sea must be brought in.”

Flynn recognized the queen’s misunderstanding of the situation. He took the opportunity to save uncomfortable explanations for later. “Your highness,” he addressed the king, “I have an additional plan to help Elsa, if you’ll give your permission—”

“Anything,” said King Thomas, and Queen Primrose gave a nod of agreement. “Whatever you need. Horses, men, weapons. Rapunzel, I imagine you will want to assist Eugene wherever royal order is required. Queen Primrose and I will have our hands full with the navy and the chaos in the harbor.”

“We’re returning to the castle once the carriage arrives,” Primrose said, and the sound of a wheels stopping and horses whinnying outside punctuated her statement.

Kristoff, who had held back, started to step forward to get a word in. Instead, Flynn supplied for him, “There’s a ship’s captain from Arendelle waiting for you at the castle. He’ll tell you that there’s  been a death, but he has wrong information.”

“Princess Anna is alive,” Kristoff said.

At the king and queen’s confusion, Flynn amended, “Something to be cleared up after everything else.” It was enough to temporarily satisfy them, and the monarchs breezed out of the cottage without another delay. To Kristoff, he said, “We have carte blanch and a head start. Let’s not lose our advantage by complicating things. You can write down a description of the ship Anna’s on, and we’ll get that to the castle.”

Rapunzel said, “We’ll help Anna, Kristoff. I promised, and I always keep my promises.”

They were all startled by the voice of Mother Gartner when she spoke up. They had forgotten she was present. “Naturally everyone assumed it was the work of a witch. You see, Princess Elsa,” she intoned, “was attacked twice before, by strong magic. Ice. First when she arrived in our country, and then the time when she became a hero of the people. Which is why Queen Primrose concluded that this storm was an attack.”

It was Rapunzel who filled the ensuing silence with the unstated fact. “It wasn’t an attack on Corona, or Elsa,” she said.

The bobbing of the old woman’s head, indicating that she knew the truth of it, made Flynn and Rapunzel exchange looks of surprise. The old woman said, “The flowers loved her in spite of the danger of frost, so I said nothing to dispel the assumption.”

“You knew all this time!” Rapunzel said. “You could have helped her!”

“I couldn’t do a thing about it,” Mother Gartner said.

“You could have! She’s been so alone, keeping her secret inside—”

Flynn pulled Rapunzel away. “Let’s leave it for later, Blondie.” When she started to protest he said, “That boy Kay is with her…”

The sound of a breaking dish startled them all. Gerte, listening from the next room, had a look of alarm on her face, and not because of the shattered plate at her feet. “Kay!” she exclaimed.

“…and he’s going to have some frostbite for you to fix if we delay,” Flynn finished. For good measure, he gave Rapunzel a cajoling, apologetic smile.

Gerte rushed toward them. “He left with Elsa?”

Before they could get tangled in further drama, Kristoff  joined Flynn in hustling their group from the house, leaving Mother Gartner to console Gerte. To their surprise, they found Maximus hitched beside the door.

Rapunzel went to him. “What are you doing here?” she asked. To Maximus’s neigh, she nodded knowingly and said, “Good. We can use your help.” She turned to the others. “He was clever, making a fuss so they would unhitch him from the team.”

Kristoff thought he sounded calmer than he felt. “You talk to animals... or is it only horses that talk to you?”

“No, Pascal, my chameleon, has always talked to me,” she answered. “I mean, in his language, like Maximus does. I just use regular words and they know what I’m saying.” At Kristoff’s staring, blush colored Rapunzel’s cheeks. “Is that... weird?” she asked. “Doesn’t everybody?”

Flynn shook his head, no. “Just you, babe.” To ease the discomfort of her embarrassment, he pulled her in close for a quick kiss on the nose. “I love that about you.”

Rapunzel melted against him. “I love you, too,” she replied.

Kristoff looked away while they gazed into each other’s eyes. He cleared his throat after it went on too long. “What’s the plan?” he asked.

“Eugene should go on ahead,” Rapunzel said, “with Maximus.” She ran a hand over the arch of Maximus’s neck. “You won’t need me to get travel supplies, so Kristoff and I will go to the ships and gather volunteers to crew our ship.”

“You’re the princess. You can commandeer any of the ships and the crew will come with it,” Kristoff commented.

“We’ll get volunteers,” Rapunzel replied sweetly.

Flynn, up on Maximus’s back, reached down to pat Kristoff on the shoulder. “Trust her,” Flynn told him. “She has a way of getting people to go along with her.”

“Yes, I do,” Rapunzel said, hands on hips but smiling. “It’s called believing in people. We’d better get moving. We’ll go this way; it’s a shortcut to the waterfront.” She pushed her way through the hedges around a garden and crossed over the cottage’s flower beds. Her lithe figure and slipper-shod feet left only the lightest evidence of her passage. Kristoff followed, brushing off juniper twigs after squeezing his larger body through the tams. She asked him about Anna when he caught up to her.

“Anna is amazing,” Kristoff answered. He suddenly found it hard to say anything more. Anna was more important to him than anyone else, and she was in danger, alone with that creep Hans. She was counting on him to get her out of there, but somehow he had to first get to her sister Elsa, who had gone off like a powder keg.

They were, at least, making good time. Rapunzel’s shortcut wound through garden paths and narrow alleys, but overall it was a more direct line to the harbor. The boardwalk and high street still swarmed with confusion. A curious crowd had gathered, adding to the throng, and the onlookers slowed the progress of clearing the docks. Cargo intended for loading onto the ships before Elsa’s ice storm hit and cargo unloaded from the ships piled up, waiting for wagons that could only get through at the slowest pace. Kristoff and Rapunzel fought their way through.

Kristoff measured the distance to the ship furthest away and closest to open water. “At least no one is crossing the ice,” he noted. “It’s a hot day. This ice could break up any minute. It should be melting by now.” He thought about what he was seeing, the way white frost covered the top of the frozen water, regardless of the sun beating down on it. “It’s because it’s magic, isn’t it? That’s why it hasn’t melted at all. It’s not going to ever thaw, is it?”

“Not without Elsa,” Rapunzel said.

A yell, followed by shouts, drew their attention to a well-dressed man who had been carrying a heavy crate. Pieces of the broken crate skittered across the same slick surface that had caused the man to lose his footing. He clutched at his back, crying out in pain.

“Hold Pascal for me!” Rapunzel shoved a small green creature at Kristoff. The animal leaped from Rapunzel’s hand, freeing her to pull at the ribbons tying up her hair.

“Where were you keeping him!?” Kristoff exclaimed. Pascal clambered up Kristoff’s shirt and settled on Kristoff’s shoulder. For a moment, they eyed each other from inches apart. Another shout drew Kristoff’s attention to the injured person.

Rapunzel hurried to him, her hair unraveling to an unbelievable length. She slid on the iced boards with an athletic grace that Kristoff wouldn’t have expected from anyone. As her hair came loose, he was sure he saw her use it like a whip around a bollard turn her path toward the injured man without losing speed. She looped her long hair over the fallen man.

Kristoff saw her lean over the man and heard her murmuring in a tone of reassurance, and then she was singing, clearly and calmly, and her hair glowed with a brightly golden light. The man’s pained groaning ceased immediately. Soon he was sitting up, then standing, entirely healed of his injury. Rapunzel finished her song. She gathered her hair back to herself. She was asking the man if he felt better as Kristoff approached close enough to hear.

Rapunzel had become better at improvising new rhymes for her healing incantation ever since her first try at it at the orphanage’s sick ward. She didn’t want to use the same words for the children as she did when renewing Mother Gothel’s youth. It just seemed wrong to her, and once she had started changing the words to suit the sniffles and rashes common to sick children, she thought the healing worked better. Humming, or vocalizing without specific words, worked too, if she put all her feeling into the singing. She had started to think that vocalizing while focusing on the feeling she had toward the person was more effective than being distracted with specific words. After all, she didn’t need to know, before she started the healing song, what was wrong. She could sense the damage and it was as if her magic flowed right to it.

“I think you’d better leave your merchandise here for now,” she urged the man. “The guard are here to make sure nothing is moved off without permission. Your goods will still be here when it’s safer to send them to your shop. I’ll find someone to help you gather these things up, but it looks like a lot of your porcelain is broken.”

“He’s lucky his back isn’t broken,” Kristoff commented after Rapunzel found some idle sailors to help the merchant. “You really can fix people.” He looked at the reactions of the people around them. Dozens of faces stared at her, expressions of amazement, confusion, and some fear. As a whole, the mass of people had moved back to leave more clear space around their princess. A trio of guards moved to the front of the crowd and instructed onlookers to continue on their way.

“I try,” Rapunzel said to Kristoff, shrugging off her accomplishment. She caught herself doing it, and she thought about what Elsa would say to her. “I mean, I do. I want to help people.” She looked out at the frozen harbor. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting Anna. Let’s go find her. It looks like that big boat over there is the one closest to the edge of the freeze.”

“I wish I was going to meet her sister in better circumstances, too,” said Kristoff. “I don’t want to say this, but it took me a long time to get over the ice earlier. That clipper is far enough away that we won’t make it on foot before sunset.” He looked over her summer dress and soft shoes. “Is Eugene bringing a sled? We could cross a lot faster and easier in a sleigh.”

“We don’t actually have sleds, here, I guess,” Rapunzel said. “Except the little ones the children use to play on the grassy hills. I’m not sure what Eugene is going to bring. Can’t we use a wagon?”

Kristoff winced. “It doesn’t snow here in winter at all?”

“A little. There are some days of snowfall recorded in the almanacs. Elsa said you get carpets of snow in Arendelle, but not to expect anything but snowflakes on an extra cold night here.”

“We’re not going to get over this ice,” Kristoff groaned, thinking about the supplies that Flynn would be gathering.

Rapunzel made a hopeful face. “Don’t get discouraged. We’ll figure out a way.” She walked to the edge of the dock and looked down. With care, she sat on the edge, then heaved herself over, her drop slowed and controlled by use of her hair as a rope. She walked around on the frozen water. “You’ll see. We’re going to be all right.”

Kristoff came to the edge and sat, legs dangling. “We had better think of a plan while we are waiting,” he said.

Rapunzel studied the ice under her feet. It was hard and solid, and very cold. The cold came up through the thin soles of her silk slippers. It was a mean, sad cold, like the feeling of loss turned into a temperature. But it was a bigger loss than any Rapunzel had ever known, though she had cried herself dry many times in her life before escaping her tower. She shivered and pulled her hair over her bare arms. She started to hum herself warm, then she had a thought: what if her magic could thaw the ice? The bay wasn’t a person, but Elsa was, and this ice was her pain.

She would probably have to touch Elsa to heal her. Rapunzel had never healed anyone without touching them directly.

It was worth the try, she thought. She pulled her locks over her shoulders, spreading her hair in a circle so that it lay across the ice all around her. If it didn’t work, she would still learn something from the failure. “Here goes,” she murmured to herself. She thought about Gothel sniping at her not to mumble, and her confidence briefly faltered. “Tell me about Anna,” she called up to Kristoff, seeking a push to get her confidence back.

“Anna is funny. And smart, really smart about studying but about life, too, and she cares about everyone. She’s kind,” he said. “She loves adventure. She never shows it when she’s scared. She laughs at scary stuff.”

“Elsa is smart, too,” Rapunzel answered. “She cares a lot. She has shown me so many things. And she’s patient.” Rapunzel smiled. There was the feeling, as warm as the sun, in her heart. Elsa had shown her what it meant to be princess. A princess couldn’t be torn down by cruel words.

“In summer,” Kristoff continued, “she’s outside as much as she can be. Her hair gets red streaks in it from the sun. She looks like she has fire in her hair.”

Rapunzel heard it in Kristoff’s voice. He loved Anna. Anna must love him back, because there was something in his voice that told Rapunzel that he knew she did. Elsa, Rapunzel thought, Anna is going to want you to meet him.Come home, Elsa. She collected the sun-like warmth inside her and took a deep breath. When she breathed out, she sang and let the feeling pour out with the notes.

Come home. You’re not alone. I love you.

It’s all right. She wanted to put her arms tightly around her cousin. Both her cousins, embracing the sisters, hugging Elsa and Anna as closely as she could. Elsa, who hesitated to touch others first but didn’t push Rapunzel away. She always squeezed Rapunzel’s hand back and hugged back tightly. Rapunzel wanted Elsa to reach for her, but until then, Rapunzel would reach out first as often as it had to be. She sang so that her song would flow into the ice, into Elsa’s magic, and reach out to her. She put the love she felt for Elsa into her voice.

ooo

Flynn didn’t waste time trying to do it all himself. If there was one thing he had learned to adjust to court life, it was to delegate tasks to people who handled that specific task on a regular basis. It really helped with the impostor syndrome. He couldn’t say with certainty that anyone actually treated him like the alley cat that caught a royal canary, but some days, it was all he could do to go out his door instead of his window in the morning, sure that the day had come when the king and queen would come to their senses.

He made the needed stops to order provisions appropriate for a week at sea brought to the waterfront, then went on ahead to rejoin Rapunzel. When he saw the mingling crowds blocking the street, he left Maximus to help with crowd control and pushed his way through on foot.

At first, he didn’t see Rapunzel, but he could hear her singing. He found Kristoff and jogged up to him. Rapunzel sang from the level below, on the frozen surface of the harbor. Her hair blazed around her with intense light. “Who is she healing?” he asked Kristoff. “I don’t see anyone with her.”

Kristoff shrugged.“I don’t know. She said she wanted to look around, and then just started—”

The sudden drop into water turned Rapunzel’s healing song into a yelp. She went under for only a moment before popping back up to the surface.

Kristoff flattened himself on the dock and reached a hand down to her faster than Flynn could. “Take my hand!” Kristoff offered. “Are you alright?”

Rapunzel kicked in the water and paddled to his reach. Rapunzel’s coughing was mixed with her laughter. “I should have realized this would happen!” She bobbed in the water, struggling to get a good grip with wet hands, until she stopped trying. “Wait,” she sputtered. “I’m still being silly about this.” She managed a loop of her hair, then tossed it up around one of the bollard above. She hauled herself out of the water. Kristoff took her hand to steady her as she straightened up.

Flynn drew Rapunzel away from Kristoff. “Blondie, you incredible woman,” he praised. He drew her into his arms. “And you’re soaked.” He planted a kiss on her salty lips. “You incredible, magical, beautiful,” he looked into her shining eyes, “incredible… I’m repeating myself.” He laughed to stop babbling. He waved an arm, indicating the harbor. The ice was completely gone, with nearly no evidence of having been.

Rapunzel turned around and looked at the harbor. She wondered if she had reached Elsa. The ice had not reached beyond the harbor, and there was no trail to follow.

“You should go and dry off and get into some dry clothes,” Flynn said. “You can go home to change. Maximus is still here to take you. The provisions are on the way. We’ll load a ship and be ready for you.”

“No, we should go as soon as we can,” Rapunzel responded. She twisted up her hair to wring out the sea water. “If there is something I can wear, I’ll change into it on the boat. On the ship,” she corrected herself. She had kicked off her shoes in the water. It wouldn’t matter; she had only started wearing shoes since her birthday.

“Only because your parents aren’t here,” Flynn said.

Kristoff pointed out, “We can take something small and fast out, now. There’s a choice of ships. If there’s one that was already supplied and on it’s way out, we only need a crew. They might still be on board.”

“That’s a good idea,” Rapunzel said.

“I’ll see who I can find,” Flynn said. He looked at Kristoff’s expression. “Good. He’s stopped scowling,” Flynn commented, as if Kristoff couldn’t hear him. Flynn smirked. He kissed Rapunzel again. “I like you footloose and fancy free, but if your royal parents find out that you went to sea in a wet sundress...”

“Oh, you’re right,” Rapunzel said. She turned to Kristoff. “I’ll hurry.” She didn’t wait for his reaction.

Maximus was easy to spot, and the crowd parted for her to pass. She knew they were all looking at her, even those who remembered to bow. She thought about Elsa, Princess Elsa, and made herself lift her chin and straighten her shoulders. She was their princess. She was a symbol of hope.

As soon as she was up on his back, Maximus took her away from the waterfront and up through the crowded streets. Her dissipation of the effects of Elsa’s magic had reinvigorated the populace. They again poured out of their homes and business to fill the streets or peer from balconies and rooftops. Maximus galloped through, masterfully avoiding obstacles that didn’t move themselves out of his path. She arrived at the castle as quickly as she anticipated. Maximus took her all the way into the entry hall. He took himself back out once she was running up the stair to her room.

She put fresh clothes on while still pulling the wet ones off. For quickness, she grabbed a purple striped linen dress that she wore when working with paint and children. She stepped into her boots but didn’t spend time lacing them up, which she could do later. Before leaving her room, she bundled up a large cloak that she thought might be useful. She wouldn’t have time to pack anything from Elsa’s room, but the cloak would fit anyone.

She looked around the room. She wished she had a better idea of what to do in the situation. Trusting that getting to Elsa was the first and most important step, she hurried back out to where Maximus waited to start her on that journey.   

ooo



Chapter Text

Rapunzel didn’t make it past the courtyard before being intercepted. The castle was lively with people reacting to the thawing of Corona’s harbor. Guardsman Nils, when he spotted Rapunzel, turned the attention of the man he was conversing with toward her. Rapunzel knew she wouldn’t get away without engaging with them.

“Your Highness,” Nils addressed her as they strode up to her. “I understand you are leading a mission to follow Princess Elsa. This is Captain Bjorn, of Arendelle’s navy. He may be of assistance to you.”

The captain bowed, precise with formality without wasting time, and clarified that he was the captain of the ship sent in pursuit of Princess Anna. “My ship and crew is at your service. We are the fastest vessel in your harbor, I believe.”

“That’s perfect,” Rapunzel answered, relieved that the brief delay would make up for itself. “We are going to Princess Anna’s rescue, too.” As she had expected, the news invigorated the Arendelle captain. She thanked Nils for the introduction, then continued to rejoin Maximus, confident that Captain Bjorn would follow. He did, leading a horse borrowed from Corona’s stables. When both she and he were mounted and on their way back to Flynn and Kristoff, she quickly filled the captain in on what they knew.

She hardly had to mention the word “pirate” before the captain set his steed to galloping down the hill. Allowing Maximus his speed, Rapunzel easily kept pace.

ooo

Elsa considered what she had made. It wasn’t much of a palace. She dropped through the window frame and stepped down into the tower. “Home sweet home,” she said. Her shallow breath barely moved her chest.

Resemblance to Rapunzel’s tower ended at the casement window. Inside, Elsa’s creation in ice was a single, simple room with a high ceiling. The smooth floor mocked a large rug like the one in her childhood room, thin ripples in the ice making the illusion of texture and pattern. It was her room, frigid blue and silver sheen, ice window panes like beveled glass, a canopy covered bed made of white ice and frost. She walked to it and lay herself down. For a moment the hard surface that was not a soft featherbed confused her. And there was only one bed, here. No bed for Anna.

She got up again. Her ridiculous cape swished and swirled. Her crystalline shoes clicked on the false rug. She would close the windows and seal herself in and wait until she, too, turned to ice through and through. She told herself she was not bothered by the cold; it had always been waiting to take her.

A sun-warm breeze gusted in through the window before she could close it. It caressed her face and then withdrew, like a gentle hand beckoning her to step back outside the window.

She closed her eyes a moment. A warm tear spilled down her cheek; she touched it with her fingertips, startled by its heat. She looked at her fingertips. The tear had become lacy snowflakes, so she blew on them and they swirled away like seed puffs blown from a ripe dandelion head.

She was not surprised when Olaf stood there, in place of the snowflakes. He gazed at her with his wide eyes and his smile of gladness and his awe of her. She turned her head and didn’t look at him. “I’m free,” she said.

“Sure,” Olaf agreed.

“I don’t have to decide anymore. I don’t have to lie. I don’t have to do anything.”

“Uh-huh,” Olaf nodded.

She turned around. She leaned against the window ledge and said, “I should have never come to Corona. I should have stayed in my room in Arendelle, locked the door, and never come out.”

“That wouldn’t have been fun,” Olaf commented.

“What does that matter?” It came out as a cry. “Anna is gone! She’s gone, and nothing matters!” Her chest hurt. She pressed her hand against her chest, against the sharp pain. “Nothing I did... I couldn’t keep her safe!”

“But your parents sent you away. You had to go.”

“We were just playing,” Elsa said. “I didn’t mean to... I was trying to catch her.”

“It was an accident.” Olaf was matter-of-fact.

“It was my fault!”

“You didn’t tell Anna to come. Why was she alone, anyhow? Why didn’t your parents come for you. Or even better, why didn’t they send for you?”

Elsa sobbed.

“Ever?” Olaf asked.

“It should have me on that ship. That ship that sank.” Elsa’s voice steadied. “I should have died. I should be dead.”

“Aw,” Olaf chuckled, “one little sea storm couldn’t have killed you. Not you, Elsa. You make storms.”

Elsa stiffened. “I made that one. It was my storm,” she whispered. She flickered a frightened glance at Olaf. “I killed my sister. I’m a monster. A witch. I’m evil.” Her voice shook. “Maybe it wasn’t an accident.”

“You don’t mean that, do you?”

“Of course not!” Elsa gasped. She paced while wringing her hands. “I don’t know what I’m doing!” She gestured around the room. “I don’t understand this. Or why... I...” She reached a wall and put her bare hands against the icy surface. “I thought of running away, so many times. I thought being alone would be a relief. ” Rushing back to the window, she leaned out and scanned the horizon for the ship she had sent drifting away. “How could I have done this to Kay? To everyone?”

“But I can’t undo what happened,” she said. “I can’t go back.”

“Why not?”

Elsa gave Olaf a puzzled look. “Of course I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I can’t!” she shouted at Olaf. She pressed her hands to her temples. “How could I? Everything is changed.” Olaf stepped close and pat her elbow with one of his stick hands. The touch was comforting and not as weird as a stick hand should feel. He smiled a toothy smile up at her. She looked away.

“Hey, what if didn’t?” he asked in a conspiratory whisper. “This could all be a bad dream? Maybe you’re dreaming?” He turned a circle in place with arms out toward the room. “This is pretty weird. It could be a dream, right?”

“I’m not dreaming,” Elsa said softly. “I wish I were. Anna is gone.”

Olaf insisted, “But are you sure? Why would she be on that ship, anyway? Do you think she really could have sneaked on? We don’t really know that she did. She probably changed her mind or got talked out of it. I bet she’s fine.”

Elsa crouched down so that she was face to face with the snowman. “Olaf, you’re forgetting. I was captain of the guard. I know what this is. Just like the times I was there to give someone bad news. It’s a terrible thing to be true, and you don’t want to believe it. I don’t want to believe it. I would like it to be a misunderstanding, but I can’t make it so by wishing.”

“You wish me real, and I’m here,” Olaf countered.

“Why are you here, Olaf?” She waved a hand, and he went away. Olaf was a childhood thing, an imaginary friend for her to talk to about home, about Arendelle. Or so she had thought. Nothing more than talking to herself. She called him back. “Olaf, what are you?” she asked him.

He shrugged. “I dunno.” He thought again and brightened with a grin. “I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs!” He opened his arms expectantly.

“But I’m cold all the way through,” Elsa said, nevertheless hugging the short snowman closely.

“I’m cold all the way through, too,” Olaf said, “you know.”

Again, Elsa waved Olaf away, back into snowflakes that sparkled and disappeared. She turned toward the view outside the window. Carefully, she climbed onto the window sill. She arranged herself until she was comfortably sitting in the window. She leaned her head back against the frame.

ooo

By the thin, gray light of Arendelle’s dawn, King Marius opened weary eyes to the sight of Queen Genevieve reading near a window. A curl of smoke spiraled from the recently extinguished candle stump left on her desk. He watched her clutch the letter to her chest and look out the window with a bleak expression on her exhausted face.

“Have you been up all night again reading them?” he asked.

She was startled by his voice. She folded the letter’s pages and half turned toward him.

“You must stop,” he urged. He sat up. He pulled a dressing gown on and climbed out of bed. He raked his fingers through his hair and slowly went through the motions of dressing.

“You will not read them,” the queen accused. “One of us should know.”

The king shook his head. “They are Elsa’s, and Anna’s, private letters. Anna will be unhappy enough to find her trove discovered.”

The queen crossed to her desk, where bundles of letters lay in piles. Though Anna’s parting note had explained her intentions, her room had been searched afterward for any clues that would elaborate on her motivations. In fact, the castle and grounds had been thoroughly searched, with the hopes that Princess Anna had been playing a trick. However, the letters had not been in the castle. It was Kristoff’s mother, shocked and grieved by the connection she made with the coincidence of her son’s absence and that of Anna’s departure, who brought forth a box that the princess stored at their small cottage, guarded by Kristoff’s safekeeping. The key to the cypher itself turned up tucked between the canvas and backing of the Joan of Arc painting in the hall of portraits.

After days spent closely reading each letter, Queen Genevieve no longer needed the key to decode the secret script. She was devastated to find out her eldest daughter’s bare feelings. She could not stop reading and rereading the letters.

“We were so wrong, Marius,” she said to him. “She let us believe that she was happier there. She hid her loneliness from us, but not from Anna. And Anna kept her secret.”

King Marius went to his wife and took her hands in his, requiring her to relinquish the pages she held back to the pile. “You are making yourself ill,” Marius warned. “It is not too late to make amends to our daughters. You know Anna will not be dissuaded from returning with Elsa, and in the end this will all work out for the best.”

Queen Genevieve removed one hand so that she could trace the new gray hair at the king’s temples. “You say so, but I can see your worry,” she whispered.

“I had hoped The Messenger would have been intercepted and turned back,” he admitted. “They must have had a good wind at their back, but we will have word from the pursuers before too long. An unofficial message if nothing else first.”

The queen looked away. Her gaze fell again on the letters wrapped in ribbon.

The king continued, “Think instead about Corona’s good news.”

“I wish I could think of my brother’s happiness, now,” Genevieve answered. “But my heart is full of Elsa’s sadness. Selfishly, of my own, too. I let my sister-in-law be the mother I should have been. I—”

“We did what we thought best,” King Marius said with a sigh, reminded of the painful decision to send Elsa to her uncle and aunt. Neither had been wholeheartedly for it, but they had concluded that it was the best option for Elsa. Keeping her away so long had come from an inability to face the trouble of her powers. She had been born with her powers, but as a baby she had done no worse than chill the bathwater. The outbursts of ice began after her fourth birthday. The accident while playing with Anna made Elsa frightened of her growing power. The attacks had quieted, even disappeared altogether it seemed, in the environment of his in-laws’ household, and he had not wanted to address the possibility that the problem came from his shortcomings as a father. Who else could shoulder the blame?

ooo

Elsa watched the small shape on the calm waves that was the ship with Kay on it. A current would catch it and carry it into shipping lanes, where he could be found and taken back to safety. She should have done better for him, she rued. Between her hands she made a round lens out of perfectly transparent ice. She made an opaque tube to house it, playing with the lengths and thinking all the while that it was pure laziness not to simply do the math instead. At last she found the right length and looked through the ice spyglass at the ship.

She continued watching him, sometimes with the spyglass, sometimes with her eyes straining to follow the speck upon the low, blue waves. After a long time, a second ship appeared. She put the spyglass to her eye and focused on the new arrival. They raised sails to turn their course toward the ship with Kay. Soon they were alongside. She saw the tiny shapes of a boarding party cross over. They raised the sails on the snow, and both ships proceeded on their way together. She frowned when she realized that their course aimed back in her direction, though obliquely. She continued to watch them, aware that her tower would soon be within view to their lookout. She could already make out a figure in the rigging without using the spyglass. She hoped the climbing sun would make the clear ice tower appear to be an illusion of water and mist.

The thought gave her an idea. She raised a cold mist from the surface of the water, calling the wet cloud upward to create an obscuring wall between her and the ships. A misty horizon would help create the illusion that her tower was a sea mirage. The sight could be discounted by the sailors as easily as a vision of mermaids. Since she wanted to continue watching the ships’ progress, she left a hole in the mist at the level of the window. She drew tacked her cloak over the window to serve as a curtain that she could peer around with the spyglass she had made.

She didn’t account for the reflection of the sun on the water. Every few minutes she had to wave aside the moving mist to keep her line of sight to the ships clear. When the reflected sunlight caught the lens of her spyglass, it glinted like a signal mirror.

ooo

Chapter Text

The Sitron rolled on swells. The night sea had roared, but if there had been a storm wind, it hadn’t brought any rain with it dancing over the cabin roof. Anna crawled across the cabin floor, breathing shallowly. Hans slept, but she could not discern if it was a deep sleep. All night, he had squirmed and flopped, thrashed about in his blankets, and made low sounds and mutters in a fitful sleep. Anna pitied the person who would someday suffer while trying to sleep next to him. One thing she was sure of: it would not be her.

When she reached the bed, she held her breath. Hans sprawled, face turned away from her, but anything, even a dream, could make him wake. She could see the top of the cabin door key denting the edge of his mattress. His tossing and turning had been Anna’s good luck. They key had worked its way out to where she could grab it without disturbing the bedding. She pulled the key out.

A large swell lifted the ship and dropped it, and Anna was thrown against the bed before she could catch herself. Her shoulder slammed into the side. Hans, nearly shaken awake, snorted and began to sit up. He rolled over, and for a moment they were face to face though his eyes were closed in sleep. She held her breath.

Anna nearly jumped out of her skin when a knocking sounded on the cabin door. She turned around to look. One of the pirate crew called in, “Prize sighted, Captain.”

Quickly, and pained to do it, she pushed the key back under the mattress.

She heard Hans sit up and did not turn back to look. His legs swung down to the floor beside her. When he sat there and didn’t say anything, Anna finally raised her face to look at him. “Good morning!” she said.

He got up out of bed and put on pants, boots, and a fresh shirt, all without a word. When he finished buttoning his coat, he strolled back, pulled the door key from under the mattress, and stared at Anna. Suddenly and roughly, he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to her feet. “I know what you were after. I’m not an imbecile, Anna.” His rank breath blew into her face. He headed to the door, pulling her behind him. “If I had been trying to make you love me, I might be disappointed in you right now.” He handled her like dead weight as they both moved out on deck. “You’re not worth that effort, but you can still amuse me.” His grip pressed into her arm.

“What are you going to do?” Anna couldn’t guess his mind. When he wasn’t looking, she felt for the polished tinder box tucked into her skirt’s waist, to make sure it was still with her. Any opportunity to signal for help would be a narrow one.

Though his hold on her didn’t ease, Hans ignored her to confer with his lackeys. Their lookout had spotted a small ship, and they were on a course to intercept it. Hans scanned the sea. Anna could make out a speck in the distance when the oddly high waves pushed the ship beneath her up. In the dim light of early morning, below a sky turning blue, the sea looked strange. The waves looked strange, like the wake of something large, or as if they radiated out from a central point some distance away.

Hans seemed to observe the same oddness. “No storm overnight?” he asked in a musing tone.

“No, Captain. Sounded like thunder before sun-up, but there were no clouds to be seen by first light.”

“Huh.” Suspicion twisted Hans’s facial expression. He pushed Anna forward. “Tie this one up where she’s not in the way and I can keep an eye on her.”

Anna, thrown off her balance, yelped, “Hey! Watch it!” She righted herself only to be captured by the subordinate before she could make a break for freedom. One of the crew brought him a rope, then the two pirates pushed Anna roughly against the starboard deck railing and used the rope to tie both her wrists. She remembered a trick from playing “palace guard” in childhood make-believe games with Kristoff and made fists, flexing her wrists outward, so that the binding would be loose when she relaxed.

Hans tugged at his cuffs, straightening his coat sleeves as he marched toward the bridge. A crewman rushed to bring Hans his hat, sword, a pair of gloves, and breakfast. Hans completed dressing while giving further orders. He took the wheel. Sails billowed, and the schooner picked up speed. It cut across the rippling waves, closing the distance with the ship they pursued.

The target sat on the sea, pulled along by currents but not steered. It had turned perpendicular to the wind, leaving its sails slack. There didn’t appear to be anyone aboard. She squinted at Hans, expecting him to be wearing smug triumph. Oddly, he still seemed dissatisfied and suspicious. He continued to scan the panorama of horizon.

Anna worked her hands out of the rope. She lost some skin in place of losing time. It hurt, but she was focused on even the slimmest chance of escape.

Hans called out orders to his pirate crew. “We have the prize! Bring us in close!”

The pirates swarmed into action. A dinghy splashed down into the water. Strong rowers pulled oars toward the other ship. Others stood on the port deck of the Sitron, ready with ropes and cutlasses, to jump across when the ships lined up side-by-side. The group from the row boat climbed up and went to work adjusting the sails.

Anna, facing the other direction while she used the cover of activity to free her hands, caught sight of a mirror flash. She almost missed it, because the sun was bouncing all over the sea, creating a blinding view. She looked for a source of the signal. All she could see on that part of the horizon was mist and clouds. Still, the flash had looked like a signal mirror. She managed one hand free. That was enough to take out her own reflective circle and attempt to catch enough light to signal back toward the mysterious flash.

She started with what she thought would be the most vital information. Arendelle. Then, Help and Pirates.

She wasn’t quick enough. A gloved hand ran through her loosened hair and pulled her head painfully back and down. She yelled in pain. With his free hand, Hans snatched the tinder box out of Anna’s fingers.

“You’re as slippery as a mermaid. Annoying, but I could almost admire you.” After tucking the box into his coat pocket, he seized the loosened knot and tugged it tight again around her still-bound wrist. “I don’t,” he completed. He released her hair so that he could use both hands to tie up her other wrist as well. “Is it really so hard to do as you’re told?” He pushed her down with his boot so that she had to sit on the deck, her back to the railing. He tied her with her wrists over her head. She watched him knot with a feeling of despair. “You…”

At the corner of her vision, Anna saw the flash again. She saw more than the flash. The cloud fell, revealing more of the sky above.

“What is that?” Hans asked in an perplexed murmur. What he saw on the horizon took the breath out of whatever epithet he had started to hurl at her. “It’s a... tower,” Hans said, a few minutes later. He squatted down and gripped Anna’s chin so that she had to face him. “It has to be sorcery,” he hissed. “Ice by sorcery! Don’t think I don’t recognize it!” He freed her chin with a disgusted expression on his face. He stood up and loosened his sword from its scabbard.

“What do you mean?” Anna responded. She turned her neck to look at a strange sight. The tight rope binding scoured her abraded her wrists so that Anna couldn’t hold back a whimper when she twisted to behold the tower shape in the mist.

“Enough playing dumb. No more games.” He drew his sword. An angry grunt punctuating his blow, he swung the sword down toward her.

Anna screamed and cringed away, for all the good it would do.

She fell forward as the rope was cut from the railing. Hans sheathed his sword and took hold of her arm. He dragged Anna. “I’ll have my reckoning with the witch. Won’t she be thrilled to see you. But I guess that was your plan. How did you call her here?”

She didn’t know what plan Hans was talking about. Yes, the unnatural shape could have been made by magic, but if it was real, it was beautiful magic. It looked just like a tower of stone with ivy climbing up the sides, transparent, like sculpted ice for a festival. She wished her plan had been a rescue by magic. It was better than the plan she had. Maybe the witch wasn’t a bad person. She had never heard of a good witch, but wasn’t there always a first time for everything?

They might be on the same side. After all, Hans seemed to hate the witch. What did he mean, that she would be happy to see Anna?

“Prepare the starboard guns!” Hans shouted out orders. He swung his arm and pointed out the tower to his confederates. “I want us close enough to blast that thing into the briny depths! And raise the flag. I want her to know who sank her!”

ooo

The ship that had picked up her snow flashed a signal message. Part of a signal message. Elsa hadn’t expected it, she hadn’t been looking directly at it when it started, and it was too short to be a full message. She turned her spyglass on the schooner. She could make out more details now, such as the flag with Southern Isles colors. Specifically, with the Westergaard spiked crown crest against the carmine red.

“No! Kay!”

She couldn’t make out the details of the man and woman standing on the deck. On her snow, she could not spot Kay. The ships were still to far away, but the schooner had gained speed, and its path angled more directly toward Elsa’s tower island.

I can’t be free, she thought with horror rising. Her mistakes cascaded upon the next, a series of sins waiting to fall like the pillars of a crumbling foundation. Then the cannon boom began, and she realized that her tower would fall, when the blasts reached close enough range to hit. She closed her eyes, listening to the boom. Even not knowing it was of her making, Southern Isles held as strong a hate for sorcery as any other kingdom.

They would not have her. She opened her eyes and opened her hands, and she raised a wave that froze even as it rose. The wave crashed and crumbled with the force greater than the cannon balls. Where it broke, the sea rebounded with a second, giant wave that raced toward the Southern Isles ship. It hit the ship and crashed over it, but the ship was still far enough away for the wave to be no more than a warning.

Still, the schooner plowed the sea toward Elsa. She readied another wave, this time thinking of a blizzard gale to cast with it. With her unaided eye, she could see the figures on the deck, now. She had to know if the man in captain’s garb was Prince Hans, or if he was someone whose animosity would be less specific. Her magic was at the ready, but first, she used the spyglass. The close up confirmed her adversary was Hans. She recognized the malice and cruelty of the sneer he directed at the woman with him.

The woman was Anna. Her sister.

The woman could be no one but Anna. Elsa knew her face, not from portraits but from its counterpart in her mirror every day, a face too like Elsa’s own not to be her family. And the woman — the girl — Anna was captive, with arms bound by rope! Bound by Hans! Elsa nearly released the fury of her magic, but she could not, with Anna captive. The magic twisted in her grip with a desperation to be free.

She lost hold of the spyglass, and it tumbled down from the window, disappearing into the mist. She lost firm hold of her magic. Only for a moment, it slithered away from her like a striking serpent. Crying out, she flattened the wave and the magic spread into the water instead of pushing up the sea. Like Corona’s harbor, she froze the surface of the sea. The gale passed over the ice field without resistance. It knocked the schooner, and the ship nearly capsized with its guns still firing cannonballs heavenward before it righted.

Elsa turned the ends of the magic back. She wrapped them around the tower, molding the magic. It responded to her without resistance to her desire. She dashed down the newly created stairs, her feet fleet and sure as she ran to Anna.

ooo

Anna picked herself up as the ship began to return to even keel. Before the pirates could get a hold of her again, she clambered over the side of the ship and let herself drop to the newly frozen surface. It was a hard fall, even with the angled ship allowing more climbing and reducing the distance of the drop. Her feet slipped out from under her. Her head hit the ice, and she came up tasting a bloodied lip. She was thankful she had only bitten her lip, not her tongue. The pain of the fall made her angry, and that anger overtook the fear she felt for the danger all around her.

She went as quickly as she could over the ice. Wishing for a pair of skates wouldn’t magically put them on her feet, but she wished for them anyway. She didn’t dare look behind her. If Hans and the pirates were following on foot, she wouldn’t be able to do anything different to evade them. She did use the amazing ice tower ahead of her to keep to a straight path away from them. A ribbon of ice lace wrapped around the tower now, like an invitation. She wasn’t sure, but it looked like a spiral staircase with the tower at its center. She would climb it when she reached it, because there was nowhere else to go.

ooo

Elsa had to know Anna was real. She couldn’t reach her quickly enough running. In a burst of playful inspiration, she changed the staircase she was building in front of her into a long, banked flume reaching out across the frozen field. She leaped from the last stair onto the smooth slide, lowering herself into a sitting position as the incline and speed of her sliding increased. It was ridiculous and exhilarating. She didn’t hold back her magic or the whoop that echoed against all the ice. Full of power, full of joy, she alighted onto the patch of sea she had frozen.

The scene before her dampened, but could not extinguish, her happiness. Anna shuffled across the ice. Fifty feet behind her, Hans stalked Anna. He was better dressed for the ice than Anna, likely having taken the time to draw on a wool coat and heavy boots. The other pirates remained on the ships, although a half dozen or so readied to climb down to the ice.

Anger flared again in Elsa, and she released it as a blast of sleet and wind aimed at the ships’ sails. The blast pushed the ships back from the ice shore. She had not forgotten that Kay was aboard one of them. Another blast from each hand pushed the ships further back and apart from each other. She hoped to create enough disruption to keep them occupied. She stepped out of her stilettos and replaced them with ice skates. She hadn’t worn ice skates since she was a child, but she remembered how. Soon she skated with speed toward Anna.

Cannon boomed from the schooner. The cannon ball hit and shattered the ice. Elsa was knocked off her feet, but she quickly got up again. The ice had cracked between her and Anna. Anna lay sprawled where she had fallen. Hans was nearly upon her. Elsa called up a winter wind to slow him down. He struggled to walk through it, but still advanced. She saw the pirates aiming more cannon fire her way.

“Go AWAY!” she screamed, hurling a glowing ball of magic toward Hans. She raised ice spikes out of the sea at the pirate ship. The aggressive spike wreaked havoc by crashing through the hull, smashing the spars, and shooting indiscriminately toward the pirates. A second row formed a jagged wall.

Appearing out of the ball of blizzard, a creature twice the height of Hans loomed up in the prince’s path. Her ice monster raked a clawed hand toward Hans. He attacked it with his sword.

Elsa cast a bridge over the crack in the ice and rushed to Anna. The young woman had started to get up. With one arm, she pushed herself up to her knees, but because her wrists were still bound, she had trouble getting up further. When she turned to look over her shoulder toward Hans, Elsa saw the fear in her young face. She saw the blood smeared across her cheek and chin. Dark circles purpled under her eyes, stark against the sickly pallor of her skin. Anna’s hair was a rat’s nest, and her clothes were in a disarray.

When Elsa reached her, she pulled her into her arms. For a moment, Anna struggled away. “That monster!” she gasped. Watching the snow creature fighting Hans, her eyes were wide with fear.

“Don’t look at it!” Elsa cried out. The ice monster was her true nature. She didn’t want Anna to see that. With a sweep of her arm, she made it vanish into loose snow. She held Anna’s shoulders while kneeling at her level.

Anna turned her face toward Elsa. The fear in her eyes transformed to recognition. “Elsa? Is that you?”

“It’s me, Anna,” Elsa exhaled. She sighed again, relief like breath filling her body. “It’s Elsa. It’s me.”

“Elsa!” Anna threw herself into Elsa’s embrace. She could not put her arms around Elsa, but she pressed her face into her sister’s shoulder.

Elsa put her lips against her sister’s hair. “I thought I had killed you,” Elsa cried.

“What?” Anna lifted her head. “No! Why?” She again attempted to stand.

Elsa supported her. As she worked at the knots holding Anna’s wrists, Anna turned around so that she was facing the pirate ships. “Watch out!” Anna yelled suddenly. She tugged Elsa down toward the ground. Anna’s feet slipped; she fell on her side, dragging Elsa to her knees, bent over Anna. At the same time, Elsa looked behind her, realizing in the same instant that Hans would be there.

His sword gleamed in the sun as he brought it down in a hacking arc. His face was hideous, twisted with bloodlust and glee.

Between one thought and the next, Elsa’s ice sword was in her hand. She caught the blow of Hans’s sword with a shield made of ice magic, then lunged upward, passing her sword through Hans’s now open guard and into his chest at an upward angle. She felt the vibration of her ice sword scraping against his ribs and passing beyond them. Hans bellowed and dropped his sword. His eyes filled with terror. He fell back, clutching at her ice sword and pressing against his mortal wound. Her grip still on her sword hilt, Elsa began to fall with him. Anna blocked her with her small body against Elsa’s chest, shoulder to shoulder with Elsa.

The sword pulled out of her hand. Hans fell to the ground, still screaming but also coughing blood and pale fluid. The sharpness of her blade had slashed through his gloves. The blood from his hands mixed with the blood pulsing out from around the sword that still pierced his chest, angled through his lung and toward his heart. Hans curled up on his side, choking on watery blood.

Elsa screamed with horror. In response, the ice from her sword shocked outward, spreading across Hans’s chest, turning his bright red blood into aquamarine ice. His body froze over with a rime of white frost, changing even is eyes to white, stilling him and silencing him.

ooo

Chapter Text

Hans looked like a statue carved from a glacier.

“Woah, Elsa,” Anna said, taken aback. She picked herself up off the ice. She stood in front of Elsa to block her view of Hans. Her chilled hands came up to cradle Elsa’s face. “Don’t look at it.”

Elsa looked into Anna’s eyes. “I…” she started to say.

“You saved me.” Anna made the words clear and insistent. “You saved me, Elsa.”

“I saved you. I didn’t kill you.”

“You saved me.”

“Oh, Anna!” Elsa buried her face against Anna’s shoulder and held tightly to her. “Anna, I thought you were dead. I thought you had drowned. I couldn’t keep you safe!” Her voice was a thin cry.

“But you did keep me safe,” Anna said, and she laughed with relief realizing that she was out of Hans’s clutches. “You were here for me. Like a miracle! Where did you even come from?”

Elsa lifted her head, but she quickly turned it so that Hans was out of her line of sight. “I made a place,” she said, swallowing tears. “To be alone. Forever.”

“That tower of ice? It’s beautiful. And where did this magic come from?” Anna pushed away in mock anger and socked her sister on the shoulder. “You never told me, you ninny! Sisters don’t keep secrets like this!”

“I thought I had to,” Elsa said.

“Not from me.”

It was Elsa’s turn to darken like a thundercloud. “And what about you, running off from home?” she scolded. “Everyone must have been sick with worry. And then I thought you had drowned.”

“It turned out OK!”

“You were captured by pirates!”

The sisters looked at each other. They both began to laugh, but to cry at the same time, laughing and sobbing while they held each other’s hands.

ooo

A boom like thunder echoed against the sky. Rapunzel walked out on a yard, her loose hair securing her perilous footing, and searched the sky. “Maybe it’s Elsa’s storm,” she called down to Flynn. Her hair billowed like the sails as the fast ship skimmed through the sea.

“That’s cannon,” Kristoff, standing near Flynn at the ship’s rail, said. “Cannon fire.”

“That’s pirates,” Flynn said. “It doesn’t sound too far away.”

Rapunzel climbed further up the mast, alarming the Arendelle sailor in the crow’s nest. He saluted her when she reached his level. She saluted back. “Hi there,” she greeted. “Can you see any pirate ships out there?” She reached her hand out for his spyglass.

“Yes, Ma’am. Your Highness. They were sighted some minutes ago by your flagship and your navy is in pursuit.”

Rapunzel turned the spyglass out in the direction the sailor indicated. Pleased and impressed with the quality of the magnification, she was momentarily distracted while examining its construction. She remembered herself and put the eyepiece back up to her eye. Captain Bjorn’s ship sailed on a course toward a cluster of ships. The ships of Corona’s fleet, flying Corona’s flag, outnumbered the ones that were not flying purple. She saw shapes in ice, great, jagged stalagmites jutting up from the waves like a wall of thorns, and a frosted surface of ice white, and a structure all too familiar, though she had only seen it from the outside once, when she left it to follow her dream.

“Can I borrow this a little longer?” she asked permission from the sailor on lookout. Clutching the spyglass, she leaped off the spar, swinging toward the deck below on her magic hair. When she alighted next to Flynn, she pushed the spyglass into his hands after a second look at the replica of her tower.

He raised the magnifier to his eye. Seeing for himself, he exhaled a pained sigh. He lowered the spyglass, shook his head, and shared a look with Rapunzel.

“I think that’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Rapunzel said. Her eyes shined glassy with tears. She crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself.

Flynn ran up to Captain Bjorn on the bridge. “That’s Princess Elsa,” he told the captain. “We need to go to her. Corona’s navy have the pirates routed. We need to reach Elsa on the tower side of that mess.”

The captain’s lips were drawn in a thin line. He was clearly uncomfortable with the evidence of sorcery. “We are in the service of Her Royal Highness,” he answered, his sense of duty confirmed. He gave his crew the alteration in coordinates, as well as an order for full speed.

Kristoff was puzzled by Rapunzel’s comment. He took a turn with the spyglass. “What do you mean?” he asked Rapunzel.

“Elsa ran away thinking that Anna was dead, and what she made, in that state, is a copy of the tower that imprisoned me most of my life.” She sketched out her story to him, how she had lived most of her life in isolation, involuntarily cut off from the world. She tried to explain how it felt for her to see it now, as a manifestation of Elsa’s state of mind. “I never left my tower, until my last birthday, because I was told to be afraid, and that the world would hurt me in terrible ways. I almost didn’t leave at all.”

“So it’s almost like she’s saying that she would take your place,” Kristoff ventured.

“But for me it was my home, and all I knew. I didn’t know what a prison cell it was. And I haven’t seen it since I left for what I thought was a short trip to see some lights.”

“Anna’s a lot more down to earth than her sister,” Kristoff remarked. Rapunzel could see the worry for Anna on his face.

She offered assurance. “She’ll be safe with our fleet. We’ll reunite with them after we reach Elsa.” To herself, she murmured, “I’m sure we can reach her.”

“That’s definitely Hans’s ship,” Kristoff said, “otherwise you wouldn’t see me this calm about waiting. It’s all I can do not to jump in and start swimming.”

“You’ve been very brave, Kristoff,” Rapunzel told him.

He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have helped her stow away in the first place,” he said. “Once you’re at sea, there’s no certainty of coming home.”

Rapunzel thought about the day she left her tower. “That’s true about every journey,” she said.

ooo

Soon, the ship approached a flat surface of ice, over which flurries of snow gusted erratically. The imperfect surface was shattered in places, evidence of cannon ball impact. Cruel shards of ice jutted upward from the broken places. Cracks crazed the surface like rivers on a map. The shore was a slush of sea and chunks of ice. Two figures were spotted standing on the ice. The flurries radiated outward from the two women.

“That’s Anna!” Kristoff shouted. He dug into his belt pouch and produced a signal mirror. Catching the sunlight on it, he flashed a message toward Anna and Elsa. Anna hopped up and waved vigorously.

The ice debris floating around the frozen shore made Captain Bjorn reluctant to dock the ship close enough to climb down directly from the ship. Kristoff offered to help row the dinghy. Flynn took charge of the other oar so that only the group of three — Rapunzel, Flynn, and Kristoff — would be in one boat, leaving room for Elsa and Anna to return with them. Two Arendelle sailors followed in a second dinghy to provide any additional assistance.

Anna tugged at Elsa’s arm, trying to get her toward the arriving boats. Elsa resisted. The rescuers were perplexed by that until they came close enough to see a third figure, lying on the ice. “Oh, no, Kay,” Rapunzel guessed. “Or… is it?” she wondered as they reached the edge of the solid ice. She didn’t wait for Kristoff to secure the dinghy, but leaped out of the small boat onto a bobbing slab of ice, and from there onto the shore. She ran ahead of the men toward Elsa.

Still unused to anything more than a short sprint, she reached Elsa and Anna only a few steps ahead of Kristoff and Flynn. Anna stepped out of her sister’s embrace only because she threw herself toward Kristoff. Kristoff caught the young princess up in his arms and held on as if he would never let go. Rapunzel saw the desperate expression on Elsa’s face.

Elsa reached out to her. “Please,” she said, fear bright in her blue eyes, “I couldn’t…” she shook her head, her mouth shaping words she couldn’t voice.

“Is he dead?” Flynn asked. He stepped close and crouched beside the frozen body of Hans.

Anna turned her head to the side and said, “He was going to kill us. Elsa stopped him.”

Rapunzel took a step toward Hans. Elsa grabbed her hand, making Rapunzel turn to look at her. “I can’t be… if he’s dead, then I’m…”

“Let me look,” Rapunzel said quietly to Elsa. She gave her hand a squeeze. “We’ll look together, OK?” Rapunzel kept Elsa’s hand in her own and approached the gruesome form on the ground. Hans looked like a statue, not a corpse. She imagined she could still see horror in his eyes, though they were glazed over in cataract white. She observed the sword protruding from his chest, the gloss of frozen blood, and the rigor of his pose. She turned to Elsa. “That’s your ice sword,” she said.

“Yes,” Elsa answered.

“Can you take it back?” Rapunzel asked.

“I think… if I do, then all the ice will go,” Elsa said, explaining some of her fear.

Flynn spoke up. “Let’s get him on the ship, then,” he said, “and all of us.” He gestured to the Arendelle sailors. They were quick to comply, taking Hans by shoulders and feet to carry his frozen form to one of the dinghies.

On the return trip to the Arendelle ship, Kristoff and Anna caught each other up on events since their separation. Flynn rowed beside Kristoff without comment. Elsa asked about Kay, and Rapunzel let her know that they expected to find him when they met up with Corona’s naval ships, who had gone after the pirates directly. Rapunzel then explained to Anna about her healing magic.

Unsure of what to do with Hans, the sailors hauled him onto the deck and awaited instruction. The three princesses stood over the hideous statue. Flynn and Kristoff stood by to support them.

“I don’t want him to die,” Elsa said. She looked sick, barely able to keep Hans in her sight.

“If there’s something I can do, I can try,” Rapunzel told her. “If I can heal his wound fast enough.”

Anna voiced what was on the men’s expressions. “Why? He kidnapped Kristoff and me. He wanted you to die, Elsa. He doesn’t deserve mercy.” She seemed astounded that they would consider it.

“The mercy is not for the pirate,” Rapunzel said.

“I don’t want to be a killer,” Elsa said. “I thought I killed you, Anna, and I didn’t. I thought, once before, that I had caused two friends to die. That, too, turned out to be false. It wasn’t my fault.” She stopped, momentarily overcome by emotion. When she could speak again, she completed, “Hans would make me his killer today, and then there would be no doubt that I am one.”

“But it was self defense!” Anna protested.

Rapunzel interjected. “Elsa is both a princess of Arendelle and Corona’s champion. Right now, what she does can be seen as an act of both our kingdoms.”

“Southern Isles could cause trouble,” Elsa added.

“They already are,” Anna explained. “He said that he was capturing ships to assemble a war fleet. They want to get back at us for the sanctions we have against them.”

Flynn spoke up. He looked like he had tasted a rotten fruit. “Then Blondie, you have to try,” he said. “He’s leverage and a source of information.”

“Then it’s agreed,” Elsa said.

Rapunzel ran her fingers through her loose tresses. She knelt down next to Hans. “I’m going to need you to take your sword,” she told Elsa. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here with you.”

Anna wrapped her arms around her sister from behind. “I’m here with you, too. I love you, Elsa.”

“I love you, Anna.” Elsa took a step and stood beside Rapunzel and Hans. She put her hand on the hilt of her ice sword.

Kristoff moved toward Hans’s head. “Eugene, we’d better hold him down, don’t you think?” Flynn, agreeing, took his station at Hans’s feet while Kristoff took hold of Hans’s shoulders.

Elsa took in a deep breath. Rapunzel began to sing, starting the healing glow that flowed through her hair. She draped her tresses over Hans, spreading the locks out around his head and down toward his toes. Elsa let her breath out, and let the ice melt back into magic. First to go was the ice on the sea, the frozen surface turning back into softly lapping waves. Then the tower of ice became like a column of glittering snow in a whirlwind, until it, too, melted away. Hans thawed from his extremities inward, as if her sword were pulling the magic back through the ice blade to her.

Lastly, the sword vanished with a sparkle. Elsa pulled away her hand. She turned it over to look at the large, perfect snowflake that floated in her palm a moment longer before disappearing. Elsa turned to look at Anna. She saw Anna grinning at her, and she answered Anna’s smile with a smile of her own.

Rapunzel sang. At first, nothing changed about Hans but the removal of the blue-white ice. All at once, the blood of his wound began to flow scarlet. His eyes opened in fear and his mouth opened with a cry of great pain. Rapunzel pushed a swath of her hair against the open gash as she continued singing. The wound closed, but Hans thrashed about, restrained by Flynn and Kristoff. Hans howled as if being burned with white-hot irons.

Elsa and Anna watched with wide eyes. Kristoff and Flynn exchanged grim looks. Rapunzel, alone, sang without faltering, changing the words and making up new verses to keep her song going. Concern on her face, she touched his stab wound. She looped a few strands of her hair through her fingers and laid her hand over his heart. Her other hand touched his head, and she held her golden hair against his temple. Her gentle touch made him scream and cry out. Had Kristoff not been holding his hands, he would have attacked Rapunzel.

She didn’t stop when his eyes rolled up in his head and he fainted. She continued singing until her voice thinned, then she hummed for a little longer to keep the glow in her hair going. At last, she stopped and sat back. She gathered up her hair.

Flynn looked around for consensus among the group. “What the heck was that?” he asked.

“The injuries were deeper than I thought,” Rapunzel said. She curled her knees toward herself and kept her eyes down at them. When she looked up, her eyes sought the shaken sailors standing by. “You can lock him up now,” she told them. “Use iron manacles.” She exchanged a look with Elsa. “Just in case.”

“Please do so,” Elsa confirmed. The sailors took heed. Hans was dragged off to the brig.

“Now what do we do with him?” Kristoff asked. “He’s a pirate. I don’t know how it works, but I’m guessing he’s going to trial. Who gets him first?”

Flynn said, “Lots of kingdoms are going to want their pound of flesh.”

“Arendelle first,” Anna said. “We can take him with us, Elsa.”

Rapunzel looked at Elsa. “Are you going home?”

“I don’t know,” Elsa said, uncertain. “I suppose… I suppose I should.” She took Anna’s hand. “I should go… home… with Anna.”

“And Kristoff,” Anna said proudly. “My hero.”

Rapunzel stood up. “I think Hans should be held in Corona,” she said. “The wound closed, but…” She frowned. “It would be better if I could be close by. He can be transferred to another ship. I’ll return to Corona with them.”

Flynn said, “There’s a good chance that some confusing news has reached Arendelle by now. We’re a day out from Corona, that will add two days to your travel,” he included Anna, Elsa, and Kristoff, “unless we part ways here.” He turned to Rapunzel. “This might be one of those times for me to perform my new job,” he said. He smiled, but his eyes held regret. “Someone needs to liaise between Corona, Arendelle, and Southern Isles regarding Hans the Pirate. Elsa is the best candidate since she’s fluent in both languages, but I think having Corona’s ambassador at her side will make for a better show.”

“We’d never let Elsa go there alone,” Rapunzel declared.

“Eugene’s right, “ Elsa agreed. “I can represent Arendelle, but Eugene should be there for Corona. The sooner we start those proceedings, the shorter the time Prince Hans remains imprisoned in Corona. I don’t like the idea of leaving him there, not with Mother Gothel, and me leaving you,” Elsa touched her hand to her forehead as if weary.

“Elsa, it’s alright,” Rapunzel said, cradling Elsa’s cheek the way Queen Primrose would. “I’ll be fine. You go home. See your parents. Eugene will come back to Corona in a month or less, and by then I will know when I can visit you.”

“And we can write to you,” Anna offered. “Right, Elsa?”

“Of course,” Elsa said, mustering a smile. “I’m just worried that I won’t properly be saying goodbye to Aunt Primrose and Uncle Thomas.”

“I’ll tell them,” Rapunzel assured. “It’s not goodbye. It’s goodbye for now,” she added.

“Goodbye, for now,” Elsa said.

“Until we’re together again,” Rapunzel answered.

ooo

Within the hour, Captain Bjorn’s ship met up with the ships of Corona’s fleet that had arrested Hans’s pirates and collected Elsa’s snow. Kay was in reasonable health, patched up fairly well by the naval physician. Rapunzel felt relief at not having to do any more healing. She had healing of her own to do, of the sadness she felt at saying goodbyes. She had never had to say goodbye to anyone before, except Gothel, and Gothel had always returned within three days.

Hans was moved to a vessel of Corona. He was awake, but when Rapunzel saw him being led to the brig, his eyes were red and swollen, and his skin was sallow. He hung his head and dragged his feet, chains clanking, as he was led away.

Rapunzel only had minutes left with Eugene. He came aboard and they borrowed the captain’s quarters to have privacy, ostensibly for discussion of policy and royal matters. When the door closed, however, she rushed into his arms. “Don’t forget me,” she pleaded.

“Not for a second,” Flynn vowed, holding her closely. “I’ll be wishing you were with me the whole time.”

“You’ll be with Elsa,” Rapunzel said. “And seeing the world. How can I compare with that?”

“Hold on, now, Blondie. You seem a little jealous,” Flynn teased. The joke suddenly wasn’t at all funny. “You aren’t jealous, really, are you? Not of me and Elsa!”

Rapunzel sighed and sat down on a footstool before she answered, making Flynn more nervous with her reaction. “I am, I think,” she said. “Of you. And Elsa.” She wove her fingers together. “You will both get to be with each other, and I’ll be here without either of you.”

Flynn kneeled at her feet. He took her hands in his own. He meant to say something reassuring, but when she raised her gaze from the floor to meet his eyes, what came out instead was, “I need you to believe in me.” He mentally kicked himself. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t make this about me.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Rapunzel said in a small voice.

“I can’t even imagine how much I’m going to miss you, but I know it’s going to be,” he paused, unable to handle the seriousness without making a joke of it, “a great new experience for me. I’m sure I’ll learn so much about myself.”

“But you will,” Rapunzel replied. “It will be an adventure. I’m jealous of that, too.” She licked her lips. “I’ve never been jealous before. I don’t like how it feels.”

He sighed. “You’re not going to lose me,” he said.

“I keep thinking, how this could all be a dream. I’m so afraid to wake up. And find you gone.” She closed her eyes. “Such a short time since I left my tower. I still don’t know… anything about the world. I’ll feel so lost without you.”

“Rapunzel,” Flynn said, “ Rapunzel, look at me.” He waited until she opened her eyes. “You have the king and queen, your mother and father. You have yourself, too. Don’t forget that. You have light in your heart that guides you. I’ll always find your light. I’ll always find my way back to you. We’re having this dream together, OK?”

“OK,” she answered.

“You know who I’m really worried about,” Flynn mused.

Rapunzel looked at him with curiosity. “Who?”

“That horse. Maximus. When I come home in a few weeks and Elsa doesn’t, he’s going to hold a grudge.”

The remark made Rapunzel laugh. “I’ll have Pascal talk to him,” she said.

ooo

Chapter Text

Dear Elsa,

We have returned to Corona Castle. Prince Hans had nightmares all through the night aboard the ship. I couldn’t sleep. I could hear his yelling and moaning, and after his jailers woke him from the dreams, I lay awake listening to him sobbing. I don’t know what I’ve done. I healed the damage I could sense in him. Why is he suffering now? I asked him to be put in the hospital, but instead he is in the dungeon, in a cell near Mother Gothel. I think I need to check his well being, but I can’t go near her. Not yet.

In the short time we were gone, something happened with Gothel. There is a broken wall in the dungeon now, and she has been moved to one of the smaller cells in the part of the dungeon that is still intact, so that masons can repair the wall. Those are the only cells far enough away to keep the workers safely apart.

Mother Gartner always knew about your magic. I didn’t remember to tell you, before, with everything else happening. I’ve talked to her again. Secrets, everywhere, are coming out. She was giving Gothel an extraction of plants in her food this whole time, and my father knew of it. Gothel became suspicious while we were gone. She refused her food because I wasn’t visiting. She was already showing more aging, faster than it has been. Her dark magic was strong enough that she tried to escape.

The potion in her food gave her a dependence. Because she stopped taking it, she had a brain storm when she was using her magic. She is now in a sleep and can’t be woken. The dungeon is like an asylum, with Gothel lying unmoving in one cell and Hans in torment in the other. I’m afraid. I think if you were here, I could go, but without you, I’ve been hiding in the library, reading up on maladies.

Do you remember little Henrick, the boy at the orphanage who does not have a foot and half his leg? How he said that it stung when he was touching my hair, that time when I cured the sick children? Henrick was born without his leg and foot. Can a person be born with an injury or damage that my hair can heal? Would it hurt them to be made “right”? Is that what I have done to Hans?

I’m sending a few things of yours that I thought you would want to have right away. Let me know what else to send. I’m sitting at your writing desk, using your ink and your pen, and it helps me feel that you are not so far away after all. You must have a desk in Arendelle. I hope you will let me keep this one. Now that you are home.

Love,

Rapunzel

“This is the last letter I had from Rapunzel,” Elsa said, handing the letter to Flynn. “A week ago. She wrote to you, too, you said.” She sat down in the chair across from him. Flynn’s complexion was the color of whey, now that he had calmed down. His eyes were bloodshot.

“Yes, she told me about the same things,” he said in a voice like stretched sinew. “But this!” He shook the new letter, crumpled from his grip. The letter, which had arrived less than an hour ago on a fast ship, was from King Thomas. “How could this happen, in a week!”

Elsa didn’t know what to say. Her heart felt torn to shreds, but she wouldn’t rage as Flynn had done. The letter from King Thomas was not addressed to her or to Flynn directly, because it was addressed to Elsa’s parents, in pained, formal writing. They had all heard the news together: King Marius and Queen Genevieve, Anna, Elsa, and Flynn.

Her Royal Highness, Princess Rapunzel, is lost to Our Kingdom, after so brief a period of being found.

“Hans can be very persuasive,” Elsa said quietly.

“Hans!” Flynn shouted the name with anguish. He shot to his feet and began pacing again. Elsa sighed, a sigh with a tremble in it. “Hans!”

Elsa picked up the letter from her uncle, which Flynn had dropped. She looked it over again, wishing to see something overlooked. Rapunzel had vanished from Corona. Mother Gothel was dead, a pile of bone dust and clothing in the dungeon gave evidence. The reason was clear from the savagely cut strands of hair lying around, Rapunzel’s long hair, which had changed to the brown color of dry leaves. One end of the hair had been tied to an anchor point to allow the length to dangle out of the broken dungeon wall, where it could have been used as a rope down to the ground. Rapunzel herself was nowhere to be found, nor was Prince Hans.

What hurt Flynn most, though, was that King Thomas confirmed that Rapunzel had left a note for Corona’s king and queen, in which she had made it clear that she was responsible for the prisoner’s escape, and that she had left willingly with Hans. The note had been left at the orphanage. It was discovered the evening after the escape.

“You know this isn’t her,” Flynn insisted.

“Eugene, what can we do?” Elsa asked.

“We can go after her. Talk sense into her. Bring her back.”

“No one knows where they went,” Elsa said. “Uncle Thomas had the borders checked, and I’m sure even now, Corona’s guard is searching the kingdom.”

Flynn shook a finger, then lightly pounded his fist into his forehead, gestures to compose a thought. “She left on a ship,” he said. “She had to. The harbor is full of new ships every day. We’ll find out which one she was on, and we’ll go after her.”

“Eugene,” Elsa said with greater intensity. She was at her wits’ end, too, but showed it differently from Flynn. “You’ve said it yourself. New ships arrive and leave every day. It’s the peak of trade season. I understand that you want to act, I want to do something too, but be rational!”

“How, Elsa? How? The woman I love has run off with another man. And not just anyone.” He laughed bitterly. “We saved his life.”

Elsa put her head in her hands. “I can’t do this right now,” she said.

“Fine.”

“Ambassador,” Elsa called after him. “You represent Corona. Remember your duties.”

He gave her an angry look that spoke volumes. Then, without another word, he marched out of her room.

ooo

Flynn eventually found out the name of the ship: The Song of Avalor. It was not good news, to discover the New World ship in the records as one that had sailed out that morning. The captains or companies of all other ships had been able to be contacted. None had carried passengers matching the descriptions of Rapunzel or Hans. Avalor, however, was a distant kingdom whose merchants rarely reached Corona’s shores. The country was insular, and the relationship with Avalor’s monarch, Queen Shuriki, was not friendly one. If Rapunzel had fled with Hans to Avalor, she truly was a lost princess again.

Flynn continued as ambassador for Corona. For a time, he was stationed in Arendelle. He was spared the visit to Southern Isles, since the trip would be a fruitless without Hans in custody. As time went on, he served as the voice of King Thomas and Queen Primrose, who would not leave Corona even for official visits to other kingdoms. More years passed. When Princess Anna married shipwright Kristoff, Ambassador Eugene Fitzherbert returned to Arendelle to attend the wedding.

King Marius of Arendelle’s health had begun to fade. Elsa had taken on the principal duties of ruling Arendelle, though she would not be crowned queen for another dozen years, after her father’s passing. The occasion of Anna’s wedding was, though, a great festival on the Feast of Saint Olaf. The castle welcomed travelers from afar, and the townspeople reveled in celebration, with a grand ball, a carnival of food stalls and entertainers, and a splendid wonder, set up in a breathtaking pavilion of sculpted ice: a skating rink, in summer. Everyone was astounded that the ice did not melt away in an hour, but instead lasted the entire day and into the evening.

During the ball, Elsa found time for a dance with her old friend. He had danced with no one else. She approached him, and after a few private words, he led her onto the ballroom floor, where they danced a waltz together.

“I’ll never get used to people staring,” Elsa said, as they glided with skilled steps around the floor.

“I think I can guess how that story got started. ‘The Queen of Snow Bees.’ The festival players say they got it from a governess, who got it from a cobbler’s apprentice. Sound like anyone we know?”

“Gerte?” Elsa considered it. “I see it, now. It’s obvious, really. A little girl name Gerda who goes after the boy, Kai, who ran off with the queen of snow bees. The talking shoes, the roses in the garden. Even the note on the codfish.”

“And the band of robbers, and the prince and princess.”

“Goodness. Even the tame crows. I told Gerte we had crows at the castle who were spoiled by being fed scraps from our kitchen.”

“And a happy reunion for them at the end.”

“Kay and Gerte married, didn’t they? She never did warm up to me. I can’t blame her, after the way Kay ran after me when I froze over Corona.” Elsa’s smile was a pensive one. “But Eugene, I didn’t mean those tales.”

“You mean the things people say about what happens between the ambassador of Corona and the heir of Arendelle when they are behind closed doors alone,” he said.

“Yes,” she confirmed simply.

“I try to ignore the gossip about us,” he answered in a low voice. “Pretend I don’t hear it, and don’t see the insinuating looks.” His sad gaze remained on the room beyond, but she knew he was blind to the celebration around them. “It would put the rumors to rest, if you were to name a consort,” he said.

“If you were to marry, that would do as well,” Elsa advised. His grip tightened in her hand. “It would be an easier thing.”

“Nothing easy about it,” he argued.

“Eugene. Now that it’s over, you might just let her go.”

He turned his face toward hers and met her eyes with his. “I never will,” he said.

Elsa turned her eyes away. “I am not going to take a husband,” she said. “Anna and Kristoff will have children. If father’s health improves, I may not even need to be queen at all.”

“You should be queen,” Flynn said. “Any kingdom will do well under your rule. You’ll be a wonderful queen, Elsa.” The music ended, and Flynn completed the dance with a bow to Elsa.

“Thank you, Eugene. I intend to be,” Elsa said.

ooo

Arendelle’s Queen Genevieve passed away first, in her sleep, from a stopped heart. King Marius followed shortly after his wife. The kingdom, still in mourning, crowned Elsa queen in a simple ceremony. On her coronation day, Elsa took her vow to rule with only Anna, Kristoff, their children, the bishop, and Elsa’s advisors as witnesses. She held the orb and scepter in her bare hands, and wore a calm and confident smile, when the jeweled crown was placed onto her head. She was thirty-six years old. She had never married.

One of her firsts acts as queen was to reach out to the kingdom of Avalor, whose borders had newly opened to diplomacy. The new queen — or crown princess, rather — had taken back the throne from the usurper Shuriki, who had held the throne unchallenged for forty-one years. Crown Princess Elena Castillo Flores was ready to rule Avalor, and she was reaching out to the world seeking allies and strengthening trading partnerships.

The journey by sea to Avalor was several months, too long for Elsa to go herself. For this instance, Elsa asked Eugene to take her greeting to Princess Elena with him.

On his trip, Flynn found Rapunzel. She was living in Avalor’s neighboring kingdom, Cordoba, teaching at a school for orphaned children. She wept when she saw him. All was forgiven, and Flynn brought Rapunzel back to Corona with him when he returned.

He also brought back with him unanticipated news: the kingdoms of the new world were magic ones. Sorcery was a profession, sanctioned by the crown, and even Elena herself had a kind of magic of her own. The skies of Avalor were filled with colorful winged cats, called jaquins; there were stories of a rock creature on Mount Fuego; and the younger princess of Avalor, Isabel, created complex machines that seemed magical themselves. One such machine was the radio telegraphy device and design that she sent back to Corona, Arendelle, and neighboring countries to facilitate faster communication.

Elsa still wrote letters when she could.

ooo

To My Dear Aunt Primrose and Uncle Thomas,

When I was a child, I was sent into your keeping. Because of you, I became strong and brave. All of my time in Corona shaped me into the queen I now am. You gave me this happiness.

Knowing that Rapunzel has returned to you is such a comfort. I think of you, Aunt Primrose, Uncle Thomas, as I have every day all through these difficult years. With optimism, I choose to believe that even this separation will prove to be for the well being of all, a lesson, if no other purpose, and a chance for joy after tears. The nightmare has passed.

With great love,

Your niece,

Elsa, Queen of Arendelle

 

-End-