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Faldi Faldonza

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Tiana was ready to scream.

“You must stop fretting in this way,” Naveen told her, as a servant fussed with her hair. He really shouldn’t have been in her dressing room, but the servants spoke only broken English, and Tiana’s Maldonian was worse. “You will do fine. Maldonia will love you. The foreign royalty will love you. Everyone will love you!”

“I wish I could be as sure as you are,” Tiana muttered. She winced as the servant’s hands pulled at her hair. “This is going to be a disaster.”

“Tiana,” Naveen said. Now he sounded exasperated, but fondly so. He put his hand over hers, and her fingers curled around it automatically; she looked up into big brown eyes and a lopsided smile. “Do not worry. I love you, and so they will love you.”

“That makes no sense,” said Tiana, but she smiled despite herself. Naveen did that to her.

This was her first official job as princess of Maldonia, and she was determined not to mess it up. It was only a ball – although an important one – but it was also her first time seeing Maldonia, and most of Maldonia’s first chance at seeing their new princess.

Well, not new, really. It had been two years now, although she hadn’t really done any princessing since they’d been married; she’d even sort of forgotten she was a princess in the first place, because all her time had been spent on refurbishing the sugar mill into the Palace. That had been hard enough, even when all she'd had to deal with was zoning laws, mold in the walls, and the logistics of building a stage that could support the full weight of an 800-pound dancing alligator and supporting band.

It had been hard, but that had been okay, because she’d expected it to be. She knew very well how difficult it would be to build and run a real restaurant, because in addition to waitressing at Cal’s and Duke’s she had also cooked, worked the till, written and priced the menus, taken care of most of the accounting, and routinely balanced Buford’s checkbook, and she had been under no illusions that life would magically get easier once she’d gotten that old sugar mill. Hard work had been Daddy’s motto and the words she’d always lived by, and even now that she knew there might really be something to this evening star business, she wasn’t dumb enough to wish for things she knew she could do herself.

Besides, that was what Lottie had done, and while Tiana loved her with all her heart, she had to admit that sometimes she was just silly. And after all, who’d ended up with the prince? (That was the other thing. Sure, she’d gotten her restaurant, and Naveen, and an incidental princess-ship, but…frogs. That evening star had a hell of a nasty sense of humor.)

Anyway, that was all besides the point. It had been hard, but it had been a fun kind of hard, because now she was her own boss and she had someone else to share it with, even if Naveen could still be a big twit sometimes. But then came the missive from the King and Queen – or Arun and Gisela, or “Of course you must call us Mama and Papa, dear, you are family now!”, although Tiana was still far too embarrassed and had to come up with increasingly inventive ways to avoid referring to them as anything at all – and while they had been perfectly sweet during the wedding, this was a formal invitation to a Maldonian ball. A ball given in the honor of a trade triangle being established between Maldonia, a seaport from the Far East, and some random European kingdom that sounded vaguely French.

“What do you mean, we have to go?” she’d asked Naveen, perhaps a little crossly, because the installation of the drop ceiling in the lobby was not going well. Naveen had shrugged, and white dust had fallen out of his hair, which had gone a strange sort of dishwater-grey from all the plaster that was flaking. He looked like someone had mistaken him for a beignet and covered him in powdered sugar.

“Trade negotiations are terrible things,” he’d explained. “They take forever to work out, and they are so boring. It takes months – sometimes years – of long meetings with tedious ambassadors who would not know a good time if it bit them on the nose. Who would not take any excuse for a party after that?”

Tiana had looked from him, still covered in dust, to herself, in an old dress with paint on her elbows, and then back to the missive. It was on beautiful paper, thick and cream-colored, written in elaborate calligraphy and covered in gold leaf.

“But,” she’d started. A million thoughts had gone through her head – I don’t like crowds, the drapes are being delivered that day, I don’t speak Maldonian – and they all culminated into one. I don’t want to go.

“They’re not even good balls,” Naveen had continued. “The food is awful, you have to wear stuffy outfits that itch, your crown keeps falling over your face, and the music is –” He’d just made a face, like there was no word in any language to express the sheer badness of the music. Then he had shrugged again. “But if we do not go we will dishonor Maldonia forever, disgrace will be brought upon our names, potential war, blah blah blah. It is a royalty thing.”

That had been the first time it had hit Tiana that she was a princess now. Of course there’d been that brief, magical period after they’d been married, but that had been a – a fantasy, almost, something that had happened to someone else in some other lifetime. It had been right back to regular life after that, except that now she had a husband, and her in-laws sometimes wore crowns. Lottie sometimes teased her by calling her “Your Highness”, but she had never really felt like one –

Well, what was done was done. She had rescheduled the drapes, packed her best clothes, and left Tiana’s Palace to sit half-finished for another month while they set off on the next ship to Maldonia.

And now here she was, preparing – or rather, being prepared; she felt a bit like a cake being decorated, the way the servants insisted on doing everything for her, from her hair to helping her dress. (She’d tried to put her foot down on that one, but the dress they’d given her turned out to have a flat-out crazy amount of tiny hooks and buttons in completely illogical places, and was physically incapable of being put on without the help of a team of experienced attendants. She had compromised by wearing extremely conservative underwear.)

The hands on her hair stopped pulling, and the servant spoke to her – or, more accurately, to Naveen – who nodded as the lady pulled away and dropped into a deep curtsy. (And that was the other thing. Everyone here bowed or curtsied all the time. Even when she wasn’t doing anything! All she had to do was just glance at a servant and suddenly they would be bobbing up and down like apples in a pot. Naveen and his family seemed to take it all for granted, but Tiana kept wanting to do it back, which just seemed to scandalize people.)

“She says your hair is done,” Naveen was saying. Tiana inspected herself in the mirror. Being all dolled up looked pretty good on her, all things considered. “You can put on your dress now. I will see you at the ballroom.”

As he left, Tiana had the urge to call him back, to tell him not to leave her here in this strange room with strange people who she couldn’t even talk to – but she kept her mouth shut, because she could get through this, she would get through this. It could be worse, she told herself, in the now-familiar mantra that went through her head every time something went wrong. You could still be a frog.

She was helped into her dress (which was lettuce-green, of course; the universe was determined to remind her of the frog thing at every opportunity) and then put on the crown that had been given to her, a tiara of golden loops so delicate that she was afraid she might break it just by breathing too hard. This was the Serious Business Crown, the one that said look at me, I’m the princess. It was a crown that implied garden parties and waltzes; it did not imply being up to your neck in rainwater because the roof had sprung a leak, or having to forcibly evict a family of mice from the walls. It was a crown that sneered at such things.

I could still be a frog, she reminded herself firmly. Then she swept up her skirts and stalked briskly out of the dressing room, heading in what she was pretty sure was the direction of the ballroom. The servant ran after her and, with remarkable tact, turned her in the opposite direction.

Naveen was waiting outside the ballroom doors, attempting to strike up a conversation with the guards, whose responses seemed polite but largely baffled by his casualness. He gave an audible sigh of relief when he saw Tiana approach, and when she was within range, he pulled her in close and kissed her. One of the guards gasped a little at the indecency, and Naveen rolled his eyes.

“Tiana,” he said in a low voice, once they broke off. He looked suddenly a bit uneasy. “I must warn you of something.”

“What? Tiana hissed, sudden panic rising up in her chest. Had he forgotten to tell her something important? But Naveen shook his head.

“It’s only that – since we have been back in Maldonia, I have noticed there has been some… How shall I say it? Some talk,” he said. “Certain people, they may make, ah, unkind statements about your low birth. Not that you are of low birth,” he added hurriedly, as the doors began to open; a fanfare was sounding from inside the ballroom, announcing their arrival. Tiana wished he’d told her this before they were right about to go in. “Well. You are, but – but that is not what I meant! I do not care how low your birth was, you could have been born to a family of worms and it would not matter to me – not to imply that your mother is a worm, she is a wonderful woman and I love her dearly –”

Her knees were shaking and she felt like she was going to upchuck all over her gown, but Naveen’s idiocy made her feel better, in a weird kind of way. She shoved him gently in the shoulder to shut him up, and then, her arm in his, they swept into the ballroom.

It was a fairly regal sweep, she thought, especially considering that they had not practiced this bit. The crowd parted to make room as they headed towards the other end of the ballroom, where Naveen’s parents were on the dais, seated on thrones so gilded with gold that they looked more like giant pralines than chairs. In their full regalia and all their finery, Arun and Gisela made very imposing figures, and it was hard to remember them as the kind couple she had met at the wedding; Naveen’s brother, Hugo, was sitting on his mother’s lap, and he waved to Tiana as she approached. She gave him a little wave back, and then hoped immediately afterward that it had not been some kind of horrible faux pas.

There were two foreign couples that she and Naveen had to welcome to Maldonia; one from China, which owned the seaport, and one from…that French kingdom. She hadn’t paid much attention, because Naveen had said he would take care of the talking part. Now as Naveen spoke to them in Maldonian, she waited impatiently, fiddling with the peplum of her dress.

The French couple was first. The prince was handsome, in a dashing and poetic sort of way, although he seemed almost clumsy; he moved strangely and he nearly fell over when he bowed, almost as though he thought he was much larger than he was. The princess was more graceful as she curtsied, dark hair spilling over her bare shoulders like chocolate on a creampuff, and as Tiana lifted out of her own curtsy, the princess caught her eye and winked. Tiana smiled back, surprised but pleased at the gesture.

She understood a little of what they said – it was French, and she’d grown up in New Orleans, after all – but when they switched to Maldonian, she lost track again and instead studied the Chinese couple. Naveen had told her that they weren’t actually royalty, like the French ones were, but instead were emissaries sent on behalf of their Emperor. Tiana had entertained thoughts about demanding her own emissary, but then he said it was because their Emperor was too old to travel, and she had felt rather unfair.

Like the French royalty, they were a man and a woman. The man was tall and stern-looking, dressed in a kind of formal armor; the woman’s dress was more elaborate, and looked like nothing so much as a lot of layers of cloth wrapped attractively around her. Her hair was short, shorter than her male companion’s, and pulled back into a loose knot at the nape of her neck. When it was their turn to give their greeting, she did not curtsy, but instead bowed to them at the waist with her hands folded in front of her. Her back remained ramrod-straight the entire time.

Then it was over, with no horrible breach of diplomacy on anyone’s end, and the ball began.

As king and queen, Arun and Gisela took the first dance, and Tiana appreciated having the moment to collect herself. Naveen, still on her arm, smiled crookedly down at her.

“There,” he said. “That was not so bad, was it?”

“Speak for yourself,” she muttered, but there was no venom in it, only relief.

Naveen talked her into the next dance, but she could feel everyone staring at her as he swept her around, could feel the eyes of the court dissecting her like a piece of meat being prepared for a pot of gumbo. It had been bad enough when she’d been doing the formal stuff, but this – she was just dancing, and she couldn’t just enjoy the moment with her husband like this. She couldn’t just have a moment to herself.

She begged off once the dance ended and instead sent Naveen off to entertain Hugo, who immediately leapt on his brother and began chattering non-stop. The picture made her feel a little better, and the staring wasn’t as bad when Naveen wasn’t with her.

Out of some subconscious chef’s instinct, she gravitated towards the food table. There wasn’t a lot on it, and she didn’t recognize the dishes that were there – but they looked expertly-done, with perfectly-sliced fruit, gently-whipped creams, and pastries baked to the perfect shade of golden-brown. She nibbled on one, and it was even better than it looked. If she got through this ball – when she got through this ball – she was going to have to go down to the kitchens and talk shop with the chef, one professional to another. Maybe they could exchange recipes; a little Maldonian flavor would be a nice exotic touch to the Palace…

A swish of butter-yellow skirts caught her eye, and she looked up to see the French princess standing in front of her – Bella, Belle, or something like that. She smiled, and said something in Maldonian; Tiana smiled back, a little helplessly, and shrugged.

Bella-or-maybe-Belle’s eyebrows creased, and she tried again, more slowly. When that didn’t work, she said hesitantly, “Parlez vou français?”

That was a little better. Trying to remember the right words, Tiana said, haltingly, “Je ne parle, um, pais – no, pas l'anglais.”

“Ah!” said Belle-or-maybe-Bella. No, Belle, she was pretty sure that was it. In perfect, only slightly-accented English she said, “That’s right, I’d heard you weren’t from Maldonia. America, right?”

Tiana could have melted in relief. “Yep – I’m from down in New Orleans, near the French Quarter. My French isn’t great, though, that’s about all I know how to say.”

“I don’t blame you. Languages are hard,” said Belle, wrinkling her nose. “When we got married, the Be – I mean, Adam told me I could have anything I wanted, and I said I wanted education, I wanted to learn as many different languages as I could. I was ready to quit after the first week, it seemed so impossible.” She sighed and adjusted her skirts a little. She seemed a little uncomfortable in the heavy gown, as though she weren’t used to wearing such a fancy dress. “But it was worth it, in the end.”

“You wanted to travel?” Tiana asked, curious despite herself. She hadn’t expected the foreign royalty to actually be interesting. This was a welcome surprise.

Belle shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said, “I wanted to read. The castle had the biggest library I’d ever seen, and there were books in all different languages. It was the worst thing I could imagine, having so many books, and not being able to read so much as a page. A little personal hell.” She shrugged. “People laugh at me for it, but I just…I think books are special. Stories are special. You know?”

Tiana thought about a story she’d heard years and years ago, about a frog that turned into a prince when he was kissed; she thought about being laughed at for loving to cook, for wanting to dedicate her whole life to it, by people who just did not understand and could not understand; and then she thought that yes, maybe she really did know.

“I think I do,” she said slowly, and Belle turned and looked at her, really looked at her, like she hadn’t seen her properly before. After a moment, she smiled.

“You’re not really what I was expecting from the Maldonian princess,” she said, and Tiana understood that this was a compliment. She smiled back, and in that moment the two of them weren’t princesses, weren’t royalty conducting a carefully-diplomatic celebration of trade negotiations; they were just two women, together at some pretentious party, wearing dresses that made them look like cakes and talking about their lives.

That was what it was, Tiana realized. That was why all the staring was so disconcerting. This wasn’t the first time she’d been the subject of unwelcome attention, but the people here weren’t understanding her as an individual – they didn’t look at her and see ‘person’ or ‘woman’ or even ‘black girl’, they saw ‘princess’ or ‘prince’s wife’, and that was all she was to them, all she would ever be to most of them.

Oh, thank god she hadn’t had to endure this right after getting married. At least she’d had a little time to be herself again, just herself, without this whole royalty business sticking its nose in. At least she could go back to that afterwards. At least she had this little moment, right now, with Belle.

Who was talking again. “There’s been some…” She pursed her lips, considering before she continued. “Some gossip. Even back home, we’ve heard about it – I mean, we don’t really pay that much attention to rumors about other countries’ royalty, but with the negotiations…Of course, I’m not sure how true it is, given the source –” And here she paused and murmured something under her breath that sounded like “triplets”, but Tiana was sure she must have misheard. “But if it’s true…”

Well, this didn’t sound good. Tiana edged a little closer, turning her back on most of the court and blocking their view of Belle’s face. To the rest of the ballroom, they just looked like a big mass of gold and green fabric, like the colors of the bayou in the summer.

“I read about your marriage,” said Belle. “A lot of people were happy, with the prince finally settling down. He caused a good bit of scandal, you know.” Tiana did not, but she could imagine. She resolved to ask Naveen about it later, just to see him squirm and try to explain himself. “But there were also some who…weren’t. If you were a foreign princess with a kingdom of your own, it might be different – but you were just foreign, and not royalty at all, and there were many, many people who didn’t like that the prince stayed with you in America. Even when we arrived here, people told us…” She seemed to be searching for the kindest way to say something awful. “Even some members of the court, they told us that we must forgive you for the embarrassment you are to the throne, being of low birth.”

“Oh,” said Tiana, a little stung. Naveen had mentioned this earlier, of course, but he’d said it didn’t matter – though she should have realized, because of course it didn’t matter to him, but that didn’t mean nobody else cared. Even after the frog incident, Naveen still only really thought of things in terms of himself.

“It was kind of ironic,” Belle was saying, almost apologetically, trying to smooth it over again. “Them saying that to me, I mean. Adam got so upset, he thought they were insulting me, but of course they didn’t know. I just thought it was funny. Oh, because,” she added, at Tiana’s blank look, “I’m of low birth too, you know – from a poor, provincial little town where everyone was exactly the same and nothing ever happened. There was a lot of the same talk when we got married, although it got covered up a bit because of the – well, Adam had gone away for a while, and when he suddenly showed up again with some random common girl on his arm…people wondered.”

She smiled at the memory, in a rueful way that said that smiling was something that came only after the fact. “A lot of people assumed he’d gotten me pregnant.” Tiana was a little shocked by the casual way she said it, just thrown out like any other sentence, but Belle didn’t seem to notice. “A lot of people thought so about you, too; there was a rumor that you’ve got some secret lovechild back in America.”

Tiana’s mouth actually dropped open at that. “Oh, sweet lord,” she groaned, so loudly that a few people nearby gave them strange looks. She and Naveen hadn’t even talked about children yet, despite Mama’s increasingly-unsubtle hints. The Palace had just taken up so much of their time, and it was practically their baby anyway…

Well. Her baby, really. But she was willing to share it with him.

“Anyway,” said Belle. She seemed a little embarrassed now at having said so much, her cheeks gone pink. “I’m just saying, it’ll get better. Presenting yourself at court like this – it’ll help, because you’re a face now, not just a concept. People will forget about it soon enough in favor of some other new gossip.”

Tiana nodded, but she didn’t feel much better about it. It was so strange, the thought that all these people who didn’t know her, had never seen her before, could hate her just because she’d married Naveen.

She started to say something else, but there was some commotion in the front of the ballroom, near the doors. At first she thought someone had tripped, because a body fell and sprawled over the marble floor, but the voices were raising to a shout, and someone screamed as a shot rang out –

And then the ballroom exploded.

It was so sudden that for a moment, all Tiana could do was just stand there, not really believing what was happening. One moment Belle had been laughing, and the next, the other side of the ballroom was full of crashes and heat and flames. It was like being a frog again – an experience so unexpected that it felt alien, and SWEET LORD EVERYTHING WAS ON FIRE.

Well, her panic reflex had finally kicked in. She grabbed Belle by the arm and hauled her behind the food table, knocking half the trays over in the process and sparing only a moment to mourn the beautiful pastries.

Belle was shrieking something in French, which Tiana figured translated to something like ‘what the hell is going on’, but she couldn’t hear her properly over the sound of her heart hammering in her ears. Instead she ignored her and focused on scanning the ballroom, trying to pick out her husband from the mass of smoke and screaming, panicking people. And maybe some clue as to why the castle was spontaneously exploding – she was pretty sure things like that weren’t supposed to happen.

This, a crazy little part of her brain commented, is one hell of a first ball.

She couldn’t see him. The barely-restrained terror was rising to unbearable levels in her chest, her heart felt like it was going to burst out through her throat, or maybe she was just going to go insane from the pressure, like a physical weight crushing her and making it hard to breathe, she was suffocating –

Somebody grabbed her, much in the same way she had grabbed Belle, only instead of being dragged behind the table, she found herself suddenly under it. She blinked and squinted; after a moment, the faces of the Chinese emissaries came into focus. The woman was still holding onto her arm.

“Shh,” she said quietly, and put a finger to her lips to emphasize it. She cocked her head, listening, although what she expected to hear through the screaming, Tiana wasn’t sure.

Belle had been lost somewhere in the chaos, but the man in armor was under there with them. He looked even sterner and more foreboding than usual, and he kept a close grip on the woman’s shoulder.

It felt like forever that they waited under there. All Tiana could think where is Naveen, where is my family, and several times she tried to crawl out, only to be pulled back again. Finally, the Chinese man nodded, exchanged a glance with the woman, and slowly began to ease out from under the table. The woman let go of Tiana’s arm and, together, they followed suit.

The scene that awaited them was like something out of a nightmare. The flames had dissipated, but there was still smoke everywhere, and the beautiful ballroom had turned nearly black with char and soot. Arun and Gisela’s praline-gilded chairs had been overturned; neither of them were anywhere to be seen. Neither was Naveen.

The emissaries led her through the carnage, and they passed several vaguely body-shaped things that Tiana just – couldn’t make herself look at. She tried, she told herself if it’s one of them, I have to know, I have to – but she just…couldn’t. Instead she stared at the back of the Chinese woman’s dress, which was covered in cream from the pastry table, and did not focus on anything else.

That was why Tiana nearly bumped into her when they finally stopped, after walking for several minutes. She looked up into cool fresh air and dark skies – they were outside, she realized, with sudden shock. She hadn’t noticed when they’d left the palace. She started to turn around, but then her eyes caught onto the most welcome sight she’d ever seen.

“My dear,” said Gisela, and Tiana proceeded to forget everything about propriety and manners, and just threw herself at her and sort of screamed a little.

They were in the hedge circle, in a corner of the garden just off of the ballroom – or what had formally been the ballroom. A makeshift guard had been formed at the entrance to the circle, armed with hastily-grabbed weapons and improvised bits of debris.

“We must be very careful,” Gisela explained, her accent heavier and more pronounced than usual. There was a makeshift bandage tied across her forehead. “There has been a rebel uprising. They were waiting to attack until we had all gathered in one place. This includes you, dear,” she added, to Tiana’s shock. “You are a part of the royal family. You must stay here, with us, and we will go out through the back as soon as we are all together.”

“As soon as we’re – where’s Naveen?!”

Gisela did not answer. Tiana pushed herself away and began frantically scanning the small group of people huddled inside the circle. No, no, it couldn’t be, not after everything they’d been through, it couldn’t end like this

He was there, on his back, hidden behind the three people bending over him. Tiana recognized him only because of his shoes, a pair of plain, worn brown flats that contrasted sharply with the embroidery on his formal trousers. Only Naveen would wear those with his dress uniform, because as he put it, “you never know when you will be called upon to dance something more invigorating than a waltz, and I must be prepared”.

She pushed her way through to him, and then immediately wished she hadn’t. He looked – bad, his breathing labored, face pale and ashen, the color of bad cream. His jacket and shirt had been removed, and there was a dark red stain spreading out from his shoulder, strips of torn white cloth half-tied around it.

“Oh, Naveen,” she whispered, hands over her mouth. “Oh, no, no, no –”

“He will live,” Gisela said, from behind her. She sounded suddenly very old, and very tired. “It was not deep, and a few of the servants have medical training. But he is in pain, and he should move as little as possible.”

This should have calmed Tiana down, but she was in full-on panic mode right now. Naveen’s eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to really be seeing anything, let alone her, and that scared her almost more than it would have if he’d been unconscious.

You could still be a frog, she told herself automatically, but it wasn’t much of a threat now. She would have gladly become a frog again if it meant Naveen wouldn’t –

She forced herself to look away from him, to let the servants go back to work. She saw Belle’s husband on the other side of the little group, a splint on his leg and coughing after every few words, but lucid enough to be angry. He was growling at everyone in a mixture of French and Maldonian, snapping out Belle’s name to anyone who passed by and becoming even surlier when they shook their heads.

The couple from China had split up, and were speaking softly to the uninjured people in a brisk, professional manner. The woman seemed to be doing most of the talking; the man spoke to a few people, but spent more time prowling around the perimeter of the little crowd, his body tense and on alert.

The armor wasn’t just ceremonial, then. Daddy hadn’t come back from the war, but some of his friends had, and they’d been like that, too – always on the lookout for threats, in a constant military mindset. Unlike anything else, that actually made Tiana feel a tiny bit safer; maybe because it meant someone here knew what they were doing, maybe just because it had reminded her of her Daddy, but whatever. She was willing to take whatever little comfort she could get.

That comfort evaporated a moment later, when two more figures stumbled into the circle. Gisela gasped and ran over to them, doing a remarkable impression of Tiana from earlier.

It was Arun, accompanied by a guard. He was limping and covered in soot, but that wasn’t the worst part – the worst part was the look on his face. He spoke to his wife in quick, hurried Maldonian, and although his voice was quiet, whatever he’d said sent up a shriek around the circle.

“What? What is it?” Tiana demanded, but she was drowned out as Gisela screamed, a long, bone-chilling sound, trailing off into sobs. She tried again, but everyone else seemed to be having similar reactions; no one was listening to her.

Her frustration must have been clear on her face, because the Chinese woman came and crouched by her, her emotion impossible to read in her dark eyes. In faintly-accented English she said, “They are saying the prince has been captured.”

Tiana blinked. “But,” she started, turning to look back at Naveen’s prone body. “But the prince is right…”

Oh. Oh, no.

“The rebels took him in the confusion, and are barricaded inside the library,” the woman continued, listening to the voices rising in distress around them. “They are threatening to kill him if their demands are not met. It is…” She paused, her face flickering, and now she looked troubled rather than impassive. “It is possible he is already dead.”

So this was what it felt like to have your heart stop. For a long moment, Tiana actually, physically could not breathe; not as long as she pictured Hugo’s tiny body, still and cold and –

She had to force the words out, like food that had gone down wrong. “Wh…what are their demands?”

“They want you to step down as princess,” said the Chinese woman. She frowned. “They say you have tainted the Maldonian bloodline, and are demanding that you and your husband annul your marriage. They want the king and queen to step down as apology for allowing this, and to appoint a first-cousin as monarch instead.”

“You mean –” Tiana’s head felt like it was going to explode. “You mean, this is – they’re going to kill Hugo because of me?!”

The other woman shrugged, but someone else answered her. “Dear,” said Arun, from behind her. “This is not your fault.”

“But –” she started, turning around. Arun shook his head, and Gisela, clinging to his chest, looked up at her with sad eyes.

“There has been unrest for some time now,” she said. “This is just – an excuse, something for them to latch on to, to draw attention away from what they really want.”

“My first-cousin on the throne,” Arun clarified. “Tiana, whatever happens to…” He paused, and cleared his throat. “Whatever happens to Hugo, it is not because of you.”

Tiana could not think of what to say to them, so she just nodded, and they turned away again, moving to sit by Naveen.

Whatever they said, this was her fault. They had been waiting until the entire royal family was gathered – even if they were using her as an excuse, if it weren’t for her then it wouldn’t have been tonight, it wouldn’t have happened like this. If it weren’t for her –

Faldi faldonza,” she muttered, the only Maldonian she’d ever been able to pick up. “I have to do something.”

She’d forgotten the woman beside her, and she jumped a little bit when she spoke again. “There isn’t much that can be done,” she said. “Guards would only attract their attention, and they would kill the prince before he can be rescued. A small group might be able to get in, but so many are injured, and the ones that aren’t are needed to care for and guard them.”

“Then I’ll go by myself,” Tiana snapped. The coiled spring inside of her snapped; now it was a straight iron rod, filling her with purpose, the idea that if she could just do something – anything – then everything would be okay again, things could be fixed. But just sitting here, doing nothing…

Ray had died because of her, all that time ago. She wasn’t going to let something like that happen again.

Almost instinctively, she glanced up at the sky, searching out the familiar pair of stars shining brighter than ever in the clear Maldonian sky. Ray and Evangeline, watching over her – and Hugo, she asked them, in a silent prayer. Please, please, please

The woman was watching her still, and there was something odd in her expression. Tiana thought she might try to stop her, so she started to move away before she could raise an alarm – but instead the woman nodded, and stood up with her.

“A small group might be able to get in,” she said again, thoughtfully. She looked over her shoulder and jerked her chin towards her companion, who immediately changed direction and headed over towards them.

Tiana had expected resistance; the support threw her even more off-balance. “You’re going to help me?” she asked doubtfully, although her insides were still quivering with anticipation. She was going to do this either way, but if she had help – military-trained help – maybe, maybe…

“He’s a child,” the woman said, simply. Tiana nodded. She didn’t smile; she wasn’t sure if her face could manage that, not unless – until Hugo was safe. But the meaning seemed to come across anyway, because the woman managed a little smile.

“I’m Mulan,” she said, and waved towards the man, who was looking at her with an expression that made it clear that someone had better tell him what was going on, right now. “This is Shang. Meet us around the back of the hedge in five minutes.”

Without waiting for an answer, she strode off, and – with a suspicious look at Tiana – Shang followed, talking to her in sharp, questioning Chinese. Tiana stared after them, not quite believing that this was happening.

Then she remembered that Hugo couldn’t wait for her to collect herself. Mulan hadn’t been giving her time to think, she’d been giving her time to get ready.

First things first, she thought, almost mechanically. Can’t stage a rescue mission in this dress. It was a good thing she’d worn that conservative underwear after all. If she tore the underskirt off, she could flatten the peplum, and…

A better idea occurred to her. Naveen had worn a dark jacket, and it had been pulled off of him so they could get at his wound, left in a crumpled puddle of fabric off to the side. Only a few people even glanced at her as she picked it up. She was just a scared princess, wanting some token of her injured husband, and there were more important things to worry about.

She paused and looked at him, still lying there, although he’d finally closed his eyes. For a second she was afraid – but his chest was still rising and falling, less raggedly than before.

“I kissed a frog for you, you idiot,” she whispered. “You’d better not die on me after that.”

Getting out of the dress turned out to be easier than she’d expected. There was a small corner of the circle that someone had pulled some benches over to hide; someone had dug a hole in the ground, and Tiana very nearly stepped in it before she realized this was some kind of improvised bathroom. She stayed well on the opposite side of the corner while she struggled out of her gown.

The jacket was big on her, but it stayed, and it smelled comfortingly of Naveen. She discarded the shoes entirely – she’d never liked heels, anyway – and, now that she was no longer in her distinctive dress, was able to slip out of the circle with no trouble.

Mulan and Shang were waiting for her. Shang looked furious, but he said nothing as Tiana emerged from around the hedge. Mulan gave her a once-over and nodded.

“Better than the dress,” she pronounced. For her part, she’d taken off most of the layers of her outfit, and the bottom part entirely; instead she was wearing a pair of leggings and flat-soled boots. “Okay, here we go. The main group – the ones who have the prince – are in the library. Do you know where that is?”

“Um – roughly,” Tiana said, trying to remember. Mulan nodded.

“There’s bound to be people on patrol for anyone trying to stage a rescue,” she continued “But we spoke to some of the servants earlier, and I think I see a way through. Do you see that pole over there?” She pointed; Tiana’s night vision was fairly good, and had actually improved since the frog incident, so she could see it clearly, about ten yards away. “The palace grounds have a private sewer system.” Oh, of course it would be sewers. Thanks a lot, Evangeline. “The pole marks a maintenance entrance – and there’s another one close to the side of the building that the library is on.”

“The library has that balcony,” Tiana murmured. “It should be easy to find from outside.”

“Good.” Mulan dusted off her hands, and began to walk off purposefully. As she walked, a long dark object moved against her leg – she had a sword, Tiana realized, an honest-to-god sword. How had they managed to sneak that into the ball?

Then again, her posture had been awfully straight earlier. And a thin sword wouldn’t be noticeable with all that fabric piled on top of it…

They walked fast, but Tiana – used to dealing with six tables in separate sections during lunch rush – caught up soon enough. Shang was prying the top off of an indentation in the lawn; there was a lock on it, but he’d smashed it in with his heel, and the entrance opened easily enough without it. He muttered something under his breath as he lowered himself in.

“You’re going to need to talk to the king and queen about getting better locks on these,” Mulan said, as they watched his head disappear below ground-level. “He didn’t even hit it that hard. Anyone can smash up the lock and use these to sneak around in.”

“Yeah,” Tiana said doubtfully, wrinkling her nose as she leaned over the opening. “But why would they want to?”

The smell was awful. It was amazing the entrance held it in as well as it did – it smelled worse than the swamp on a hot day, worse than Naveen’s one attempt at making gumbo, worse than Mama Odie’s. She held her nose as she went in, but it didn’t help; this was the kind of smell that went in through her mouth instead, almost tangible in her throat.

“Hurry up,” Shang said roughly, which surprised her so much she nearly fell into the sewer headfirst. It was the first thing he’d said directly to her, let alone in English. He looked like he meant it as a threat, though, so she dropped down gently, squeaking a little as the ground squished and splashed under her feet. Maybe she should have worn the shoes, after all. Breaking an ankle would be okay, as long as she didn’t have to think about what was touching her skin oh god oh god oh god…

Hugo, she reminded herself, and kicked her brain back into action. Still, she couldn’t help cringing as she walked, and the spongy floor made disgusting noises as they went. First frogs, now the sewer – was there some little flag on the cosmic thread of her life that read ‘please force into as many disgusting situations as possible’?

“Mulan,” she said finally, partially out of curiosity and partially out of a desire to cover up those noises. “Really, why are you helping me?”

Mulan looked back at her. There had been moonlight outside, but not in the sewer, and Tiana couldn’t see her expression in the darkness.

“It’s like I said,” she replied. “To let a child die when I could do something to prevent it – that would be the worst kind of dishonor. And…” She trailed off, then continued, “I know what it’s like to want to protect someone you love. I know how it makes you willing to do anything, even something that could get you killed.”

The way she said it made Tiana think that she knew more about this kind of thing than she could ever guess. Suddenly uncomfortable, she waved vaguely in the direction of Shang and said, “So, what, Mister ‘Tall, Dark, and Grumpy’ was okay with that?”

“Tall, Dark and – yep, that’s Shang,” Mulan said. She laughed a little, but quietly, because their voices were echoing throughout the tunnels of the sewer. “No, he wanted me to tie you up and keep you from following, and to be honest, that was my first inclination, too. But…like I said, I know what it’s like. And I’d rather have you here with us, where we can keep an eye on you, than have you out on your own and doing who-knows-what.”

“He told you all that, huh?” Tiana said dryly, and she saw the line of Mulan’s shoulders lift and fall as she shrugged.

“He’s shy,” she admitted. In front of them, Shang’s posture had gone rigid, and he was walking now with a kind of pointed dignity. “And he gets embarrassed about his accent. He can understand English just fine – so it’s no use pretending you’re not listening, Shang – but he doesn’t talk a lot. Trust me,” she added, “you’re not missing much. Most of what he says boils down to ‘Mulan, you’re crazy, I’m going with you to make sure you don’t kill yourself.’”

“You are crazy,” Shang said shortly, probably just to prove he could. His accent wasn’t that bad.

Despite the joking, the mood was still tense and heavy, all of them very aware why they were down here in the first place. So when they first heard the footsteps, they sprang into action immediately – Shang fell into a fighting stance, and Mulan jumped behind Tiana, guarding the rear. Tiana…well, she didn’t know what she could do, really, and she was starting to think maybe she should have thought this out a little better before she just ran off, but it was too late for that. She clenched her fists.

A figure rounded the corner, Shang leapt, and a scream ran out – a scream that Tiana recognized. Before she knew what she was doing, she yelled, “Stop!” and ran forward; Mulan caught her shoulder and pulled her back, just as Shang let go of the figure.

Merde!” Belle shrieked, flat on her behind in the sludge. Even in the darkness, the golden-yellow of her dress was visible, although she appeared to have had a similar idea to Tiana and stripped off her underskirts. “Putain de merde! What are you doing?!”

Now Mulan let go of her, and Tiana went to help her up. Closer up, Belle appeared less angry and more simply frazzled, with a frustration born from fear. “It’s me,” she said, when Belle drew back at her approach. “It’s me, it’s okay. This is Mulan and Shang, they’re helping me. What are you doing here?”

“I was hiding,” Belle said, almost sulkily. She took Tiana’s hand, and squeaked in surprise when Tiana hauled her to her feet. “After you pushed me behind the table, a bunch of rude men with weapons grabbed me and dragged me out of the ballroom. One of them pulled me aside and – ahem – got very forward, so I hit him with a tray and jumped out the window.”

“You did what?” Tiana demanded. Belle did not appear to see anything unusual with this at all.

“I opened it first,” she said unrepentantly. “He tried to stop me, so I hit him a few more times and kicked him in the groin. I found the entrance here while I was running – tripped over it, really – and I thought it might make a good place to hide. The lock was woefully inadequate, though, it only took me about three seconds to pick it –”

“You did what?” Tiana repeated, even more dumbfounded now. Belle shrugged.

“Papa had a phase where he was trying to invent an unbreakable lock,” she said, as if it should be obvious. “He had me test them all, and I became very adept at it. Good thing, too, because I’m not going back out that way, and if the other entrances are all locked from the outside, then –”

Mulan swore suddenly in Chinese. “I should have realized,” she explained. “The entrance outside the library will be locked. Perhaps we could force our way through, but that might cause too much attention…”

“Oh, it’s not that hard,” Belle said. She seemed more cheerful now that she was talking about something she was good at – lock-picking, really? What did they do with their princesses in France? “There’s locks on the inside, too. You know, just in case. Smart, really, the sewers in France were just open to everyone, it was horrible and it smelled to high heaven in the summer, and they were terribly inefficient. Papa tried to invent a new type of plumbing once, but…” Her face darkened. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But you can open these locks?” Mulan asked, her brow creased in thought. Tiana saw where she was going and started to protest, but Mulan shook her head. “I think it would be best. Our only advantage is surprise, and we need to attract the least amount of attention possible. How quickly can you open these locks?”

“It’s not hard,” said Belle. “You just need something small and thin, like…” She reached into her hair, which had come half out of its elaborately-twisted style, and pulled out a hairpin. It glinted in the minimal light.

Shang didn’t seem happy about it, either, but after snapping at Mulan – and being snapped at in return – he threw his hands up into the air and said sharply, to Belle, “You will do what we tell you.”

“I will not, thank you very much,” Belle said in surprise, but Mulan sighed.

“What he means is that we need you to come with us,” she said. “If you can unlock the entrance outside the library, we can get in and rescue the young prince. You don’t have to come out with us, but if we can get in without them noticing…”

Belle stared at her. “You that little boy's been -- oh, the poor thing! And they’ve taken over the library? Yes, of course I’ll help.”

She seemed more scandalized by the violation of the library than the fact that the rebels were going to kill an eight-year-old boy, but Tiana decided not to hold it against her. Nobody was really thinking straight tonight.

With that settled, they continued on. Shang was again at the front, and Mulan lagged behind a little, putting Belle and Tiana side-by-side in the middle. Belle didn’t seem to mind the sewer as much as Tiana did, even though the squelching had gotten even worse through here. Once, Tiana stepped on something half-hardened that crumbled under her foot, and had to stuff her fist into her mouth to keep from screaming.

Between the grossness of the sewer and the heart-pounding awareness of Hugo’s precarious position, she felt like she was going to go mad. She wished she had something to distract her – anything – but even replaying Naveen’s stupid little songs over and over in her head didn’t help. She needed something outside her own mind.

“So,” she said finally, because otherwise her head felt like it was going to break. “Tell me. How did a girl from a poor provincial town end up with a prince?”

“Is this really the time?” Belle asked doubtfully. Tiana shrugged.

“I need to talk,” she said simply. Belle paused, apparently unconvinced, but after a moment she said, “I was his prisoner.”

“Well, he sounds like a real Prince Charming.”

“It wasn’t a very romantic beginning,” Belle agreed, with a tiny, self-conscious laugh. “It was all an accident, really. My father got lost, and he found the old castle – it used to be the winter home of the royal family, or something, but it had been abandoned for years since the prince had…well, I told you he’d been away.” She wasn’t looking at Tiana as she spoke, instead staring straight ahead as they trudged on. “Anyway, that was where he was hiding, and he didn’t like being trespassed on. And – I love him, but he’s got such a temper, and he used to be so much worse… I went after my father, and the Be – Adam let me take his place as a prisoner.”

Tiana raised an eyebrow. “And this is the story of how you two ended up married?”

Now Belle did turn to look at her, and although it was too dark to make out the details of her expression, Tiana could tell that she was biting her lower lip. “It’s complicated,” she admitted. “I don’t know if I can explain it. I don’t think you’d believe me if I tried. It’s just…” She trailed off. After a moment, she continued hesitantly, “Do you believe that someone can change, because of love? That they can learn how to be gentle, and to think about someone other than themselves?” Her mouth curved into a small, private smile. “Do you believe that love can turn a beast into a prince?”

A beast into a – Tiana stared at her suspiciously. They hadn’t told anyone, not even Naveen’s family, about the frog incident. Lottie and Louis were the only ones who knew… But Belle didn’t seem to have noticed her reaction, though, and was still smiling absently to herself. It had just been an odd turn of phrase, maybe some French idiom that didn’t translate properly.

“I think I do,” she said finally. “Naveen was a slimy little creep when I met him. Took him forever to turn into a proper man.”

Belle made a soft, amused noise and started to say something else, but they were interrupted as Shang stopped short in front of them, looking up at the ceiling. There was another entrance above them, its lock intact, a row of slimy-looking metal rungs set into the wall below it.

“This should be it,” Mulan said, after a few words with Shang. “It’s about where the servants said it would be. If you please, Your Excellency…”

“What? Oh,” said Belle. She went forward and began to climb up the rungs, not even paying attention to how many germs had to be on them. Tiana winced. “For heaven’s sake, we just walked through sewage together, you might as well just call me Belle.”

“Oh,” said Mulan. She seemed a little surprised by this, and as she glanced her way, Tiana shook her head and raised her hands.

“If you call me anything other than my name, I’ll kick you,” she threatened. Mulan half-smiled.

“Actually,” she said, as Belle began to fiddle with the lock, “I meant to tell you, you’ll need a weapon.” She reached into her boot and drew out a short, straight dagger, like a miniature sword. Or, Tiana thought, a carving knife. “Stab, don’t slice. Do you think you can do this?”

She said it casually, but Tiana understood that she wasn’t talking about just the knife. She was asking herself that same question, now; seeing the glint off the blade made it real in a way it hadn’t quite been before. She was going to have to use that. She was going to have to use that on people.

It looked like it would cut meat well, she thought, and then she felt sick for thinking it. She had never really hurt another person, not even the Shadow Man. Even to save Hugo, against the people who had hurt Naveen and his – her – family…

But that was the other lesson Daddy had taught her, wasn’t it? You did what you had to. You didn’t sit there and whine about how unfair it was, you just went ahead and did it, as best you could. She held out her hand, and after a brief pause, Mulan handed her the knife.

Tiana’s fingers closed around the hilt, warming it to her palm. “I’ll mince ‘em,” she said flatly.

Belle had hopped back down, and Shang was on the ladder now, holding the trapdoor open a crack and peering out. After a moment he jerked his chin towards Mulan, and opened the door the rest of the way.

Tiana went up next, holding her breath and trying not to cry as her fingers touched the slimy metal. When she finally made it out, it was like heaven; she took great gulps of fresh night air, trying to force the smell of the sewer out of her nose.

She expected to see Mulan climb out next, but instead it was Belle’s head that popped up over the edge. She’d pulled her hair back into a ponytail, tying it with what looked like a strip of cloth from her dress.

“No,” Tiana said, once it registered, “no, you don’t.”

“I’m coming with you,” Belle told her anyway, in a tone that said she was not going to let her argue her way out. Tiana started to protest, so Belle spoke louder as she continued pulling herself up. “No, listen to me! You can’t tell me you’re going off to save a kid, and then just – leave me behind! And the library! I’m going to –”

Shut up,” Shang hissed frantically, and Belle’s mouth closed with an almost audible snap. Shang had his sword out – wait, he had a sword too? Seriously, had they even been checking for weapons at this ball? – and was looking back and forth into the darkness as though he expected someone to jump out at any moment.

No one did, although he did not relax. Tiana rolled her eyes and turned back to Belle, saying under her breath, “If you think I’m going to let you –”

That was when someone jumped out at them.

Even in the moonlight, it was impossible to discern anything about his features, given that he was rushing right at them, brandishing a carving knife and yelling. Tiana’s hand squeezed the hilt of her own knife, and she raised it instinctively, even as she thought what if he’s a guard, what if he thinks we’re the ones who kidnapped Hugo –

Shang lunged forward and kicked him in the chest, knocking him back. Mulan (who had definitely been down in the sewer just a second ago, how had she gotten out so fast?) leapt at him as he went down, and whatever she did was too fast for Tiana to see, but he didn’t get up again.

“We have to move fast,” Mulan said quietly. “His shouting might have put them on alert. We can still make it, but we have to go now.”

None of them said anything. Instead they just moved, following her as she ran on,

They hadn’t come out quite outside the library, but they were close; Tiana could see the balcony, the door behind it open, figures moving about inside. She’d forgotten how high up it was; not quite on the second story, but too high to jump. It also looked like their best bet to get in.

“Shang’s tallest,” Mulan was saying as they ran, “so he’ll give us a boost, and then we can pull him up. They’ll see us, so come up prepared to fight. I’ll go first –”

They were almost to the balcony when two more men, one with a musket and the other with a sword, jumped out from behind the surrounding shrubbery. Once again, Shang and Mulan went after them instantly, even as another one came running around the corner.

“We have to get up there!” Mulan shouted. “We’re out of time! Shang –”

Shang yelled something back to her, trying to wrench the musket away from one of the men. Tiana didn’t need to know Chinese to know it meant something along the lines of, “A little busy, here!”

They had to get up there. They’d lost the element of surprise, so they had to do it now. Tiana stared up at the balcony, then at Mulan’s slender figure, and thought maybe…

“I’ll do it,” she whispered, as Mulan edged back towards them. Then, louder, she said, “Mulan, I’ll do it. I’ll throw you over.”

What?” Both Mulan and Belle were staring at her. Tiana glared back at them.

“Girl,” she said to Mulan, “there is no way you could weigh more than three full trays of Buford’s bacon-and-eggs breakfast special, and I had to haul those around for years. Get your fanny over here, we don’t have time –”

Mulan still looked doubtful, but she let Tiana hoist her up – she really was light, practically nothing in Tiana’s hands, and it was almost easy for Tiana to pull back and just…toss her, sending her up over the edge of the balcony.

She turned to Belle, who was staring at her wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “You just – threw her!” she said, spluttering in a thoroughly undignified manner.

“And now it’s your turn,” Tiana muttered. Belle looked like she was going to protest, so Tiana didn’t give her a chance; she just grabbed her. Belle was heavier, but Buford had been generous with that bacon, and Tiana let her fly as though she were tossing a dirty tray into a far-off sink.

Shang had subdued two of the men already, but the third was still going after him, and shouts from around the corner indicated that more were on their way. As though they’d choreographed it, Shang punched the man in the face, twisted over to Tiana, and pulled her onto his shoulders before his attacker had recovered. Tiana made a jump for the balcony just as the man lunged again, throwing Shang off-balance – she nearly missed, but someone reached out and grabbed her, pulling her the extra few inches onto the balcony.

She hit the ground with her rescuer and rolled, crashing into an overturned plant. It was a miracle she stabbed neither herself nor the person who’d pulled her up, considering that she ended up half-on top of them.

“Happy I came, now?” Belle said, from underneath her. Tiana refused to dignify that with a response and jumped off.

It was a good thing she did. The group inside had definitely noticed their entrance, and they were pouring out of the smashed doorway, weapons in hand. There were less of them than Tiana had expected – most of them were probably out patrolling or searching for escapees – but that was hardly a bad thing.

Inside, she could hear sobbing, a scared child’s voice rising above the shouts of their attackers, and suddenly nothing else mattered, because Hugo was alive and she had to get to him before they did anything –

Her body went on autopilot. She ran straight through the door; a man got in her way, a sword raised, but he was just another customer in her way during lunch rush, and she sidestepped him automatically. She didn’t stop to see if he followed her or someone else got him; she just kept going forward, following the sound of Hugo’s voice.

There was only one man left in the library; the rest had rushed out when Mulan had landed on the balcony. He was holding Hugo by the arm, a machete in his other hand, and when he saw Tiana he spat at her, his face twisted with rage.

“You let him go,” Tiana said, amazed that her voice didn’t shake at all. “You let him go or I’ll –“

She raised her own knife, which looked pathetic next to the machete. The man shouted at her in Maldonian, something that was clearly unflattering, but she advanced on him anyway, keeping her head steady on the knife.

You do what you have to. Stab, don’t slice. Don’t think about it, just go ahead and do it…

Something big and rectangular and heavy crashed down on the man’s head. The machete slipped out of his fingers and he tipped over, taking Hugo with him – not onto the knife, thank the lord – and Tiana looked up in disbelief to see Belle standing there, breathing hard, an insane look in her eyes. She was holding a dictionary.

“This is what you get for threatening a child!” she yelled, shaking the dictionary in the air like some kind of demented trophy. “In a library!”

“Belle, put the dictionary down,” Tiana said, kind of disturbed now. Then Hugo cried, “Tiana!” and she forgot everything else, forgot Belle, forgot that taking out one man wasn’t going to make things just stop. She dropped to her knees and put her arms around him, barely remembering to be careful with her knife, and Hugo burst into tears and clung to her like she was the only real thing in his world.

Mulan joined them a moment later, but she hadn’t relaxed. “First part’s done,” she said, without lowering her sword. There was red on it; Tiana turned Hugo’s head away and tried to forget she’d seen it. “Now we have to get him out.” She gave Belle a once-over, her eyebrows raised. “What’s with the book?”

“I have shown them the power of books!” Belle declared. She still looked sort of manic, and was swaying gently on her feet. Mulan’s eyebrows raised higher.

“…Okay.” She turned towards Tiana, mouthed, “adrenaline”, and shrugged. “Our best bet is to go out the way we came. We don’t know how many of them are still in the palace.”

“Back through the sewers?” Tiana groaned. Mulan thought about it, and shook her head again.

“No,” she said, and Tiana sighed in relief. “At this point we might as well make a straight shoot over the lawn. Shang’s still down there, I was pushing most of the ones up here over the balcony and he yelled at me for it – we’re going to have to fight our way out, but it was a small group. I think we took out most of the core force.”

“I’d better grab an atlas, too,” Belle said darkly.

They were able to go down more slowly than they went up, which was good, because now Tiana had a frightened boy hanging on to her to deal with. She didn’t let go of the knife, certain that the moment she did, someone else would jump out and snatch Hugo away from her – but Shang and Mulan dispatched the remaining attackers before she’d even gotten all the way down, save for one, who was taken out by Belle and her dictionary.

“Okay, seriously, you’re scaring me with that,” Tiana told her. Belle clutched the book to her chest, but she seemed to be coming out of her crazy-spell a little bit, because she only sniffed and brushed her hair back out of her face.

“Never forget the power of books,” she said, at least somewhat calmly. She smiled at Hugo, who shrank back against Tiana. “I hope you remember that, young man.”

Hugo nodded, wide-eyed. Tiana suspected he was never going to go near a book again if he could help it.

They made it only halfway across the lawn before being accosted again – but Shang was just starting to jump forward when Tiana saw what they were wearing.

“They’re guards!” she shouted. “They’re from the palace – don’t you hurt them, you crazy man!”

“They could be in disguise,” Mulan pointed out. Her own sword was still raised.

Tiana squinted at the group of men huddled together at the point of Shang’s sword. “No,” she said finally. “I recognize them. You –” She pointed at one of them, who stared at her, recognition dawning on his face. “You got all offended when Naveen kissed me. Oh, stop that!” The guard had immediately fallen flat on his face in an attempt at a bow. “Why does everyone keep bowing?!”

“We’d better tell them about the people in the library,” Belle said pleasantly, and she began to speak to the guards in Maldonian. That made sense; they’d tied up the unconscious men, but someone was going to have to actually arrest them. Tiana felt an enormous weight lift off of his shoulders at that thought. It was somebody else’s problem now, she didn’t have to think about it anymore.

The guards didn’t seem to believe them at first, but then they saw Hugo – and another round of bowing ensued, to Tiana’s frustration – and while he seemed more interested in burying himself into Tiana than in talking, his presence seemed to be enough confirmation. A guard stayed with them to bring them back to the circle, while the rest headed off to the library, weapons drawn.

They didn’t meet anyone else on the way back; it was like the universe had decided, once they’d rescued Hugo, it was over. Tiana was okay with this. Her adrenaline was all gone. All she wanted to do was collapse, and probably sleep for about a week. Even knowing that there were still rebels patrolling couldn’t faze her right then; anyway, without the threat to the prince, they could be attacked and rounded up by the guards. Not her problem.

She didn’t even realize that they’d reached the circle until Hugo suddenly screamed and broke away from her. At first she thought they were under attack – but then she looked up and saw Gisela, who was promptly tackled by a shrieking eight-year-old.

Arun (who, she found out later, had been the one to send the guards out looking for her) stared from her to his son and then back again. Finally he managed a sufficiently stern-sounding, “Do not ever do that again!” before he forgot all about her and swept both Gisela and Hugo into his arms.

Tiana was okay with this, too. She’d done what she needed to. Instead she stumbled over to where Naveen was; he was sitting up now, and when she approached him, he looked directly at her.

“Tiana,” he murmured. He sounded tired and confused. “Tiana, you are wearing my jacket.”

“Observant as ever,” she said automatically. She leaned against his good shoulder, looking around at the rest of the circle; Belle was talking excitedly to her husband, apparently doing a dramatic re-enactment with the dictionary, and Shang and Mulan were sitting together at the edge of the circle, her arm around his shoulders. A happy ending for everyone, it seemed.

Naveen was still staring at her like he was trying to figure her out. “I hope you did not get it dirty,” he said finally. Tiana rolled her eyes.

“Naveen,” she said. “Shut up.” Then, after a moment, “I am never going to another ball ever again.”

“Whatever you say,” said Naveen, who, even through a pain-clouded mind, knew not to mess with that tone of voice. That settled, Tiana snuggled into his arm and closed her eyes.

There would be things to deal with later, and lots of explanations to give, and probably some renegotiating of trade agreements, which no one would thank her for – but that was all far away, not something she had to deal with now. She’d done what she had to.