“You know,” huffs a masculine voice that sounds very much like Eugene Fitzherbert’s, “I’ve done some pretty strange things in my life.”
“Uh-hmm,” a feminine murmur replies. It sounds unsettlingly similar to Princess Rapunzel’s dulcet tones.
“But, I ask you,” the man continues, panting slightly. The sounds of two pairs of bare feet skidding and slapping across the stone floor echo out into the tapestry-draped hall. “Why must the strangest things I’ve ever done always involve a frying pan?”
Rapunzel (unfortunately it is, indeed, the princess) giggles. “Don’t worry, Eugene. You’re very fast.”
“And a good thing, too,” he mutters jerkily as another step-slide-stomp reverberates. “Un-fortunately…”
The sounds that echo are different now. There’s the silence of a decisive advance, a moment of breathless capture, and then a resounding clang as the pan drops, clattering against the stone floor.
“I’m also bigger and stronger,” Eugene Fitzherbert points out, his voice smugness itself.
Rapunzel grunts softly. The sounds of her distress pull on the heart strings of the man who is eavesdropping from the corridor until he peers in through the partially open door. His heart leaps at the sight of his daughter caught in a man’s grasp. Never mind that this man has her complete faith. Never mind that he had saved her from a life of imprisonment. Never mind that their chaperone is in clear view.
The lizard who accompanies his daughter everywhere, gesticulates wildly, clearly encouraging Rapunzel to do her worst!
“Not so tough without your hair, huh?” her captor purrs in a tone that the king does not like at all.
The king cannot see his daughter’s expression, but he senses a change infuse the air in answer to the thief’s challenge. “We’ll see about that!” she crows, shifting perceptibly.
The lizard hisses out a laugh.
“You were saying, Eugene?” Rapunzel asks sweetly.
The king dares to push the door open just a bit wider and gapes; his daughter – the princess – holds the point of a small but very well-sharpened knife snuggly against a rather delicate junction of a man’s figure.
Wheezing, the former thief forces a grin, “Ah. You remembered that one, eh?”
“You’re a very good teacher,” she replies with candid praise which is so at odds with Fitzherbert’s obvious discomfort that the king has to swallow back a bark of uncharacteristically loud laughter. The lizard, Pascal, is rolling on the stone floor with uninhibited yet nearly silent mirth.
“You’re welcome,” the thief replies, slowly raising his hands in a gesture of openhanded-surrender. When the knife tip retreats marginally in wary acceptance of his forfeiture, he shuffles back a step. Once out of range of the knife, he takes a deep breath. His shoulders slide into a cocky slouch and the easy smile is back. “So you’re handy with a knife after all,” he evaluates. “Be careful with that or people might start to think you can actually cook.”
“I can cook.”
His look is doubtful. She levels the knife at him.
“Put that dubious brow back where it belongs or I will use this.”
He crosses his arms, looking for all the world as if he couldn’t be bothered to even contemplate the thought of injury to his person. He shrugs. “Yeah? Well, you’re welcome to try,Bblondie.”
The king watches from the shadowy embrace of the hall, through the not-quite-closed wooden door as Rapunzel throws the knife. Eugene ducks, startled, and the king blinks, equally stunned. It’s not until a moment later when Rapunzel is holding the reclaimed frying pan in her hand and is virtually sitting on top of the thief (whom she had artfully tripped) that the king realizes what had happened. Rapunzel had thrown the knife to distract Eugene (although, in retrospect, he realizes that she had not thrown it at him), then – while the thief had been flinching – she had scooped up the frying pan, stuck out her ankle, tripped him as he’d turned to locate the off-target projectile, sat on him, and lifted the pan in preparation for a whopper of a blow on the back of the young man’s dazed head.
Now is as good a time as any, the king decides, to interrupt.
He toes open the door, applauding. After a moment of startled, color-shifting-lizard panic, Pascal joins in, nodding sagely with approval.
Rapunzel looks up, her green eyes wide and frying pan still held aloft. “Daddy?”
He chuckles, enjoying the sight of Eugene’s aghast expression. He doesn’t doubt the young man is mortified, but – as usual – he makes the best of it. Adopting a droll expression, Fitzherbert crosses his arms and props his chin up on the palm of his hand, patiently waiting for Rapunzel to remember upon whom she is seated and obligingly remove herself.
The king replies, “Would an imposter dare reveal himself in the face of your frightful skills in warfare, my dearest?”
She squeals with delight and clamors off her inconvenienced instructor. “Did you see me, daddy?” she demands, stampeding toward him still clutching the frying pan. The king marvels at how daily deportment lessons for the past three years have not managed to make any appreciable difference in softening his daughter’s awe-inspiring enthusiasm into royal grace.
“Did you really see me?” She anxiously clutches the frying pan by the rim in both hands and glances down at Pascal. “Did he?”
Before the lizard can shrug, the king replies. “I did, indeed. From swish to seating.”
He laughs as she performs a gleeful twirl. “He saw me, Eugene!” she enthuses as the thief collects the discarded knife with deliberate slowness. The king has noticed this often: whenever Rapunzel is enjoying herself, particularly with him or her mother, Eugene will fade into the background by performing some mundane activity… which usually involves picking up after the princess herself.
She scampers over to him and he presents the knife to her, handle first. “And a good thing, too,” Fitzherbert replies with a charming smile, “because I would rather not do that again today, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh! But, we haven’t shown Momma my progress!”
The king decides to interject. As a man, he can imagine how bruised the fellow’s pride must already be. The king doesn’t doubt Eugene would indulge Rapunzel’s request for a re-enactment. Truly, the young man would do anything for her.
That is precisely what worries him.
A man might forsake his own pride for a love greater than himself… but he might also do anything for power, wealth, and a beautiful woman. Precisely how this supposed once-had-been a thief sees his daughter, the king cannot say. Not even after three years of cohabitation.
“No need to show her, my dearest,” the king says, holding out his hand to her. She tucks the knife into the sheath at her belt and skips over to him, collecting Pascal along the way. “I shall give her a full report, rife with vivid details. She will be most impressed.” Returning to his side, Rapunzel looks up at him and the king smiles as he gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Once again lurking in the background, Eugene steps into his boots and wordlessly collects Rapunzel’s slippers. She hadn’t even thought to put them on.
“Come along now,” the king invites. “We have to finish our preparations.”
Rapunzel wrinkles her nose that the reminder. When Fitzherbert draws near enough, she links her arm through his, still ignoring her slippers in his other hand. “Why can’t Eugene come with us this time? He has for the last two tours.”
Yes, he had. The thief had accompanied Rapunzel and himself during the previous tours of the kingdom. His presence had also managed to prevent several very suitable and eligible bachelors from making Rapunzel’s acquaintance. Perhaps he is a man of tradition, but the king finds it difficult to believe that someone who has been so driven by the promise of wealth, by the possibility of quenching the thirst of his own greed, would be capable of appreciating the treasure that Rapunzel is. The king will not ask Rapunzel to choose one of the lords or princes over her current companion, but he would not be opposed to it if she did.
“Now, Rapunzel,” Eugene says softly, chiding her gently. Again, this is something else that the king has noticed; the young man always uses her given – although not her proper and royal – name while in his presence. “You know I’m allergic to all that pomp and posturing that goes with politics. Besides, the queen asked me to stay and help her prepare the castle for your return. You think I want to turn her down? With me in charge, you know it’s going to be a celebration to remember!”
Rapunzel laughs as she pulls Eugene past the king and into the hall. “Oh, all right. And you will have a lot of fun while I’m gone…”
“Of course I will!” he agrees with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm. “This is only the beginning. Party planning, fabric swatches… this is the start of something big.” Eugene gestures with the hand still holding the princess’ slippers. She still doesn’t seem to even notice them. No, she only has eyes for Eugene Fitzherbert, whoever he really is.
The king watches as his ever-barefoot daughter pokes the thief in his side. The young man deftly avoids her attempt to tickle him, not even breaking stride or pausing in his self-aggrandizing.
He’s very slippery, this thief whom the king had pardoned out of thanks for the return of his daughter. But, in doing so, had he done the right thing? In allowing Rapunzel to keep this man as her friend and confidante, has he done his daughter more harm than good? Three years is more than enough time for a man like this to steal her precious heart. That is why this annual tour is so important. The king wishes to open his daughter’s eyes to other possibilities, other charming gentlemen who can appreciate her. There may be hope yet that she will choose a partner who isn’t a formerly wanted criminal. But, as Rapunzel blushes under the thief’s frank stare, the king allows that perhaps it is already too late. It is likely that her heart has already been taken.
“What do you think of this one, Pascal?” Rapunzel asks, whirling abruptly away from her wardrobe. The dress she holds by the shoulders flairs spectacularly.
The chameleon gives her a bored look and points to the assortment of previously packed and locked trunks. She makes a face that Pascal silently refers to as the “untasty bug” face. Not that he’s ever seen her eat an untasty bug… or a tasty one for that matter, but it corresponds to Pascal’s own “untasty bug” face, and that’s good enough for him!
She grumbles, “You know they only put those stuffy court dresses in there. I want to take something… simpler with me.”
Hugging the mint green garment to her chest, she glances over her shoulder and into the depths of the armoire again. “Oh, wait! This one!”
The chameleon scuttles across the bed as the discarded garment is flung in his general direction.
Giggling, she removes a lavender pink summer dress and, clutching it tightly, pirouettes in front of the looking glass. “Yes, this one! It’s Eugene’s favorite, I think,” she confides, grinning. “Probably because I was wearing it that time when we…”
Pascal braces himself as her expression melts from joy into sadness. “I’m really going to miss him,” she whispers, picking listlessly at the wrinkles in the skirt with her fingers. “This is the first time we’ve been apart for more than a day since…”
Overcome with sympathy, Pascal abandons the comfort of the bed, slides down the skirt of the light green dress to the floor, and patters over to Rapunzel. Sighing, she bends down and stretches out her arm. He climbs up to her shoulder and looks into the mirror with her. It still seems so odd to see her without her long, yellow, magical tail. True, it had been a rather oddly placed tail, but she’d wielded it well. She must still miss it at times.
Just as these thoughts cross his mind, Rapunzel lifts a hand to the raggedy brown remains of that very appendage and tugs hesitantly on the ends. “It’s easy to believe I’m… normal when he’s around.”
He ought to smack her for saying such a thing about herself – not normal, indeed! – but he can’t bring himself to do it. He sighs and snuggles against her neck.
Manner subdued now, Rapunzel turns back to her closet and gently hangs the dress-that-might-be-the-former-thief’s-favorite back up. Pascal trills questioningly. She tells him, “It’ll be safer here. I’ll take the green one.”
She wanders out to the terrace of her private garden and takes a deep breath of evening air. Just then, Pascal notices first a head, then a pair of shoulders, and then a Flynn Rider tumble silently over the top of the garden wall. Rolling his eyes, he pokes Rapunzel in the throat and gestures toward the intruder. Yet again, the castle guards are no match against the determined young man.
Pascal holds on tightly as Rapunzel dashes barefoot along the cobblestone path, ducks beneath a trellis of hanging wisteria, rounds the trunk of a massive willow, and halts at the feet of Eugene Fitzherbert who is balanced on a massive, exposed root. As usual, the man shuffles over silently, making room.
She sits down with a sigh and leans her shoulder against his. Pascal obligingly patters over to the opposite one.
“Twenty one days,” she informs Eugene, her voice crumbling softly midway through.
The young man reaches for her hand and cradles it in both of his own larger ones. “Yeah.”
For a moment it seems as if the impending departure is going to succeed in creating an utterly maudlin mood. Pascal transfers himself to the tree, climbs above Rapunzel’s head, and flashes colors to get Eugene’s attention. When the former thief looks up, the chameleon glares.
Eugene clears his throat and visibly rallies. “But, hey! You’ll have a great time. Remember what a nice view there is just past the old mine? That gorge-of-something-or-other?”
“Oh, Eugene,” she gently reprimands him. “You know it won’t be the same without you.”
He gives her a cocky smile. “Oh, I know. But, still, even without the addition of me, it’s pretty spectacular.”
Eugene glances up at Pascal, who gives him a thumbs up.
“Olga finished packing my shoes for the trip,” she continues. Her tone would have been offhand except for the hitch in her voice. Bravely, she soldiers on, forcing a smile, “But Daddy says I don’t have to wear them in the coach.”
“Your father,” Eugene tells her as he rubs his cheek against her hair, “is rather flexible for a monarch.”
She hums out a breathy laugh.
Eugene, on the other hand, looks pained. Pascal can guess why. But that matter is for another time.
But that matter is for another time.
Rapunzel plays with the young man’s fingertips, tracing them with her own, curling them and uncurling them one by one.
“And you do have him wrapped around your finger,” Eugene summarizes.
Rapunzel shifts slightly closer to her companion. “I have only him wrapped around my finger?” she dares hesitantly.
Eugene’s hand twists in her grasp. Pascal watches as the thief’s thumb passes over her knuckles, pausing over her still-bare ring finger… and then he grips her hand properly, lifts it to his lips and presses a kiss to her skin. “No. Not only the king. "You also have a thief, for what it’s worth.”
“He’s worth quite a lot,” she assures him.
He tilts his chin to the side in doubt. She doesn’t give him the chance to disagree. Pascal busies himself with an intent survey of the drooping foliage for an agonizingly long minute. He pretends that the soft, wet sound of lips finally parting from each other is something else. Like a lizard belly-flopping into a bog.
“I’m going to really miss you,” Rapunzel announces softly, curling against his chest.
“Hey, hey,” he comforts her, rubbing her arm as if she is in need of the warmth. “You’ll be so busy you won’t even have time to miss me.” He leans back and tilts her chin up so that he can examine her expression. “Which is rather unfair, honestly, as I’ll be missing you dreadfully. You’ll have to make it up to me after you get back.”
Once again, her soft, startled laughter mingles with the breeze. “I will. I promise.”
“I know.” Eugene’s expression twists and, for the first time, Pascal truly wishes he weren’t supervising their rendezvous. The chameleon knows that look; he’s seen it with increasing frequency over the last three years. He lifts his fore-claws from the tree, gestures frantically for the man not to attempt the question he’s about to ask.
“Eugene? Are you all right?” Rapunzel presses a hand to his suddenly sweaty forehead.
Smiling thinly, her companion takes a deep breath, collects both of her hands in his own and intones solemnly, “Rapunzel, I know I’m just… me and you’re a princess, but would you…?”
Pascal refrains from covering his eyes... somehow. Eugene is no longer just sweating. His breathing is shallow and rapid; his face is pale; his eyes are feverishly bright; his left eye twitches.
“Would I what?” Rapunzel prompts, traces of apprehension sneaking into her tone.
“Would you… you…”
Now Pascal slaps both front appendages over his eyes. He can’t bear to watch.
“Eugene, you’re scaring me.”
The young man takes a deep breath and lets it out. If not for Rapunzel’s presence, Pascal is sure there would have been several colorful curse words in there somewhere.
“Would you please not lean out the carriage window when you go past that gorge?”
She laughs. Her voice is sharp with relief. “Of course! I’ll be careful.”
“And you’ll remember to keep your knife with you?”
“I already have it ready for the trip tomorrow."
Pascal peeks just in time to see Rapunzel pull up her skirt to show off the weapon’s rather provocative hiding place, strapped high on her bare thigh. Eugene gulps. Visibly.
“Ah. Good. Great. Erm…”
“I’ll be fine,” she asserts, dropping the hem of her skirt. “And you’ll be so busy helping Momma plan my birthday party that you won’t even notice I’m gone.”
“I’ll notice,” he argues and then, rather uncharacteristically, Eugene initiates a kiss. He leans toward her as their mouths move against one another with a hunger that makes Pascal blush right past crimson and into vermilion.
Rapunzel leans away first, her hands patting his cheeks softly in reassurance. “I love you, Eugene.”
“I love you, too,” he rasps. “So much.”
Those last two words surprise Pascal. He has never heard them before from Eugene Fitzherbert. Neither has Rapunzel if her shocked silence is any indication. Before she can reply, he presses a chaste kiss to her forehead, glances up in search for Pascal and – finding him – leans back.
“It’s getting a little cool out here for chaperoning frogs and barefoot princesses,” he remarks, holding out his hand for the chameleon.
Pascal plays along, shivering and turning a dramatic ice blue.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Eugene says with finality, helping her stand.
“I won’t leave without a proper goodbye,” she swears.
He chuckles, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. “Proper, huh?” Pascal catches his eye and deftly shakes his head. Eugene clears his throat and drops his arm. “Right. I’ll work on that. Good night, Blondie.”
“Good night, Eugene.”
“Rapunzel…” Eugene pauses, closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and then, looking into the mirror again, grits out, “Will—you—marry—me?”
He glares at his reflection for a moment and then glances toward his early morning guest. “How was that?”
Pascal harrumphs and shakes his green head deftly from left to right and then back again.
Eugene swallows a growl. It shouldn’t be this hard. It really shouldn’t. He loves Rapunzel. She loves him. There’s only a disapproving dad and a tentatively accepting mom in the way. Oh, and the whole royalty thing, of course. Still, men propose marriage every day! This is a common occurrence!
He stands up straight, adjusts his doublet and proclaims, “Rapunzel, marry me!”
He twitches a brow in Pascal’s direction. “Better?”
The lizard blinks at him drolly. Once.
“Grrarrr!” Eugene articulates, pivoting away from the mirror and rifling through his hair with clawed fingers. He then pauses, turns back, points a finger at the lizard and announces, “I’m not giving up.”
Pascal looks doubtful.
“It’s going to happen.”
Again, no great overwhelming waves of faith are forthcoming.
The lizard yawns.
Eugene fists his hands and, arms akimbo, informs Rapunzel’s frog through a rather determined, Flynn Rider grin, “There’s only so much proclaiming a man can manage before he starts repeating himself, and I’m afraid I’m just not in the mood today.”
Whatever reply Pascal would have deemed appropriate is interrupted by the sound of a carriage rolling noisily up to the front of the castle. Eugene leaps to the open window and, ignoring the view he had so admired years ago when he’d stolen the lost princess’ crown, he counts the number of guards and mounts filling the courtyard in preparation for the trek.
It’s really happening. Rapunzel is really leaving. Today.
It isn’t as if he hadn’t known that this day was coming. The annual royal tour is, after all, an annual event. Like birthdays and tax collections. He knows these trips around the neighboring realms are good for everybody involved. They allow her and her parents to connect with their people and it gives her a chance to see the vast kingdom that she will, by right of birth, one day rule.
The first tour they had undertaken, just weeks after Rapunzel had been reunited with her mother and father, had been magical for Rapunzel and an exercise in repression for Eugene. She had been so charmed and delighted with the most mundane things, things that every child has the freedom to see or do or explore… every child except for Rapunzel. And in the face of that injustice, he had very nearly howled with fury a dozen times a day and twice as much on Sundays!
Eugene takes a calming breath as he swings his leg over the side of the balcony. Pascal races up his arm and snuggles down into the back of his collar as he takes the shortcut to the courtyard and the waiting armed escort below.
With the aid of a banner pole, a few windowsills, and an old tree that no one had ever bothered to cut down, he reaches the cobblestone drive in record time. Pascal ventures forth from his collar and when Eugene gives him an evaluating glance - yes, the lizard is still in one piece - he receives an appreciative thumbs up for either technique or speed. Eugene can never be sure which the critter is squeaking happily about.
Congratulations for not breaking his own neck and squishing Rapunzel's frog will have to wait. Eugene Fitzherbert has some business to take care of.
The idea of Rapunzel traveling with her father, who presumably hasn’t picked up a sword in a quarter century, and the royal “guards” does not sit well with Eugene. No doubt the castle is rife with criticism against him for teaching the princess a few useful maneuvers. Eugene doesn’t care. He had wanted, needed, to run through the basics of dirty fighting just in case Max gets distracted by a ripe apple on the side of the road.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
Eugene smiles as he remembers. Rapunzel had been wearing her light pink dress that day.
But! Fond memories of tumbles in clumps of wildflowers and a frantically searching horse will have to wait. He has business to attend to at the moment.
Stepping out of the shadow of the old, sun bleached, gnarled and leafless tree, Eugene strides toward the captain of the guard. “Hey. Max.”
The stallion nickers in welcome, an eager and militant gleam in his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s a beautiful day for guarding some royal persons. I get that.” He steps up to the horse until the tips of his boots are just a pace away from the stallion’s front hooves. “But let’s get one more thing straight here.” Adopting his most intimidating glare (which, unfortunately, a handsome face doesn’t manage quite as well as a Stabbington ogre face would), Eugene hisses, “If you come across any trouble, I don’t care who your rider is, you dump him and bring Rapunzel straight back here. Is that clear?”
Max blinks at him, startled. Then, with an affronted huff, nods his head and swishes his tail. Eugene doesn’t press his luck by demanding they shake over it. Max knows how precious the princess is and that is why, despite the brief training he’d given Rapunzel, Eugene still feels compelled to bully somebody into looking out for her in his stead... even though she is more than capable of handling herself.
Without a handsome and strong escort like himself, Rapunzel would undoubtedly have suitors tripping all over themselves trying to catch the attention of the beautiful and no-longer-lost princess. Though Eugene isn’t the slightest bit afraid of some pompous lord stealing her heart -- after all, he is the thief! -- he had been compelled to make sure that she was prepared to defend herself if an arrogant ego couldn’t handle a little (well, all right, a lot of) rejection.
She had impressed him yesterday, displaying the skill and confidence to disarm him. A smile stretches his lips as he remembers how proud she’d been, sitting on top of him with a frying pan hovering above his head. Yes, that memory will stay with him for a while.
Eugene knows what kind of fighter she is by her very nature. It takes a person of special quality to tie up a thief and attack a thug in a pub. And it had been clear, during their last combat session, that she hasn’t lost an ounce of that moxy. He had not given her any leeway and she had shown him no mercy. Yes, she can undoubtedly take care of herself.
Still, a little extra insurance couldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, procuring insurance is all he is permitted to do. Innovative and extensive fighting skills or no, he still wants to be there with her, not stay behind at the castle with the queen, making important decisions like whether the royal chef should prepare pudding or trifle for the princess’ big birthday dinner.
Eugene doesn’t kid himself, though. He knows why he’s being excluded from this third tour. Word gets around. Especially word on the subject of a certain pardoned thief practicing marriage proposals in mirrors. That had been Pascal’s fault. One door, open wide enough for a forgetful lizard to slink though, and one passing footman was all it had taken for the whole kingdom to become overrun with gossip about the possibility of the princess’ impending nuptials. Eugene is fairly certain that Rapunzel hasn’t heard the news yet. Which is why he’s in such a hurry to get it right and just pop the blasted question.
But this isn’t right; it shouldn’t be so difficult to just say the words! After three years, some progress needs to be made in their relationship. And now he’s on a schedule. Countdown to tour. Just as soon as he exchanges farewells with Rapunzel, she’ll be gone and he’ll have to wait weeks for another chance.
That might not be such a bad thing, actually, Eugene tells himself as he strides past the still vacant royal coach. Distance does make the heart grow fonder. Eugene wonders if it will manage to help calm the panic that overwhelms him when he thinks of a lifetime of having to be the perfect princely husband to an even more perfect princess.
But how can he not be that man? He loves her. So much. Eugene suppresses a wince at the memory. He hadn’t meant to say those last two words, but apparently his heart is more verbose than he’d realized.
He can hear commotion from the top of the steps, in the castle foyer. His heart begins to pound. This is it: last chance for three weeks.
Get it done, Rider!
It isn’t supposed to be like this.
Eugene forces himself to mount the stairs. Each step is harder than the last. He wishes yet again (he’s lost count of those wishes, but he’s fairly certain that if each were a penny, he’d be richer at this moment than he’d ever been in his entire life) that somehow Rapunzel had been able to present an unarguable argument for him to join her and her father on their annual tour of the kingdom. It is his own fault that she hadn’t tried harder. And why hadn’t he tried harder to get her to try harder? Because he knows Rapunzel needs to do this. And he knows her parents need to do this. Eugene isn’t about to try to get between Rapunzel and her family. Not only would that be hurtful for her – and he would never hurt her – but it would engender bad feelings all around. Yes, the king and queen are trying to shunt him off to some dark corner while they flash bejeweled princes at their daughter. There’s nothing he can do about that except grin and bear it. But he knows Rapunzel. She’ll see right through that eventually. And when she does, Eugene knows what will happen: she’ll come running back to him in his dusty corner.
Faithful and empathetic boyfriend – 1. Royally overprotective parents – 0.
But even knowing the results ahead of time doesn’t give Eugene the right to get in the way. The king and queen have to do this. They have to try, anyway. Failure is a given.
So Rapunzel is going to be out there, without him, just for a little while. She’ll see what it’s like, what men in general are like. And then she’ll realize how good she’s got it with him!
Oh, yeah. Eugene knows the score. Their majesties want Rapunzel to meet and greet those stuffy lords and princes without Eugene grinning like a moray eel at them from a step behind and to the left of the princess. He doesn’t doubt the sudden halving of the royal entourage had been a direct result of those bothersome rumors, either!
Yes. All. His. Fault. No one but himself is to blame.
Which is really too bad.
Upon reaching the top step, Eugene suddenly finds himself with an armful of elated princess. “Eugene!” she says as she burrows her face into his collar. “You almost missed us! Momma already said goodbye!”
All thoughts of proposals and unwelcoming in-laws vanish from his mind completely. Eugene hugs her back and then swings her around once for good measure.
If only that blasted rumor hadn’t gotten started. If only the queen had decided to accompany her family after all, Eugene wouldn’t have been asked to stay behind and help her organize the kingdom’s most anticipated event. After all the kindness the royal family had shown him, from the royal pardon of his past crimes to housing him in the castle, he could hardly deny the queen’s request.
Although he’d very much wanted to.
He might have if Rapunzel had wheedled just a bit more. But, then again, maybe not. Eugene had made a commitment to the queen. And, though his inner Flynn Rider isn’t thrilled at the concept, Eugene is doing his best to be a man of his word.
Reveling in her forever-blondie-ness, he inhales deeply. Her scent, a unique mixture of lavender, roses and reptile, makes his heart swell and his eyes burn with very unmanly moisture.
He is going to miss her. So much.
Sighing, he sets her down gently. Almost immediately, he notices the king’s presence and the troubled look the man wears. Oops, that’s right, Eugene remembers belatedly, public displays of affection are generally frowned upon. Especially when they involve the princess and a former thief.
This isn’t the only troubled look Eugene has been treated to in recent days, either. He hadn’t missed the frown pulling at the king’s brows and mouth when they had finished their last combat lesson. Eugene is under no illusion about his tentative position in the royal family. The king tolerates his presence, the queen accepts it, and Rapunzel, the only one whose opinion really matters to Eugene, needs it. If she hadn’t been such a daddy’s girl, Eugene has no doubt he would have been sent on his way soon after her reappearance.
The lizard perches on his shoulder, looking a shade bluer than normal. It seems as if Eugene isn’t the only one who is going to miss her.
“We should be going, my dear,” the king says kindly to Rapunzel. “We are expected in Solstberg by sundown.”
Glumly but dutifully, she nods and takes a step away.
She can’t go! his heart cries. What are you going to do without her?
His mouth dries.
Last chance, Rider! Get it done!
His palms sweat.
Do or die, Fitzherbert.
"Rapunzel, would you...?" His throat closes, silencing the words of his heart.
She raises an eyebrow and looks at him curiously. “Would I?”
He glances around, from the king’s stricken expression to the royal guard looking on below. He works his mouth as panic thunders through him. No sound emerges.
"Eugene?" she prompts gently, laying a hand on his arm.
Yet again, Eugene Fitzherbert crumbles under pressure. Sighing, he mutters with a sheepishly apologetic grin, "Um, remember to wear your shoes while you're gone?"
He’s rather proud of himself for such a masterful ad lib, but to his horror, Rapunzle bursts into tears, great huge tears that spill out of her lovely eyes and roll down her cheeks. No, no, no, this is not good. It is hard enough for him to see her cry, but it is made quantitatively worse by the presence of her father.
"What'd I say?" he sputters, keeping a close eye on the king who is watching this exchange very closely.
She looks up at him with a fresh batch of tears in her eyes, ready to fall. "You won't be there to remember my shoes for me."
"I know. I'm sorry. But, hey,” he says, tilting her chin up to meet his gaze, “I'll make it up to you."
He fishes a square of linen – who knew these things would ever come in handy? – out of his pocket and proceeds with mopping up all the emotional spillage. "I promise."
She leans forward and kisses him quite soundly for his assurance. The moment would have been perfect if her father hadn’t chosen that exact moment to clear his throat.
She pulls away from him with a slightly guilty smile before looking at Pascal, who had turned bright red at their passionate kiss. “Take care of him,” she charges the reptile.
Eugene feigns a look of frustration. Truth be told, he isn’t opposed to the company of her frog while she is away. Maybe he could even put that ridiculous, lizard-sized dress on him just so he wouldn’t miss her so much. Now if he can just get used to the sensation of little feet pressing into his skull, he’d be all set. “I don’t need your frog to look after me.”
“Chameleon,” she replies playfully.
“Nuance.” He grins cheekily.
They smile at each other before Eugene takes a step back. “I--” He decides against a public declaration of love. She already knows how he feels. “I will see you when you get back.”
She nods with spunk. “You’d better!” Her expression softens with sadness once more and this time, Eugene is better at forestalling the waterworks.
“I know you said you wouldn’t leave until we said goodbye, but... I’m letting you out of the deal. Let’s skip the goodbyes and go straight to the hellos when you get back. All right?”
She grins. “You’ve got a deal.” She holds out her hand. Eugene takes it, shakes it, and then tucks it into the crook of his arm. The least he can do is help her into the stupid coach, right? He even holds the door open for the king.
They waste no time in embarking on their journey. A small hand waves from the tiny, ornamental window on the side of the carriage. Though he’s sure she can’t see him where he’s still standing, Eugene waves back. As Max and his rider pass by, Eugene shares a look with the horse. Max glares at him, the look of a horse-on-a-mission hardening the gleam in his eye. Eugene nods his thanks.
Together, Eugene and Pascal watch the coach until they can no longer see it on the horizon.
There is nothing left to do but to go back inside the mostly empty castle. He walks aimlessly for nearly an hour before he notices the queen occupying one of the sitting rooms. At the sight of her look of concentration and the object of her scrutiny, he freezes. From here, he can see various fabrics lying on the table, silently demanding his input. He suppresses a shudder. Rapunzel hasn’t even been gone for an hour and the queen is already pulling out fabric swatches!
How on earth is he going to survive the next three weeks?
He proceeds to quietly tiptoe past the entrance, hoping that the queen doesn’t notice his presence. He almost makes it across the opening when Pascal, who apparently feels it necessary to remind Eugene of his promise, gives his hair a forceful yank.
He lets out an admittedly unmanly yelp and reaches up to rub his smarting scalp. Pascal’s vibrating laughter only adds an odd tickling sensation into the mix.
I wonder if the royal chef is opposed to making frog stew...
Before he can mutter any threats against the frog, the queen looks up from the fabrics. “Eugene,” she greets warmly. “I’m glad you are here.”
That makes one of us.
He pastes an unfortunately-familiar, forced smile on his face and walks inside the large room. “Is there something I can help you with, your Highness?”
“I am wondering if we should make this year’s color scheme in orchid or lilac,” she says, nodding towards the two fabrics which look exactly the same to Eugene’s untrained eye. Maybe he should have asked Rapunzel for a crash course in all the variations of the color purple before she’d left.
"Which one smells better?" he jokes.
For a moment, it looks as if the jest is going to fly right over the queen's crowned-head, but then she snorts out a very un-queen-like laugh. For an instant, Eugene forgets that he is dreading the oncoming party planning. He grins back at her. She hovers a hand in front of her nose as if that will deter more ungraceful giggles from escaping.
The queen is still trying not to smile too widely when she gestures for him to take a seat. As he does so, Eugene reluctantly accepts his fabric-filled future. Perhaps, if he can crack a few more jokes, this gig might not be so bad after all.
"In that case," the queen continues, "perhaps we should also consider lavender and columbine if scent is to be a consideration of importance.
Eugene bites back a sigh as more equally purple fabrics are added to the pile.
Brilliant and charming, unlikely protagonist - 0. Queen - 1.
He only hopes things with Rapunzel and her father are going better.
Rapunzel is trying to feel bored.
She has quite a lot of experience with boredom as there are only so many things a person can do at the top of a small, locked tower day after day. Being bored is horrid, but it is familiar, far more familiar than the odd, oppressive sensation that makes her throat feel tight and her lungs too small. Being bored is better than sitting idly by while her heart slowly drowns in something that feels very much like tears.
Boredom, she decides, is preferable.
She traces an outline of the sun with her big toe on the velvet that covers the floor of the carriage. Her tongue peeks out from between her lips as she finishes the final curve. It joins an array of stars and a crescent moon (because the moon is always most recognizable when drawn as a crescent, not because it is any more beautiful that way… no, Rapunzel prefers the majesty of a full moon, but the crescent is unique, like Eugene is unique: a subtly glowing crescent amongst blazing suns).
Now that she is finished, Rapunzel tucks her foot under herself and admires her work. Pascal would have liked it. Eugene might have made some kind of cheeky comment about her drawing with her toe – “Branching out, are we, Blondie?” he would have asked, resting his chin on her shoulder and breathing into her ear; it makes her shiver when he does that and he takes every opportunity to elicit that reaction from her; over the years, she has discovered that she doesn’t mind so much. Yes, Eugene would have teased her in several ways, but she knows he would have appreciated the design as well.
She tilts her head to the side and, break time over, extends her foot once more. She begins to coax the outline of a mountainous horizon into the weave of the carpet, doing her best to ignore the empty aching in her chest.
“Your grandmother,” the king says softly, as if the mere sound of a voice has the ability to shatter the artwork on the coach floor, “used to paint.”
Rapunzel looks up, her bare toe hovering above the floor. “Did she?”
Her father nods. “The sky, mostly. Sunrise and sunset. Misty dawns. And storms. I remember when I was a boy, how she would throw open the balcony doors during the most terrifying storms and paint. The wind would blow her hair and the rain would splatter the canvas, but when lightning struck in the distance…” His voice trails off and Rapunzel stares at his expression. He looks so much younger, lost in his memories.
“Lightning?” she prompts. Rapunzel frowns, trying to remember ever seeing such a storm either from the tower window or during the last three years she has lived in the castle.
The king sighs. “Sometimes I do miss those storms, but it’s best that they stay away. They cause mischief, you know.”
“What do you mean?” she presses, tucking her leg underneath her on the upholstered seat. “It’s better that they stay away. You make it sound as if they have a choice.”
He chuckles. “They don’t. You’re right, but…” He glances around them and, ensuring that none of the mounted guards are riding immediately beside the coach, confides, “I do.”
“What?” She blinks with confusion as he reaches for his crown and taps its surface with his fingertips.
“You are old enough,” he says, his voice weighted with responsibility and royalty, “to know the truth. The single drop of sunlight which fell to earth and created the magic flower which saved your mother’s life and gave you your golden hair… It was not the only one.”
Rapunzel gapes at him.
“You mustn’t ever tell anyone, my dearest, but there was another plant which grew, many generations ago, long before the magic flower. Legend goes that it wasn’t one drop, but four which fell together in the same place. And there grew a tree, a great, twisting tree with golden leaves and gemstone flowers. Our ancestors took the leaves and jewels and made these trinkets of ours.”
He indicates his own crown and then Rapunzel’s with a regal wave of his hand. “Through these, we command the sun so that it always shines favorably upon our kingdom.”
“This,” Rapunzel finally manages, “is a secret?”
“It must be,” he gently admonishes her.
She considers that, wonders if she can still tell Eugene… Eugene! With a gasp she sits upright.
“Is that why he was to be hanged?” she hisses urgently. “You feared he knew the power of our…?” Her voice trails off as the ramifications of this unfold in her thoughts.
She clutches her father’s sleeve in her hand as she thinks aloud. “That was why you agreed to pardon him? In hopes that he would tell you…? Or that he might try to steal it again and lead you to the person who hired him?”
“My dearest,” the king whispers back, his expression sad. “Do you truly think so little of me? Eugene Fitzherbert was pardoned because he returned our greatest treasure safely to us, because you clearly needed him, because your mother and I wanted only your happiness.”
Once upon a time, Rapunzel might have believed him unconditionally, but she is no longer the naïve child that Gothel had sheltered and kept ignorant of the world.
Perhaps he sees the suspicion in her expression – Eugene is always scolding her for not making a better effort to conceal her emotions – because he admits with a sigh, “The other points you raised were considered. However, he seems very loyal to you.”
She scowls. “Eugene is loyal to me. He died to save me from Gothel.”
“And I will never forget that,” the king replies. “Nor will I ever cease being thankful for it.”
“But you don’t trust him,” she realizes. As she speaks the words, their truth echoes and resonates with the heartache she has been working so hard not to feel. “You still don’t trust him.”
The king is silent. Rapunzel sits back against the coach seat and shakes her head. “I don’t believe this. After all this time… After everything he’s done for me, and you’ve done for him…”
“Do not assume that’s all there is to it,” he cautions her but she fears she may be beyond listening. She glares out the frustratingly small, decorative window and tries not to hear his justifications. “We are royalty and we must guard ourselves against those who would use us. It pains me that Gothel will not be the last of such enemies you will have to face. Your mother and I are doing all we can to protect you from them, but—”
Rapunzel whirls to face him as his words align and reveal a second, previously hidden truth within her. “That’s what this whole tour is about, isn’t it? You and mother decided to leave Eugene behind because—!” She is too incensed to speak the words.
“Eugene will be waiting for you when you return,” the king reminds her. “We only want you to see the world such as it is, for yourself.” He pauses for a moment before venturing, “You know he agreed to remain behind at your mother's request."
“I know…” Confusion enters into her voice. Why had he agreed? Did he really want her to see the world without him?
Almost immediately she dismisses the idea. There must be another reason why he would agree to stay behind while she traveled with her father. Though he had tried to answer her constant questions, Eugene hadn’t been able to fully convince her why it was such a good idea for him to remain with the queen at the castle this year. It had been clear that he was going to miss her but no matter how she’d cajoled and pressed, he had never really admitted why she should go without him.
After he had told her about his intention to stay behind, Rapunzel had noticed that Eugene had suddenly taken an unusually keen interest in her hobbies. Straddling a chair and waiting for her to complete her measurements for a new dress for Pascal hadn’t seemed to bother him in the least. Normally, he would have tried to teach her bawdy limericks or kicked off his boots and beat his heels against the floor in an obnoxious rhythm. “I’m not very good at doing nothing,” he had told her time and time again in the past.But not recently.
And all this week, Eugene had watched her more when he’d thought she was too busy to notice. He had, especially in the couple of days leading up to this trip, been more demonstrative in his feelings for her. His previously unspoken words – so much– drift into Rapunzel’s thoughts. No, she has no doubt that Eugene loves her, but the intense addition of those two simple words had caused Rapunzel to go speechless. They still do. She hadn’t missed the raw emotion that had been attached to the two words.
Perhaps he knew about her parents' reluctance to see past his former ways! Perhaps this was his way of appeasing them and showing them that he was no longer Flynn Rider (though Rapunzel hadn't thought of him as such in years!) and was committed to a Eugene Fitzherbert way of life!
Yes, that is it, Rapunzel decides.
Eugene surely knows her feelings for him will never change, so he is doing everything he can to show her parents that he is not to be feared with their daughter's welfare, but trusted. After all, there is no one who Rapunzel entrusts more with her heart than Eugene.
When she arrives back at the castle she is going to rush into the arms of her waiting Eugene (for there is no doubt in her mind that he will be waiting for her return eagerly) and tell him that she has already figured out his plan to dazzle her parents. He will be impressed with her cleverness and reward her with a sound kiss, regardless if her father is present or not!
Just twenty more days to go before she can do just that.
Familiar equine footsteps approach the coach. She glances at the king who appears to be dozing in his seat before sitting on her knees to peer outside the window. She sees Maximus and his rider, the head of the royal guard, approaching. She gives him a small wave, wishing there was an apple in the cabin for her to give him. He nickers softly.
“Do you think Eugene is having fun at the castle?” she asks the horse, ignoring the curious look on the guard’s face.
The stallion scrunches up his nose briefly. Obviously, she isn’t the only one Eugene had failed to convince of his enthusiasm for party planning. She thinks of parties, of streamer and banner be-decked houses and streets and… she groans. What had she been thinking leaving Eugene behind to tackle the logistics of the annual Festival of the Sun? Why, she doubts he even knows his lilac from his orchid! Who knows what sort of color schemes he could talk her mother into!
Maximus leans in and busses her cheek with his horsey upper lip before once again assuming the proper posture for a proud captain of the royal guard. Rapunzel sits back on her seat, her crown shifting as she does so. Her crown, the Festival of the Sun… She had never guessed – and never would have guessed! – at how closely related they both are. Such power contained in a seemingly ornamental piece of headwear. Power over the sun means control over the seasons which means bountiful harvests and prosperity for years upon years.
No wonder her father had assumed someone had been after it. And now she wonders about the episode that had brought Eugene to her tower. Who had hired him to steal it? Or, conversely, who had he and the Stabbington brothers been hoping to sell it to? Whereas her father had never come out and asked Eugene directly, Rapunzel has no such qualms! But, again, it will be weeks before she’ll have the chance.
Poor Eugene, she thinks with a too-wide grin. He really will be in for it when she returns.
Before she can begin to daydream about the impending confrontation, she hears Maximus snorting at something. Curious, she looks out the window where Max is. As they begin a steep turn, she notices an overt change in Maximus’ demeanor. He looks conflicted for a moment, looking at the coach then back to the front where something is clearly demanding the horse’s attention.
Maximus shoots her a look. Stay here, no matter what.
Rapunzel frowns as she watches him gallop forward, wondering what he had seen that could have bothered him so much. She considers waking up the king, who had been lulled to sleep by the steady pull of the horses, but decides to wait. There are nearly a dozen guards travelling with them. Surely they are well-protected.
It is probably just a rabbit on the road.
Rapunzel is still working on convincing herself that everything is fine and is striving to not think about how much she wishes Eugene were here when the coach begins to slow down until it stops completely.
“Are we there already?” the king asks sleepily.
Rapunzel peers out the window at the scene and scenery around the carriage. She can see the mounted members of the guard, posture rigid, and the lush woodland beyond, but she can no longer see Maximus. “I think… something unexpected has happened?” she supplies uncertainly. She doesn’t particularly like her choice of words. There is a tension in the summer air that hadn’t been there before. Something she hasn’t sensed since she had defied Gothel. Something… menacing. Her hand creeps toward the dagger concealed on her thigh.
A horse snorts. Another quivers. The nearest guard reaches for his sword and then…!
Suddenly the peaceful summer afternoon is shattered by the sounds off clashing swords and men shouting at each other. The air buzzes and throbs, presses in on her and she must do something! Her promise to Eugene, to stay safe, is momentarily forgotten as the guards near the carriage draw their weapons. Other command their mounts forward to meet the unseen assailants. Rapunzel pulls up her dress to retrieve the knife she had brought. She will help them! She will not allow them to put their lives at risk when she is fully capable of defending herself! But the king stills her hand. “Let the guards to their job, my daughter.”
Rapunzel is tempted to argue – she is no damsel in distress! – but, taking in his worried glance, she does as her father requests. If she disobeys him, it will only worry him and the guards. She may have convinced Eugene of her fighting skills, but the king seems to be more comfortable with her taking a less active role in her defense.
She wants to look out the window to see what’s going on, but knows it isn’t wise. Instead, she sits down and listens to the action outside, trying to piece together what is happening beyond the now-surreal comfort of the coach cabin. She stares at the pattern she had petted into the velvet carpet and tries not to count the sounds of potential injuries… or worse.
She doesn’t need to defy Eugene and her father and lean out the window of the carriage to know that the men fighting against their guards are numerous; their footsteps cause the ground to tremble. The clanging and crashing of swords nearly drowns out the insistent demands of the royal guard for the attackers to cease and desist at once! Maximus’ scream pierces the air, slicing through the calls of all other horses.
Oh, how she wishes she could go out there and fight herself!
“Who are they?” she demands of her shaken father, fisting the pommel of her dagger through the fabric of her green summer dress.
He shakes his head, clearly overwhelmed. “I do not know, my dearest,” he quietly admits.
It is clear from the advancing shouts that whoever the unknown men are, they are either more skilled or simply more numerous than the royal guard. Soon, they’ll be close enough to reach the coach. Rapunzel will wait no longer! She ignores her father’s worried glance and reaches for her knife when the most particular thing happens.
Another man, whose voice carries above all others, shouts, “Stop, you fiends! By the command of Prince Banale of the kingdom of Trist, I order you to stand down!”
Almost immediately, the king relaxes. “It would seem that Fate has smiled kindly on us today, my daughter. Prince Banale is a noble man, skilled in swordsmanship. His family has been one of our most trusted allies for generations.”
Trist… Trist… Rapunzel scrunches up her nose as she digs through her memory. What had she learned about the neighboring kingdom of Trist? Oh! That’s right; Trist, a peaceful country of modest standing, is ruled by a king and queen. This fortuitously arriving prince is their only child. She marvels at the odds of such a timely encounter. He had been out and about on one of his adventures, when he’d heard the commotion of the attack? It seems ridiculously lucky.
Judging by the sounds outside now, the tide of the battle is turning. She leans back against the seat cushion although she does not relax. If this prince really can help the guard beat back the enemy, then perhaps all of the comments she had overheard from her parents about him are true. Perhaps he is an excellent fighter, honorable and noble, adventurous and dashing, a bit reckless even. And if those things are facts, then it’s probably also true that her parents had been correct about his age being very near Rapunzel’s. She glances at her father who now looks very pleased indeed as he peers out the carriage window. Although she is curious to meet this person, she is certain her father’s hopes for the kindling of a new romance will be dashed. But there’s nothing she can do about that. Her heart belongs to Eugene. End of story
Rapunzel simply isn’t impressed by a man who runs off to slay dragons or wrestle sea monsters. Those sorts of exploits make for wonderful reading, but… well, really! Couldn’t he find something more… helpful to do within the borders of his own lands? Despite that apparent shortcoming, Rapunzel is truly thankful for his expertise here today; the guard had been clearly unprepared for defending against a serious attack.
From the sounds of the clattering metal hitting the ground, Rapunzel assumes that the unknown assailants have acquiesced to the prince’s demands. The guards release a resounding shout of victory – “Huzzah!” – as the bandits ride off, crashing through the forest. The king lets out a shaky sigh and a wobbly smile.
Nearly a minute passes before the back slapping and sword swishing quiet. Rapunzel tries to listen to what is going on and being said outside in the sudden – almost shocked – silence of a relieved aftermath, but the sounds are too muffled by the coach’s walls. Her father places a hand on her shoulder. “They will summon us when it is safe.”
As if on cue, the door opens and Mandel, their footman, leans inside. “Your Highness, Prince Banale of Trist has requested to speak with you,” he says, bowing slightly. “He says he has news of the utmost importance.”
“Ah, perhaps he has insight into these criminals who have attacked us.” He offers the explanation happily to Rapunzel as he moves to step out of the coach. Turning to Mandel, the king declares, “Of course, I shall speak with him at once.” To Rapunzel, he charges, “Wait here, my dearest.”
“Daddy,” she interjects, her tone one that no one has ever dared to reckon with, “I’m coming with you.”
He hesitates briefly.
If there is unpleasant news, Rapunzel doesn’t want to be protected from it. Hasn’t she been training how to react in certain crises for moments like these? And for another thing, there could still be danger afoot and Rapunzel is better able to defend him than he is himself! Also, she is curious…
Finally, he nods and holds the door open for her. Mandel takes her by the hand and helps her to
step out of the coach. When her feet touch the rough road, she realizes that she has forgotten to put on her shoes. Again.
Drat! Where is Eugene when I need him?
The king comes to her rescue; as he emerges from the carriage, he offers her the abandoned silk slippers without saying a word. As she kneels to put the unwanted footware on her feet, she discreetly surveys the crowd for Maximus. When she doesn’t find the diligent horse, she frowns.
If everything is truly fine, then where could he be?
But that question will have to wait. She takes her time standing, getting her bearings. It’s not until her father nudges her gently that she sees their timely rescuer.
A young man – He must be Banale! – stands in front of the royal guards, posture straight, chin lifted, and lips curved into a winning smile. His haphazardly cut blonde hair nearly veils his piercing green eyes. His skin is tanned, in testament to the many days he has spent trekking the land in the sun. His muscular frame rivals the most well-built men in the royal guard.
Uh-huh. Another Flynn Rider. Must be a popular character… Rapunzel regrets never having gotten he chance to read the book. Perhaps she’ll ask Eugene to tell her the story later. I’m sure he remembers.
Rapunzel doesn’t miss the double-take Banale makes when he sees her straightening up beside the coach.
Finally, Banale seems to remember himself. With a blink and a brief shake of his head, he moves his gaze to her father.
“Your Majesty, it has been far too long.” His voice is smooth and overpowering. Kind of like that fish oil her royal physician had tried to make her take. If only Pascal were here, they could have made “burnt cookie” faces together.
“Prince Banale, is that really you?” The king remarks, brows arched upward in surprise. “The last time I saw you, you had not even grown to your father’s knee.” This is the moment, Rapunzel senses, when her father would have closed the distance between himself and the prince in order to clasp hands in greeting. However, the king’s gaze darts from the prince to his rather large company of heavily armed soldiers. When he speaks again, his voice has an edge to it that makes Rapunzel wish for the reassuring weight of a frying pan in her hands. “I was not aware that your caravan was travelling through our borders.”
The prince’s smile falters slightly before the too-wide grin is back. “I was not aware I needed to inform you. Our treaty allows us to travel into each other’s land, does it not?”
“Of course.” Her father doesn’t seem at all perturbed by the prince’s arrogance, but the concerned tilt of his brows lingers. “I was told you had some news to deliver. It must be of great importance for your parents to send you.”
The question is clearly meant for the prince, but Banale doesn’t give any indication of hearing it. Instead, he blithely turns to face Rapunzel. She fights the urge to scowl in response to his frank appraisal of her. “Is this your daughter, your Majesty?”
“It is.” Rapunzel recognizes this tone of voice in her father’s. Usually though, he only uses it around Eugene.
Banale holds his hand out for her to take. Rapunzel simply looks at him blankly. Eugene had warned her about would-be suitors wanting to kiss her hand to a greeting. This prince and his too-perfect hair will not be preforming such an act with her hand!
After a very long, awkward moment, he drops his hand but is, unfortunately, undeterred. “She is beautiful,” he frankly evaluates, irking Rapunzel by both his high-handed manner and indirect address. She is not a horse at auction! “And to think, if she hadn’t had been stolen as a child, she would have been my wife.”
This… is surprising. Rapunzel flinches toward her father. “Daddy?” she whispers questioningly, not taking her eyes off Banale.
She doesn’t care much for the three long seconds that pulse in the summer afternoon as the king clearly weighs his options. Tone both steely and apologetic, he replies, “I will tell you about it later.”
There isn’t much she can do at the moment short of starting an argument in front of Banale, so she nods.
Rapunzel looks at the man in front of her and frowns. A betrothal? Between her and this... prince? When she manages to spare a thought for the idea of marriage (which is an admittedly rare subject of contemplation; there are so many things she has to do now that she had so many responsibilities to Corona!), there is only one man who enters the picture. And he is most definitely not a prince.
“Perhaps, Prince Banale, it would be better to deliver the news of great importance,” the king says in a slightly chiding tone, directing the conversation back to a topic that is far more relevant.
If Banale is disappointed by her father’s implied demand, he makes no outward sign of it. Instead, he nods. “Yes. The news. I am afraid, your Highness, that there is a new band of thieves that have been plaguing the countryside of Trist for the better part of a year now. Robbing travelers, destroying homes, stealing livestock… all in the light of day, no less!” He gestures to the men who are standing noticeably separate from the royal guards. “My men and I have done our best to control them, but it seems as though they have made it through to the borders of Corona.”
Rapunzel frowns, thinking of the Stabbington brothers. Not every thief is a redeemable Flynn Rider, after all…
The king tenses slightly. “I see.”
“I have come to request your permission to be able to use your castle as a base of operations.” The prince takes a step closer to them. Rapunzel resists the urge to fist her hands, ready herself for delivering a right hook to a royal eyeball. There was something about this prince that was decidedly uncharming.
“Of course,” her father agrees. “We will do everything we can to assist you in stopping such a band of brazen thieves.”
Banale turns to look at Rapunzel, his expression hopeful and… something else, “Perhaps, my princess, we will have an opportunity to get to know each other better.”
If skin really could crawl, Rapunzel is sure hers would be doing precisely that, precisely now. Even Eugene’s early attempts at charm hadn’t made her want to… to…! Actually, she can’t quite decide what she would like to do. Other than put this prince back on his horse and send him straight back to his castle!
Borrowing an expression she’d learned from watching Eugene, she pastes a toothy grin on her face. “We shall see,” she replies noncommittally.
He flashes her a quick wink (Ugh! It’s hardly worth the effort of comparing it to Eugene’s smolder!) and bows to the king. “Your assistance is appreciated, your Highness.”
Banale then levels his sword at the half dozen men who tried to attack them. The prince puffs up with self-importance as his men surround the brigands and force them to stand. “You will all pay for your crimes,” vows the prince. “This is a land of peace and beauty.” Rapunzel steadfastly ignores the fact he directs the latter part of the sentence in her direction. “Where is your leader?”
“We ain’t tellin’ ya anything,” snarls one of the bulkier men.
The prince glares briefly at the man, then turns back to face the king. “I do not know if it is prudent for you and your daughter to be travelling these roads with so few men. Especially as there is may be another attack. These men have no respect for royalty. No honor to speak of. I would hate for anything… unfortunate to happen.”
Rapunzel finds herself being contemplated by not only Banale but her father as well. The solution to the problem is obvious and impossible: she and the king should return to Corona, but to show weakness in the face of lawlessness. Well…
Unfortunately, they must move onward. And, unfortunately, they need more guards. Very unfortunately, Banale seems to be waiting for them to invite him and his soldiers along for the tour.
Rapunzel can see the advantages, of course. That doesn’t me she likes the option in general, however!
The king, having considers the prince’s words for a moment, takes a step toward the prince and proposes, “Or perhaps you could accompany us. You and your men have certainly proven your skills today. You might find the tour useful for carrying out your investigation and then, upon our return to Corona, the base of operations you requested could be assembled.”
Rapunzel watches a wide smile spread across the prince’s face. “Just take a look at that smug, bug-eating grin,” Eugene would have said and Pascal would have agreed with wholeheartedly.
The prince sheaths his sword and bows to her father. “I am humbled by your request, but I will only go if it is acceptable by both parties in the royal family.”
Oh, fudge fingers and coffee cakes! Rapunzel nearly growls with frustration. The truth is that she and her father must complete this tour of the country. Another inconvenient truth is that their guard is poorly outnumbered by the linger threat in these woods. And, since Eugene made himself scarce for this year’s journey, Rapunzel sees no other option. The king will need someone more skilled in swordsmanship to protect them if the outlaws return for a reprise. Still, it is very clever of Banale to force this decision on Rapunzel. This man, she decides, bears watching. After careful consideration, she announces, “The king and I would be grateful for your assistance, Prince Banale.”
“I cannot refuse the request of a princess,” he says smoothly, clearly pleased. The prince gestures to eight of his guards. “Go. Deliver these prisoners to the prison in the royal castle in Corona’s capital. Continue to be diligent in your search for their heinous leader. I will return once my duties to the king and his daughter are complete.”
The men before him bow deeply. “As you wish, your Highness.”
As the thieves resist their captors in vain, swearing and scuffing their feet in the dusty road, Rapunzel catches a glimpse of white in the trees out of the corner of her eye.
For a moment, her heart pounds in her chest and begins to climb up her throat. And then the unmistakable swish of a horse’s tail shows – just barely – through the dense vegetation.
Yes, it is him. She can barely make out the horse’s shape behind the thick trees that crowd the edge of the road.
What does he think he’s doing back there?
Yet another question that must wait. The prince approaches and Rapunzel carefully looks away from Max’s hiding place. Banale genteelly offers Rapunzel a hand to help her into the coach. She doesn’t miss the smile on her father’s face.
She knows why her father is smiling now but he certainly hadn’t when Eugene had helped her into the carriage only hours before. In fact, the gesture had been a bit out of character for him. On previous occasions, he’d rushed into the coach, shot her a false look of annoyance, offered his hand as if reaching out to grab his jacket and said, “Are you coming, Blondie?”
She meets Banale’s intrusive stare with her own and, bracing her hand on his forearm – she has no desire to touch his bare hand! – boosts herself into the coach. Her father enters the cabin next, followed by the prince.
The blonde-headed monarch glances around the cabin with an air of entitlement as his booted feet smash the delicate patterns Rapunzel had spent hours coaxing out of the velvet carpet. His eyes stop on the frying pan and he reaches down to pick up the seemingly out of place object.
Rapunzel scoops it up quickly. I’ll – “Thank you.” – not to touch my things!
“If I might inquire, why is a kitchen utensil in the royal coach?” he asks, mirth entering into his eyes.
She holds it up to her chest proudly. “I use it to fight off ruffians and thugs,” she replies unrepentantly. Let this man mock her. That would be preferable to his greedy gaze.
“A frying pan? Now that is something I must see for myself,” Banale replied. “Perhaps you can show me your technique when we stop in the village for the evening.”
Her father nods at her encouragingly. She forces herself to smile at the prince. Only when she imagines using the frying pan on him does her expression become one of genuine mirth. “Of course.”
Keeping Eugene awake is a full-time task. Pascal frowns as the now-familiar vibration of Eugene’s snoring jiggles his belly. He glares at Rapunzel’s thief. Ridiculous. How hard is it to mumble a “yes, absolutely!” or a “perhaps not…”? A lizard could do this job. A former thief, however, cannot. Fortunately, the queen is far too engrossed in sampling the elaborately presented soup to notice that her decorator’s assistant has fallen asleep.
Pascal slips out from his collar and scurries to the slumbering man’s shoulder. He briefly debates tongue-added, projectile poking of the inner ear, but as entertaining as it would be to hear the man squeal like a little human girl, it would be far too conspicuous. The queen would have to notice. With a put-upon sigh, Pascal gives Eugene’s ear a not-so-subtle (and not-nearly-as-satisfying) pinch with his tiny fingers. That will teach him!
The technique achieves the desired result: Eugene jerks awake. Before Pascal can enjoy his victory (though pale in comparison to wake-up strategies that end with unmanly squeals), he finds himself shrugged off Eugene’s shoulder and in a disjointed pile of legs and tail on the stone floor.
Sorting himself out, Pascal sticks his tongue out at the suddenly-alert, rapidly blinking, two-legged companion-to-the-princess. Considering all the times he’s been knocked off the man unintentionally this week, Pascal is beginning to get suspicious… Well, that’ll be the last time he wakes up Eugene, snoring-in-the-midst-of-a-royal-decision-making-type-event or no!
Eugene surveys the morning room for the queen. Finding her considering something other than him (and his lapse of consciousness), he forces a to-happy grin and blurts hastily, “I think purple lilacs in the centerpieces sounds great, your Grace!”
The chameleon colors slightly in embarrassment. They had discussed floral arrangements a while ago! He suppresses a sigh and then gathers his mettle. He’d better get on with saving Eugene from being an idiot. Rapunzel had made him promise to watch over the putz until she got back. Presumably, irritating or disappointing the queen by breaking his own promise qualifies as one of the things to be prevented or avoided at all costs.
Before Eugene can say anything else that will prove to the queen that he has not been paying attention, Pascal hastens up the back of the queen’s chair (where he is hidden from view by all but Eugene) and starts gesturing to the nonplussed man before him. Pascal stands on his back legs and rubs his stomach slowly.
Eugene narrows his eyes and slowly shakes his head as he clearly tries to puzzle out the pantomiming.
“You’re hungry...” It is almost, but not quite, a question.
Gah! Why is Rapunzel the only two-legged creature in this stony forest of stuff who understands Lizard Squeak?!
Pascal shakes his head and tries again. This time he gestures (with deliberate motions!) holding an imaginary fly and putting it into his mouth. He pretends to chomp down on the invisible insect as he has seen people do with their dinner rolls.
Pascal winces at the too loud answer.
Eugene clears his throat. “Of course, we were discussing the menu,” he continues in a more normal voice. “But I just wanted to point out that your choice of centerpiece design is really… striking, your Majesty.”
The queen looks up and smiles warmly. “Thank you, Eugene. I’m glad you finally approve.”
Pascal joins Eugene in shifting nervously. Apparently, his efforts hadn’t managed to conceal the form thief’s sudden nap as effectively as he’d thought…
Eugene, however, blunders through the awkward moment. “I see that you are sampling the soup Chef Gusto brought in.” He glances at Pascal, his brows drawn together with irritation. “I don’t suppose he’s used any… unusual ingredients?”
Pascal glares back. Fine! The pompous, proposal-botching puffball can muck his way through his own meetings! With a squeaky “humph!” the lizard cross his arms and turns his back on Eugene.
The queen, clearly impressed by Eugene’s sudden interest, turns her attention to the chef and translates the question into the man’s native language. Eugene takes the opportunity to try to catch Pascal’s eye. After a bit of urgent gesturing, some gritted teeth and an apologetic look, the lizard relents.
“Sorry,” the thief mouths in silence. Reluctantly, Pascal nods.
Eugene lets out a sigh of relief but then snaps to attention as the queen turns back around to report on the ingredients. Of which there are many.
This time, there’s nothing Pascal can do to keep the man’s eyes from glazing over. The queen can’t not notice, the lizard realizes.
She pauses in her description of the soup’s contents, considers Eugene’s bleary gaze and gives him a kind smile. “Perhaps we should wait to make such decisions until we are more refreshed,” the queen says graciously. “We can continue discussing the menu tomorrow morning.”
A little wrinkle between Eugene’s eyes appears. The man obviously does not like the idea of another day spent discussing all the details that go into planning the party. Neither does Pascal! But he has come to realize that humans have a way of making the most fun things in life (like birthday parties) the most complicated. It is an unavoidable flaw of the species. That and the lack of any tail to speak of.
Pascal gestures wildly to make sure nothing – like Eugene’s true feeling on the subject – tumble out of his mouth.
Eugene returns the silent prompt below the edge of the table and out of sight of the queen. And the gesture is far ruder than Pascal’s had been! “...wonderful, your Grace.”
At that precise moment – before Pascal can gesture rather colorfully back at the man! – the scene is interrupted by the entrance of a footman. “Your Highness,” he says, bowing lowly, “Lord Rein from Trist is here to see you on behalf of his sovereign.”
She straightens her shoulders with inexplicable enthusiasm, causing Pascal to take several cautious steps back. “And the reason for his unexpected visit?”
Pascal shares a frown with Eugene at the hopeful note in her tone. Eugene’s expression is not confused, like Pascal’s, however. It is irritated.
“He says he brings a message of fortuitous news.”
Looking both pleased and resolute, she lays her napkin on the table beside the soup tray. “Very well. Please escort our guest to the throne room. I will speak to him there.” She stands up, blocking Pascal’s view of a rather unhappily bewildered looking Eugene. “We will continue this discussion tomorrow, Mr. Fitzherbert.”
Pascal climbs down the chair and ambles to Eugene’s waiting foot.
“Can’t wait,” he says dryly. Pascal gives him a nudge to his ankle before scaling the nearest pant leg.
Eugene doesn’t move until the queen is out of sight. He then turns to Pascal, who is now perched on his left shoulder. “I don’t know about you, Buddy, but my bet on this ‘fortuitous news’ business has something to do with our blondie, a frying pan, and a big fat trade agreement.”
Pascal gives him a dubious look.
“Hey, it could happen! I’m the one who showed her how to use it, after all.”
“Yeah,” Eugene agrees, following the lizard’s pointed gaze which is trained on the door. “I’d rather hear it for myself.”
Pascal nods eagerly.
He holds on to Eugene’s collar as the former thief makes his way through the castle. The throne room is just around the corner ahead and Pascal anticipates the change in direction… but then finds himself traveling away from the throne room rather than toward it!
He squeaks urgently in the man’s ear. Eugene flinches and shushes him. “Mute your squeaker, frog. Trust me.”
Pascal can do nothing except clutch the man’s collar and hang on as Eugene steps out of a hall window and begins to scale the walls in such a way that would undoubtedly make Pascal’s lizard brethren proud. When they reach the top of the wall and onto the roof, Eugene holds out his hand for Pascal to climb on and sets him down on the tiles.
Eugene grabs the edge of one of the massive roofing tiles. There is a grunt and a tug and then a complaint (“This would be easier… Stabbington biceps…!”) and then... Then, Pascal watches in amazement as the man levers up a loose tile, creating a hole in the castle’s very roof!
Pascal crosses his arms. How is it Eugene knows about this?
The man holds up his hands in prideful recognition. “It’s a little Flynn Rider trick. But look,” he says, nodding towards the hole, “We’ve got a great view.”
Pascal creeps toward the edge and, together, they watch as an older man enters the throne room below. The queen is already seated on the royal throne and Pascal still cannot figure out why she seems to be so thrilled. The visitor looks rather boring, Pascal decides, though he does like the pointed ears on the man. He gives Eugene’s round, boring ears a frown before noticing the stupefied look on Eugene’s face. Before Pascal can let out a questioning squeak, the queen begins to speak.
“Lord Rein, your presence is a surprise,” she greets with a smile.
“A pleasant one, I hope.” He reaches over and takes her hand, kissing it gently.
Pascal colors slightly. Eugene harrumphs. “Think he’s laying it on a little thick?” he whispers.
Pascal pretends to gag.
“My thoughts exactly.”
The queen pulls back her hand. “You have brought news ?”
“Yes. I have been sent here by Prince Banale and Princess Rapunzel--”
Pascal freezes at the mention of his best friend’s name. He notices Eugene doing the same thing.
“—to deliver a wonderful announcement. Princess Rapunzel has accepted his hand in marriage.”
Pascal staggers forward at the declaration. Eugene grabs him just in time before he falls through the opening. Pascal may be tempted to stab the idiot in the ear sometimes, but even he knows full well that Rapunzel would never agree to marry anyone except for Eugene! (Provided the man ever manages to ask her!)
“She... did?” the queen asks, her voice an odd mix of shock, confusion, and delight. Pascal doesn’t like the delight. And if Eugene’s scowl is anything to go by, he doesn’t care for it much, either.
“My lord – Prince Banale – met his royal highness – the king of Corona – and the princess as they were conducting the royal tour outside of Solstberg. The king himself invited the prince accompany them. Apparently, the princess was most charmed by him.”
Pascal frowns. Rapunzel is most definitely not one to be charmed.
“The king and happy couple requested that we escort you to their majesties’ realm of Solstberg immediately. They would be most disappointed if you were to miss any part of the celebration,” the lord concludes.
To her credit, the queen pauses for a moment. “The princess did not instruct for anyone else from Corona to join the event?”
The older man hesitates slightly. His brows furrow. “I don’t believe so. Why does your Majesty ask?”
Eugene shoots a disbelieving look at Pascal. “Because even if Blondie were getting married – which I don’t believe for a minute that she is! – she’d want us there!” Eugene hisses angrily.
Pascal wholeheartedly agrees. They are her best friends! Rapunzel would never expect either of them to stay behind in the castle at a time like this!
“My daughter…” the queen begins, glancing away from the messenger toward the throne room doors. Her expression is a thoughtful one, but whatever misgivings she feels at the moment a quickly pushed aside. Returning her attention to Lord Rein, the queen shakes her head, sighing. “Forgive me. Clearly, I have misjudged many things about my daughter.”
“Not until this moment, you haven’t,” Eugene grits out. Pascal concurs with a grunt.
In the throne room below, the queen stands. “Thank you for delivering this message, Lord Rein. It is indeed very happy news. I will make my preparations and be ready to accompany you shortly.”
The visitor bows extravagantly before taking his leave. Before the doors have closed behind him, the queen has already gestured for several of her attendants to come forward. The whispered instructions echo like stray breezes, but neither Pascal nor Eugene struggle to make out the words. Pascal is furiously confused and Eugene looks ready for war. Eugene scoops Pascal up and places him on his shoulder. “Come on, we’ve got to talk to the queen. I don’t know who that guy thought he was talking about, but it certainly wasn’t Rapunzel. Something is definitely not right. And, if that messenger was who I think it is…” Pascal’s curiosity flares as Eugene scowls darkly. “Things are about to get real interesting.”
Forgetting that Eugene’s thief brain doesn’t know the first peep of Lizard Squeak, Pascal begins trilling his questions, one after another, in a long rush.
“Shut it,” Eugene says not unkindly. “I’ll tell you later. For now, we’ve got to figure out a way to keep our fingers in the pie.”
Pascal considers arguing that the only thing that comes from such an activity is a sticky appendage but Eugene is already on the move. Unfortunately, Eugene isn’t as proficient at climbing down sheer walls as he is climbing up them. He grumbles under his breath about not being part-chameleon. Pascal inspires him by giving him an encouraging squeak in his ear. If they don’t hurry, they will miss the queen!
“I’m going as fast as I can,” he grits as his hold on the smooth stone nearly slips.
Finally, they make it to the ground. Pascal holds on to the man’s collar tightly as Eugene races towards the main entrance of the castle. Eugene barely has time to catch his breath when he sees the queen enter the room. Unfortunately, she isn’t alone. Eugene hesitates but Pascal gives him a nudge.
Taking a decisive breath and nodding in recognition of the encouragement, he purposefully intrudes upon the assembly. “Your Majesty, if I might have a word in private...”
The queen considers his expression, her own revealing a measure of surprise that he seems to know precisely what had been said. And then her lips curve upward in a sympathetic smile. Nodding to the foreign lord and the three unfamiliar guards accompanying him, she murmurs, “If you would please give us a moment…”
The visitors are surprised by the request but do not protest. The lord, however, gives Eugene a thorough once over. This time there is no mistaking the tension in Eugene’s shoulders as he regards the man in front of them. “Of course, your Majesty.”
Pascal refrains from making a face at the strangers as they move toward the courtyard, but he does turn around and give them the Eye of the Chameleon.
The queen glides, Eugene stomps and Pascal rides into the nearest, semi-private sitting room. As soon as the door closes, the accusations start. “There’s no way he’s telling the truth.”
Pascal drops his jaw in disbelief. This isn’t how the queen should be spoken to, even a chameleon knows that! Eugene is going to aggravate her and then it won’t matter what he says!
The queen, however, does not seem bothered by his blatant statement. “We have shared a peaceful alliance with the people of Trist for many generations. They are above reproach.”
Eugene crosses his arms. “But, your Majesty, we both know how dear her friends are to her. She’d rather die than…! That is, she…” Eugene pauses, no doubt bites back several choice words whose utterance would get him locked up in the jail, takes a deep breath and says with admirable restraint, “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that Rap—the princess didn’t ask for Pascal to come with you?” he asks. “Especially to an event like this?”
The easy smile falters slightly, but it quickly returns. “Perhaps she does not want to startle the young prince with Pascal. Not everyone is as friendly to chameleons as my daughter and you.”
“Rapunzel wouldn’t care,” he insists. “Pascal is her friend. Her first friend. She wouldn’t tolerate—!”
“Mister Fitzherbert,” the queen very deliberately interjects. “Is this about her lack of thought toward Pascal, or toward yourself?”
“Leave me out of this,” he chokes out. Pascal clutches the edge of Eugene’s doublet as the man’s hands fist. “I’m talking about something that is clearly out of character for Rapunzel.”
“People change when they fall in love.”
Eugene closes his eyes and breathes out a sigh. “I know.” Opening his eyes again, he says, “And I know you want this for your daughter. I don’t doubt he’s a better man than me – richer, more educated, an able leader – but when have you ever seen your daughter be swayed by charm?”
“Perhaps she wasn’t.” The queen reaches out and gives Eugene a pat on the shoulder. “Perhaps she has… grown up.”
Eugene has no reply to that.
“Will you be accepting of that? She would want her friends to support her, even if her path now diverges from yours.”
Through clenched teeth, Eugene growls, “She would still want us there. With her. And there’s no reason for that lord guy to leave off bits of her message. No good reason.”
The queen shakes her head with regret. “What can I say that you accept?”
Pascal sighs with defeat. Nothing. There is nothing the queen can say. They’ve reached a stalemate.
“I appreciate your concern for my daughter,” the queen continues, “but I must be on my way.”
Eugene licks his lips nervously as it becomes clear that the queen is about to leave. “He was going to be the buyer of Rapunzel’s crown!” The accusation seems to bounce around the room, from polished marble wall to polished marble wall, once… twice… three times before it is captured and finally muffled by the tapestries.
The queen stops, stiffens, and turns back to him. “That is a very serious charge, Mr. Fitzherbert. On what do you base your accusation?”
In a rush, he confesses on a (thankfully!) prudent whisper, “The man who came to me and my former associates had pointed ears just like that lord—”
“Mr. Fitzherbert,” she interrupts quietly, “there are entire countries of people with such characteristics. Take the kingdom of Hyrule as an example. Is there any other proof that this is the man who approached you?”
Pascal can see the pulse racing under Eugene’s skin. He is beyond upset; he is livid. “I know my clients, your Highness. Every good thief must… in order to track them down and exact payment for services rendered.” With a twist of his lips that is more a grimace than a smile, he says, “You’d be surprised how many people think they can cheat a thief.”
The queen doesn’t appear to be upset by the implications of Eugene’s confession. Her expression becomes sympathetic once more. She reaches out and touches Eugene’s arm gently. “I know this announcement is difficult to accept, but I hope you can look past your feelings and be happy for Rapunzel.”
“This isn’t about jealousy, your Majesty. Look,” he tries again – one last time! – his voice strained with desperation, “at least take a few members of your staff with you. One or two members of the guard. They can’t object—!"
“At such blatant distrust between allies?” She gently refuses, “I have been assured that I will be well-protected on my journey and I have already accepted. I have no doubts and neither should you.”
“I do. When it comes to the people I care about acting oddly and doing what seem to be taking stupidly risky chances, I do. Rapunzel isn’t the only member of the royal family that I care about, your Majesty. You can’t trust that man.”
It is clear that she doesn’t believe him. “I should not make our guests wait any longer.” She lets her hand drop to her side. “Do not worry, Eugene, we will always remember the role you played in reuniting out family.”
She offers a quick smile to Pascal and leaves the two frustrated males standing in the empty room.
Eugene stands still for so long listening to the sounds of departure that Pascal has more than enough time to crawl down from his perch and move to the table.
“Despite what she says, something’s not right here.”
Eugene suddenly finds the impetus to move, storming over to the window and back again, pacing aimlessly and furiously. “I mean, if my smolder didn’t work on Rapunzel, than no one can charm her. And that’s a fact!”
Pascal rolls his eyes.
“This doesn’t add up,” he observes, ignoring the lizard’s contribution. “I don’t like this. My gut doesn’t like this." Eugene’s gut doesn’t like many things, insects included (as Pascal had discovered after a particularly thoughtful gesture of breaking beetles together).
Eugene doesn’t wait for more than two lizard blinks before he resumes his pacing. “This is my fault. I screwed up. I should have asked her to marry me before she left.”
Pascal can only shrug. Really, what else is there to say at this point?
With a blustery sigh and a muttered oath, Eugene rounds on the chameleon once more. “Well, I’m not giving up.” He runs his hand through his hair before kneeling by the table and addressing Pascal solemnly. “Rapunzel isn’t hitched yet. There’s nothing to say she won’t change her mind. I just have to ask her. So how about another road trip? I hear Weinburg is stunning this time of year.”
He holds out a hand for Pascal to climb on. Before the lizard can settle himself safely under the shirt collar, Eugene is racing towards the stables.
When they get there, however, they pass empty stall after empty stall until, faced with the very last one, Eugene skids to a halt and curses. There are no other animals to ride except the royal stables’ most stubborn ass.
Pascal stares with hopeless defeat at the creature in the stall. There will be no listening to reason – from human or chameleon – with this old donkey.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Eugene announces in askance.
The temperamental donkey brays in response. Not a good sign. But Eugene squares his shoulders, swallows his pride and says, “Look, this is an emergency. You know I wouldn’t be asking otherwise. So, please, take us to Trist. Just as far as Solstberg. Please.”
If Pascal were a beast of burden, he would have given in – hands down, no contest – to that look of abject sorrow. The creature in the stall, however, merely lifts its tail and passes gas. Loudly.
With a gagging breath, Eugene concedes defeat. He places Pascal on the post closest to the beast and, eyes watering, gestures toward the donkey. “Maybe you—“ Cough. “—can try reasoning—“ Muttered oath and an observation of the impressively aromatic qualities of donkeys. “—with him.”
Pinching his nostrils closed with his reptilian fingers, Pascal shakes his head.
The lizard sighs. There is no way he can refuse that request. He’d do anything for his best friend and Eugene, the sneaky cheat, knows it. It takes a monumental effort to release his nostrils, but that’s precisely what Pascal does. He squeaks, trills, and grunts. He gestures, gesticulates, pantomimes and begs, but the donkey isn’t the least bit interested in any of it. He huffs, looking bored and unimpressed, and then presents his hind quarters for easy viewing.
“Oh no you don’t!” Eugene says, vaulting over the short gate. “You are going to take us to Weinburg. I am going to see Rapunzel and I am going to ask her to marry me before Prince Eager-Perfect-Twinkle-Toes-Dragon-Slayer can put any more moves on her!”
The donkey doesn’t budge. But Eugene is a man at the end of his rope, not to be trifled with or underestimated. Pascal runs over to the latch on the gate and pulls it up. Now, Eugene just has to get the donkey out of the stable.
Eugene gives the creature an ineffective shove on the backside. The donkey gives him a kick in the shin in return.
The man glares at the beast. The beast lies down on the ground. If donkeys could smirk, Pascal is pretty sure he would be. And under any other circumstances, Pascal would have enjoyed this standoff a great deal more than he is currently.
But as Eugene’s urgency grows, Pascal begins to question the queen’s words. Would Rapunzel really just leave them behind? Exclude them from what is probably the biggest event of her young life thus far? Would she really do that to her best friends? Of course she wouldn’t. Pascal feels acute shame at having doubted her. He hastens to come to Eugene’s aid, scurrying down the gate. Once again (and more emphatically this time!) he tries to reason with the creature. The donkey rather determinedly falls asleep when Pascal is in the middle of his speech. He makes a fist with one hand.
“Slow down there, Tiger,” Eugene says, a sadistic twinkle entering his eyes. “How about doing that tongue-in-ear trick?”
Pascal nods and opens his mouth wide. His tongue flies out and lands perfectly in the donkey’s ear. He jolts up, looking for the source of the disturbance.
“We’re. Going. To. See. Rapunzel,” Eugene proclaims as he tugs on the halter.
With feet braced, Eugene manages to move him less than one chameleon length.
This… is going to take a while, Pascal acknowledges with a sigh. In fact, at this rate, they’re never going to reach Rapunzel before the supposed wedding takes place.
Before Pascal can attempt to help Eugene push the donkey – something he is understandably reluctant to resort to – he feels the ground shaking underneath his tiny feet. Someone is approaching them. Quickly. And on horseback! He scrambles up Eugene’s body and fades into the same dark brown as the man’s vest. He stares wide-eyed at the oncoming rider.
Pascal’s jaw drops when he gets his first clear view of the horse and then his lizard heart stops at the sight of his rider. It’s Maximus, racing onto the castle grounds with Rapunzel on his back. The stallion clamors to a hoof-skidding, limb flailing halt and Rapunzel, hair windblown, face tear-streaked and eyes puffy, launches herself at Eugene, clinging to the stunned man and nearly squishing Pascal in the process.
“Eugene! Eugene! It’s Daddy,” she sobs, grasping his doublet and tugging so frantically that Pascal has to cling to the fabric with all his strength. “They’ve taken Daddy!”
"Eugene, where is momma?"
The feel of her in his arms again is so heavenly, so perfect, so normal that Eugene is ashamed to admit that he would have gladly allowed time to stop right now, crisis or no. Unfortunately, there won’t be any stopping time and there is a crisis which has only gotten bigger.
He swallows thickly. There is no question in his mind that if her father had been taken, then the queen has also met a similar fate. And thanks to that blasted ass, the queen’s abductors have at least a two hour head start. But even if they could have chased down the carriage, there’d still be the armed guards from Trist to deal with.
Smoothing Rapunzel’s ragged and windblown hair down with his sweaty, donkey-smelling hands, Eugene tells her with a heavy heart, "She’s gone, babe. Left. A couple of hours ago, a lord Rein from the country of Trist came to the castle. Told her you were engaged to the prince there and wanted her to come see you. I tried to talk her out of going without an escort. She… she said they were allies and…" His expression twists with guilt as Rapunzel’s eyes swim with new tears. "I’m so sorry. I couldn’t stop her."
Eugene can only imagine how exhausted she is. Her green dress is smudged with dirt and moss, snagged with bits of tree bark; clearly, her escape and return home had been rough. He holds her close as she weeps into his vest, her hands fisted between them.
"It’s gonna be okay," he promises inanely. "We’re gonna get them back. Both of them."
"How?" she challenges. "Maximus…?"
Eugene glances over her shoulder. The horse appears to have collapsed on the stones. Pascal is waving a pair of oak fallen oak leaves in the stallion’s face, ostensibly in an attempt to relieve some measure of his of his overheated exhaustion.
Eugene knows this is so not the time, but he can’t stop himself from pressing, "So, I’ve gotta ask…"
He waits until Rapunzel looks up. He wipes at her tears with his shirt cuffs. "Um, you didn’t… I mean the engagement thing with the prince… You didn’t, did you?"
Her eyes narrow. She is as angry as he has ever seen her. "I would never marry that… that… that… that…!"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up there, babe," Eugene shushes her, pulling her into his arms again and clutching her to him as his heart races and his head pounds and he cringes away from the very thought of her choosing someone else. "That’s all I need to hear."
But she isn’t finished. "I would never marry that Prince Banale. Ever."
"Well said, Rapunzel. Well said."
Eugene feels a wave of relief crash over him. The emotion is inappropriate really, what with Rapunzel’s parents being taken by some prince and Rapunzel herself possibly scraped and bruised in places he shouldn’t be thinking about, but at least he hadn’t missed his chance to ask for her hand in marriage.
And then she smacks him. Where she finds the leverage, he doesn’t know, but suddenly his left arm is smarting fiercely. "Ow!" he yelps.
"That’s for doubting me! As if I’d ever choose someone else!"
"That’s really good to hear." The words spill out of his mouth before he can stop them. Quickly, he realizes his error. He holds up a hand. "Not the part about your parents."
Rapunzel seems to not hear him. She suddenly declares, "I need to talk to the royal guards."
She needs to go to the royal physician, Eugene thinks as he leads her into the castle. Her lip is swollen and bloodied. Her arms have several bruises, already purple in color.
She shakes her head. "After the guards have been assembled. I can’t—" She breaks down and begins sobbing in Eugene’s chest.
He reaches up and caresses her head, letting her have the emotional release.
Eugene forces himself to push away the impulse to go after whoever had done this to her. She is completely shaken which unnerves Eugene. This woman with the torn dress and the spilt lip has bested ruffians and Corona’s most handsome thief, but now she clings to him, trembling.
"It was awful, Eugene," she whispers.
He closes his eyes. He should have never stayed at the castle. If he had only been there when she’d needed him…! He pulls himself up short. There will be time for second-guessing later. Right now, he needs to focus on getting his girl, the princess of Corona, through what comes next.
Despite the urgency of the situation and Rapunzel’s declaration that she must meet with the few remaining guards, they stay right where they are. Of course, in a place as public and as echoing as the courtyard of a castle, it’s not long before someone comes to investigate all the commotion Maximus had made upon his dramatic arrival. Even when one of the guards – a new recruit by the loo of his whiskerless, baby-skin-smooth cheeks – finally notices them, Eugene doesn’t let go of her. The guard ignores him completely and commences with a flurry of blubbery: "Your Royal Highness! What are—!? You’re here and—! I—! You—! I should get the guards!"
"Definitely his first day on the job," Eugene mutters as Rapunzel slowly pulls away from his chest.
Although she doesn’t raise her voice, the guard pauses in his frantic dash for the castle entrance and heeds her. "Mister Jeromes, please call an assembly of the royal guard and have them gather in the throne room immediately." Eugene loves her all the more for managing to sound so calm and firm despite the tears still clumping her eyelashes together in spikey protrusions.
He doesn’t ask her if she’s really ready to deal with this now. Being ready is not an option. He says instead, "You actually know that newbie’s name?"
She hiccups once on a bubble of laughter. "He’s been a castle guard for over a year, Eugene."
He doesn’t mind the gentle reprimand so much. "When are they going to start letting Maximus take the reins? It’s about time they realized he’d be perfect for whipping these soldiers into shape."
The instant the words leave his mouth, Eugene realizes his error. This is the sort of thing he would have mentioned to the king… if the king were here. But he isn’t and…
"I guess I could make the decision now, couldn’t I?" Rapunzel surprises him by musing thoughtfully. He’d braced himself for another round of tears but could it be possible that she is actually considering his frustration-induced suggestion?
"Come on," she says, stepping away and wiping at her face with her grubby sleeve. "I need you with me now, Eugene." And with a declaration like that, how can he refuse? He stays by her side as she strides up the steps and makes her way to the throne room (following a quick detour to the kitchens for a replacement cast iron frying pan; presumably, Rapunzel’s preferred cooking instrument is still in on the ground beside the road somewhere, knocked aside during a struggle that Eugene does not want to think about at the moment, thank you very much). Jeromes manages to deliver her message well, at least, and within minutes, every last member of the guard (some still strapping on their boots) have gathered in the room. Eugene gives Rapunzel’s dirty and scraped hand a very gentle squeeze before he takes up a position in the corner of the extravagant hall. Technically, he shouldn’t even be here, but Rapunzel had been adamant that he remain in the room with her.
"You’re the only one I trust to protect me, Eugene."
He hopes he doesn’t let her down.
She looks around the room and draws a deep breath. "Three days ago, as we set out on the annual tour of the kingdoms, father and I were travelling along the main highway when suddenly, our company was attacked. We remained in the coach while the royal guard tried to disarm the assailants, but…"
"They couldn’t," supplies Eugene quietly and with a resentful scowl. He knew it!
She nods, acknowledging his comment as if he’d had a right to make it in the first place. "But before they could reach the coach someone else came to our rescue: Prince Banale." Eugene doesn’t miss the absolute loathing in her voice. "He made it seem as though he stopped those wrenched men from harming us."
"What do you mean ‘seem’?" asks one of the senior members of the guard, so senior in fact, that Eugene would be seriously concerned if the man’s gnarled, trembling hand were ever to lift a sharp sword.
She licks her lip carefully, clearly gathering her thoughts. "After he ‘saved’ us, my father extended an invitation to him to accompany us and the prince agreed. It was clear that the guard would not be sufficient in keeping us out of harm’s way if the brigands returned." She pauses, waits for more questions and when none are forthcoming, continues. "We traveled together for two days, all the while the prince was attempting to ingratiate himself further into the king’s – and my – good graces. But then—"
She closes her eyes briefly and Eugene senses a whopper of an omission. "This morning, on the road to Morningster, there was another commotion in the forest. Maximus had been following our progress unobserved from within the wood ever since Banale showed up. And, finally, I understood why. Maximus approached our coach with a captive, a man dressed like the other highwaymen that Prince Banale’s soldiers had defeated. My father and I thought he was another attacker at first, sent to scout our party in preparation for another attack, but when we stopped the coach to reward Maximus and question the man, we learned the truth."
Eugene can barely get himself from leaning forward in anticipation. And the truth is…?
"Our ‘attacker’ was really one of the prince’s guards in disguise. He was wearing the uniform of the army of Trist under his tunic! The prince and his men staged the attack on us so that the prince might win my father’s favor and be invited to join us. It seems as though it was the prince’s intention to come aboard the coach and attempt to woo me."
Eugene frowns. What a thick-head. Any idiot can see, after spending two minutes in Rapunzel’s company, that the woman has a No Wooing policy. It takes real elbow grease and sincerity to win her over.
Rapunzel continues, "When his deception was brought to light, the prince began to act quite… differently."
Eugene can imagine. Vividly. The king would have stared down at the exposed uniform, at the colors of Corona’s ally, in shock. But, ever cautious and level-headed, the man would have turned to Banale. "What is the meaning of this?" the king would have rumbled in a grave tone.
Perhaps the phony would have blanched. Or scowled. Or turned puce. Eugene doesn’t know enough about the waste of humanity to hazard a guess. Rapunzel, however… His blondie is no dummy. She would have figured it out in an instant. Her green eyes would have widened with realization and then her cheeks would have burned with righteous anger. Eugene has witnessed her fury before (although thankfully not directed at him) and she is a force to be reckoned with. Why if she’d had her frying pan in her hand or had thought to go for her dagger…!
A slight movement draws Eugene’s attention. His heart aches as he watches Rapunzel swallow with difficulty as she addresses the assembly. "Prince Banale and his men turned on us. When my father refused his demands he…" She stops again, her small hands fisting with mute frustration. "I managed to surprise him. He wasn’t expecting a princess to fight back so, um—" At this moment, she glances toward Eugene and the corners of her mouth lift into a smile that’s almost happy. "—effectively."
Eugene’s ego swells.
The shared moment doesn’t last – it can’t last – not with more urgent news to be delivered. "My father saved me. He threw me onto Maximus’ back…"
That horse has just earned himself a whole bushel of apples, every day, for the rest of his four-legged life, Eugene decides. He doesn’t care if he has to go back to thieving to deliver them, either. There’s no reward that could possibly equal Rapunzel’s worth to him, safe and sound. Clearly, although Eugene and the king may have a difference of opinion on some things, they agree wholeheartedly in this case. Eugene can only respect the man for his sacrifice. A sacrifice that Rapunzel still can’t accept.
Again her expression twists with fury. Eugene can only image how badly she’d wanted to turn around and fight for her father, save him as he had saved her.
"In short," she summarizes, "Trist is not our ally any longer. Prince Banale has taken the king and I’ve been told that the queen was summoned, just this morning, to their caste under false pretenses. Now, good sirs, this is what we’re going to do: Eugene Fitzherbert will accompany me to Trist to assist me in negotiating for the safe return of the king and queen while you will all stay here and—"
Eugene resists covering his ears in anticipation of the very vocal objections. Of which there are many, it turns out.
"You cannot go, your Highness!"
"A lady in your position must not do such reckless things!"
"You have a responsibility to your people!"
"Let the guards do their job!"
Rapunzel crosses her arms. Eugene recognizes that look. These men will not be able to change her mind. "I have made my decision. It is your duty to look after the people of Corona until my parents and I return."
The stalemate would have been worthy of a chuckle under less dire circumstances. Rapunzel stares down the guard. The soldiers scowl back at her, clearly unhappy but unable to defy their training to argue further. Their liege has spoken. There’s nothing to do now except follow orders. Grumbling, they do so, filing out of the throne room to see to improved castle security.
Well, that could have gone better.
The disgruntled royal guard make their way out of the throne room, but one brave man, Anwalt, remains. After the great doors have closed behind the last retreating soldier, this lone guard approaches the royal dais and stands before Rapunzel.
She meets his gaze steadily, but Euegne can tell she’s bracing herself. After a moment, the man quietly observes, "There is more to this situation than you spoke of just now, isn’t there, your Majesty?"
She clearly doesn’t want to answer, but Eugene knows she will. Over the years, this member of the guard has been an unofficial uncle to her, warning Eugene from even thinking of trying anything "funny" with Corona’s princess. At first, the warnings had been amusing, and then irritating, but now things have mellowed to the point where all it takes is a look from the guard and nod from Eugene to get the necessary chitchat out of the way. It’s their regular manner of greeting now, actually.
"Why would Prince Banale of Trist do this?" Anwalt persists.
She lets out a gusty sigh. Her shoulders droop. She glances over her shoulder at Eugene and mumbles, "We were betrothed as children, he and I. When I was—when I disappeared, it was nullified but Banale… doesn’t give up easily, it seems."
Eugene can give the man five very good reasons to run back home with his tail tucked between his legs.
Anwalt regards her for a moment and then does the unthinkable. He glances to Eugene for support. Eugene blinks back at him for a moment before accepting the invitation and coming forward to stand at the princess’ side.
"Then you know that you cannot venture beyond the borders of Corona," Anwalt counsels. "In fact, I would advise you not to leave the castle at all. If you are his true goal, then—"
"I am not going to just stay here and sit around with my knitting, waiting for the guards to rescue my parents," she proclaims to him. Pascal gives a reinforcing nod just in case the man doubts the princess's assertion. And Eugene has to allow that if they have to wait for the guard to do any particularly stupendous, they’ll probably die of old age before they get any good news.
"Your Grace," Anwalt begins once more. Eugene is impressed with the man’s tenacity. "If you would only hear me out..." Eugene almost feels bad for the kind, elderly man who had taken it upon himself to remain in the throne room and try to talk sense into someone who clearly can’t speak the language anymore.
Rapunzel's face softens at his gentle request. "Anwalt, I can’t," she answers simply.
"You can. There will be much for you to do here, your Majesty. Maximus can round up the troops and, together, they can pursue Banale on his own land. Once the people of Corona hear what has happened, they will be frightened, your Grace. With the king and queen being held captive abroad, if word got out that their beloved princess was no longer in the country..." He shakes his head. "The impact could be quite severe."
Eugene watches at Rapunzel considers his words. If there is one thing that might stop Rapunzel on her quest to save her parents, it would be the welfare of her people.
Her eyes flicker to Eugene. He wishes he could do something more profound than shrug unhelpfully. What does a former thief know about running a kingdom?
"Maximus has my vote," he offers inanely.
Pascal, shoulder-warmer of excellent timing that he is, chirps something in Rapunzel's ear. What he squeaks is a mystery to Eugene. Despite being around the frog for three years, he still can't understand the nonsensical chameleon language. The create gestures emphatically, his scaly brows pulled into a mighty frown. He pounds his tiny green fist into his palm. That, Eugene understands. And it does not bode particularly well.
Even before he is finished with his rant, Rapunzel’s spine straightens. "You’re Pascal. I need to be out there, doing something. They are my parents."
Anwalt remains unconvinced. "Going to Trist is exactly what the prince wants you to do," he argues sensibly.
Her chin juts upward. If there’s a more stubborn angle in the universe, Eugene hasn’t seen it. "That is a risk I am willing to take."
As the two of them, stare at each other, Eugene realizes it is going to be up to him to get everyone beyond this impasse. He softly clears his throat. "If I could have a moment with the princess...?"
Anwalt stiffens. Apparently, it’s one thing to exchange daily reminders in the corridors, but willfully leaving Eugene alone with Rapunzel is a whole other story. Eugene arches a brow at the man, his lips curving into a sardonic smile. Yeah, who knows what a former thief might do, eh? Maybe convince the princess that marrying him – and taking herself "off the market" so to speak – is the only way to save her parents. The very idea that Eugene would take advantage of her like that is ludicrous! After three years, the people of this castle should have a little more faith!
The former thief leans irreverently against the throne. I'm not going anywhere, buddy.
It’s a no-brainer which side Rapunzel will choose.
"Anwalt, let’s continue this later," the princess decides.
Anwalt isn’t happy. That much is clear. The guy had probably been hoping to pin Rapunzel down with a promise – everyone knows the weight of her promises here – but she’s having none of it. "As you wish, you Grace," he concedes on a gusty and disappointed sigh. With a stiff nod and a mute glare of warning in Eugene’s direction, he pivots on his heel and ambles out of the room.
Eugene waits until he is sure that the door has closed securely behind Anwalt before turning and facing Rapunzel. Her eyes are bloodshot, mud is still smeared on the underside of her chin and her dress is torn, but there is no mistaking the power she is emanating as she stands here, upon the dais before the thrones of Corona.
No, there will be no talking her out of saving the king and queen herself.
Before he can open his mouth, Rapunzel blurts raspily, "It's my fault they were taken."
Tears pool in her eyes and for the millionth time since she’d tumbled off of Maximus’ back and into his arms, Eugene wishes he had been there with her on that tour, promise to the queen or no. But, beating himself up is pointless. Max did his job in bringing Rapunzel safety back to the palace. Now, it will be up to them to do what the royal guard can't: rescue her parents.
"Hey," he says, scooping up a renegade tear that slides down her face. "Don’t blame yourself for this guy’s bruised ego. Some men can’t handle rejection."
Or so he’s heard. Eugene has no real personal experience in that department. Unless… He recalls the moment he’d been startled awake and had found himself trussed up Gestapo-style in her tower. Nah, doesn’t count. Clearly, some things had been lacking from her basic education for her to not respond to his suave grin and husky tone.
She shakes her head. "It wasn’t about his ego, Eugene." She draws in a deep breath. He hates the way it shudders and shivers in her throat. "He wants my crown."
Eugene’s gaze flies up to that very accessory. He hadn’t even thought to pick the twigs and bits of dried leaves from it earlier. In fact, he’d only had eyes for Rapunzel, her bloodied knuckles and scraped cheeks. "Your crown," he repeats woodenly, a drumbeat of dead taking up a slow, stomach-churning rhythm in his gut.
She nods. "Banale knows about the Protection of the Sun." When Eugene doesn’t say anything in response, she sighs. "So you had heard about it." But before Eugene can brace himself for an inquisition, she shakes her head and continues her first line of thought. "When he hit Daddy, he started yelling about it, saying that it was time for the people of Trist to have its power."
Eugene has heard of it before, of course. But he had lumped that childhood myth into the same category as dragons and faeries long ago. He should have known better, of course. Especially after the whole magic flower, magic hair thing. "You're saying it's real?" He asks, just in case it isn’t. You can never get too much clarification on this mystical stuff.
She nods. "Of course it is. The Protection of the Sun has been passed down in my family for many generations." Her hand moves to touch the circlet now tangled in her debris-matted hair. "The crowns of Corona are the key to its power."
Eugene accepts this new bit of information with relative ease. Somehow this seems almost mundane when compared with magical hair that has the ability to heal a man from a mortal wound. "Well… that would explain why the guards were after me when I took the crown."
She nods her head. "Having that much power is a dangerous thing."
"Wait. Hold up a second, Blondie. Doesn’t your father have the same connection with the sun’s protection?"
She nods. "But, I don’t think Banale knows that. He has heard the stories about my hair." She subconsciously reaches for the long-lost locks but only comes away with a cobweby stick pinched between her fingertips. "Because of them, he thinks I’m the only one who can wield the sun’s power. That’s why Banale wants me to marry him." Pascal leans into her shoulder. "But I won't do it, Eugene."
No, he certainly hopes not! That would put quite a crimp into the proposal he has been practicing. Behind securely closed doors.
She looks up at him, her big, green eyes shining. "Eugene, we need to save them."
He gathers her in his arms. She leans into him and grasps the edges of his doublet tightly. "We will," he promises. He brushes a kiss against her temple.
She pulls back slightly. "OK. So, we're going to need a ship. It's the quickest way to Trist."
Eugene's stomach lurches.
Ugh, sea travel.
No, scratch that. UGH!! SEA TRAVEL!!! There’s a reason Flynn Rider was the best thief in the country rather than on the seas!
Laughing nervously, Eugene lifts a hand and rubs the back of his neck, which already feels clammy and rife with goosebumps at the very thought of relentless, restless ocean waves. "Er, are you sure you want a ship—?"
Just as she cocks her head to the side, eyes narrowing in speculation, the throne room door bursts open.
Given the stress of the day, Eugene isn’t surprised to find himself standing in front of a frypan-wielding princess and her ferociously purple battle lizard in the next instant.
Where were the devil are those guards!?
Thankfully, they aren’t needed. But what if they had been? Eugene shares a droll look with Pascal. Clearly, this rescuing business should be left to the professionals. What’s scary is that a former thief, a wily chameleon, and a princess with a frying pan are the professionals.
Eugene relaxes at the sight of a familiar ruffian. Hookhand charges into the room, gasping for air.
The bulky man stumbles to a halt in front of the throne, braces his remaining hand on his knee, bends over and pants. Eugene moves out of Rapunzel's way before she has to step around him to greet their friend.
Eyes watering, the man wheezes, "I just heard about what happened to the king and queen, your Highness."
Eugene raises an eyebrow. "News travels fast," he remarks. Especially bad news.
Hookhand gives them a slightly-pained, sheepish grin. "And, I think I can help."
Yes, Hookhand is an intimidating man in his own right, but unless he plans to swim all three of them – Rapunzel, Pascal and himself – across the sea one-handed, Eugene doesn't see how he is going to be able to do anything to help save the king and queen.
Rapunzel's eyes light up at the man's offer. Her knuckles turn white as she grips the frying pan tighter. "Really? How?"
Eugene doesn't miss the quick glance Hookhand casts in his direction. Whatever the ruffian is thinking, it is not going to be a Good Idea. He can tell already. "My cousin, Bigbeard, has recently finished his, er… trade run."
Trade run, huh? That’s a good one. Eligible for Best Euphemism of the Year.
Eugene suppresses a sarcastic snort. All things considered, the bubble of amusement probably would have turned into hysterical laughter: a marriage proposal he just can’t seem to get out, a king and queen in need of rescue, sea travel, Bigbeard-who-takes-no-prisoners-and-certainly-doesn’t-do-trade-runs-infamous-and-feared-pirate-captain-of-the-high-seas—!
He’s on the verge of hyperventilating just thinking about it. But no. No. Calm is the order of the day. Maybe just this once, Flynn can come out of retirement.
Eugene-slash-Flynn raises an eyebrow. "A trade run. Is that what they are calling piracy these days?"
The big man has the good nature to laugh. "He takes a certain pride in his work. Doesn’t like to be lumped in with that scurvy scum of the sea."
Eugene can tell Rapunzel is already excited by the idea. Ironically, it had probably been his own comment about piracy that clinched it for her. Yup, he knows that eye-sparkle. She’s already planning her trip with the filthiest, vilest seadogs of the known world and looking forward to it. If he didn’t love her, he’d… well, he’d never have to so much as think about setting foot on that rat-infested boat. That’s for sure.
"Do you think he would really help us?" asks Rapunzel, breathless with renewed hope.
"The reputation of Flynn Rider is still held in high esteem amongst the, er, more creative and enterprising entrepreneurs. He’d be willing to help him out," Hookhand answers.
The implication is clear. Sighing yet again, Eugene raises a hand to his face and pinches the bridge of his nose. The migraine isn’t here yet, but he knows it’s running him down.
"Eugene?" Rapunzel checks, the enthusiasm in her voice now dimming with sudden uncertainty. She lays a hand on his arm and addresses their guest. "Why can’t I just ask Bigbeard to take us there? I’m sure we can agree on a price…"
"Oh, um, well…"
"Bigbeard has rules," Eugene interjects, saving Hookhand from his stuttering. He drops his hand, opens his eyes and explains, "Lots of rules. Crazy rules. First and foremost, no doing fair trading with any royal families. That means you’re out of the running before you even make it to the wharf, babe."
Eugene doesn’t interrupt her as she works through, in, out of, and between the lines. Then she bites her lip, gazes up at him with wide compelling eyes, and whispers, "Are you going to make me ask?"
"No." No, he’d never make her ask him for anything. Not when he already knows what she needs and what he has to do to give it to her. Whether he likes it or not. "No, I’ll do it."
Rapunzel grabs his biceps in excitement. "We can save them, Eugene! We can save them!"
He pastes on a phony smile as she vibrates with excitement. The ridiculous frog makes like he’s Captain Nimo, bracing himself on her shoulder and pantomiming too many sea voyage situations for Eugene’s peace of mind. Sea travel, a princess and pirates. Oh, yay.
Still, Eugene knows getting Rapunzel on the boat is going to be a problem. These pirates, who are unafraid of sword fights and prison time, gallows and the dregs at the bottom of a half rotten wine barrel, are terrified of the presence of a woman aboard their ship.
But Eugene isn't foolish enough to think he is going to be able to talk Rapunzel out of accepting Hookhand's offer. She is going on that ship, which means it’s up to him to convince Bigbeard to let her aboard. A plan starts to formulate in his mind.
It is so crazy, he is sure it will work.
Now he only has to convince Rapunzel that it’s a good idea.
Rapunzel doesn’t wait for Eugene’s response to her hopeful declaration. She grabs Hookhand by the wrist and rushes to the nearest palace balcony that overlooks the docks. It involves a dash down the corridor, taking a sharp turn after the statue of Mildar the Magnificent, and scrambling up half a flight of stairs. When they reach the terrace, she releases Hookhand in order to brace herself on the stone railing to give herself the best possible view of the coast.
"Which one is your cousin’s?" she asks the breathless barkeep. There are dozens of ships out there, any one of which could be the vessel she’s about to sail to her parents’ rescue on! There’s one painted a very pretty white and another with navy trim and…!
In lieu of a verbal reply, Hookhand gently nudges her in the direction of the far end of the port where a singular and rather lonesome and bedraggled-looking ship is moored. It doesn’t look particularly friendly, she notices. She narrows her eyes, trying to make out the shape on the black flag that flutters woefully in the afternoon breeze. "Is that a… skull? There on the flag?"
The gigantic man laughs a bit nervously. "It is. It scares, or, er, what I meant was it helps scare away anyone who would want to attack his ship," he explains.
"I’m sure it works," she replies solemnly and with appreciation for the forethought.
He nods. "Oh it does. No one bothers Bigbeard," he assures her.
Well, with a banner like that flying from the top of the central mast, she expects even mosquitos would keep away! It’s not until she hears another set of footsteps are approaching them that she realizes Eugene had not been following behind them, as she’d assumed he would! Turning away from the view, she frowns thoughtfully at both him and the bundle tucked under his arm. Where had he disappeared to without telling her? What is that ball of cloth? Where had he gotten it? And why is he wearing that Flynn Rider grin on his face?
Hookhand glances from the items Eugene holds out in his hands – a pair of unflattering breeches, a battered tunic, and a potato sack – and then back at Rapunzel before he takes a step back. Almost like he’s removing himself from the line of fire…
"I’ll go let my cousin know to be expecting company." He ambles past Eugene and claps him none-too-gently on the shoulder. "Good luck, Rider."
Rapunzel raises an eyebrow. Good luck with what?
"Here," he says, thrusting the odd assortment of items toward and giving them a meaningful shake, "you need to put these on."
She blinks slowly. Granted, the clothes she has on now aren’t exactly suited to an adventurous voyage, but she has plenty of other dresses and skirts (and even a riding uniform with some very comfortable trousers) that would certainly suffice! With those items at her disposal, why on earth would Eugene possibly want her to wear these frayed, grungy things? She scrunches up her nose.
"Er, thanks, Eugene. But I have plenty of clothes—"
"Not the right ones."
"Be serious! Who would let me on board their ship looking like I crawled out of a cellar?"
She huffs. Crossing her arms, she ignores the pile of dirty laundry and moves to step back into the castle. She can be changed and have her face washed and hair free of debris in five minutes flat—
Eugene steps in her path. "That’s not gonna fly, Blondie."
"According to you. I’m sure the captain and I can come to some sort of understanding."
"Maybe you missed the memo, but the people we’ll be dealing with don’t negotiate." He points to the black flag as evidence of this.
But Rapunzel remembers a rough, roadside tavern full of scary thugs who had turned out to be quite delightful. Really, Eugene ought to have a little more faith!
"Oh c’mon!" he huffs, thrusting the clothing at her insistently (as if that will convince her to take them!). "They’re never going to let you on board if they think you’re a woman."
Of all the preposterous things! She gapes in disbelief. "Why not?!"
"It's bad luck," he answers simply.
Bad luck? She can hardly believe grown men would indulge in such a ridiculous notion! Women are bad luck? Hmph! "Well, I think, considering my life in total, that my luck is generally good." She begins to walk past Eugene and his offering of unappealing apparel.
He shakes his head as if he can’t believe she is just going to walk away. With a quick step, he blocks her path to the stairs. "You don't wanna be doin' that, Blondie. Trust me."
"Oh, I think I do." She steps to the side. Again.
He blocks her path. Again. "No, I really think—"
They don’t have time to argue! They need to get on that ship! Unfortunately, Rapunzel recognizes the look on Eugene’s face. It’s the same one he has when he is pouting. Stubborn man! "What you’re asking me to do is ridiculous! Give me one good reason why I should humor their superstitions by wearing a sack on my head in public!"
He lifts his gaze from the bundle of ragged clothing and looks deeply into her eyes. "Please, Rapunzel?"
"You know that smolder stuff doesn’t work on me." Though, she has to admit, he does look cute when he makes that face. Sometimes. Occasionally.
He must see some sign of weakness in her expression because the smolder intensifies. He leans closer, pouts his lips just so and rumbles in a deep tone, "Don't you trust me?"
"I… I do," he admits a bit helplessly. His voice sends shivers down her spine and the scent of his shaving soap makes her pulse race. The air between them heats, but she tries not to get distracted. "I just don’t understand…"
"I know it doesn’t make any sense," he croons, leaning forward and brushing his lips against her temple. He murmurs against her skin, "But this is the fastest way to get to your parents. You know I’d love to see you win over that crew, but that would take time your mom and dad may not have…"
She gulps. He’s right. And, really, what does it matter if she goes along with this silly idea as long as she gets Momma and Daddy back?
"All right, Eugene," she concedes, accepting the bundle of cloth. She tries not to make a face at the scratchiness of the rough fabric or the strange, slick texture that clearly signals a desperate need for a thorough washing. "I still think it’s silly."
"It is," he agrees, grinning now that he’s won. Little does he know…
"I’ll tell you something else that’s silly," she continues on an off-handed tone and she heads for the castle and a place to change. "A certain Mister Fitzherbert who would encourage a certain princess to meet other men."
She pauses and glares briefly at him over her shoulder. "I hope he’ll have a good explanation for that when she finally asks him."
He smiles ruefully. "He will. Promise."
Ten minutes later, she is being led by Eugene and Hookhand (who had assured her that, yes, his cousin really is frightened of the idea of a woman on board his ship) down the wharf’s most distant and poorly maintained dock.
"Don’t worry, Blondie," Eugene whispers, a laugh barely held in check. "You look stunning."
She glowers at him even though he can’t see her. There was absolutely nothing "stunning" about her ensemble. Her breeches are too long, the tunic is too baggy. And the potato sack! The rough fabric makes her face itch like crazy!
"Just remember," he continues, "if someone tries to talk to you, gesture wildly and the frog will do the rest."
Before she can respond that yes, she still remembers the instructions he’d given her not five minutes ago, several shouts fill the air.
"Is that Flynn Rider?"
"I thought he settled down with some girl."
"His nose looks different than I imagined."
Rapunzel watches through a well-placed, slightly threadbare patch of hemp sack as a short, skinny man strides up the greyed and sea-salted dock toward the three of them. "These two be yer friends, Orville?"
Beside her, Eugene snorts. "Orville?"
"It’s a lot better than Eugene."
Rapunzel doesn’t miss the flinch. "Touché," she mutters to Pascal who snickers noisily.
"Orville!" a great, booming voice calls. Rapunzel squints through the weave of the potato sack as great, thudding footsteps shake the dock. Captain Bigbeard, it seems, has arrived. "Be these new swabbies for my deck or the favor you asked for?"
"Er, the favor."
Bigbeard examines first Eugene and then Rapunzel, his tiny, dark eyes narrowed in thought. "That’s two favors. Not one."
"Put it on my tab for next month."
The captain gives his cousin a long look. "I’ll be expectin’ double the number of swabbies," he replies in a warning tone.
"You’ll have them! Gambling always picks up after the festival. Lots of debt to work off." With a glance at Rapunzel who is now viciously curious about this swabbie system, he trails off inelegantly, "Er, you know… the usual…"
The captain nods. "Agreed. Now, let’s have a look at your favors, then." He pulls a monocle from his jacket pocket and polishes it on the cuff of his lacey shirtsleeve before tucking it beneath his right brow.
"This is them," Hookhand – or rather, Orville – says, gesturing with his gleaming hook.
"I know who ye are, but…" Bigbeard’s eyes narrows. "Who be this eyesore o’ a scallywag?"
"Oh! This..." Eugene gestures grandly in Rapunzel’s direction, "... is my long lost cousin, er, Bartimus. Doesn't talk much. And, trust me, you'll want that potato sack to stay on—"
As per their prearranged script, Hookhand dares to life a corner of the sack, with his hook, duck down and take a peek. And then he leaps back and shudders dramatically. "Uhm…" he says as he lowers the edge of the sack back to Rapunzel’s shoulder. "Er… no offense, Bartimus, but you could scare a horse outta his shoes."
"I tried to warn you, Orville," Eugene scolds him gently. He then turns to face the captain. "Poor kid was burned by lizards with poisonous skin. Acidic. Screams like a girl whenever he sees one now."
"Ugh!" Pascal harrumphs on Rapunzel’s behalf, clearly offended. Hah! Screams like a girl indeed! Why, Rapunzel remembers a certain incident with a confused mouse, a plate of butter, and a rotted barrel of pickled eels that had had Eugene shrieking quite… effeminately. Perhaps he could do with a reminder?
But not right now, Rapunzel! That’s beside the point!
The wind is blowing and waves a lapping on the shore and the silence is stretching… There’s no way Bigbeard is going to believe that idiotic story! Eugene has gone too far! Bigbeard will refuse them passage and then—!
"So where ye be headed?" the big man asks.
Rapunzel and Pascal share a wide-eyed look of amazement beneath the sack.
"To Trist," Eugene replies, sounding as if he expects the captain to share his enthusiasm for the destination.
Bigbeard leans in threateningly. The sun reflects off of the man’s monocle right into Eugene’s face. "And why should I be takin’ ye across the way to Trist? There isn’t a treasure that I don’t be knowing about, is there?"
Eugene shakes his head. "Nope. Just making the trip to collect on an old debt." By the knife’s edge quality of his tone, Rapunzel can tell he speaks the truth; he believes what he says. "And when I collect it, I guarantee your reward will be worth it. So, what do you say? Do we have a deal? "
Laughter fills the air. "I like your style, Rider. Welcome aboard the Sea Riot."
For the first time, Rapunzel’s stomach rolls unpleasantly as she regards the ship. Hopefully, the name is not an apt description of a typical voyage aboard!
As Bigbeard orders his men to make the ship ready to sail, Eugene guides her up the ramp and onto the grimy deck. "Like I said, Blondie, piece of cake."
Maybe ‘piece of cake’ was too strong of a statement,
Eugene thinks as his stomach lurches – again – with the motion of the ship as it rides the crest of a tall wave.
"Oh-ho! Seems as if the mighty Flynn Rider is a land lover!" crows the captain with far too much enthusiasm.
Eugene offers him a tight-lipped smile. Better that than what would come out of his mouth should he dare to open it. Based on how his stomach feels, he's not sure if it would be a comeback so snappy it would make the captain’s ears turn pink or something a bit more vile.
Bigbeard turns to Rapunzel. "Is this his first time out to sea?"
His seasickness is momentarily worsened as mild panic washes over him. Sure, they’d discussed what to do if someone tried to engage Rapunzel in conversation, and it’s not that he doesn’t think she can handle it. He’s more worried that the plan will slip through the cracks of her enthusiasm. His stomach lurches in time with another rough wave. Remember the plan, Blondie! he wills her silently.
All he can do is stare at her, wide-eyed. His stomach refuses to cooperate with him and he is forced, for the moment, to concentrate making sure he doesn’t lose the contents of his stomach in front of the captain and his hopefully forever-Rapunzel.
He swallows a groan. For future reference, thoughts of proposals do not mix well with sea travel.
Maybe she can see his urgent look. Maybe she can’t. He’s in no position to do much about it, either way. He’d briefly checked that it was possible to see through the sack, but hadn’t paid too much attention to whether or not details would be easy to pick out. Blunder-funk. All they need is Rapunzel to forget for one instant and their secret would be out. Followed by a long walk off a short… plank.
Several long, torturous seconds as Rapunzel seems to regard him with her full attention. She approaches his side at the edge of the ship, moves her head exaggeratedly down and then up again, looking him over. And then – where this comes from Eugene has no idea – she snort with such force he wonders if her vocal chords have been permanently damaged. She then shakes her head, shoulders clearly shaking with silent laughter. The captain and several nearby crew members join in.
Eugene glowers even as relief slams into him and has the interesting effect of settling his rolling stomach. He glares at any and all present before announcing with a great deal of dignity through his clenched teeth, "You know, you could have just asked me."
The captain turns away from Rapunzel to Eugene. "I could have, but I was a mite… concerned that ye’d be losin' yer lunch on me deck." The crew roars with laughter. "And I would be hatin' to see ye havin' to swab up, seein' as how ye be me guests an’ all."
Or he will be. When he sets both feet on dry land.
The captain clasps him on the back. "Ye just keep tellin' yerself that, me boy. Maybe one day, yer stomach will believe it." He turns back to Rapunzel. "I wouldn't be standin' too close to him if I were ye. The sea breeze be stronger than it feels."
She nods, and takes a dramatically executed step back along the railing. Again, the crew finds her antics mightily entertaining.
The captain nods in her direction. "Not much of a talker, eh?"
"Part of the aftermath of the accident," Eugene explains quickly.
A giant wave against the hull and the entire ship lurches forward. Eugene's stomach lets him know in no uncertain terms what it thinks about the travel arrangements. He swallows down whatever is trying to crawl its way up his throat.
Oh, right. That would be luncheon with the queen. Great.
The captain lets out another long laugh. "We'll be docking in Trist by day's end. Try to get yer sea legs afore then."
Eugene glances at the midday sun. He should have convinced Rapunzel to travel with Maximus and his company instead of stepping one foot on this boat. "I'll get to work on that."
Bigbeard stomps away from the two of them and starts barking out commands to his crew. Breaktime is over.
Eugene gambles that the ship will obey his silent command to stay mostly still and leans forward, putting his head on the rail. He closes his eyes so he doesn't have to see everything around him bob up and down.
Just a few more hours, Rider.
And, in just a few more hours, Maximus’ team should be closing in on the bridge to Trist. By dawn, that idiot prince’s castle will be surrounded. And the air will be thick with catapulted road apples. He snorts once with humor and then chokes back a bubble of bile.
Small, gentle hands rub the back of his neck. He would have told her to stop – the gesture is not very cousin-like! – if it didn’t feel so good. He just hopes that the captain doesn't make a surprise appearance. Answering those questions would be rather awkward for all parties involved. And would probably entail a lot of metaphors regarding fences being jumped and both sides of a stream being fished from…
"Are you doing alright?" she whispers.
He cracks one eyelid open briefly. Did she really just ask that? Was the green tinge to his skin not enough of a clue for her? Maybe it’s the potato sack. Hindering her usual skills in observation. "Oh, sure, Blondie. I love feeling like I’m the human version of a yo-yo." As soon as the words come out of his mouth, he regrets them. She removes her hands from his neck and starts to take a step back.
Fabulous. Now he feels guilty for snapping at her on top of everything else. It’s not her fault that neither Eugene Fitzherbert nor Flynn Rider ever got the hang of sailing.
He blindly reaches for her hand and gives it a squeeze. "I'm sorry, Rapunzel. I just don't like sea travel."
Rapunzel, being the forgiving person she is, squeezes his hand back. "It's only a few more hours."
He releases her hand and forces himself to stand upright. He can do this.
A change of scenery is in order, he decides. "Come on, Bartimus. Let's see what's going on."
It is hard – nearly impossible! – for him to look back at the sacked person behind him and remember that it's Rapunzel. Her beautiful face, always so open and sincere, is hidden from the world; and the clothing…! Well, really what more is there to say about that. No one would guess that she is anything other than what she appears to be: an underfed stick of a boy. Equating Rapunzel to a boy is a thought that nearly breaks his brain.
He turns the corner and steps over a thick piece of rope that the crew had carelessly left on the ground. "Hey, watch out, Bart. Take my hand—"
It’s a nice gesture. It would have been romantic… if Rapunzel had actually caught his hand. No doubt the potato sack will be forever blamed for what happens next: as she steps forward, head down and hand waving haphazardly in Eugene’s direction, another wave crashes against the ship, tilting it noticeably. Eugene stumbles and slaps the offered hand over his mouth to forestall the deluge. Rapunzel is still focused on the obstacle in their path. Her head comes up sharply when nothing but air meets her grasp. But it's already too late.
She stumbles forward before Eugene has a chance to grab her windmilling arm with the hand not clamping his mouth shut. Her hands go out in front of her to break her fall. She manages to prevent herself from slamming face first into the rope-strewn deck, but Eugene watches in horror as the sack slides off her head and lands unceremoniously on the deck with a plop.
Eugene scoops it off the ground and shoves it back to her. "Here," he hisses, urgency of another sort entirely beating back the nausea.
She scrambles to put it back on, but there is no point.
They have been caught. The captain is staring at the two of them as if they are the demon seeds of Davey Jones.
"Oh, this is bad. Really bad," Eugene mutters. Why did he ever think this plan would work?
"Be yer cousin… a female?" the captain asks, not taking his eyes off Rapunzel.
Pascal, being the wise chameleon he is, hides under her collar.
A distraction is in order. Eugene pretends to look shocked. "Bartimus, you never told me–"
He recognizes the look on Rapunzel's face and he realizes that she is done following his idea. She crosses her arms. "Yes, I do believe I am a woman," she declares, throwing down the verbal gauntlet.
Eugene wishes he could steal some of her courage for himself. Especially now as the deckhands move in, drawing their swords. Oh, yes. The immediate future is suddenly full of all sorts of unpleasant things. More so if the boat heaves again.
The forest of rusty and shipped swords doesn’t cow Rapunzel who, in turn, whips out her frying pan. From where, Eugene cannot even being to guess. One day, he’ll have to ask her about that.
She slowly spins around, facing their attackers.
Faced with this surprising resistance – and possibly never having run into this particular conundrum before – they resort to a bit of a pep talk. "Throw her overboard!" one skinny, sunburnt scallywag bravely warbles. Eugene had almost expected it to be a question instead of an recommendation.
"Aye!" is the resounding cheer of agreement.
This is bad.
"And toss that lying scoundrel Flynn Rider off with her!"
This is very bad.
"Ra—" he begins, trying desperately to summon up a dram of Flynn Rider wily cunning, but it appears he’s all out today.
But charm – or lack thereof – is a moot point. A pirate launches himself at Rapunzel who deftly leaps out of the way in a move that Eugene’s stomach warns him against trying himself. She trips the daring buccaneer, causing his sword to go flying through the air. Eugene grits his teeth, pretends he is not on a ship in the ocean (yes, it’s just another roadside tavern like the Snuggly Ducking… with a really big deck out back) and dives over the brutish men, catching the weapon with a bit of fumbling and a frantic thought for tetanus.
But he comes away with the weapon, victorious and unpunctured! Now, to deal with these guys.
Quickly! his stomach urges him.
Three pirates turn to him, brandishing their own swords. He doesn't wait for them to make the first strike; he swings the unfamiliar weapon at the attackers. Unfortunately, the ocean decides, at that precise moment, to roll beneath him. He stumbles ungainly to the left. Rapunzel steps up on his right, fry pan at the ready. But even her natural skill with whackery cannot compensate for his clumsiness. A motion out of the corner of his eye draws his gaze: Bigbeard stands at the helm, and spins the ship’s wheel sharply. Eugene has no time to brace himself. He crashes into Rapunzel and they both land hard on the deck, her frying pan somewhere beneath them.
Eugene is easily disarmed by the hulking men. In the next instant, he’s pulled upright and into a salty-man-smelling crowd. "Rapunzel!"
Amazingly enough, she isn’t down for the count. "Ruffians!" she declares, swinging the pan. A solid clang! and subsequent grunt of annoyance announces a direct hit.
He growls ineffectually as two pirates grab onto his arms and twist them behind his back. An open-air Snuggly Ducking all right!
Yeah, and maybe Rapunzel will be able to get us out of this mess, too . He saves the sarcastic snort of disbelief for later. For now, he needs to make sure she doesn’t get herself flung overboard any sooner than absolutely necessary.
She’s too busy fighting off her own set of pirates to look up. Which is just as well. What would have said? The only advice he has to offer is bad… and he knows it. Sure, they could tell everyone that they have the Princess of Corona aboard the ship and then every member of the royal family will be a hostage to somebody. Only this time, there’s no Maximus or Snuggly Duckilngs here to bail them out.
He watches as she puts one pirate down for the count with a backhand to the cheek before pivoting smartly (amazing, really, that she can move like that on a rocking vessel) and knocking the sword out of another's hands. She almost manages to evade the captain – Eugene glances toward the ship’s wheel, but the first mate is at the helm – but the captain is captain of the Sea Riot for a reason. He thrusts forward with his dagger. She zigs when she should have zagged and the frying pan arcs through the air. Shaking her no doubt stinging and empty hand, she bites her lip as it clatters beyond her reach.
Right, Rider. Now would be the time to do something stupendous.
Eugene does his best to fight against the strong hands that are holding him back, but his wobbly stance is no match for these ruffians and their sea legs.
Bigbeard levels the dagger at Rapunzel, a mere hair’s breadth away from the tip of her nose.
"Wait! Please, let me explain!" Eugene shouts.
But the pirates aren’t in the mood to listen.
"Get th’ plank!"
"An’ a cannon ball!"
"Don’ waste th’ ammunition! Let’s tie this to ‘er ankles!" a burly chap with an ugly bruise developing on his jaw holds up the cast iron frying pan.
His eyes lock with Rapunzel's. His plan has failed magnificently and now they are on their way to a watery grave. He doesn’t doubt that Max will find a way to rescue her parents, but when it comes time to tell them the fate of their only daughter… Well, at least Eugene won’t be around to see it.
He gazes into her wide, green eyes, possibly for the last time. He will never have the chance to ask her to marry him now. Or even if he does, and even if she accepts, their first kiss as to-be-weds will be underwater. Their wedding… Rapunzel waiting for him in the church, glowing in the sunlight… Pascal in a smart suit standing on the unwitting priest’s shoulder… having her in his harms – in public! – to the applause of all… their future… None of it will ever happen.
Tears sting his eyes as he squirms ineffectually in the hold of his captors. Rapunzel, I'm so sorry. He can’t bear to say the words, to make it final.
Amazingly, she scowls back at him. Somehow, this woman who had never fought a day in her life before he’d tumbled into her tower, still has determination to spare. Perhaps she’s been saving up all those years…
She rounds on the captain. "Please," she says in a clear voice that rings out despite the hulabaloo on the deck. "You’ll be destroying more lives than just ours."
"Ye shoulda though’ o’ that afore ye set foot on me ship!"
"How could I not!" she shouts back, leaning toward him in defiance of the still-ready dagger. "After eighteen years, I finally found my parents again! After eighteen years, I finally had a mother and a father who love me. And now they’re in trouble!"
Eugene’s heart twists. Oddly enough, his stomach remains silent and still. Rapunzel is going to be an amazing queen someday… if she gets the chance.
She pauses, glances pointedly at the blade of the dagger and then looks deeply into Bigbeard’s tiny, dark eyes. "Help me save them. Please? They need me. And I need you."
Every single, solitary deckhand freezes at her words.
The word rings out and seems to fill the world of sea and sky. Everyone holds their collective breath.
Rapunzel pushes her advantage. "My parents have been taken prisoner by the prince of Trist. I need to get into his castle and rescue them before something terrible happens!" Tears well in her luminous eyes and roll down her hemp-scratched cheeks.
Eugene is beyond impressed. I’ll have to help her write her acceptance speech for when they give her an award for this performance. But no. This is not a performance. This is Rapunzel, in all her passion and sincerity and innocence and wisdom. No one speaks the language of the heart like she does.
If anyone could sway these battle-hardened pirates, it would be her, but as the moment stretches and the silence continues, he begins to doubt that even this will be enough. He glances at Pascal who is currently clinging to Rapunzel’s collar. The lizard meets his gaze, eyes wide with helpless, barely-restrained panic. The ball is in the captain’s court.
He might have considered the continuing silences to be a good sign except he is still being held against his will and the captain still has his dagger pointed at Rapunzel.
"Look," Eugene says in what he hopes is a reasonable yet humble tone, "if we could just borrow one of the lifeboats—"
The suggestion dies unfinished as a great, gut-wrenching sound (or perhaps it’s simply another too-tall ocean wave) reverberates upon the deck. To Eugene’s absolute and complete surprise, Bigbeard starts sobbing himself. He slides the dagger back into its sheath and covers his face with both grimy hands. A few sniffles and snuffles from the gathered deckhands warns of more waterworks to come. Eugene gaps and stands motionless with shock when his captors release him in order to wipe at misty eyes and runny noses. The ship rocks again, seemingly urging him in Rapunzel’s direction. Snapping out of his daze, he stumbles over to her. He wants to clutch at her and wrap his entire being around her so that she is safe, but contents himself with reaching for her hand.
"I miss me mum!" sobs Bigbeard.
Eugene raises an eyebrow. Now, that was unexpected.
"Not as much as I miss me da!" a pirate shouts.
"That’s nothing!" counters another as he blubbers into what looks like a deck rag. "Each night I cry meself to sleep thinking o’ my momma’s mutton stew."
"Mutton stew!" shouts the rest of the crew in abject misery.
"There is nothing more valuable than a pirate's family," Bigbeard says, wiping a tear from his eye. "Without me pa, I woulda never learnt how to sail th’ seven seas."
The captain takes a deep, calming breath, wipes at his eyes with a very nice ladies’ lace handkerchief, and says, "Family be th’ most precious of treasures."
Eugene’s hand tightens around Rapunzel’s. He glances at her, savoring her profile as hope lights her eyes. Family is precious, Eugene agrees. But in his case, things are slightly more specific.
"Does that mean you’ll let us stay onboard?" she asks hopefully.
"And you’ll take us to Trist?"
"Aye. There be a dastardly prince to deal with, aye?"
The deckhands – tears instantly forgotten – perk up noticeably at the mention of meddling with a royal family.
But the captain doesn’t want to hear her thanks. He looks up and yells to the helmsman. "Make haste, swabby! We’ve got an appointment in Trist!"
As the buccaneers hastily – and enthusiastically – comply, Rapunzel sputters, "But he didn’t, I mean I really do want to thank him and—"
Eugene pulls her out of the way of several deckhands and guides her over to the shadows outside the captain’s office. "They don’t need you thanks, Blondie. Helping you being a burr under Banale’s saddle is their pleasure."
In fact, when this is all over, Eugene doesn’t doubt they’ll elect Rapunzel as their honorary captain by way of thanks.
"Oy, ye lot! Have we got all day?"
"Well, move it!" Bigbeard thunders. "We’ve got a family to reunite!"
Indeed they do.
Being a king, despite popular belief, is not a privilege. There are few, if any good days. Oh, there have been miracles – they’ve been blessed with the Power of the Sun; the queen and their unborn child had been saved; their daughter had returned to them, unharmed, after nearly eighteen long years – but the trouble with miracles is that they are coveted by others.
"Please, enjoy the refreshments," Prince Banale says to both the king and the queen of Corona. "I’m sure your daughter will be joining us soon, but there’s no need to stand on ceremony. She won’t mind so long as you save something for her, I’m sure."
With a smirk, the prince pivots smartly on his heel. The king glowers at his back, wishing the bruise on the man’s jaw – courtesy of Rapunzel’s admirable skills with her frying pan – prevented him from speaking. The door to their dark, gloomy room closes with a resounding thud! An iron lock is engaged. Only after that does the king reach for his wife. She comes into his arms, tears at the ready.
"I’m so foolish!" she hisses into his velvet vest. "Eugene tried to warn me but I did not heed him!"
The king pets her hair, taking comfort in the fact that they are together and their daughter is safe. "Rapunzel will have reached the castle by now. Everything will be all right."
"Yes, Eugene will look after her."
The king cannot deny that. "Yes, I know." His wife is not the only one who feels foolish. How silly he’d been to assume that a prince or a lord would look after Rapunzel, would treasure her properly. Clearly, not all of royal blood or privileged status can be trusted.
"Rapunzel is safe and the guard will respond to this treachery," he counsels her.
The queen nods, takes a deep breath and straightens. What is to come will be the hardest part and they must be strong. The king wipes away her tears and kisses her gently on the forehead. Now, they must wait and hope for silence, for with every silent hour that passes, they will know that Rapunzel is still out of Banale’s reach.
"Are ye sure ye don’t want me men to come with ye?"
Rapunzel smiles sweetly at the captain who, despite his roguish exterior, is nearly as tenderhearted as Hookhand. She wishes she could invite some of them along on the adventure, but she and Eugene had already discussed the idea of them showing up with these ruffians to save her parents. It was decided, much to Rapunzel's disappointment, that it was best for all parties involved to not involved Bigbeard or his men. "We’ll be fine, but thank you." She leans forward and gives him a soft peck on the cheek.
Catcalls sound around her.
"Come on, Blondie," Eugene says, pulling on her arm.
"Ye’ll be needin’ these." Bigbeard holds out a lit lantern, which Eugene takes. He then gestures for a deckhand to come over and squat down a bit. Pulling out the lacey handkerchief and a stick of charcoal, the captain places the square of linen on the man’s back and begins to sketch. "Ye’ll need this," he explains as he works, "as well as that lantern to find yer way through the secret entrance into the castle."
"There’s a secret entrance?" Rapunzel responds, nearly busting with intrigue.
"Well, there was…" The captain pauses, takes a moment to consider the issue, and then says, "But I’m supposin’ it innt too secret now that we know about it." The man gives Rapunzel a wink. She giggles. Eugene looks longingly at the shoreline just a short boat ride away. She bites back a smile.
"There ye be. Ye’ll be comin’ up into that castle right under Banale’s bumbucket, if ye’ll pardon me French, so douse that lantern like so—" He demonstrates as Eugene holds the light aloft. "—or he’ll clap peepers on ye."
"I understand," she promises, accepting the map on the used handkerchief. "Thank you, Bigsy." Out of the corner of her eye, Rapunzel sees Eugene roll his eyes. This time, she has to hold in a bubble of laughter.
Then it’s into the boat with two oarsmen. As Rapunzel swings over the railing of the ship, a battered pirate stops her and, grinning a cracked-tooth smile, hands her back her fry pan. "Frying pan," he grunts. "Now that was a surprise, ma’am."
"I’m sorry about your…" She gestures eloquently to her own jaw and cheek.
"He’s seen worse," one of his fellows reassures her.
"Now, I think ye look a mite better this way, Rupert."
Rupert, the battered sailor grins and helps Rapunzel into the boat. Eugene is already there waiting for her with one hand braced on the edge of the boat and the other reaching out to steady her. Rapunzel takes her seat and Eugene accepts the lantern back from the crewmember he’d elected to hold it for him and they’re on their way. The captain and his crew lean over the edge of the ship to watch their progress. Many wave goodbye. The farewells continue even after the boat has been lowered into the water and reached the shore. Eugene, of course, doesn’t notice. He’s a bit busy breathing deeply and grinning like a man who has encountered his very first crème brulee.
"We’ll be seein' ye soon," Bigbeard shouts.
Rapunzel waves back grandly, hoping the man can see them at this distance and in the light of the setting sun.
"Land, at last," Eugene sighs happily. "Here, Blondie. Show me the map." He hands her the lantern and stretches out the square of linen within its circle of light. "Right, so—"
"Aren’t you going to congratulate me?" she butts in.
He pauses and looks up at her in mock affront. "Why on earth would I tell you how amazing that was and that we’re all—" He says this with a glance at Pascal. "—still alive because of you?"
"Because it’s true?" she ventures.
"Hm. I don’t think your ego needs to hear it." Despite the words, he leans forward and gives her a gentle kiss on the lips. "But thank you," he murmurs.
"Cold?" he asks, frowning slightly with concern.
This is not the time or the place to inform him of the amazing sensations his voice inspires in her, especially when he uses that tone. "Where are we on the map?" she asks instead, referring to the rocky and desolate beach.
"Ah, well, if this scribble is the shore and this smudge is the ship, then we’re here so we should head…" Eugene looks up and nods in a northerly direction. "That way." The going is slow in the dwindling light and the jagged rocks give way to burr-infested forest. In the distance, the ominous growl of thunder rolls. Rapunzel peers up through the gnarled and half-dead tree limbs and sees dark, foreboding clouds looming overhead. She smiles widely.
Eugene, who now seems to be fully recovered from his seasickness, steps up next to her and observes quietly, "That's an unusual reaction to stormy skies. Especially while they are directly above us."
She clasps his arm. "It means that Banale hasn't discovered the crowns’ true power. If he had figured out how to use my parents’ crowns, these storm clouds wouldn’t be here." She glances down at Eugene’s satchel and muses, "He must still think that my crown is the only one with power." Again the thunder rumbles, perhaps grumbling with reluctant agreement. She releases Eugene’s arm and pirouettes in the narrow space. "We still have time to save my parents!"
Eugene doesn’t seem as convinced as she is. "Well," he shrugs, "that's one way to look at it. But, I wouldn't be so sure about the number of eggs in the basket just yet, Blondie."
As soon as she words leave he mouth, he winces. Rapunzel recognizes that look; it's the one he gives when he thinks he has just said Too Much. "Eugene..."
He tries the Flynn Rider method of ignoring her. Back straight, eyes narrowed, self-important oozing from his pores, he gestures grandly and declares, "I think we should get under those trees. It looks like the skies are gonna open up any minute."
He should know better than to try that! It has never worked on her before and it’s not about to work now! She crosses her arms and stops walking. "We're not going anywhere until you tell me what you mean."
Pascal scurries out of the safety of her collar to her shoulder. She can see him give Eugene his most intimidating look.
"Fine," he huffs. "I recognized the man who came to talk to your mother about your engagement to Prince Banale." Eugene nods in the direction of the castle, which they have yet to catch a glimpse of. "Lord Rein was the interested buyer for the crown, er, your crown, three years ago."
He crosses his arms as if to say There, happy now?
She frowns at his confession. "Didn’t you tell Momma this before she left to go with that man?"
Eugene sighs deeply, running a hand through his hair and thoroughly tousling it. Rapunzel actually prefers it this way. "I tried. I just didn’t try hard enough, obviously. The fact of the matter is, when it comes down to it, it’s still hard for your parents to trust a former thief." He fidgets with the map in his hand. "Not that I blame them."
Rapunzel doesn’t know how to reply to that. She can’t rush in to reassure him that what he thinks isn’t true because she’s not sure of it herself, especially after her conversation with her father on the first day of the tour. She reaches for his hand and gives it a squeeze. "I believe you."
He offers her a thin-lipped smile. "I know you do, Blondie. And that’s enough for me."
"Come on," she says, pulling on his hand. "I can’t do this by myself and they need us."
"Us?" he checks with a halfhearted smile, falling into step beside her. "Your grand speech on Bigbeard’s boat didn’t mention anything about an ‘us’."
"I should have mentioned it. It’s true. And after we rescue them, things will be different, Eugene. I promise."
His response is another squeeze of her hand.
The northward trail winds and twists through the wilderness, leading up an incline. The forest is too dense to determine if they’re climbing a mountain or merely heading inland. Rapunzel shivers as peals of thunder clap and boom – one after the other – in the rapidly chilling air. The wind whips around them, curling its bitterly cold fingers around her body. Big, fat drops of rain tumble down, splattering the canopy of sickly leaves above them. Thankfully, the dense overgrowth deters most of the rain.
Where these the storms the king had told her about? She shudders helplessly. She actually longs for the potato sack now; she could have fashioned a vest from it at least…
A strong arm wraps around her. She sighs gratefully as Eugene's warmth spreads over her chilled body. She looks up into his concerned face and smiles appreciatively.
"Don't worry. We're almost there," he rumbles in her ear, his voice dark and deep like distant thunder.
They walk in silence for another quarter hour. Finally, they reach the position marked on Bigbeard’s map. The mouth of the tunnel looms before them. "According to this," Eugene says, nodding towards the paper, "there is a passageway that leads directly to the castle."
"Eugene…" she asks carefully, drawing out his name.
She glances at the handkerchief still clutched in Eugene’s hand. "Why did Bigbeard know about this secret tunnel?"
He gives her a rueful smile. "I’ll give you three guesses."
"He’s stolen from the king and queen of Trist before?"
"Maybe," Eugene replies. "But there could be another reason."
She bites her lip, looks at the tunnel and says, "Bigbeard or his family has worked for them before?"
"Bingo," he replies with a wink. "Having a shipful of pirates on your payroll can be mighty—"
"—profitable." Eugene blinks at her, startled by her outburst.
Rapunzel feels a huge grin stretch her lips wide. "Bigbeard and his crew are pirates? Actual pirates?"
Eugene, rather than laughing with her at the discovery, scowls. "If Gothel were still alive, I’d have her thrown in jail for denying you picture books as a kid." He shakes his head, sighing. "Come on, Princess. We’ve got work to do."
Lantern held before them, they step into the darkened cavern. Tiny, black shadows dart here and there, just within the range of the lamplight. She’s terribly thankful for the tattered leather boots Eugene had foisted upon her, but she stays close to his side. So close she treads on the edges of his boots as they cross the uneven stone floor.
"We must be getting close," he whispers, fiddling with the screw that controls the flame. "We’d better turn down the light."
Rapunzel fumbles for the lantern and coaxes the fire brighter again as she tries to ignore how very close those tiny dark shadows are now, darting in and out of her sight. She nearly knocks Eugene over when one of the rats nearly runs across her shoe.
Luckily, she thinks to clamp her lips shut on the squeal of revulsion.
Eugene tucks her closer against his side and chuckles. "You’re afraid of rats?"
"I’m not afraid of them," she says defensively. "I just don’t like them. There’s a difference."
The truth is she still has nightmares about the stories Gothel had told her about rats. They carry disease that eats your skin! If we don’t keep our tower clean, they’ll climb up the stones, come in through the windows and watch you from the shadows, waiting until you’re asleep to…!
With a sharp shake of her head, Rapunzel slams the door shut on that memory. She’s beginning to see why Eugene always looks so irritated when the subject of her childhood or her ignorance of the world comes up. Picture books would have been much better than stories meant to frighten her into spending every hour of the day cleaning instead of dreaming about the world outside. It hadn’t worked forever, but it had worked for nearly eighteen years. It might have worked for longer yet if not for the lanterns the lit the night sky on her birthday, every year without fail.
"Hey," Eugene calls, bringing her back from her thoughts, "you alright?"
She shrugs off her thoughts. It’s been a long time since she has allowed herself to think of Gothel, but something about this tunnel seems to be bringing forth all sorts of less-than-pleasant things. Lies disguised as truths meant to keep her up in that tower. Willingly.
She forces out a breath, pushes away her thoughts and pastes on a smile. "I’m fine."
He doesn’t seem convinced, but he thankfully lets the subject drop.
Pascal peeks from under her collar. Apparently he doesn’t believe her either. He, unlike Eugene, understands where Rapunzel’s fear of the hairy rodents comes from. He nuzzles into the side of her neck. "There’s not that many," she whispers to her chameleon friend. "Besides, I’ve got my frying pan."
She holds it up so her chameleon friend can see. He nods approvingly. Nothing, not thief or rodent or pirate, can stand a chance against her kitchen weapon of choice.
The lizard waddles back under her collar, safe from the dark dankness that surrounds them. She envies him that. At least he can pretend to be somewhere else, she thinks wistfully.
She follows Eugene’s lead through the darkened tunnels, trying not to listen to the pitter-patter of little, sharp-clawed rat feet.
Perhaps it’s the grip she has on Eugene’s arm – glancing down she notices that her knuckles are white with the strain – that clues him in to her continued distress. He clears his throat and asks softly and with cheer that is obviously manufactured, "So, is there anything I should know about this prince guy before we inevitably meet up with him?"
Eager to distract herself from their furry companions, she blurts out, "You and he are a lot alike."
His hold on the map falters slightly, and for an instant Rapunzel fears he’ll drop the wilted square of linen. She breathes a sigh of relief when his grip tights on it again and then holds her breath when he suddenly stops walking and faces her. If she didn’t know him as well as she does, she would have thought her words hadn’t had the slightest effect on him. He looks absolutely passive.
She winces. "That… came out badly. Um…" she glances around the cave before closing her eyes and muttering, "can we keep walking while I try to explain what I really meant?"
He nods, resuming the trek.
"You’re both trying to make something of yourselves, build a life that’s separate from the one you grew up in. Dashing and brave and in control…"
She glances at him from under her lashes. He doesn’t look too angry. He doesn’t look pleased, either.
"That’s not to say that you’re exactly the same because I despise him – even before he turned against my father and I! – and, ugh…" Really, there are no words that would reflect her loathing. "But he’s a prince and he has responsibilities. Did you notice the forest? The shoreline? Where are the animals, the crops and farms? Trist has none of the prosperity that Corona does. He’s desperate."
"Oh, I know, I know! It doesn’t excuse his actions. And I want to pull each and every perfect hair out of his head one-by-one! But… Eugene. Taking care of a country is a big responsibility."
His shoulders relax. He swallows audibly. "I know."
"I don’t know if I can do this. Be a princess, I mean, and one day a queen."
He sounds so certain! If only she could share his confidence. "But I…"
"When you’re ready – and you will be ready – Corona will be the happiest country in the whole world."
"I hope so…"
Eugene clears his throat. "So, we have Banale’s motivations. And we know what his choices were."
He pats the satchel. "Are you forgetting about the fact that I was hired to steal your crown three years ago?"
"Yeah, oh." He takes a deep breath. "So how is it you can hate this Banale guy and not me, even though we’re so much alike?"
She gapes at him. "Eugene…"
"I mean, the guy uses people to further his own goals, right? And I’ve done that. The Stabbingtons could tell you all about it—"
"So what’s really got me wondering here," he continues a bit too loudly, "is why you love me even though I’m just like him?"
"But you’re not! Don’t you see? You—!" Clutching his arm, she turns to give him her full attention. That’s when the shadows just beyond his shoulders begin to stir. Only this movement isn’t small.
"Eugene?" she whispers, horror choking her.
Another second passes before a shape separates from the gloom. A very large shape. She gropes blindly for his hand and shakes it insistently. Clearly frustrated with the interruption, he glances over his shoulder, turns back around, freezes, and then whips back toward the stirring shadows again.
"Whoa!" he announces, his voice booming and ringing in the tunnel. Clutching Rapunzel’s hand in his, he starts walking backwards towards the passage entrance. Rapunzel stumbles along with him, her curiosity making her feet move slower than his. With the creature heading their way, she both longs for and dreads a glimpse of it. Its footsteps thunder towards them slowly and steadily. Had she and Eugene been of one mind about escaping, they might have evaded it, however…
"Rapunzel!" he hisses.
She halfheartedly moves a bit faster, but it makes no difference. The gap between them and the creature is now very narrow. She gasps as the beast steps out of the shadows and into the lantern’s light.
It is enormous.
It is green.
"It’s a giant lizard," sputters Eugene, not taking his eyes off the enormous creature.
"Actually," booms a deep voice, "I am a dragon."
"It’s a giant talking lizard," Eugene squeaks.
"Dragon," she corrects him absently. "But I thought Banale killed—"
"Run now, speculate later," Eugene scolds her, trying to pull her bodily back down the tunnel.
"But my parents!"
He huffs out a breath and something that must have been a curse word but it’s too muffled for Rapunzel to catch. "Right. OK." Without another word, he thrusts the map at Rapunzel and grabs the frying pan from her hand. "I’ve got this. You and the frog get inside the castle."
"I’m not sure that’s such a good idea…" she mumbles. Rapunzel recalls reading about dragons. The castle has an extensive library and the subject is well-represented in the stacks, but despite her studies, she’d never imagined one being so… gigantic! The poor lighting from the lantern doesn’t let her see many details of the hulking beast except for the fact his scales seems to glisten and he seems to have a very large—!
"Are those wings?" Eugene sputters.
Rapunzel nods. Pascal scrambles under her collar, presumably diving for cover. "It will be alright, Pascal," she whispers. But she can’t imagine how it will be. There’s no way they can get past the beast if it decides to block the passage by unfurling its wings!
Despite Eugene’s command to run for the castle, she stays right where she is.
"Rapunzel…" he growls in a warning tone as he hefts the pan. "Get ready."
She ignores him. She watches the dragon. The dragon watches her back. Eugene takes his chance. Diving, ducking and dodging a dragon attack that does not come, he brings the pan down with all his might… on the creature’s largest toe.
The dragon appears decidedly unimpressed.
Eugene is undeterred. He readies himself for another attempt. Pan held high, he glances briefly over his shoulder at her and frowns furiously. "Go, Rapunzel!" He punctuates his statement by hitting the dragon squarely in the belly.
"I’m not leaving you!" The man is clearly still suffering from those knocks on the head that she’d given him in the tower if he honestly believes she’ll just dash off without him! She looks around the cavern to find something to fight with. In the corner she sees a large rock. That could work.
"Now is not the time to argue," he retorts. Swinging the pan.
This time the flat bottom of the pan connects with his chin. The dragon sighs with boredom.
Eugene glares at the dragon and then at the pan. "This… is kind of an off day for me," he mumbles, but prepares for another go.
Raunzel leaps over to the stone lying on the tunnel floor and sets down the lantern. Ignoring the very idea of an animal smaller than the dragon existing in the tunnel, she heaves the rock up from the floor and into her arms, bracing it on her shoulder. She stumbles forward until she’s within range.
In mid fry pan swing, he does and Rapunzel twirls once to build momentum and then hurls the rock at their adversary…
… but it bounces off of him as if it were nothing but a pebble. The dragon issues a grumpy snort, lifts up his mighty tail and knocks the frying pan out of Eugene’s hand. With the fry pan once again out of reach, the rock lying at the dragon’s enormous feet and only a handkerchief map and a low-on-oil lanter between them… well…
They’ve had better odds.
Eugene stumbles over the dragon’s tail, trying to reach Rapunzel. She reaches out her hand for him to take, but before their fingers meet, the dragon spreads its huge wings and flaps them. The force of the wind causes Eugene and Rapunzel to lose their footing on the slippery floor.
She falls to the ground, landing precariously close to the dragon’s large clawed toes. Pascal flies out of his shelter and ends up on the floor next to the frying pan.
She tries to spin out of the way of the dragon, but her breeches are caught on the dragon’s claw. "Eugene!"
He scrambles over to her, grabs her arm and pulls. The fabric rips slightly. That and no more. He braces himself against the rock floor and heaves, but the cloth stubbornly refuses to budge.
The dragon slowly lifts up his enormous tail, ready to strike. Rapunzel winces into Eugene’s chest. This will be a killing blow, she doesn’t doubt. She should push Eugene out of the way! He should run, save himself and—!
And then, suddenly, the dragon stops.
Rapunzel opens her eyes and sees Pascal, standing between her and the great beast, holding up his hands in a clear gesture to stop and desist.
For a long moment, nothing happens. No one moves. And then the dragon lowers his head and studies the chameleon closely. There’s the sound of a delicate sniff, a surprised lizard squeak, and before Rapunzel can panic over the fate of her friend, the dragon wonders aloud, "Brother? Is that you?"
An astonished squeaky exclamation is the reply.
Rapunzel gapes. "You… you know Pascal?" she asks, her fear forgotten.
The dragon looks up, confused for a moment. "Pascal? Who is that?"
The chameleon starts chirping to the giant leaning over them. Rapunzel does her best to keep up with Pascal’s expressive squeaks, but he seems to be far too excited to enunciate properly! She can only just barely get the gist of what is being said.
"You have got to be kidding me." Eugene sinks to his knees and begins to tug at the fabric itself while the dragon is clearly distracted. His efforts, however, are in vain. He raises his head and opens his mouth to bark some order or other at the chameleon.
Rapunzel hushes him with a look before returning her attention to Pascal.
And then the dragon laughs. "It is you, big brother!" He lifts Pascal up and brings him close to his face. "I haven’t seen you since you left Berk!"
Stuck breeches forgotten, aggravation forgotten, all crises and imminent disasters forgotten, Eugene’s jaw drops. "Whoa, hold on. Did he just say big brother?" Eugene whispers.
Pascal, who had apparently overheard Eugene’s question, nods.
"Of course he and I are family. Anyone can see the family resemblance!"
Eugene looks from Pascal to the dragon and then back again, his expression droll. "Of course."
The dragon places Pascal carefully on the ground. "Though it has been years since I have seen him." Speaking directly to Pascal, he accuses, "Look at how big you’ve gotten! I almost didn’t recognize you!"
"And you are his brother?" Rapunzel asks the dragon.
"Of course, but where are my manners? My name is Witzig." He holds out an enormous clawed hand for her to shake.
She hesitates only slightly before clasping the tip of his forefinger in greeting. "I’m Rapunzel… of Corona."
"Rapunzel… Rapunzel…" The dragon mules the name over. "Where have I heard of you… Ah hah! Now I remember! You’re the princess!"
She nods, wondering at how this could be significant to a dragon.
He tells her proudly, "You are the beautiful young woman who has ensnared the heart of my prince!" Witzig examines her closely. "Strange, but he never mentioned your excellent sense of fashion."
Her eyes narrow. She lets the comment about her attire slide. "I do not believe the prince’s intentions are as pure as you think, Witzig."
"Whatever do you mean? I’ll have you know that out of all the princes in the land, he is the most charming!" argues the dragon, back up a step as he pulls himself up to his full height. The motion has the additional effect of releasing her breeches from beneath his massive, rock-like toes. Eugene hastily pulls her to her feet.
Pascal takes the opportunity to set the record straight. With a firm shake of his head, he starts chirping.
Rapunzel watches as the dragon intently listens to Pascal’s recount of everything that has happened. She looks at Eugene who seems to be trying to understand this most interesting exchange.
Finally, the chameleon is finished giving their side of the story. The dragon studies Pascal for a second before he starts pacing. The floor underneath them rumbles and shakes with his of his mighty steps. "And you believe this princess?" he asks, nodding towards Rapunzel.
Pascal nods emphatically.
Witzig rubs his chin, thinking. "The story the prince has told me is quite different from yours, brother. When he found me and hired me on as Guard of the Secret Tunnel, he said that he would bring the King and Queen of Corona to the castle because their palace had been infiltrated by a notorious thief."
Pascal crosses his arms and points at Eugene with his tail.
"This is the thief he was talking about?" He studies Eugene for a second. "He hardly looks fearsome and sinister."
Rapunzel lays a hand on his arm. Blows to his ego are always the most painful for Eugene.
The dragon turns to Rapunzel and bows before her. "My sincerest apologies, your Grace. I have been misled. I hope you will find it in you to forgive me."
"Of course," she replies. "But we need to save my parents before Banale does something drastic."
"No harm will come to the King and Queen of Corona, I assure you. The prince seemed quite convinced that you would agree to marry him once you heard his side of things."
The nerve of that… not-yet-a-monarch! She crosses her arms. "I will never marry him!" She feels Eugene’s arm settle on her waist and she is instantly glad for the warmth.
She doesn’t miss the appraising look Witzig gives her and Eugene. "Yes, I can see that."
Rapunzel doesn’t understand what he sees (maybe as a dragon he sees things differently), but a spark of hope starts to bloom in her chest.
"Will you… will you help us find my parents?"
Witzig looks at her, then at Eugene, and finally at Pascal. He nods. "I can lead you to the dungeon. The key, however, is in the Prince’s possession. It will require someone with rather… unsavory skills to retrieve it." His gaze settles on Eugene once more.
Rapunzel glances up and shares a grin with the man at her side. In a playful tone, Eugene admits, "I might be able to help with that."
The dungeon is even darker than the underground passageway. Not a pleasant discovery at all.
“And you thought this was the proper way for your buddy to treat royalty?” Eugene demands of the dragon.
Fortunately for Eugene, Witzig doesn’t blow a breath of fiery instant death in his direction. Perhaps because Witzig doesn’t have much of a temper. Perhaps because dragon fire is a myth. (Although, really, with all the myths floating around, it would be better to err on the side of caution here.)
The dragon simply frowns in response. “He told me they needed to remain hidden because the thief in Corona was too crafty and cunning. Keeping them in the main castle would have been obvious.” He huffs. “Clearly, he overestimated your skills.”
Eugene props his hands on his hips in affront. “I’ll have you know that I was Corona’s most wanted thief!”
“My brother said that the princess knocked you out with one blow from her frying pan,” counters Witzig, through a toothy smirk.
“He wasn’t expecting for me to be in the tower,” Rapunzel rushes in to defend him.
“A thief of such caliber should always be prepared.”
Eugene’s grip tightens around the handle of the reclaimed frying pan at the sight of Pascal laughing hysterically on his brother’s shoulder. The dragon’s criticism shouldn’t bother him, he knows; after all, he’s been Eugene for years now. His thieving days are long gone; Flynn Rider is nothing more than a thing of the past. Except when a king and a queen need rescuing.
Right, except for that.
Still, there’s a small part of him (although not all that small, unfortunately) that is offended by the dragon’s teasing. Eugene had spent years working on his reputation. He’d been legendary! There is no reason for this simpleton of a dragon to not be overwhelmed with awe while in the presence of as a master thief such as himself.
Or rather, there is no reason Eugene wants to admit to.
He scowls. As far as he is concerned, this conversation is over. In the next hour or so, it’ll be clear just who is the master thief in this castle.
Rapunzel leans close and murmurs, apropos. “They do look like brothers, don’t they?”
Eugene blinks at Rapunzel. She smiles back. He obligingly turns his attention to the reptiles. He squints. Then he glares. But no matter how long he looks at the pair, outside of their green hue, there is absolutely nothing that shows a family resemblance. “Sorry, not seeing it.”
Silence is their constant companion as they continue walking. Mold and mildew cover the walls; the cobblestone floor is cracked and uneven. Rapunzel reaches for his hand as the ground’s unevenness makes it nearly impossible to walk.
“This particular passage has not been used in nearly a century,” Witzig explains. “I doubt the prince even knows it exists.” He stops walking momentarily. “Perhaps, Princess, you would be more comfortable riding on my back than attempting to walk this rough terrain.”
Eugene notices the invitation hadn’t been extended to him.
Rapunzel lets go off his hand and gleefully climbs onto the dragon’s back. Eugene can’t say he blames her lack of reluctance; after a journey on a ship filled with the sea’s most notorious pirates and a trek through the creepiest forest in existence, what’s a ride on a dragon?
“I trust that a thief of your skill can manage the way,” Witzig says. Eugene doesn’t miss the tinge of sarcasm in his voice.
“What’s there to manage?” he retorts as he carefully navigates around a slime-covered rock.
Rapunzel gives him a wave as Witzig once again takes the lead. And here I thought Max had maxed out my daily allowance of Annoyance. But it turns out there are previously unplumbed depths to Eugene’s irritation.
The path trips him up twice, but thankfully Witzig is too busy showing Rapunzel how skilled he is at wiggling his bat-like ears to notice. Finally, they approach a cross section. A narrow hallway cuts through the tunnel. Eugene glances left and then right, noting with relief a small beam of moonlight streaming down from a small overhead window further down the hall.
Their guide nods to the right. “The prince took them down that way. I’m sorry but I don’t know their exact location.”
“It’s alright,” Rapunzel assures him, sliding down off of his back and into Eugene’s outstretched arms. “You’ve done so much for us already.”
Pascal trills something that, by his tone, Eugene is sure is meant to be witty.
The dragon chuckles. “I’ll hold you to that. I’m very interested in the story behind this new name of yours, Pascal.” Family reunion now tentatively scheduled, Witzig further offers, “I will stay here and keep an eye out for anyone.”
Rapunzel pats the dragon on his massive shoulder before taking Eugene’s hand. Wary of the dwindling store of oil in the lamp’s base, Eugene moves quickly. He holds the lantern out as they move down the hall, peering into one cold, uninviting cell after another, looking for signs of the king and queen.
Eugene moves silently but Rapunzel evidently doesn’t feel that she can rely solely on the dim light of the flame. “Momma? Daddy?” she whispers through the rusty, barred window of each door. Finally, near the end of the hall, next to a staircase that is more rock and dirt than actual carved steps, they hear the sound of movement. Rapunzel pulls Eugene forward and he obligingly lifts the light. Within the depths of the cell, something that is not a stone wall is illuminated. Two somethings. With glittery objects upon their heads.
“Momma? Daddy?” she nearly whines with excitement.
“Rapunzel?” The king’s reply coincides with a feminine gasp and then suddenly, the area surrounding the cell door is a very crowded place indeed. The king and queen press close to the bars, squinting in the light as they reach for their daughter.
Overcome with joy and relief and heartache, tears pool in Rapunzel’s eyes as she clasps their hands through the rusty bars. “Are you alright?”
Eugene takes in their appearance. Except for the bruise on the king’s right cheek, they both seem to be uninjured. Perhaps that dragon had been right, maybe that fool of a prince still thinks he has a chance to marry Rapunzel.
“We are fine.” The king gives his daughter a reassuring smile before turning towards Eugene, frowning darkly. “But what do the two of you think you’re doing here?”
“Rescuing you!” Rapunzel supplies joyfully.
Eugene tries not to fidget under the king’s expressive scowl.
“You should be back at the castle! Safe!” the queen whispers urgently, clearly horrified to see her daughter here, now. “Mister Fitzherbert should have known better than to—“
“Let me come and find you all by myself. And I would have done it, too,” Rapunzel defends him.
Truer words were never spoken.
“The guard are on their way,” Eugene offers, hoping to placate the king. “They should be here soon. But we need to get you both out of here before Banale gets any bright ideas to up the ante.”
The queen whispers to her daughter, her tone fearful, “You shouldn’t be here, darling. Prince Banale is determined to have your crown.”
“And me,” Rapunzel amends. The queen’s silence speaks volumes. She reaches up, scraping the sleeve of her dress on the filthy bars and caresses Rapunzel’s cheek.
“This is no place for you,“ her father begins. “Your mother is right. You should not be here—“
“Neither should you,” she whispers, tears pooling in her eyes.
Her mother’s hand drops. The king leans a bit closer to the bars. “Dearest, you must leave.” He touches his crown subconsciously. “There isn’t much time, little one. Soon he will realize the truth—”
He stops suddenly, looking at Eugene.
“It’s alright, Daddy. Eugene knows about the crowns’ power. When Momma was taken, I told him.”
The king doesn’t look too happy at the idea that she had shared the family secret with Eugene, but doesn’t admonish his daughter. He takes off his crown and his wife does the same. He holds them out to Rapunzel between the bars. “Take these back to Corona where they will be safe.”
Rapunzel shakes her head. Eugene can’t help but to smirk at her father’s dumbfounded expression. “We’re not going anywhere without you.”
“Mr. Fitzherbert...” the queen begins.
Eugene shrugs helplessly. Hey, she’s the princess. I have to follow her orders. Instead of standing around being a lantern holder, Eugene crouches down to get a better look at the lock. Iron. Solid. Old. Rusty. The rust poses a problem as the tools he carry with him are made of softer, more flexible metal and it’s going to take a lot of force to budge these aged mechanisms.
Before he can get pulled back into the family debate continuing over his head, he feels a tiny tug on his trouser leg. He looks down at Pascal who is nodding in the direction where Witzig is standing. “I hate to leave this stimulating discussion, but I have a dragon who’s trying to get my attention.”
He hands Rapunzel the lantern and strides back over to the dragon, who is scowling mightily.
“I believe this will help you in your efforts to retrieve the key from the prince.” Witzig drops a guard’s uniform at Eugene’s feet.
Eugene eyes the clothing suspiciously. “You didn’t just eat the person who wore this, did you?” He picks the tunic up off the ground, wincing at the strand of dragon drool that clings to the material.
The dragon huffs indignantly. “Of course not! I had my brother help me pick the lock to gain access to the old dungeon armory!”
“It was a joke.” Eugene explains. He then faces Pascal. “See? Those thieving skills do come in handy every once in a while, don’t they?” He winks. “Well done.”
The frog flicks his tongue out, looking very smug and superior. Well, as smug and superior as a six-inch lizard can look.
He grabs the rest of the clothing and heads back to the tunnel entrance. Looking back at Pascal, he orders, “No peeking.”
The frog laughs and Eugene smiles. Here in this horrible place, the moment of levity is needful.
Quickly, he changes into the stolen garb. He grabs the helmet, which will do an effective job of masking most of his face, and goes to show off his disguise to the royal family.
“Well, it’s no potato sack,” he says, approaching the three of them, “but I think it’s going to work.”
Rapunzel looks at him quickly, before doing a double-take. A smitten smile passes over her lips as she takes in his outfit.
She is giving him the once over!
“Don’t tell me you like a man in a uniform,” he says dryly. He crosses his arms for good measure.
“You look… very handsome.”
He can’t hold back the groan that escapes his lips. Great, she does have a thing for uniforms. It figures. This probably means there will be all sorts of offhanded references about joining the elite royal guard now. He holds up a finger. “Don’t start getting any ideas, Princess,” he says warningly. “Now, if you’d excuse me, I’ve got a key to steal.”
Eugene doesn’t know what kind of man Prince Banale is (there’s absolutely no way he’s going to acknowledge her comparison of them from earlier), but once he sees the prince standing in the middle of the castle’s third floor study, he is forced to make an admission that rattles his soul: the prince is a handsome man. Maybe even more handsome than Eugene himself!
Nah, he quickly assures himself, that’s pretty much impossible.
He pulls his gaze from the man’s face and scans the room from the safety of his discreet position just outside it, noting the presence of one other man besides the prince as Eugene looks for anything old-key shaped.
There, on the table in the center of the room, the key in question sits alone, beckoning the former thief.
Scowling at the prince who is idly leafing through what appears to be some charts spread out over an old, dilapidated table beneath an assortment of mounted deer and elk heads, Eugene evaluates the situation.
This guy must think he’s got it in the bag to be so confident.
It’s gonna be fun raining on his parade.
So, to work! Setting foot in the room is his only option. With a quick shuffle, an effective distraction and a quick sleight of hand, then the key could be his. Right. Plan? Check. Implementation? … Working on it.
With a frustrated huff, the prince begins pacing the room. He runs his hand through his perfectly styled blonde hair. Unfortunately, the gesture only improves the hairstyle. Eugene’s stomach rolls with disgust despite there being no ship or sea in sight.
"Your highness…" The weary reprimand comes from the only other individual in the room, Lord Rein. "Please remain calm. Our plan will succeed."
"Will it?" Banale challenges. "We don’t seem to be making much progress."
"The princess’ crown will be found as will the princess. Surely Corona is a prize worth waiting for."
"I hate waiting."
Thank you, Captain Obvious. Eugene smirks.
"I still don’t know where we went wrong," he continues in an unbecoming whine. "I was charming. I was heroic. She should have been easily swayed toward accepting my marriage proposal."
The lord lays a hand on the young man’s shoulder. "We knew she was… different."
"Yes, I am well aware of the company she keeps." His distain permeates the air.
Eugene can’t think of better company than himself. However, it seems that the prince disagrees with his silent assessment. Not wanting to add yet another reason to hate the prince to his ever-growing collection, Eugene makes his entrance. In this uniform he looks just like any number of other guards. He’d passed many on his way here. Still, he tilts his chin just so, allowing the helmet to shade his eyes more effectively. "Excuse me, your Majesty." And then with a slight twitch of his chin in Rein’s direction, he adds, "My lord."
Lord Rein looks up expectantly and with some relief. "Any news to report?"
"No word of the princess, my lord, but..." He walks to the middle of the room. The table is almost within his reach. Now, it’s time for a little distraction. "A sighting of the thief has been reported."
"Has he?" Rein muses. "Here in Trist?"
Eugene nods. "He attempted to cross the border. Our soldiers are in pursuit."
"Hah!" Banale crows and shares a look of triumph with a gloating Rein. In that single moment, Eugene takes his chance and palms the key from the table. He leaves behind a piece of a broken hinge that he’d found in the dungeons. With any luck, neither man will notice that the object on the table is not the one they’d put there for a good fifteen minutes. Maybe more. That, Eugene thinks silently, is how a master works.
"We’ll have him soon! And with that simpleton out of our way…!" Banale rejoices.
Rein argues gently. "Yes, although before he’s disposed of, he might be of some use to us in luring the princess to Trist." The lord leans back in his chair and folds his hands over his belly. "Yes, you see, your Majesty? It’s all coming together. Patience is the key."
At the mention of the key, Eugene quickly distracts the prince from glancing in the direction of that very object. "If I may, sir, I would like to confirm the details."
"Yes, yes, go," Banale bids him with a listless wave of his hand. "Leave us."
"Yes, your Majesty. My lord." Bowing, Eugene retreats from the room, key in hand.
This is almost too easy! Eugene nearly makes it out of the door before Rein calls out to him. Maybe not too easy, he quickly amends. He wonders if uniforms come with built-in warmers: his collar is suddenly feeling strangely hot.
The lord stands, giving him a considering look, and crosses the room toward him. "You look very familiar, soldier. What is your name?"
"Bartimus. Morphy Bartimus." Was that his voice that had squeaked? "Sir."
"Hm… I don’t believe I’ve heard of you…"
"I don’t usually patrol the castle, sir, but given the circumstances…"
"Yes, we’re all a bit out of our element, aren’t we?"
"Oh, let him be, Rein," the prince demands. "You and I have things to discuss."
The lord, however, is stubborn. He continues examining Eugene very closely. "I am almost certain…"
Several tense seconds pass before the older man finally snaps fingers. "Ah hah! Your brother is in the third battalion, isn’t he? Captain Bartimus, I believe."
Relief makes his easy chuckle sound loud and awkward to himself. "You caught me, sir. The military life is in our blood."
Rein slaps him on the shoulder. "As is gambling, I’d wager. Tell him he still owes me an ale the next time he sees me. I may be old, but I’m not that forgetful."
Eugene nods. "I will pass on the message, my lord."
Then, before the old man has another brainwave that contradicts the first, Eugene turns around and leaves the room. It’s time to save the king and queen.
Pascal feels Eugene’s booming footsteps vibrate up through the grimy dungeon floor before he actually sees him. He scampers up Rapunzel’s oddly smelling clothes and stands on her shoulder as the familiar man in an unfamiliar uniform comes bounding down the hall.
"Did you get it?" she whispers hopefully.
"You have to ask?" He flashes a confident smile at her and dangles the key between his fingers. "I think I’m offended."
Pascal lets out a sigh of relief. They really are going to save the king and queen!
"You’re going to have to teach me how to do that next," Rapunzel forgets.
"What? Pretend to be a soldier? Sorry to disappoint you, Blondie, but I’m pretty sure the uniform won’t fit," he teases. Pascal rolls his eyes at the thief’s lighthearted mood.
Eugene strides over to the locked door and slides the key inside. Seconds later, the lock snaps open with a resounding clang!
"Your Majesties," Eugene murmurs, bowing as he opens the door.
The king and queen rush to Rapunzel and Pascal quickly moves out of the way. Hugs are all well and good, but this one looks to be a mite too enthusiastic for the reptile to handle. He dodged and weaves thinking longingly of the relative safety of Eugene’s borrowed jacket.
"I’ve got you, frog." Eugene plucks him from Rapunzel’s shoulder and sets him on his own. "You know how they are about hugging," he whispers with a sardonic smile.
Pascal watches the family reunion for a second before frowning. They need to leave soon before the prince discovers his key is missing! He clears his throat.
Rapunzel is the first to pull away. "Pascal is right. We need to get going." She looks at him. "You know the plan, right?"
Pascal gives her a confident nod.
"Plan? What plan?" asks Eugene.
"I’ll explain on the way." She grabs his hand and Pascal pitter-patters down to the stone floor. He follows them to the junction in the hall where Witzig is still keeping watch. Once he can no longer see his friends, he turns to his brother.
"Come along. We won’t have much time until the prince realizes that someone has taken the key," urges Witzig.
Pascal grabs onto his brother’s scaly neck tightly. It felt so different than Rapunzel’s! He had almost forgotten the feel of the leathery-like skin of his brethren underneath his fingers.
In keeping with the Plan, Witzig takes a different route than the way they had come, stomping down the hall and up a second set of gloomy staris. "Your princess friend seems to care about you deeply."
The chameleon chirps in the affirmative.
"And you care for her just as much. Is that why you never returned to Berk?"
Pascal shrugs. There are lots of reasons for why he chose – and continues to choose – to stay with Rapunzel: he knows it’s silly, but he always feels a little small in his homeland. Besides, he enjoys listening to Rapunzel sing to the flowers in the garden, and, of course, he loves having the chance to startle Eugene when he is practicing his proposal in the mirror. But, most of all, he simply feels at home when he is with Rapunzel.
His brother doesn’t comment on his non-answer. The time for small talk is over. It’s up to them now to do their part now that Eugene has managed his. Witzig turns the corner and slouches out into the main hall of the castle. It’s not nearly as large or as elegant as the one Pascal is used to. He turns up his reptilian nose at a threadbare tapestry of a roaring lion.
The moment of silence doesn’t last long though. At the sound of approaching footsteps, Pascal closes his eyes and camouflages perfectly into his brother’s body.
Several guards greet Witzig politely, but none of them seem to think it odd to see a dragon walking through the castle. Pascal had been afraid to put too much stock in his brother’s assurances on this point.
After the guards pass, Witzig whispers, "Everyone knows how much I like the Royal Library. Lots of cook books." Witzig winks.
They walk past a large window and Pascal takes the opportunity to evaluate the layout of courtyard below and the kingdom beyond the castle’s outer wall. He narrowed his eyes as he scans for his four-legged friend…
He tugs on his brother’s ear and nods in Maximus’ direction.
"They are making faster progress than I thought," replies Witzig as he takes in the sight of a contingent of armed troops being led by a white horse over the wasteland of Trist. "We must hurry before the guards see them."
Witzig’s steps are more hurried now as he trudges through the castle. He turns the corner and nearly knocks into a startled-looking young man.
"Your majesty," Witzig says, bowing slightly. Pascal slams his eyes shut, hoping the distracted human hadn’t noticed an extra pair of eyes on the back of his brother’s neck. "I apologize for the—"
"Never mind that!" the young man shouts. "Have you seen a man dressed up in a guard’s uniform?"
"There were several guards in the main foyer," Witzig supplies unhelpfully.
"No! Not them!" He takes a deep breath and gathers his composure. "There is a man named Flynn Rider here in the castle! We believe he is attempting to kidnap the King and Queen of Corona. If you see anyone who is unfamiliar, stop him at all costs. He is to be considered very dangerous."
Pascal feels his brother’s silent rumble of laughter run through him, but thankfully, the sound does not escape his lizard lips.
"If I see such a dangerous man , I will report it to you immediately," assures Witzig, craftily.
Pascal listens as the prince hurries away, in the direction of the dungeon. He worries for Rapunzel. Hopefully, things are going as planned for her and the others…
Witzig turns towards Pascal. "I thought you told me his name was Eugene Fitzherbert."
Pascal waves off his brother’s question. There will be time for stories about Eugene and his Flynn Rider days later.
He opens his eyes a smidgeon, checking to see if there are any more unexpected people barreling down the hallway. Fortunately for the brothers, the passage is empty. Witzig heads down to the end where there is a large window.
He turns back to Pascal. "Are you ready?"
Pascal wishes he had something to tie around his waist, but the best he can do is wedge himself carefully between the ridges in Witzig’s back. He nods and holds on to the closest scale tightly.
The dragon opens the window and jumps out without hesitation. He swoops over the courtyard where the prince’s guards are clearly searching for someone.
Pascal opens his eyes as Witzig rushes through a patch of fog. He had forgotten how fast his brother can fly! It almost makes him wish he’d inherited their mother’s wings instead of their father’s lengthy tongue! They coast over the castle wall just as the soldiers on the parapet notice movement in the distance. A shout goes out. Now it’s a race against time. If Pascal can get to Max before the troops can organize themselves, they might still have a chance! He nudges his brother towards Maximus and his company of soldiers.
"I see them, brother!" the dragon shouts back. With a flap of his wings, he glides toward their quarry.
Witzig lands in the middle of the stony path that winds through the murky and undernourished forest, blocking the Coronese Army from going any further.
Pascal hears Maximus’ startled horsey growl, laden with a clear command to attack. The chameleon scrambles up his brother’s shoulder before the impatient horse attempts to ram the unexpected road block. Pascal perches on Witzig’s brows, and standing tall, waves frantically to Maximus.
At the sight of the chameleon, the horse relaxes marginally. The questioning nicker immediately follows.
Witzig explains quickly, "I am here to escort you to the castle gates. But we must hurry. The prince is already aware of escape plan and the guards have noticed your approach. Hurry!"
Before Maximus can command the troops into action, two unfamiliar people suddenly emerge from the midst of the royal guards of Corona. "Witzig," an older man with a grey beard asks with authority, "what is going on?"
The dragon bows deeply and abruptly, causing Pascal to fly through the air. Fortunately, Maximus is there and able to catch him before he hits the ground. Pascal scowls and rounds on his brother, ready to give him an earful he won’t soon be forgetting!
However, Witzig speaks first. "Your Majesties," he greets the strangers. "You have returned from the Crusades! You have been greatly missed these last five years."
Pascal’s scolding goes unsqueaked. He turns toward the newcomers, astonished.
The older man –the king, Pascal assumes—appraises his brother. "What has become of the kingdom in our absence? Why is our ally marching against Lord Rein, the steward of the lands?"
The dragon hurriedly informs the King and Queen of Trist, "It would seem that in your absence, the prince has acted... rashly." Witzig quickly gives them an account of everything that had happened, including the kidnapping of the monarchs of Corona.
As his brother is explaining everything, Maximus gives him a questioning look –Are the others safe? The chameleon shrugs. He hopes so.
The king’s booming response to Witzig abruptly ends Pascal’s conversation with the horse. "Come," he says, marching towards the gate of the castle. "It is clear that we have been gone far too long."
Before they could reach the entrance, hundreds of booming footsteps shake the ground. Pascal scurries up and hides in Maximus’ mane. He peaks through the mess of hair and guards swarming from the gate, looking an awful lot like those angry bees that had chased him after he accidently knocked over their hive a few months back. Suddenly, Pascal wishes he had stayed with Rapunzel. At least she had her frying pan!
"Witzig!" one of the men shouts, flabbergasted. "What is the meaning of this betrayal?"
With one large step, his brother moves out of the way and reveals the king and queen. The man stumbles slightly. "Your Majesties," he stutters.
The older man steps in front of Witzig. "Stand down, Aldwyn. It is high past time us to return to our throne."
There is no anger on the guard’s face. In fact, Pascal notices as he morphs into his usual green hue, the man seems happy at the king’s declaration.
He bows lowly. The other guards follow his lead. "It is a grand day to see the two of you back in Trist, your Grace." He straightens before allowing the king to lead the men towards the gates. "We must hurry before the other battalion finds the others and carry out the Prince's plan."
This is bad. This is really bad.
Maybe it had been too much to hope that their escape from the castle dungeon would go flawlessly, but Eugene had thought that – after everything Rapunzel and her family have been through, from her childhood captivity to their kidnapping – Fate owed them a favor or two.
Yeah. That’s clearly not gonna happen.
"Moving. We need to keep moving!" urges Eugene, resisting the impulse to push the king to make him run a little faster.
"We are doing the best we can, Mr. Fitzherbert," pants the queen.
Rapunzel turns toward him, her eyebrows knitted in confusion. "Was it a left or a right?"
Eugene has absolutely no idea. He had dropped the map is probably in the pile of discarded Trist army uniform on the floor of the cell that had held Rapunzel’s mother and father. Details, Rider! Details! Eugene reluctantly admits that he must be a bit rusty at thievery after all. Well, at least he still has the satchel. Of course, he’s not going to actually admit to botchery of any sort at this juncture. Blondie would probably want him to stop and ask for directions or something.
"To the left!" he declares, grabbing her wrist.
"We need to hurry!" Rapunzel yells as they continue making their way through the maze of tunnels beneath the castle.
They take another left – Yes! That rock looks exactly like one he’d banged his knee against on the in-bound trip! – and the tunnel floor levels out a bit. From the sounds of it, the king and queen are running as fast as they can. Unfortunately, the slippery moss-covered rocks don’t make escaping a dungeon easy and Eugene suddenly finds himself on the ground with the king lying on top of him awkwardly.
"Daddy!" Rapunzel cries.
"Oh," Eugene says, his face still smashed into the muck covering the floor of the tunnel, "don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine. Never better, in fact."
The queen pointedly ignores him.
"Sorry, Eugene. We’ll be right with you."
She and her mother reach for the king’s flailing arms. As he attempts to stand, he lurches forward and cries out in pain. This time Eugene rolls out of his way before he finds himself giving a repeat performance of an unwitting safety net. But, his concern is for naught; Rapunzel is quick to grab her father around the waist and offer him support.
"I am afraid my foot has been injured," he says, looking at his precious women sadly. "The three of you must leave and find safety."
Rapunzel shakes her head. "We are not leaving you, Daddy." She looks at Eugene meaningfully. "Right?"
They hadn’t had the time and resources to come up with a contingency plan for this. Why can’t even one thing go off without a hitch? Clearly, Fate is trying to tell him something here.
Eugene swallows down a sigh of frustration. "Of course not we’re not leaving you, sire. We don’t do half rescues. That’s not our style." He almost throws in a joke about having to refund the client’s money in that case, but under the circumstances he doubts the humor would be appreciated. He moves to the side of the king and allows the older man to lean on him. "It’s not much farther." At least he hopes it isn’t.
It’s slow going. Painful, uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for all. After what feels like hours, they manage to stumble into a the large alcove that looks familiar. Eugene spies the rock Rapunzel had hurled at Witzig and lets out a sigh of relief. Nearly there! Maybe Fate is smiling on them after all...
There’s always a ‘but’, Eugene observes silently as the sounds he has been dreading since he’d swiped the key to the dungeon cell fill the air: masculine shouting echo toward them from the direction of the castle; the hoof beats of racing horses thunder toward them from the tunnel entrance. They’re surrounded.
For the second time today, Eugene feels failure laugh in his face. They aren’t going to make it out of here. Banale’s going to toss the king and queen back in his dungeon, threaten Eugene’s life to force Rapunzel to marry him and then, after the deed is done… well, Eugene guesses Flynn Rider really will be a legend. He’s be history, at any rate.
So much for Fate.
The cave entrance is too far. The horses are too fast. The king can’t fight, can’t run. There is nowhere to hide. Only one frying pan between all of them and a single rock. They’re never going to see Corona again, and, more disturbing to him, Eugene will never have a chance to propose to the woman who he loves more than anything in the world.
It’s now or never, Rider!
And ‘never’ is a frightening word. He’d felt its power aboard Bigbeard ship as their lives had hung in the balance and he’d never wanted to feel this terror again! Frantically, he reaches around the king and grabs Rapunzel’s wrist. Then, before his usual panic has a chance to gain a foothold, he squeezes his eyes shut and blurts out, "RAPUNZEL-I-LOVE-YOU-AND-I’M-GONNA-ASK-YOU-TO-MARRY-ME-SO-PLEASE-SAY-YES!"
He’s pretty sure the king and queen both gasp louder than the thunderous clamor of the oncoming army at his unexpected question, but he hears nothing from Rapunzel.
He opens his right eye a slit and finds her looking at him, her eyes wide. "Eugene?"
"Yes." He resists glancing back over his own shoulder in the direction of the approaching soldiers.
"Did... did you just ask...?"
"Yes!" He manfully refrains from glancing past Rapunzel's shoulder toward the roar of the imminently arriving infantry.
"Are you sure...?"
"YES!" And, anyway, isn’t this supposed to be her line?
She boggles at him. Bites her lip. Swallows. Eugene thinks he might just die from the suspense before Banale even get the chance to make good on his threat.
She says, "I—"
"Your Majesties! We've found you!"
Eugene blinks as two armies round the corners at each end of the tunnel, every single soldier dressed in the livery of the Kingdom of Corona.
They've been saved.
Eugene turns his attention back to Rapunzel who is still looking at him in disbelief. He wonders how soon he can release the king to one of his guardsmen so he can go find a rock to crawl under. So much for the suave moves of Flynn Rider.
The captain of the guard rushes to the king. "Are you alright, your Highnesses?"
To his surprise, the monarch lets out a low laugh. "I couldn’t be better!"
Eugene is still trying to figure out what he means by as the captain motions for two of his men to assist the king. Eugene relinquishes his hold and, with things back to staus quo – mostly! – he moves out of the way, into the shadows. The shadows seem to welcome him back into their realm of anonymity. He never should have left, he realizes now. He never should have dared to stick his neck out and ask…
But he had.
Do or die, Rider.
Yeah. Except it ended up being more like ‘do and then die.’
He barely registers the queen giving Rapunzel’s hand a squeeze before accompanies her husband toward the entrance of the tunnel. Eugene barely notices the passage of the army, their report of success: Banale has been subdued; Rein is locked in the dungeon awaiting trial; the King and Queen of Trist are once again in power. All’s well. La. Dee. Dah.
Eugene glares at the floor of the tunnel, contemplating the muck on his boots, his breeches, his tunic. His nose itches. Probably because there’s moss adhered to it or something. Gah! What had he been thinking asking Rapunzel that question while he’d looked like a cesspit diver?
Things cannot get any worse.
A horsy head butts him in the back and Eugene glares over his shoulder at Max. The stallion’s large, brown eyes ooze with pity. Sympathy from a horse. Fantastic. Eugene feels so much better now.
The sound of a feminine throat being cleared echoes in the nearly empty tunnel. Surprised, Eugene looks up and realizes that Rapunzel is still here and all of the guard, with the exception of Max upon whom Pascal is seated, have departed.
The Princess of Corona moves to stand in front of him, her eyebrow raised expectantly. "You know, I’ve imagined saying yes to your proposal in a lot of places, Eugene, but never once did I think you would finally ask me in the middle of a dragon’s den."
Wait. She has imagined saying yes to his proposal?
"You know me, always doing the unpredictable."
She grins in reply to his sheepish admission. And then she waits.
"You said you were going to ask me," she reminds him softly, swaying back and forth, her hands behind her back as if she has to restrain herself from… from…
From throwing her arms around you, maybe?
Hope doesn’t blossom within his chest. It bursts forth like a super nova.
"Rapunzel," he begins softly, pitching his voice low. His reward is a very visible shiver of delight that runs through her entire body. "Would you…?"
She bites her lip to hold back a brilliant smile. Her eyes twinkle with laughter. "Would I…?" she prompts.
Their gazes lock and Eugene shares a moment of perfect accord with her. Over the last few months (Or has it been years? It’s certainly felt like it!), Eugene has struggled to get past those three words: "Rapunzel, would you…?" And now here they are. It’s the biggest moment of his life. Strange. He’d never expected it to be. Yes, very strange, but also wonderful.
He takes a deep breath, smiles softly, and allows all the other possible request he could make – shoes and safety and satchels – fade from his thoughts. Mind finally at peace, he murmurs, "Rapunzel, I love you so much. Would you marry me?"
And there. Her smile illuminates the gloom of the tunnel. "Yes!" She launches herself into his arms and pulls him down to kiss him. Slimy cheeks, mucky chin, mossy nose and all.
He runs a hand through her soft, short hair as his other hand moves to her hip, urging her closer. He’s pretty sure that the king and queen are both watching him and Rapunzel, from just around the corner, but he doesn’t care. (If they aren’t he doesn’t doubt Max and Pascal will find a way to give full reports later.) And, if Rapunzel’s eagerness is any indication, she doesn’t seem to mind the audience either.
As their lips move against each other here in this dank, gloomy corridor, Eugene relishes the elation that fills him. The day has been saved, the king and queen have been rescued and – finally – his most precious treasure has agreed to be his, and he hers, forever.
His daughter is happy – truly happy – and really, in the end, that is all that matters.
As the king watches Eugene spin Rapunzel around the dance floor in their first dance as a married couple, he realizes that it has always been Eugene who has been able to make her feel that way. But now the king knows that the feeling is mutual; Eugene Fitzherbert is the man he is because of Rapunzel’s love for him.
Rapunzel, his beautiful daughter, glances away from Eugene’s adoring smile and sees him standing off to the side. She lifts her hand from her husband’s shoulder and gestures for him to fetch her mother (who seems to be dictating a portrait of the dancing couple to the royal artist) and join them. The king shrugs off her kind gesture, laughing softly at her playful pout and the devious twinkle in her eyes; he doesn’t doubt that, before this night is over, she’ll have her way, but this time is for her and Eugene. Today is their celebration.
The song slows, quiets and fades out completely. Eugene spins Rapunzel to a gentle halt with expert skill – for a man who loathes dancing, he had certainly applied himself fully to the subject – and the onlookers (wedding guests, guards, and servers) applaud. The music starts up again – a more lively and sociable tune this time – as Eugene tucks Rapunzel’s hand into the crook of his elbow. They begin to slowly circle the room, thanking their guests personally for joining in the celebrations today.
The king can only shake his head in wonderment as they speak with a rather large band of disreputable-looking ruffians and then with what appears to be – but can’t possibly be! – an entire crew of pirates. The king would have been slightly alarmed at the company, but he notices the newly promoted Maximus watch the exchange without concern. A big man with a full beard and a brightly polished monocle pulls Eugene aside for a word. When Eugene shoots his wife a questioning glance, she waves him off good-naturedly.
It doesn’t take her long to set herself a new course and the king watches as she approaches him, glowing with happiness. She has never looked more lovely. He offers his open arms to her and she gladly accepts his embrace.
She sighs happily. "I still can’t believe it. After so long, Eugene and I are married." He can somehow feel her smile against the velvet of his vest.
"It has been a long time in coming," he agrees.
"I know." From the tone of her voice, he can tell that she had felt each and every intervening day acutely.
"But you never gave up on him." Truly, she is a wonder.
"Of course not. I love him. And I know he loves me. And now he’s ready – we both are – for what comes next."
The king marvels. When had his daughter grown so wise?
She pulls away from him and nods in Eugene’s direction. "And to think, he was scared to ask me to marry him!"
"Perhaps," he says wisely, "he was afraid he wasn’t good enough for you."
Rapunzel looks appalled at the thought. "But, Daddy, he always has been."
He looks at the man who is now his son-in-law. After everything he had done – after rescuing the king and his wife (although he disagrees with the idea of dressing his daughter like a man and putting her on a ship filled with men… especially ones that look like that mangy crew!), he knows she is right. "He is. And now you will finally get what every princess wants."
She cocks her head to the side questioningly. "What’s that?"
"A happily ever after." He drops a kiss on her forehead before noticing the larger-than-life dragon waving to Rapunzel. The hulking beast had flown to Corona earlier in the day, along with the King and Queen of Trist, to watch the ceremony. Prince Banale is noticably absent. He hasn't had a chance to ask the monarchs what happened to their son after they departed from Trist, but he trusts the fact that he will not be causing any trouble in the near future. "It seems as though your friend is looking for you."
Rapunzel gives him a quick peck on the cheek before crossing the courtyard. A wedding day ball in a courtyard. Yes, this is a celebration as unconventional as the man and woman whom it honors.
It doesn’t take long for a familiar shadow to approach him. He looks up at Eugene who is admiring his daughter openly. "She is a beautiful bride," the king notes.
The young man nods. "Yes, she is, your Majesty." His Adam’s apple bobs. The king can relate to the tangle of emotions. He had looked at his own wife in just that way on the day of their wedding, many years ago.
"Mister Fitzherbert," the king begins, and then he lays a hand on the young man’s shoulder. "Eugene."
"Yes, your Majesty?"
The king smiles. "Son, I think it's time you started using my given name. Long past time."
Eugene grins back. "It would be an honor."
"There will be no standing on ceremony in this family," the king gently scolds him, giving his shoulder a firm but affectionate jostling. "Only love."
And so it is.
***** The End *****