"Look at this!"
“Yep, that's a piece of paper all right.”
Rapunzel's brow furrowed crossly, and Rider felt a little bad for the flippancy of her response. Well, that was new. (What did that even mean, anyway? It had sounded cleverer in her head.) After twenty years of being a heartless smartass, she was still getting thrown for a loop by this business of feelings, and the consideration thereof when speaking.
"Never mind, I didn't mean that. Come here, let me see."
Rapunzel hurried from the doorway to the curtained side of the bed, holding the pale yellow square of card out under Rider's nose. There was a royal seal pressed into it top center, it was bordered in gold, and if you squinted you could actually read the wriggly text.
"It's an invitation. How nice."
"To a ball in my honor. They can't really want to do this so soon, can they? They haven't even taken down all the banners for the lantern festival." She began to pace.
"I meant to ask you this at a better time, but where's Pascal? I'm starting to miss that lizard."
"He's sunning himself on the balcony," Rapunzel said with a frustrated little sound. "Don't try to distract me. My mother says I should go so that I can get to know some of our relatives. I didn't even know I had relatives until a week ago. And these aren't going to be just any relatives, there's going to be countesses, and dukes--"
“You're crown princess, the only people you won't outrank are your own parents.”
“It's not that, I just – I don't know the first thing about attending a party, let alone hosting one. I mean, I've read books, but those don't tell you how to talk to people you've never met before. Not past being introduced.”
“Look, I'm pretty sure they're not going to force you to show up, if you're really that nervous.”
“But I know I should, that's the worst part,” Rapunzel said, despairingly. “Besides, Flynn Rider probably attends these things left and right. Didn't that book of yours have anything to say about royal balls?”
“Yeah, but only the importance of breaking up the dance floor with a daring swordfight. Don't see how that might help, but I bet you I could hunt down Maximus...”
Rider rolled over onto her back, arms crossed behind her head.
"They already love you here, Rapunzel. You can do this."
"I'm going to do this. One step at a time,” Rapunzel said, the seeds of conviction just beginning to sprout.
“You should ask your mom about bringing a date.”
They kissed, and it didn't involve a single spell, Rapunzel's arms wrapped around Rider's shoulders. She led, and her thief just held her there, enjoying the nearness of the embrace even more than the long press of mouths that accompanied it. In her own time, as the one of them who hadn't been imprisoned in a tower, she'd stolen enough kisses of her own, from boys and girls – Rapunzel hadn't, obviously, and she was still working out the basics of this whole thing. The rest of it might follow up in time, but as it was... it was pretty damn good.
Rapunzel broke away for a brief moment, pink and gasping.
"You know, blondie," Rider said, her own fair share of disheveled, "you should try breathing through your nose. Have you been holding your breath this whole time?"Rapunzel snorted for breath indelicately. "I think?"
Rapunzel dropped against her chest and they both fell away laughing at the absurdity of the pause.
The queen kept a gentle arm around her as they passed through the tall, grand doors. It was very strange suddenly having people in every room, guests and servants and footmen, after a week or two of getting to know her way around an empty palace. The king and Rider followed behind them, two abreast – they made an incongruous pair, and every time she looked back at them Rider seemed to be making the most expressive faces.
She didn't know what she'd expected. Something like the lantern festival, maybe, but on a grander scale -- and it almost was. Light came streaming into the hall through row after row of open windows, and when she could pull her eyes away from the guests -- there must have hundreds of them -- the ceiling was mapped with spangled silver stars, the same stars she'd seen from her window. The stars were so lovely that they were almost frightening to look upon; the decorated hall was beautiful, but it washed away whatever had been her plan for the night. There were scarlet and purple draperies, strings of smaller lanterns, swarms of footmen. And all sorts of guests, from dozens of different lands. There was an unbelievable shock in going from knowing of one immediate relative to not even knowing about that one, to suddenly having a mother and a father and dozens of cousins and uncles and aunts. Not to mention total strangers who had just shown up to wish the recovered heiress well.
"See? I told you you wouldn't be the only one, Millicent."
"She's wearing armor, it's probably ceremonial, and look, she's definitely dating that guy." Rider's voice dropped as they glided past the couple in question, a pair that Rapunzel dimly remembered from the frenzy of preparations and long lists were a pair of foreign dignitaries. (Their garments did seem a little unusual, but Rapunzel didn't have a lot to go off of for comparison, and they looked very fond of each other.) "And we really need to negotiate this Millicent thing when we're in public, I feel like a fairy godmother."
"I think it sounds pretty."
Rapunzel's wardrobe had made it out of that tower too, but the dress she wore was entirely new to her, a high-waisted gown with no laces, only buttons down the back. It felt strange on her body; she'd sewn her own clothes for years now.
Her hair had been swept back from her face with clever little pins, though there was nothing that could be done to conceal the length. A friendly maid had worked in something like a miniature braid (it was still growing, at what she was told was a normal rate) and before she'd had a chance to thank her for it, threaded a flower behind her ear, a waxy-petalled orange star instead of a crown. The dress was peach, with a pattern of gold threads. Even Millicent Fitzherbert-slash-Rider had traded her studded blue doublet for a dark green coat with a bodice-like waistcoat and little leaves carved into the buttons. There was a bright blue ribbon at the end of her braid, and she looked... very handsome, very beautiful.
People were looking at them, and there was no need to be afraid of that any more. It seemed to disconcert them when she so readily met their eyes, but there was no one in the whole kingdom she couldn't look in the face these days, and how was she supposed to be demure when she was a princess? Princesses were the face of the kingdom, and she was – well, she might never be ready, but she was bold.
This one, she knew this one. (Rapunzel fiddled with her glass, trying to prompt her own memory while her hands discreetly shook.) His name was Eric, or maybe Adam. From a little cold country that was also mostly ringed by water. He had to be younger than the King of Corona, but his formal uniform aged him a little, and there was grey in his hair.
“After opening up trading with my wife's people, we've had to redirect our shipping routes. I've spent more time at sea in the last six months than in the last ten years. ”
“Oh, you're a sailor! That's wonderful!” Rapunzel interrupted earnestly. When she realized what she'd blurted out, a flush rose to her cheeks. She'd been trying to keep up with what was being said since everyone had taken their seats, while fooling around with her ornately folded napkin, and the conversation had been going on between the gentlemen present for a good while now. Princes conversing with explorers, languages she'd never heard before. She'd managed not to get juice on the tablecloth, or call anyone by the wrong title, but again with the interrupting.
The news of her imprisonment had traveled far and wide, apparently. He looked markedly surprised, and cautiously asked, “Do you sail, princess?”
“Well, no. I haven't really gotten the chance yet, but I had a book about it once.” Gothel had taken it away. It had few pictures, and had made her think too much. Rapunzel felt herself falter for a moment. “What kind of instruments do you navigate with?”
This other king smiled, in a way she couldn't quite puzzle out. But he turned to her and pleasantly began explaining, while Rapunzel kept up her questions– sextants and compasses, maps and astrolabes. Names that were familiar from that little brown book, but now she could know what they were – a little further down the table, her father smiled.
Rider had made herself very scarce; whatever anxiety Rapunzel had shed had stuck to her and she was having a good look around, hopefully not stealing anything from the coat room.
The post-prandial dance hadn't taken place, but the middle of the ballroom was slowly clearing out so that everyone could find their starting positions. It wouldn't be a very lively dance like at the lantern festival, which was a shame, really – her distant cousins looked like they could use the diversion, Rapunzel had learned the steps with eagerness, in her hunger to soak up all the knowledge she possibly could in a world of possibility. But she still felt like quaking as she looked down the aisle that had been created by those who would be dancing, each selecting one line or the other. Men on one side, and women on the other. Oh. Everyone was so gaily dressed, and Rapunzel knew what they would expect her to do -- even if she hadn't been the guest of honor, her seat was still front and center, beneath banners and lanterns.
(The woman seated in front and to her left seemed to look their way for a moment, a stately older woman in a gown made of golden cloth. Rapunzel felt her stomach drop a little, in anticipation of having to make small talk with a grand lady, but the woman had a kind face; she smiled and spared her.)
"I don't know about this dance," Rapunzel said, gripping the arms of her chair for dear life and trying her best to speak out of the side of her mouth.
"What's the matter? If you're hungry, I saw some roast chickens tied up with ribbons out there, we can find out what that's about--"
"It's not that, it's just… one of us has to lead. You're the only person I'd ever want to dance with."
She glanced sideways, longing for some kind of rescue, and Rider was smiling. Their eyes met, and stayed that way.
"Your mom tried her best to make a real lady out of me -- you know, the queen. And she was very... thorough. Still want to make a break for it?"
She laughed with relief. “Sure.”
Below there were the shadow-shapes of the city; there was a clear view all the way down the hillside, down the twisting streets to the bay until all you could make out was dark water and the sails of ships. No lanterns tonight, nothing but the hazy dispersed glow she supposed must be houses, tracing its way down. She was used to views from on high, static and unchanging, but every window in the palace looked out onto a different view and this one was picked out in gold thread and blue velvet.
Rider assumed a nonchalant lean on the stone railing and made a comment to the effect that she did know how to find the best views in the capital, this was the proof. Rapunzel laughed small, and pulled her out into the open. It didn't seem fitting to make too much noise; the city slept.
Rapunzel took her two hands.
“We start out like this.”
The sun had sunk low on the horizon, and there were the first glimmerings of stars.