Eugene Fitzherbert awoke with a start and abruptly sat up. He slowly looked around the small room. In truth, it wasn't that small, but it somehow seemed that way. He lay on a comfortable bed—the softest he'd had in...well...as long as he could remember. Where was he?
Suddenly it all came back to him. He had the distinct feeling of having been kicked in the gut by a horse. He was all too familiar with that sensation, thanks to a certain white-haired quadruped. A second feeling, one of some unidentified dread, hung over him, too. Then he remembered.
Yesterday had been a bit of a blur, but he still recalled the salient points. He remembered being stabbed by that hag Gothel, then cutting off Rapunzel's hair before descending into darkness. He remembered waking up and being caught off-balance when Rapunzel had thrown herself at him. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy being kissed by her, he just hadn't been expecting it. Just that memory alone made him smile.
He remembered being shocked by Rapunzel's royal revelation. He hadn't been fully convinced until he saw for himself how closely she resembled the Queen. He remembered that it had taken both Rapunzel and Maximus to get him into the Palace without being arrested on the spot. He remembered that touching moment when Rapunzel had been reunited with her parents and that highly awkward, yet strangely pleasant, group embrace. He'd been content to just allow the family to be a family, but the Queen had had other ideas...he still had no idea why.
He also remembered he had a meeting with the King in...what time was it anyway? He shuddered to think of what might befall him if he were late. He sprang out of bed, looking frantically for his clothes. Where were they? Appearing before the King in his altogethers was completely out of the question.
He spied some cloth on a chair in the corner and stepped over to investigate. To his surprise and relief, someone had left him a clean change of clothes. He hurriedly put them on—they were a little loose, but not overly so--then noticed something else.
Breakfast...someone had brought breakfast? Good...he was hungry. He had to force himself to slow down and enjoy it. If this was to be his last meal, he wanted to savor it. It was quite tasty.
He looked around the room again and spotted a mirror. It never hurt to give his appearance a good once-over. He walked over and looked into the glass. He turned his head from side to side. Sure enough, everything appeared to be in place...as usual. At least he still had that. If he was going to die, at least he'd do it in style.
Still, none of it sat well. If they were going to hang him, why go to all the trouble of giving him a comfy bed, delicious food and snazzy clothes? It just didn't make sense and that somehow bothered him more than the near-certainty of impending death.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. Right...now he remembered...he was supposed to be summoned. The door opened and a man stepped in.
“Herr Fitzherbert? His Majesty will see you now,” he said, then turned and walked out.
Eugene really had no choice but to follow...not if he wanted things to not be worse than they already might be. He stepped out the door and was immediately flanked by a pair of Palace guards. This didn't surprise him. No one had said so, but he still had the distinct impression that he was technically under arrest. He and his escort fell in behind his summoner and the four of them walked off down the corridor.
Eugene stepped into the King's study. He was sweating, still expecting some sort of tribunal sure to deliver the death sentence. Curiously, the King seemed rather relaxed and disarming.
“Ah...Eugene, is it?” said the King amiably, “please...sit down.” He motioned to a chair. Eugene sat down. “That will be all, gentlemen,” the King said to the guards. They bowed slightly, then retreated from the room.
“I trust you slept and ate well?” said the King.
“Yes, your Majesty,” said Eugene, trying unsuccessfully to keep the nerves out of his voice. Why was that? He'd managed to talk himself out of...no, wait, on second thought, he'd never been in a worse situation than this.
The King chuckled. “You'll find that we're a bit more relaxed than that here in Corona. Please feel free to address me as Harold while in private.”
Eugene raised an eyebrow, not quite knowing how to take that.
“You've put me in an interesting position, Eugene.”
“M...me?” Eugene was losing it...Flynn Rider would never have lost it.
“Yes...you. Under Corona law, stealing the Crown Jewels carries a mandatory death sentence.”
Eugene fought the urge to swallow.
The King continued. “However, executing my daughter's rescuer would be extremely poor form...at best. Moreover, my wife likes you. Most importantly, my daughter likes you...a lot. For that matter, I like you, too. You remind me of myself when I was your age. So you see we have a bit of a conundrum before us. Let me ask you, Eugene...how would you solve it?”
“Can you...issue a Royal pardon?”
“Kingdom law restricts those. Contrary to popular belief, kings don't get to do whatever they want whenever they want...not these days, anyway. Some of my royal cousins are ever so fond of pushing the boundaries, unfortunately.”
“We could stage my death?” said Eugene hopefully.
Harold chuckled again. “You're imaginative...I like that. While that's not a bad idea, it's potentially slippery...which is too risky...and lying...which I severely dislike.” He stepped over to a table and picked up a book. He thumbed through its pages until he reached a point about a quarter of the way through. “This represents the one thing I most loathe about my job. It's a record of Corona's executions, as prescribed by law.”
He walked back over to Eugene and showed him the last entry. It read, “Flynn Rider.” This time Eugene did gulp. The King closed the book and returned it to the table.
“The way I see it is thus,” continued Harold. “Flynn Rider stole the Crown Jewels, later escaped from prison and must, by law, be put to death. Eugene Fitzherbert rescued my daughter, returned her to us, and is thus deserving of reward. Now, I'm prepared to let that...” He pointed at the book on the table. “...stand if you agree to leave this Flynn Rider persona of yours...yes, Elsa told us all about that...behind you forever. This way, Rider can die, thus fulfilling the letter of the law, and I don't have to kill you, thus keeping all of us happy.”
Eugene felt a wave of relief surge through him. “Yet I sense there's more.”
“Indeed there is. I firmly believe the punishment should fit the crime, a philosophy I don't often have the latitude to follow. Legally, you're clear, but there must always be consequences.”
Eugene felt the tension return.
“Therefore, I'm making you our new Chief of Security.”
Eugene raised an eyebrow. “That...sounds like a reward to me.”
“Ah, now that's where you'd be mistaken. I want you to go over all security measures throughout Corona. Think about how Flynn Rider would defeat them. Then think about how you would thwart a man like that. I want constant improvement. In short, your job is to make sure no one else ever again does what you did. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly.” Eugene was starting to feel nervous again, but in an entirely different way.
“Good. I thought you'd see it my way. Now, for our next item of business.” Harold walked back over to the table and picked up a piece of paper. It had a ribbon hanging from it affixed with the Corona Royal seal. “Firstly, there's really no way Liesel and I can adequately repay you for bringing back our little girl. Secondly, it won't do for just anyone to be courting the Crown Princess.” Harold peered at Eugene. “I assume you do intend to court her, do you not?”
Eugene just nodded.
“I thought so. This...” He held up the paper. “...is a patent of nobility...minor nobility, but nobility nonetheless. Elsa told us you were a perfect gentlemen the entire time you've been together. That speaks very highly of you, so I figure you have a noble spirit, irregardless of birth. Anyway, as of right now, you are Lord Fitzherbert, with all the rights and responsibilities pertaining thereto.”
Eugene's eyebrows went up. He wasn't completely sure he'd really heard what he thought he'd just heard.
“Now, you and I have only just met, so don't think I won't be watching you. A couple of days from now, we'll hold a kingdom-wide celebration in honor of Elsa's return...though I'm quite sure word has begun to circulate among the populace and impromptu revelry is sure to begin sooner than that. Immediately following the celebration, you're to report to the Captain of the Guard. You will drill under him every day except Saturday and Sunday for four weeks. During that time, you will be under his command and reside in the barracks just like anyone else in our military.
“After that, you will commence your duties as Security Chief. You have our permission to delegate as you see fit, subject to our Royal review. You'll still drill under the Captain Tuesdays and Thursdays until further notice. Your little display with that frying pan has shown just how inept our military is. Therefore, I also want you to teach our soldiers how to use frying pans. They'll all need intensive re-training and I want you to co-supervise this. I know, that sounds crazy, but it will give us an additional combat style at the very least. Effective immediately, you will also have a modest apartment here in the Palace and three meals per day as an employee of Corona.”
“That's...quite generous of you. I...I don't know what to say,” said Eugene.
Harold extended his hand. “Do we have an accord?”
Eugene rose to his feet and took the King's hand. Eugene noted that he had a vise-like grip. He would not want to face this man in a fight. “Yes...yes, I believe we do.”
“Good.” Harold grabbed Eugene in a bear-hug. “Now, I have some preparations to make and you have a Princess to court. Do keep in mind, though, that I was robbed of the opportunity to watch her grow up, so to some extent I still see her as a giggly little baby. If you do anything...and I mean anything...to compromise her honor, remember that I can and will change my mind about what we've discussed here today.
“Shall we see you at dinner, then? Eighteen hundred hours?”
Eugene nodded, shook the King's hand again and left the room, his head spinning.
Eugene found Rapunzel in the interior courtyard garden. She still wore the same style of dress she had the day before, only this one matched the green in her eyes. The Royal tailors were apparently efficient. She looked up from the roses she was smelling and her face lit up when she saw him.
“Eugene!” she squealed. She ran over to him, wrapped her arms around her, pulled him down and kissed him soundly.
“I got lost,” he admitted once she'd released him.
She giggled. “It's a big place, isn't it?”
He looked down at her feet. “I see you're wearing shoes.”
She flinched. “Yes. Apparently, Princesses are supposed to wear them...but they hurt...a lot!” She looked thoughtfully at her feet, then kicked off the shoes and picked them up. “That's better. I'll have to discuss this with Mama later...along with the rest of that overwhelming list of things she told me about what else Princesses are and aren't supposed to do. So what did my father have to say?”
They walked over to a bench and sat down. Eugene recounted his discussion with the King.
“Really?!” said Rapunzel enthusiastically.
“There's one thing...well, two things...bothering me.”
Rapunzel tilted her head and batted her eyelashes at him in an unspoken bid to continue.
Eugene smiled...he just couldn't help it when she looked at him like that. “So I'm supposed to bury Flynn Rider and remain Eugene Fitzherbert. The trouble is...I've been Flynn for so long, I'm not entirely sure I know who Eugene is. Does that make any sense?”
“I can tell the difference.”
Eugene raised an eyebrow.
Rapunzel continued. “I met two men after you climbed into my tower. The one I tied up, and who took me to the Snuggly Duckling...he's overconfident, arrogant, and just plain made me uncomfortable. I didn't like that man at all. The one who opened up to me in the tunnel, told me stories by the fire, took me on that wonderful trip through the city, and laid down his life for mine...he's kind, compassionate, funny, selfless, wonderful. I like that man. Be him. I'm not sure it matters much which name you give him, nor am I sure whether or not that man would have existed had you not taken on the Flynn Rider persona...however long ago that was. In truth, I really don't much care, so long as you're the man with whom I fell in love on my birthday.”
“I hadn't thought about that...but thank-you for telling me. It means a lot.”
She smiled again. “So what's the second thing?”
“Oh, right. Your father kept referring to you as Elsa. I didn't ask. I was a bit...preoccupied. I hope you'll forgive me.”
Rapunzel smiled in a way that bordered on bashfulness. “There's nothing to forgive. About Elsa, though...surely you didn't think my parents would have given me a name like Rapunzel, did you?”
“I...hadn't really thought about it.”
“Well, they didn't. That was what Gothel did to hide my identity from me. My real name's Elsa Syele Agnes Clare.”
Eugene looked into Rapunzel's eyes. “That's...pretty. No, really, it is. It's a beautiful name for a beautiful Princess.”
“Aw, you flatter me, sir.”
“Not at all.”
They both giggled.
After a minute, Eugene broke the silence. “So while we're talking about our mixed up identities, what should I call you?”
Rapunzel sighed. “I don't know. Rapunzel, I guess.”
“Here's an idea,” said Eugene hopefully. “I'll be that man who showed you around town and you be that lovely lady who allowed me to escort her. We can decide to what to call each other later?”
Rapunzel shrugged in that way Eugene found so endearing. “I guess that's a start.”
Eugene felt her tense up a little. “Is...everything alright?” he asked, a note of concern in his voice.
She sighed. “Somehow, I have this feeling that I've merely exchanged one tower for another.”
Eugene put an arm around her shoulder. “If you have, then at least now, you're surrounded by people who love you and will occasionally let you out.”
She giggled. “Oh, Eugene, you're a treasure. I'm so glad I found you.”
“I thought I found you.”
“Maybe we found each other?”
Eugene glanced at the sky, then stood up. “If I'm not mistaken,” he said, offering his arm, “it's nearly dinnertime. Would you care to join me, your Royal Highness?”
Rapunzel tittered, then rose to her own feet. “I'd be delighted...your Lordship.” She took his arm and they walked together from the garden.
Eugene escorted Rapunzel toward the dining room. Really, though, he had to admit it was the other way around. They could hear voices as they approached their destination...a lot of voices. They stopped in the door and saw that there were quite a few more people than Eugene had expected. He leaned over to Rapunzel and spoke softly into her ear.
“Uh...Rapunzel?” said Eugene nervously. “Who are all these people?”
“Some of them are my relatives, I think,” she answered, matching his low tone. She paused. “What do we do?”
“What did you do when you came here for lunch?”
“I walked in like I owned the place.”
Eugene turned, took her gently by her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Rapunzel, you do own the place.”
“Very funny. That was just with my parents. This is...different.”
“Well...I'm not exactly an expert on social protocol.”
Rapunzel raised an eyebrow. “Social protocol? Eugene, I don't even know what that is!”
“First of all,” began Eugene, hoping he was being helpful, “it looks like we might be seated by order of precedence.”
Rapunzel interrupted. “I don't know what that is either!”
“Uh...alright. Follow my lead, do what your parents do and...try to relax.”
She looked him dubiously.
“Just act natural. They'll love you.”
“Ehem...” The King cleared his throat. “We can hear you,” he said evenly.
Eugene and Rapunzel cringed.
The Queen tittered a little. “You two look as stiff as pair of boards. We won't bite, you know. Now come sit down so we can eat.”
The younger couple complied, arm-in-arm. Rapunzel still carried her shoes, dangling them from her fingertips. She sat down next to her father and Eugene took the only other empty chair toward the other end of the table that he rightly assumed was for him.
Rapunzel gently dropped her still-footless shoes on the floor underneath her chair. She was grateful no one had said anything about that yet, but she doubted it would last long. There was no doubt in her mind that she had a lot to learn about being a Princess.
Eugene kept waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, but dinner progressed without incident. Something told him he had as much adjustment ahead of him as Rapunzel did. Now and then, they met each other's eyes and each knew in their hearts that everything would somehow be alright. Yes, thought Eugene, today has been a very good day to die.