He remembers waking up to sunlight filtering through rich, red velvet and brocade. Servants who woke him, laid out his clothes; they fed him and prepared his bath and never let the fire in his rooms die out. Now, it is always darkness. He wears the same clothes day and night. He sleeps and wakes in the cold, always cold, always dark. There is no more velvet. There are no more colors.
It is a week before he is able to light his own fire, though he cannot see it when he does.
His elder brothers never mastered the art of slipping away from their tutors and attendants the way he did, though perhaps that had less to do with his cunning and bravery and more to do with being third in line for the throne and the fourth child. His oldest brother, the Crown Prince, could never have run off into the woods to play and climb and tear his pants the way he did. Nor his sister, who was polished and poised and trained to be Queen when their father found her a suitable princely husband. Even his brother, the Spare, could not go missing for hours.
Being youngest held certain advantages. When he did wander home after a day in the forest, his attendants were always too terrified of what punishments they would endure for "losing" him, and so simply changed his clothes, bandaged his scrapes and washed his face before sending him off to dinner.
He wonders if he is missed now. He lies awake in darkness and imagines his sister and brothers sending search parties for him, as he searches the ends of the Earth for her.
He was twelve when he met her.
Rather than sit or nap through another history lesson on a beautiful spring day, he ducked under a table and climbed out a window before racing into the forest. At that age, he loved nothing more than exploring. He knew every inch of the forests within an hour of the palace walls. He made friends with local woodsmen, who taught him the types of trees—ash, rowan, elm, oak, maple—and which plants were safe to eat, and which he should never touch. A woman in a tiny, grass roof cottage to the northwest taught him how to tell the time by the sun's position in the sky, and which way is North by which side of the tree moss grows on. One of his father's huntsmen taught him how to shoot a deer and skin a rabbit to make stew.
But he was twelve, and restless, and wanted to go farther. He set out that fine spring day intending to go deeper into the forest than he ever had before, and that is exactly what he did. He went East, following the sun until it was behind him and his stomach began to growl. The trees were closer together and the undergrowth thicker here, and he was just beginning to consider turning around when he hacked away a bush and stepped into the bright, full sunlight of a man-made clearing.
In the clearing was a garden of food, and a garden of flowers, and a single stone tower. In the tower was a girl who sang.
He walks East now. East to the Sea, he supposes. She sang of the sea, though she had never seen it. He has never seen it either. He promised that one day he would take her there, that they would sit by the shore and listen to the gulls and the water crashing, and he would kiss her in the salt spray. He fixes an image in his mind of her on the rocks by the water, her hair and dress snapping in the wind, waiting for him.
When it rains, he turns his face to the sky and the mist feels like a promise. He will get there. He will find her.
"Where is the door?" he asked, putting a hand to the sun-warmed stone and beginning to walk. He walked around the tower, sliding his palm over the smooth, weather-worn rock, counting his paces.
"There is no door," she called back.
"But how do you get out?"
He frowned. "What is your name?"
He looked to the garden. "Rapunzel," he repeated. "I will climb the tower and rescue you."
She laughed and laughed.
He sleeps wherever he can find shelter. The lee of a stone, under a fallen tree, in caves or branches. He eats what he can find and identify by touch. It is three weeks before he manages to snare a rabbit and then he loses half the meat when he skins it with his sword. Everything he took for granted is ten times more difficult now.
He stumbles upon cottages occasionally. He is always hungry and tired, but never so hungry as he is when a proper meal is set before him, or so tired as when a bed is offered. More often, he is given room in a barn, and even sleeping on piles of hay is preferable to cold, hard-packed earth, where pinecones poke his ribs. And cows are infinitely better bunkmates than bears.
"You mustn't let Mother see you," Rapunzel warned him.
"Why not?" He sat on the hard-packed earth at the foot of the tower, whittling a horse from a piece of wood, warming his back against the stone.
"She would not like that you visit me. So you cannot come tomorrow, because she will be here."
"Maybe if I am here, she will let you come out to play," he said reasonably, naively. "She will see I am not going to hurt you."
"That is not why she keeps me here," she told him. "It is too dangerous for me to leave. There is a curse."
He tilted his head back to look up at her, where she sat on her windowsill, plaiting her golden hair. "A curse? How do you break it?"
"You do not break curses," Rapunzel explained sadly. "You avoid them. Mother says—"
"I will break it," he said boldly. "And then you can come down, and we can go swimming! It is a perfect day for swimming."
"I don't know how to swim," she told him. "And I do not want Mother to meet you. She will make you stop coming."
"I am a prince," he said, surprised. "She cannot make me do anything."
When he sleeps, he dreams in color. It is the only time he sees color now. He sees golden hair and blue, blue eyes. He sees her skin and her green dress, and the way she looked next to him, asleep in the moonlight. Even now, when it has been so long that he has lost track of days, weeks, months, he sometimes wakes expecting to find her in his arms.
But always, he wakes alone, and to darkness.
He came to her every three days, when her mother would not be there. He stopped exploring in favor of visiting her. His Rapunzel.
"How does your mother get up to see you?"
"She climbs my hair."
He was horrified. "She climbs your hair? Does it hurt?"
Rapunzel was quiet so long that he wondered if she had heard him. "Yes. It gives me a headache, but then she brushes my hair for me and makes me tea and it stops hurting after a while."
He thought about this for a while. "I will find a way to climb the tower without hurting you," he promised.
He knows what people think when they look at him. He is a blind, disfigured man with a face of scars and clothes that are dirty, tattered and worn. His elbow pokes through his shirt, and his shoes have holes in them. He has not slept in the same place for two nights in over a year. Perhaps longer. He has stopped keeping track of the passage of time.
When he encounters people, he asks of her. He hears them pause when he says her name—Rapunzel. Rapunzel. He hears their voices cut off and silence fills the room when he enters. He never stays long in these villages.
He has to get to the sea. She will be there. She must be there.
He was thirteen when he managed to climb the tower for the first time. He carved into the crevices between the stones, painstakingly creating finger-and-toe holds that were unobtrusive enough that they looked as if they had always been there. They attracted no attention.
He climbed the tower and Rapunzel pulled him over the window ledge. They simply looked at one another for the longest time. It had been over a year since he first stumbled into her sun-drenched clearing and declared his intention to rescue her.
Rapunzel moved first, reaching out and grasping his hands. She tugged him into her room and from then on, he never came to visit without scaling the tower wall. He brought her books, wooden figures he whittled, combs. She kept them under her bed, in the floorboards. She sketched and painted him pictures that he folded up and kept in his pocket.
He finds that he can still whittle, even blindly. He can hold a piece of wood in his hands, run his fingers over the rough material and does not need his eyes to see the creature or object inside. He does this for the first time during that first long, cold winter, huddled in a cave because the snow is too deep to trudge through. He sells a set of bowls, four spoons and a spindle to a widow in exchange for a good night's sleep, new boots and a proper knife.
His carved animals bring in the most money, and by the third winter he has a pack of clothes, a jacket and a blanket to keep him warm as he makes his way across flat farmlands on his way to Rapunzel.
He was fifteen the summer his father attempted to make him court a visiting dignitary's daughter. He danced with her until his feet were sore, and kept a smile plastered on his face all evening. He pretended her eyes were blue instead of green, and that she spoke of places she wanted to travel to rather than how much land her father held.
When the ball was over, he climbed out his window and ran through the woods in the moonlight. He arrived at the tower as the sun was peeking over the trees, and the wall was damp with dew as he climbed. Rapunzel was asleep, but she woke when his boots touched the floor.
He went to her and sat on the edge of her bed, catching his breath. She rubbed her eyes and blinked in the pale morning light. "What is it?"
"I will not marry her," he promised her, covering her hand with his. "I am going to take you to the sea." And he leaned in and kissed her for the first time.
"Why are you blind?"
It is always children who are brave enough to ask. Adults avoid the issue, as if not speaking of it will make it less true. As if speaking in whispers or silencing conversations when he enters a room is less rude. He finds that he likes children better than adults these days.
He finishes chewing the bread this child's father gave him, and answers honestly. "My wife's mother kept her locked in a tower. When she found out that we were married, she cut my wife's hair and sent her far away, then waited for me. She tricked me and threw me from the tower. I landed in rose bushes. It saved my life, but took my sight."
The little girl's fingertips trace the scars on his face. "Is that why you have scratches?"
He has always envisioned them to be deep and disfiguring, but the way she touches him, he wonders if perhaps his scars are less frightening than he imagines.
He held her in his arms, kissing tears from her cheeks. "Do not cry, Rapunzel. It will be all right."
"How?" she asked bitterly, clinging to him. "You must be married in the fall. And I—"
"Will be my wife."
She stopped, frozen in place, tears glistening on her eyelashes. "What?"
He pushed her hair back out of her face. "Rapunzel, I have loved you since I was twelve. You are the only person who knows me, who loves me for me and not my parents. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, even if that means living here with you in this tower, forever."
She burst into tears, and he kissed her, because he could not bear to see her crying even in joy. They fell back into her bed and once he assured her that he was serious, that he was going to marry her and only her, Rapunzel stroked his cheek and whispered, "Take me with you."
If only he had not waited.
There are times when he despairs. It has been so long since they were together. He was eighteen that evening. The night he came to take Rapunzel away with him.
He remembers it. As he travels and the air begins to grow cooler, and the smell of salt hangs on the breeze, he dreams of it whenever he closes his eyes. He remembers Rapunzel's mother waiting for him in her room. Rapunzel's hair on the floor at her feet. The wild look in the old woman's eyes as she swore they would never find one another.
Most of all, he remembers falling. And the pain. And then the darkness.
He has been in darkness ever since.
He is twenty-two, he thinks, the day he reaches the Sea. He stands on the shore and listens to the waves crashing and the gulls crying. He lifts his face to the sky and feels the ocean spray against his skin. He can taste the salt, and feels the wind whipping through his hair.
In all this time, he has never considered that once he found the sea, he would still need to find Rapunzel. In his visions, she was always waiting for him when he arrived, standing by the shore and watching for him. But now he is here, and she is not.
He spends two days by the shore. He wonders if her mother was right; if maybe they will never find one another. If she is somewhere else.
He lets himself wallow for a day before reminding himself that he will never find her if he simply sits and waits. So he pushes himself up, brushes himself off and goes into town.
He has been led to this cottage by a sympathetic woman who bought a carved bear from him. She invited him in for tea and listened to his story, then announced that there was someone he should meet and brought him here. She knocks on the door, and when no one answers, touches his arm. "They are probably around back."
He has no idea who "they" are, but he follows. He has nowhere else to be. He has been here, in this fishing village, for a week now. It is the third village he has been to along the shore. The woman takes his arm and leads him around the house.
He hears the high-pitched laughter of two small children, and as they round the corner, one young voice calls out, "Mama!"
And then there is silence for what seems an eternity, and then there is a voice he knows. A voice he has kept in his heart and mind every day for years. A voice he listened to every third day for six years. A voice he grew up and fell in love with. And that voice is saying his name. He has not heard his name in years, but it is the voice that matters.
"Rapunzel," he manages, and then she is there. She is in his arms, and he is holding her, and she is holding him, and they are both crying. They are tears of joy, and relief. Tears for what they have lost, and what they have endured. Tears for the years they could have had together, and tears for finding one another at last.
"I knew you would come," she says, and he holds her tighter, reveling in the sound of her voice. "I knew you would find us."
He does not notice or care that she is crying on him. He kisses her and kisses her, and is afraid that he will wake up alone in a hollow tree because he has searched for so long.
She cups his face and he leans into her hands. "Your eyes," she whispers, running her thumbs gently over his scars, over his eyelashes. "Your poor eyes." She leans in and presses kisses to his eyelids, lingering long enough for him to feel more tears falling and her lips quivering. Her entire body is shaking. He holds her tighter and blinks against his own tears.
At first, as he is holding her, rocking her in his arms, he does not even notice what is happening. He is too overjoyed at finding her after all of this time. He does not stop to think about the way his perpetual darkness is beginning to lighten. It is like the slow, slow sunrise. Pitch black gives way to charcoal, to dark blue, to a gray, until he is blinking not against tears, but against a fuzzy kind of light.
The first thing he sees in over four years is Rapunzel's golden hair.
They live together in their cottage by the sea. Rapunzel paints and sings. Their twin daughters call him "Papa" and have his muddy brown hair. He carves wood into animals, furniture, even boats. A year after his arrival in their backyard, Rapunzel gives birth to a son.
Every night, Rapunzel sleeps in his arms. Every morning, he opens his eyes and he can see.