Perhaps the strangest part of the wedding had been seeing the gate-crashing witch flirt with the priest while sea-green cake crumbs rained down on the guests.
In Frederic's opinion, the whole event had been far too full of adventure and excitement for his liking.
"You're Mr. Fancy-Pants," sneered Gustav. "Of course there was too much adventure in it for you."
Frederic fidgeted with his lapels as conflicting feelings warred within him. On the one hand, it was a wonderful compliment to be told one was known for wearing excellent pants. The ones he was currently wearing were forest green with yellow lace. All the courtiers were very jealous. On the other hand, Gustav was obviously insulting him.
"I'll have you know that I have been far more receptive to adventurous exploits lately."
Gustav rolled his eyes.
"I suppose it didn't help that the bride used to be your bride."
"Thank you for the reminder."
Gustav flashed him what must have been his version of a winning smile. Personally, Frederic thought it made Gustav look even more like a deranged axe-murderer. A somewhat adorable axe-murderer.
"You're welcome, Cinderella Man – oh wait, that’s not you anymore."
Nope, just an axe-murderer.
Sometimes, things just don't work out after the Happily Ever After. As far as the bards were concerned, Cinderella married Prince Charming and that was the end of the story. If she wanted to have two weddings, who could blame her? Not many people could say no to extra cake. Besides, Prince Charming seemed to get married to quite a number of princesses.
Nevertheless, no great confusion was had until Pennifeather the Mellifluous of Harmonia discovered that Prince Charming was planning to marry himself. However, that doesn't happen until later in the story, so we'll leave that alone for now.
A little way away from where Frederic was attempting to wipe the tears from his eyes in a dignified manner, things were similarly gloomy. Although honeymoons are wonderful things, they cannot, unfortunately, last forever. Ella had returned from the trip with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes which grew to enormous proportions as she recounted the adventures she had been on with her new husband.
"It sounds like you had lots of fun," said Lila, pulling a thick tome from the stack sitting on the table. She opened it to a blank page and smoothed out the crinkles in the old paper. "Now, if you could go a bit slower this time?"
"Sorry," said Ella, her eyes still fixed on some distant point beyond Lila's head. "It was just such a change from life with Frederic. I still don't know how I'm going to adjust to life here."
Lila looked at her new sister-in-law expectantly.
"Oh, right! The story! Well, it all began when we ran into this old woman with a pointy hat, like a witch's, but she got really offended when I called her one – ”
“I guess so. She had really nice skin, though.”
“Definitely an enchantress,” confirmed Lila, crossing out ‘woman with pointy hat’ and replacing it with ‘enchantress.’ Much less wordy.
“Anyway,” Ella continued, “we met her at a bar near Sturmhagen..."
"...and now Liam's taking up his princely duties again while I try and wait patiently for the next crisis."
Lila put her pen down.
"You could always go out alone," she suggested. "My brother already knows you can take care of yourself."
"I could," agreed Ella, "but things are so peaceful at the moment and I don't want to be that princess who rescues cabbages from storms, you know?"
Lila twirled her pen absently, thinking.
"You never actually told me what you used to do with Frederic," she said. "If I know what you didn't like when you were with him, it will be easier to find castle activities you do like."
"Well, we never did very much, now that I think about it," said Ella. "Frederic would always wake up late and then want to have a picnic for lunch. Or he would want to dance, or go shopping for clothes, or whatever else well-educated people do all the time."
"No wonder you were bored," said Lila. "That's a completely different lifestyle to the one you have now with Liam."
Ella slammed her hands on the table, eyes shining. "Exactly! I don't think I'll be able to cope with having to go back to that."
"I think I know what the problem is now," Lila said. "You've only been exposed to Frederic-style castle living, so you don't know how to spend your time in castles any other way."
"Is there any other way?" asked Ella mournfully.
"Well," she began, "who else do you know who spends most of their time in and around the castle?"
Ella didn’t see her new sister-in-law for two weeks after that. In the meantime, she joined the servants in their duties and kept herself busy making meals and sweeping floors. She remembered what her life had been like before she met Frederic and did her best to ensure the servants were well-compensated for their work. Before long, Ella had become incredibly popular among the servants.
She enjoyed working with them. It was familiar, almost comfortable, and when she remembered she didn't have to do household chores for the rest of her life, it was fun.
Sometimes, though, she worried that if no problems emerged, she really would spend all her time doing chores anyway.
She spent a few days on a road trip with Liam in order to discuss territory with a neighboring country, but there were no opportunities for her to play the hero, and she returned to Erinthia with her dress impeccably clean.
On the morning of the fourteenth day of her return, Ella was woken by a bushy-haired blur that flew into her bed, knocking her out of a nightmare in which she was scheduled to attend three picnics a day for the next forty years. She awoke with a scream, startling Lila, who was bouncing on the bed with the same sort of energy usually associated with Ella.
"Wake up, Ella," called Lila, almost dancing on the mattress.
Ella sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Long time no see."
"We can make up for lost time today," said Lila matter-of-factly. She took the older girl’s hand and pulled Ella off the bed. "Put on your cloak; we don’t have much time."
Confused, Ella did as she was told. "What’s wrong?
"You," replied Lila, looking up at Ella, "are bored. I am going to remedy that."
While Ella was searching for her cloak, Lila pushed open the window. The rope she had tied to the sill when Ella had been cooking dinner the previous night was still there, hanging down to the bottom of the castle. A big fluffy pile of pillows littered the ground underneath.
"Time to initiate phase one," Lila muttered. She raised her voice to call out to the other girl. "Let’s go, Ella!"
Lila swung out the window, grasping the rope firmly in both hands. She rested her legs against the castle wall and began climbing down slowly, wrapping the cord around her waist for extra security.
Ella shrieked as she whirled around to see Lila’s curly hair disappearing over the window. She thrust her arms into the sleeves on her coat and rushed to the open window, sighing with relief when she saw Lila clinging tightly to the rope in the dim light of near dawn, already halfway to the bottom.
“You can come down after me,” said Lila, smiling up at her. Ella shook her head in wonder and jumped after Lila, heart already thrumming with excitement.
There are some people who find it easy to move on. People like Cinderella and Liam and Gustav, for example, are always looking ahead to their next adventure. These people run on carelessly, only occasionally taking the time to learn from their mistakes before rushing into danger once more. People like Frederic, on the other hand, have the dubious ability to cling to things almost obsessively. There are, of course, advantages that come with being either type of person, but there are also disadvantages. In Frederic’s case, he was finding out the hard way that sometimes things change, and sometimes you can’t win back what you have lost.
"I'm happy for Liam, I really am," said the thin prince, looking decidedly unhappy. "I knew when I saw him that he was exactly the kind of prince Ella wanted me to be."
"Then at least she'll be happier than she was with you," said Gustav, patting Frederic awkwardly on the back. Secretly, all this moping over Ella was starting to annoy the larger man. When Rapunzel had left him, Gustav had been resentful but he had done the princely thing and left her alone. He had learned long ago from his mother that if you went after strong-willed women immediately after they left you, you would only annoy them more. Gustav had also learned that you could sometimes win them back by chasing after them persistently, but that required tactfulness and sensitivity, and Gustav thought those words were far too long to represent anything important.
Still, it would be wrong to assume that just because Gustav was bad at comforting people or dealing with their feelings, he had no emotions. Gustav had plenty of emotions. Gustav often felt mad (not in the insane way, of course), or jealous of his brothers, or even, on very few occasions, sad. Of course, he would never admit to the last emotion, but he still felt it every now and then.
Recently, Gustav was beginning to feel something new when he was with Frederic. Gustav was accustomed to feeling new things when he was with Frederic. Since he had met the other prince, Gustav had learnt to identify feelings of worry and panic, two emotions he had never before been able to name. He was currently in the process of attempting to identify this new emotion.
When Frederic spoke, some part of Gustav listened with the same attentiveness he gave his father, because Frederic said wise things sometimes. The rest of Gustav laughed loudly and ignored Frederic’s feeble voice, but there was a part of Gustav that listened with something bordering on respect, no matter what sort of nonsense Frederic was spouting. This meant that Gustav took a moment to consider everything that Frederic said, even if Frederic suggested something as boring and useless as learning to dance.
Yet Gustav knew that while he grudgingly respected Frederic to some extent, the feeling he experienced when he was with Frederic was not the same as the respect Gustav had for his father.
Rather, the feeling sometimes bordered on the soft warmth he felt when he saw his mother or Rapunzel, an emotion which Gustav had once mistaken for love, despite the fact that it was nothing like the love he knew he felt for his own amazing self. Gustav still wasn’t sure what that feeling was, so he tried his best to forget about it.
"I know she'll be happier with Liam than she was with me!" Frederic said angrily. "Still, she seemed so impressed when I teamed up with you all to bring the witch down."
Gustav puffed out his chest.
"I was brilliant in that rescue, wasn't I?" Frederic ignored him. Gustav dimly registered a dull pain near one of his ribs, which was odd because he was sure he hadn't injured himself there recently.
"I really thought we could make things work," Frederic continued, voice wavering. Gustav suddenly became very aware of how his hand was still resting on Frederic's back. It felt so warm and fragile under Gustav's fingers.
Frederic was so skinny. He should eat more, Gustav thought, and then almost laughed aloud at the thought of Frederic's scrawny head on one of Gustav's brothers' stocky bodies. No, Frederic was perfect the way he was, fancy pants and all.
"You'll find someone who will make you a dozen times happier than she did," Gustav blurted out. "You should go on a quest. That's what princes usually do. Most princes don't meet their future wives at balls."
Frederic smiled wanly. "Gustav, most princes don't grow up without being able to swim. My childhood hero was Sir Bertram the Dainty and I still think those books are thrilling tales of adventure. The only princess we know who has even a chance of putting up with my boring lifestyle is Rapunzel."
There was a bitter taste in Gustav's mouth that signaled strong envy. Gustav shook his head vigorously, but Frederic was already looking vaguely into the distance, head full of Rapunzel's soft curves and beautiful smile.
"I didn't think you would ever have been in a tree house before," explained Lila, swinging up onto a branch. Ella was only a couple of branches behind.
"This is amazing," the older girl gasped, balancing tenuously on a branch and stretching out her arms to touch the painted wood around them.
"I've built a network up here," said Lila proudly. "You can skip from one house to the next using the connecting branches. This is my favorite house."
Lila led her sister-in-law to a decorative ledge around the other side of the house. She sat and patted the wood, inviting Ella to sit next to her.
"We're just in time."
Ahead of them, light was gradually sifting through the clouds. Ella gasped as the first rays of sunlight splashed out above the horizon, painting the sky a pale pink. The shifting colors wheeled through the rainbow, settling finally on unending blue. From the tree house, they could see the light as it began to wash over the houses, deepening the stone and wood to rich shades of color. Birds began to sing as the kingdom awoke.
Ella sat completely still, back straight and legs dangling below the ledge.
"I – " I have never seen such a beautiful sunrise in my life. I am so grateful to you for letting me see this. I don't know what to say.
Lila looked out over the land.
"It's not so bad when you see it like this, is it?"
Still speechless, Ella could only stare, open-mouthed, as the day unfolded before her eyes.
However, Lila hadn't spent two weeks planning a sunrise. She tugged gently at Ella's arm and led the stunned princess back down the tree.
"Did Frederic sign you up for any classes?"
"Only dancing and horse riding," Ella replied.
Lila had guessed that already, but it was best to make sure.
"You won't be able to do anything in the castle if you don't know how," she said. "I've asked a couple of experts to come and you can choose what lessons you want to take."
She handed Ella a short list of names and occupations.
"Glass painting? I haven't even heard of that before."
Lila smiled. Ella might soon be complaining about not having enough time to do everything she wanted to.
"To start with, we should head to the main hall. I picked out some tutors for today and we can see if you like any of them."
The tutors were all punctual, and when they reached the main hall there was already a group of smartly-dressed men and women waiting patiently for them.
"Pleased to meet you, Ella dear," said a tall woman, curtsying. A large bird, brilliant green, was perched on her shoulder and a snake was coiled lazily around her left arm. "My name is Helene. I was told you might be interested in learning about exotic animals."
"I teach sailing," said a wiry man with dark skin and even darker hair. When he winked at Ella, the corners of his eyes crinkled. She liked him immediately. "Call me Stan. I think my knowledge of knots might be particularly useful to you, but it's always good to know your way around a ship."
"I'm Suzanne," finished a short woman with a lovely smile. "My specialty is in organic chemistry."
"That's all we'll have time for today," said Lila, "but you can pick your own tomorrow, and then we can work out a schedule if you like. Let's have breakfast before we leave."
She straddled a bench and swept a bowl off the table, offering it to Ella with a low bow.
Ella accepted the bowl absently, preoccupied by the smooth feel of scales as Helene coaxed her snake onto Ella's arm.
By the end of the day, Ella had learned more than she could remember about how to distinguish between all sorts of strange animals and how to tame some of them. She could also stir an antidote to disinfect minor cuts and had learned how to differentiate between poisonous troll's root and lettuce.
"I've heard your friend Rapunzel can heal wounds with her tears," Suzanne had said, "but you can't be troubling her over every minor problem you encounter. She's shed enough tears over our silly mistakes for a lifetime."
Ella heartily agreed. Rapunzel was busy enough, and if Liam ever obtained a small injury on their adventures Ella would be able to help him heal properly without disrupting their mission.
Currently, Ella was hoisting sails in the air with Stan as Lila stood at the bow, her dark hair flying behind her as she stared at the hazy curve where sky met sea.
"Tie it like this," Stan ordered, demonstrating with his end of the rope. Ella hooked one end of the rope under the other and mimicked him as closely as she could.
Stan smiled approvingly.
"You're a fast learner. All right, that should be enough. This is where you get to relax and enjoy the view."
The sky darkened to orange. Ella hugged Lila and then stepped back, taking hold of her sister-in-law's small hand. She spun the shorter girl around, grabbing Stan as well, and pulled them to port in a crude imitation of a waltz. The boat tilted dangerously but righted itself as Ella dragged her two dance partners to the center of the ship, grinning.
"No wonder your old prince sent you to dancing lessons," joked Stan. He linked one arm in Lila's, completing the circle, and began a sailor's jig, singing along tunelessly. Laughing, Ella threw her head back and joined in, skipping in circles around the ship and bawling out choruses while the day gave way to night.
As the first star appeared, Ella entwined her fingers in Lila's.
"Thank you for today," she said. "I haven't been very considerate of you. I've been interrupting your library time to whine about how boring castle life was and I didn't even know what it was like."
"I only did it so I could read in peace," said Lila airily, but she squeezed Ella's hand. "I like having you around. Liam's okay, but it’s nice having a sister."
Ella gazed at a small cluster of stars. "My stepsisters were horrible, so I was really happy when I married Frederic. I told myself I didn't have any sisters anymore."
"Now you have me," prompted Lila, sensing that Ella wasn't finished.
"Now I have you," Ella agreed, "and I'm grateful."
Recently, Gustav had been acting strangely. More strangely than usual, that was. Whenever Frederic had mentioned Rapunzel, Gustav had grown terribly sullen. When Gustav was sullen, his speech pattern resembled that of a troll, a phenomenon which Frederic assumed was an unfortunate consequence of having spent several months negotiating with the creatures.
Nevertheless, Frederic was determined to have Gustav's support. He knew the most difficult part of getting a girlfriend was gaining the approval of the girl's ex-boyfriends.
Gustav had denied any serious attraction to Rapunzel, so Frederic was rather confused and more than a little put out by Gustav's illogical mood swings.
Frederic aimed to win Gustav over with persistence and good reasoning.
"You see," explained Frederic, "maybe we all have to do some sort of princess swap."
"Tassels," Gustav gritted out, "you can’t pass around wives like they’re part of a stuffed animal collection."
"I know,” sighed Frederic, “but why else would Ella leave me? Why does Liam get offers from all the princesses while I’m here all alone?”
Gustav flinched and hoped Frederic hadn’t seen him. What did Frederic mean by that? How could that irritating midget even begin to think he was alone when he had Gustav? Gustav was big and muscled and had more hair than any other prince. Wasn’t he enough for Frederic?
"What's wrong with being single for a while? I'm single."
"I've been single for a while and now I think I'm ready to try again," said Frederic very sensibly. It was all so logical; that was why it annoyed Gustav so much.
Try again with me, Gustav wanted to say, and blinked. Surely that wasn't what he actually meant. He opened his mouth for a second shot at a reply.
"Try again with me, Mr. Tight White Dress Shirts."
What. What was that. Gustav's cheeks reddened and he turned around. Hopefully Frederic would take it as a joke. Or not.
Gustav wasn't sure what he wanted Frederic to do anymore.
"Try -- what?" squeaked Frederic.
"You're my friend," Gustav declared, as if it explained everything, and realized that maybe it did.
He had never called anyone his friend before Frederic. He had never even told Rapunzel that he loved her. In Gustav's opinion, it was natural that the first person he had ever counted as a friend would be the first person he would truly love.
Love. It was a short word; it should have been an easy emotion to comprehend. Gustav didn't think he fully understood it yet. Still, now that he had the word linked to the emotion, it felt right.
"Gustav," Frederic was saying impatiently, "things don't work like that. You don't get married to everyone you're friends with."
"I think I love you," said Gustav, and then realized how utterly girly that sounded. "Maybe. I'm still not completely sure, but it seems to fit."
Frederic's mouth was wide open.
"Don't leave your mouth hanging open like that," said Gustav, disgusted. He reached across and pushed Frederic's jaw back up, not noticing the skinny prince's squeak of surprise. "It makes you look even stupider than you already are, Monster Mouth."
"I'm supposed to marry Rapunzel," Frederic protested. "At least, I'm supposed to marry a princess of some sort!"
“You’re so tied up in what you think you’re supposed to do that you don’t give yourself the chance to do anything you actually want to do.”
Frederic waved his arms but, to his own dismay, couldn't manage to come up with a proper counter-argument.
Despite Gustav’s inability to display even the slightest bit of tact, the burly prince could be surprisingly insightful.
"Suppose you're right," Frederic said, not yet willing to give in. "But what can I do about that? It's just who I am."
"No, Cotton Brain," said Gustav, rolling his eyes, "it's who you think you're supposed to be. Do something you actually want to do for once."
Frederic looked dubious at the thought of actually following Gustav's advice, but he thought about it carefully and it seemed, unlike most of Gustav's ideas, quite reasonable.
He squeezed his eyes shut and thought about Ella, and about Liam, and about Rapunzel and her soft smiles and kind tears and ethereal beauty. He thought of Gustav saying "I think I love you."
"In that case," Frederic attempted to say boldly, "I think I would like to kiss you."
Gustav's jaw dropped open. It made him look incredibly unrefined and yet Frederic still wanted to kiss him. This might be the beginnings of infatuation, Frederic thought, and felt a little quiver in his heart at the idea.
Then he realized that Gustav still hadn't said anything, and the quiver spread to his stomach, making him feel quite ill. Had he somehow misinterpreted things? Had he been too forward?
"I mean," he continued nervously, "only if you'd like me to. I thought you might to because you said – you know, so, I thought, just to see what it would be like? Because maybe I could eventually, you know, too. But of course you didn't mean it like that. Like you said, Cotton Brain, that's me! Look, just forget about it."
Then, because Gustav's mouth was still hanging open and Frederic was sure some poor unsuspecting fly would be lured into it at some point, Frederic reached out and gently drew Gustav's jaw back up, echoing the larger man's earlier gesture.
"We should get married first," Gustav spluttered. Later, he would deny that he had stuttered over the sentence and insist that he had instead pulled the other prince in to claim the kiss he deserved. Frederic would not deny the story, but he would always hold in his mind the image of Gustav when he proposed, red as a tomato, while Frederic tried to will his heart to start working again.
The song written by the bards for the wedding was short and completely unintelligible. Pennifeather the Mellifluous had a huge fight with Tyrese the Tuneful over the logistics of Prince Charming bending himself over backwards for the kiss, and the song constantly contradicted itself when it claimed the prince was 'skinny as a stick' in one chorus and 'huge like a yeti' in the next.
"That's the problem with calling us all 'Prince Charming'," groaned Liam when he heard the news. "We're developing a very bad reputation."