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Unexpected Happily Ever Afters

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It was an accident, really.

Okay, it probably couldn't be classified as an accident. The people who ran things were definitely taking actions with Strong Intentions; ergo, accident was, perhaps, the least applicable term.

Nonetheless, as far as Buttercup was concerned, it was an accident. She hadn't planned to be a queen; she thought she had left the crown behind when she ran away from Humperdinck, eschewing a royal consummation for a life of vagabondage, piracy, and muddy roads.

She was wrong.

But wait, perhaps we should go back to the beginning. Not the actual beginning – astrophysics is beyond the scope of this tale, and theology is best left to the theologians – but the beginning of the events which lead to Buttercup's coronation, one event following the other in a sequence that seemed quite clear and logical at the time and yet baffling in their cumulative effect.

It started with the horses.

[Scene break: crown]

The horses were a lovely gesture on Fezzik's part, and Buttercup felt no compunction about stealing them; given that she was running away in a rather expensive dress and a not-inconsiderable fortune in gems, a picturesque escape on liberated horses did not present an ethical or a moral dilemma. However, it became quite clear that they could not keep the horses, and that they were better off on foot than on horseback.

The horses in question, four superbly matched white mares, were harnessed for only one purpose, and unsurprisingly, highly bred horses trained for drawing carriages during minor celebrations objected to bearing riders during a high speed escape. Given that Buttercup was the only one in their motley band who could actually remain a-horseback when their steeds registered their protests, they eventually dismounted and sent them off with a slap to their rumps.

(Buttercup had hoped that they could keep them until they crossed the border and sell them in Guilder, but, alas, that was not to be. It would have been impossible to sell them in Florin: they were obviously from the Prince's stables – no one else would squander money on horses that could only be used four or five times a year – and anyone buying the Prince's property would receive an invitation to the Pit of Despair that could not be refused.)

However, it soon became evident that the merry band was not, in fact, better off on foot than horseback. Inigo wasn't doing well – stab wounds take it right out of a man, back-up potions from Miracle Max notwithstanding – and Westley was still recovering from being mostly dead followed by large amounts of adrenaline and brazen bluffing. Fezzik and Buttercup were not physically injured, but they had endured a rather trying few days. Travelling by foot did not, alas, have the same advantage of speed as riding, and, upon reflection, they felt that the advantage of continued movement away from the palace did not outweigh the disadvantage of their exhaustion and poor condition. Therefore, as is inevitable when one desires to remain stationary and is in possession of a reasonable amount of coin and an aversion to sleeping in the open, they ended up at an inn.

"Fezzik, do you have a cloak?" Buttercup asked.

"I have no cloak; it burned to smoke," he replied.

"Are you cold, my love?" Westley asked.

"No," she said, "but I don't think that it would be terribly appropriate for me to wander into an inn while wearing a dress worth more than the inn in question."

"You do have a good point. Perhaps you can use the back door?"

"How do you know this establishment has a back door?"

"It's in a moderately disreputable location and sells fermented beverages to all comers. Of course it has a back door." He grinned (an expression which had abruptly started appearing on his face after their escape and his reunion with his true love) and disappeared into the inn. He re-emerged a few minutes later, told Fezzik to carry Inigo up to the second floor, second to last door on the left, and took her elbow, leading her around the building. He rapped on a door, and a viewing port swung open. A narrowed gaze took them in. "Password?" the person asked.

"One ducat," Westley said. The port slammed shut and then the door opened. The woman behind it stood aside and let them enter. Buttercup felt quite uncomfortable as the scourer of pots, the peeler of vegetables, and the stirrer of stews interrupted their tasks to stare at her. "Back to work," snapped the woman as she led them through the kitchen to a dimly lit hallway. "Stairs are at the end," she said, "you can go and freshen up."

"Thank you," Buttercup said. She followed Westley up the stairs, and he went to the end of the hall and opened up a door. She entered the room, and was abruptly taken aback by how tiny it was.

"This is for you," he said. "Fezzik, Inigo, and I are next door."

"Westley," she said, "the doors were spaced evenly apart. Is not the room next door the size of this one?"

"Well, yes," he replied, "but we cannot afford three, and Inigo needs someone to watch him in case he has a bad turn during the night."

She raised her eyebrow. "Wouldn't it make more sense for you to stay in here, with me?"

"It would be a rather large breech of social custom, given our lack of marital union," he said mildly.

"We shared a smaller room at home, did we not? And it is my wedding night, is it not? Therefore, I do not see what is improper about the arrangement, regardless of how you wish the night to go. In the one case, there is already past precedent, and, in the other case, there is also already past precedent. Furthermore, you are a pirate, bringing into doubt the sincerity of your adherence to social custom, and you are a ship's captain, enabling you to change our marital status."

"You do make a persuasive case," he said, "and I shall share this room with you. However, we shall have a proper wedding, and it shall be performed when we are no longer vagrants."

She smiled. "I accept your proposal. Now, if you can bring yourself to flout custom further, share a set of your spare clothes. Then I could take off this most unfortunate dress and venture down for food and drink."

He looked like he was going to argue, but then he sighed. "As you wish," he said, digging into his own pack to toss her a pair of pants and a shirt. She smiled at him, happy to get out of the ridiculous dress. Her request for aid resulted in more hesitation on his part, but she pointed out that getting into it had required the help of a maidservant and getting out of it wasn't any easier. She was fit from all the riding she did, but that did not give her arms the capacity to reach laces in awkward locations. He left as soon as he could, and she couldn't help but laugh at his ridiculousness. Really, what did he think would have happened if they had boarded his ship together?

Dressed in black and wearing a pair of her riding boots, which she'd had the foresight to grab on their way out (the brown, unfortunately, but what could you do?), she felt much better. She braided her hair and tied it up, hoping that her presentation was different enough that people would not connect the blonde woman in men's clothes with the Prince's golden-tressed bride. She rued the lack of a mirror to check the changes in her appearance, but, if she was recognized, she would trust to Westley and Fezzik to keep her safe.

She ventured down the stairs and followed the noise down the hallway into the common room. The cacophony, heat, and smell of so many bodies wedged closely together made her grimace, but she was hungry and needed to eat. She saw Westley and Fezzik wedged in the corner, insofar as Fezzik could be wedged anywhere, and she made her way over to them.

"Lady!" said Fezzik. "You made it down, and you're not in your gown."

"No, I took it off. I'm discovering that this is much more comfortable," she replied. She maneuvered herself onto the bench beside Westley, glad that she didn't have to finagle skirts in addition to her legs. She had missed the comfort of being a farm girl, and she liked feeling anonymous in the midst of a crowd once more. Westley shoved the plate of unidentifiable meat over to her, and she grabbed a slice and started eating.

"What's the news?"

"In chronological order: two nights ago, you disappeared, and opinion seems to be split on whether you ran away, either to a convent or circus, Humperdinck killed you, or Guilder kidnapped you. One day ago, Humperdinck's father died. Prince Humperdinck is now King Humperdinck. Within an hour of proclaiming himself king, he started issuing decrees of taxation and conscription."

"Oh," she said. "He was a sweet old man. I kissed him, you know, and he patted my hand. It was when I planned to die."

They lapsed into silence, and she ate and then went back upstairs. She was exhausted, and she slipped into sleep quickly.

[Scene break: crown]

Although it was risky to stay in Florin, they remained at the inn. That was undesirable from a fiscal standpoint, but it was unavoidable while Inigo was convalescing. (He tried to protest their actions, but he shut up after they threatened to sit on him to keep him in place.)

Therefore, they were still in Florin when Humperdinck started exercising an iron hand. Before the fourteenth eve of his reign, he had decreed that the citizens of Florin should have bonfires to burn all black garments and no longer sell or use black dye. (Very few people wore black – at best, the color referred to as black could usually, after a few washings, be called a dark grey – so this resulted in more puzzlement, curiosity, and rumors than ash.) He caused a shortage in sugar by having fresh tarts, meringues, and caramels served at every meal. (He hadn't anticipated the Ambassador of Ruritania's offense, subsequent storming out of the banquet hall, and rupturing of diplomatic ties when apples, Ruritania's prized export, were not served in their natural state.) He conscripted twenty-three point seven percent of the population as members of the Brute Squad to prevent future storming of the castle. (Since only two percent of the population technically qualified as Brutes, per the legal definitions set down by Engelbert the Bold, a class action suit followed; it was suspended after the Unpleasantness was over.) He prevented Florin's domination of the International Corgi Convocation by appointing every dog that could follow a scent as a member of his own kennels. (Since the kennels were not spacious enough for the new inhabitants, they invaded the palace, and palace inhabitants found fur in corners for years.)

The actions of her former betrothed saddened Buttercup, who loved Florin, even though necessity dictated that she leave it. However, the reactions of her countrymen heartened her. The inn's common room, instead of becoming quieter and more somber at Humperdinck's depredations, just became louder as he sent out decree after decree.

They told stories:

His fiancee was a fairy princess who disguised herself as a farm girl to test the hearts of mortal men. But, though she dressed like a lowly peasant, her sapphire eyes sparkled in the sun, her skin glowed in the moonlight, and the gold of her hair outshone her crown. Humperdinck trapped her with cold iron and spidersilk for her dowry of fairy lands and priceless gems, and she wept tears of pearl every day of her imprisonment.

However, a knight of her lands risked his immortal life to rescue her. They had been betrothed in their youth, but a childish quarrel had separated them. Nonetheless, he could not bear to think of his beloved in the hands of a monster such as Humperdinck, and his rage at the impertinent mortal granted him powers beyond the might of men. He stormed the gate, thirty feet tall and breathing fire, and marched into the palace. He snatched his beloved from the snares of Humperdinck, slaying all who stepped into his path without mercy or remorse. He gestured once, twice, three times and the iron manacles which held her unlocked and fell down. He ripped the spidersilk encircling her, and she left her imprisonment, incandescent in her rage.

She stalked the corridors of the palace until she found Humperdinck cowering in the deepest, darkest, most out of the way pantry. Then, she pronounced her judgment upon him:

"You, Prince Humperdinck, are a coward and a liar. I have so judged, and I curse you. You will never know the touch of love. Your riches and your lands will slip from your grasp, and your name will be forgotten. When you die, it will be as if you have never lived. Thus say I."

The knight and the princess left him, barring the pantry door behind them and riding back to fairyland on their horses made of seafoam. He was discovered the next morning, and, when the door opened, he swooned in fright, thinking that they had returned.

They sang:

(Tune: I'm a Lumberjack, Monty Python)

I am Humperdinck, and I'm a twit,
I am your King, and I am unfit.
    He is Humperdinck, and he's a twit,
    He is our king, and he is unfit.

I fuck things up, I track and hunt,
I like me some torturing,
Thought I was gonna marry,
But she never took my ring.
    He tracks and hunts. He fucks things up.
    He likes him some torturing
    Thought he was gonna marry,
    But she never took his ring.
    He is Humperdinck, and he's a twit,
    He is our King, and he is unfit.

I fuck things up, I'm a pillock,
I make my mother cry.
I'll tax you to starvation,
And I will always lie.
    He fucks things up, he's a pillock,
    He makes his mother cry
    He'll tax you to starvation,
    And he will always lie
    He is Humperdinck and he's a twit,
    He is our king, and he is unfit

I fuck things up, I scream and shout,
I will not reign for long.
'Cause my people hate me
And this is their song!
    He fucks things up, he screams and shouts,
    He will not reign for long.
    'Cause his people hate him,
    And this is our song!

And, Buttercup learned, they plotted.

Three weeks into the adventurers' stay at the inn, they were sitting in the common room at the end of one of the long tables and planning their next step. The Revenge had left port two weeks ago, assuming that Westley's crew had obeyed their instructions, and the former First Mate was now Dread Pirate Roberts. ("Just as well," Westley had said. "It never quite sat well with him that the Dread Pirate Roberts skipped him and made me the new Dread Pirate instead. Objectively speaking, it wasn't quite fair, but since my other choice was 'or death' I didn't complain.") They all wanted to skip Guilder, since a war between Guilder and Florin seemed imminent, and were discussing whether to go to Greece (Fezzik was searching for the perfect spanakopita recipe) or Ruritania (Buttercup had always wanted to see the mermaids on their Eastern shore) when all of their planning was rendered moot.

The individual who fatally interrupted their planning was a woman. Her name was Leah of Lira, and she was a certified Miracle Worker. She was forty years old, although Buttercup would not learn this until she was swearing Leah in as a counselor, and she invariably pulled her black hair back into a braid and wore dark clothing in indeterminate colors. (If asked, she firmly stated that her hair didn't need to catch fire and that her clothes showed even fewer stains than black. Given that she dealt with curious powders and unstable compounds on a regular basis, she felt that her habits were quite sensible, thank you very much.)

She stood behind Inigo and Fezzik, and her dark eyes scanned each of them in turn. Then, she sat down beside Inigo, put her hands flat on the table before her, and said, "Help us, Princess Buttercup, you're our only hope."

Buttercup choked on her beer, but it didn't come out her nose. (That had happened once, when she was listening to Fezzik recount the story of Fezzik and Inigo Versus the Dancing Bear. It was most painful, and she hoped to never repeat the experience.) Leah ignored her indecorous snort and continued, "Well, to be quite precise, you're not our only hope. However, you are our best hope, and it would be much easier if you were willing to help."

Buttercup blinked, her eyes still watering, and said, "Excuse me, but who do you think we are? We are but itinerant travellers, not mythical princesses in hiding."

Leah raised her eyebrow. "You are Buttercup, once betrothed of Humperdinck. The man sitting beside you is Westley, your true love. The man sitting beside me, who has a blade at my ribs and angled towards my heart is Inigo Montoya, and the man sitting beside him is Fezzik the Giant."

"How do you know these things?" Inigo asked.

"You have a scar on each cheek, he ignores the laws and dresses in black more often than not, he's a giant, and she was always in the market, rotating through each merchant and stand in turn and paying exactly half again as something was worth. As individuals, only the princess is remarkable, but if you have the right information it's not terribly difficult to figure out who you are when in a group."

Inigo's jaw clenched, and Buttercup felt Westley's arm shift under the table to reach for his dagger.

"First," Buttercup said, "how do you possess this information? Second, who are you? Third, who is 'us'? Finally, what do you think a common farm girl can do?"

"In reverse order, which I believe will lead to the greatest clarity. First, do not be shy. You are not a common farm girl, and we all know it. You have true love, which means that luck and life favor you in unexpected and fortuitous ways. Additionally, you were betrothed to Prince Humperdinck, which means you've sat in on Councils of State for the past year and learned the ebbs and flows of the palace and politics. Assuming that you are not stupid – do not look at me like that, Westley, I rather doubt she is – you are the only remaining person who knows anything about domestic policy and international politics."

Buttercup clutched the edge of the table. "There are ten Counselors of State and the Queen Dowager!" she protested. "I was there as a courtesy, nothing more."

"There were ten Counselors of State," Leah corrected. "Count Rugen died, leaving nine. Of those nine, four have met with hunting accidents, three were then called away by family emergencies in distant lands, one is deathly ill with the same disease that afflicted the late king, and one has disappeared. They say that the Queen Dowager is ill with grief, although rumor also has that the lowest dungeon has a new resident who is kept in comfort but behind bars. That leaves you."

"Excuse me," Westley said, "but you still haven't answered the terribly relevant questions of your identity, the identity of the group you claim to belong to, and your method of information gathering."

"You interrupted me," she said. "However, I will return to the point. 'We' are the Rebel Forces, and we're going to seize the palace and overthrow Humperdinck. However, we need someone with experience in statecraft and politics to deal with international relations and internal politicking. History indicates that neighboring countries and nobles get nervous when monarchs are overthrown. Additionally, your betrothal was never nullified, meaning that you do, in the case of Humperdinck's death, have a legitimate, albeit unusual, claim to the throne. This would simplify the legalities."

"That might be true, but who are you?" Fezzik asked.

"I am Leah of Lira. I have made Florin my home these past twenty years, ever since I became the apprentice of Miracle Max and Valerie. Which leads to my final answer and Buttercup's first question: I know who you are because Miracle Max and Valerie gave me thorough descriptions of you all, and we've been looking for you.

"Princess, will you come to the aid of your people?"

With her recitation over, Leah continued sitting at their table, ignoring the unfriendliness of Inigo and Westley, and just looking at Buttercup.

Buttercup refused to squirm under her gaze. After state dinners, wary feral cats, and the Fire Swamp, the scrutiny of one woman was nothing. She could not deny that there was a certain attraction to the thought of overthrowing the man who was bullying her country just as he had bullied her, and she would not be adverse to separating him from his throne just as he had tried to separate her from her true love. However, she wasn't travelling by herself.

"I think," she said slowly, "that this decision is not mine alone. I might, as you say, be an easy answer to a legal and political snarl, and I would like to help. But I am also part of a fellowship, and we each have a vote."

"He knowingly harbored the six-fingered man, a traitorous, murderous villain," Inigo said. "He does not deserve to be the king of any land, and this is a just pursuit. My sword will support you."

"I will stand by you, Buttercup, if you wish to do this," Fezzik said.

Finally, she looked at Westley. He took her hand in his and raised it to his lips. "As you wish," he said. "He did kill me, and I cannot deny that the idea of returning the favor is not abhorrent. However, I will stay by your side, whether you want to storm the castle or watch the wild dolphins play."

"Thank you," she said to him. She looked back across the table. "Thank you all. Leah, if you wish my participation, I would like a plan a little more sophisticated than storming the castle. Please tell me what you have in mind."

[Scene break: crown]

"We're storming the castle," Buttercup said, crouched down on the rampart by Westley and Leah. "I clearly remember stating that I did not want to storm the castle."

Westley shifted his attention to her. "I'm sorry, my darling, but sometimes classics are the best."

"Also, to characterize this as storming the castle is erroneous. We're infiltrating the castle. Specifically, we're climbing in through a window while the Brute Squad looks the other way and the Chief Enforcer is preoccupied with stomach troubles. If we were storming the castle, there would be a frontal assault and much more shouting," Leah said.

"We're storming the castle," Buttercup reiterated.

"If I might interrupt the incipient debate," Westley said, "whatever we are doing, we need to do it now. The Brutes on guard just started whistling – it's time to go."

They stopped their bickering to sneak past the guards, who were looking quite hard into the yard and completely ignoring anyone and everyone by the wall. (Certainly having the Brute Squad made up of people very dissatisfied with Humperdinck's regime had reconciled Buttercup, just a little, to the plan when it was presented to her. The new conscripts were bitter at being conscripted illegally, and they were worried about the deterioration of their trades and farms while in forced service. The old members were bitter that their permanent ranks were being filled by conscripts, not volunteers. Oh, they'd always overlooked a bit of rank-swelling around big events – special occasions clause, you know – but they felt that the current state of affairs was insulting instead of merely temporarily annoying.)

As planned, they found themselves in the kitchens. The hustle and bustle of servants made it easy to blend in, especially since every inhabitant, part-time inhabitant, and occasional guest of the palace had learned not ask questions during curious events, lest they end up a notation in Rugen's book of experiments. That this curious event consisted of the King's former fiancee, another woman with a sword strapped to her side, and a man wearing a forbidden color who also had a sword strapped to his side did not, in fact, matter.

When they reached the main first-floor corridor, they parted ways. Leah of Lira ran to Humperdinck's personal study, where she would be met by rebels who had been infiltrating the palace since dawn. Based on their observations, he would most likely to be there until the dinner bell rang – well, until they interrupted him, of course. Westley dashed to the council room, where Inigo and Fezzik would be waiting for him on the off-chance that Humperdinck had deviated from his usual routine.

Buttercup, the only person the Queen Dowager would recognize, went to find Her Majesty in order to discuss current events. She decided to start with the Queen Dowager's chambers before entertaining more appalling notions about her current location in the palace.

She did not find the Queen Dowager in her chambers. Instead, she found Humperdinck rifling through a cabinet. Before she could quietly back out of the room and fetch people with blades, he looked up.

"You," he snarled. "I thought I was rid of you."

She edged further into the room, keeping her back to the wall but getting away from the open doorway. "Obviously, you were mistaken. Did you really think I would flee in the face of your cowardly and ineffectual threats?"

"If I'm not mistaken, my threats were effectual enough that you turned yourself and your true love over to me," he sneered. "I sense more false bravado."

She refused to answer and continued to make her way towards the window.

"Stop right there," he said, drawing his sword. She froze. "You will not escape me so easily this time, your highness. Oh, wait, you're not a true princess, you're just a farm girl."

"I was princess enough to attract you," she pointed out.

"No, my dear, you were convenient. Young, pretty, and naive, someone who the people would love and rage over when she died. You've always been a sacrifice."

"You are a loathsome man," she said. His statement wasn't a revelation – she had, after all, spent several weeks in close quarters with men he had hired to kidnap and murder her – but his cavalier disregard made her skin crawl.

"It's too bad that I can't make it look like an accident this time," he continued. "Although, perhaps Guilder assassins who snuck into the palace itself? Yes, I think that would work. I'll have to make up a reason for your recent absence, of course, but that should be easy enough – people are such sheep."

"They'll never believe you," she said.

"It doesn't matter if they really believe me, it just matters that they act like they believe me. Honestly, do you think that peasants would dare to do anything else?"

She smiled. "I suspect they'll fight back."

Humperdinck raised an eyebrow. "To the pain?"

"No, I think not," she said. She saw Westley ease through the doorway and come into the room. He took his position behind Humperdinck, and she smiled coldly. Westley thrust his sword once, and Humperdinck dropped to his knees, mouth open in a gasp of surprise. Her Westley always came for her, and he never missed the heart unless he meant to. "To the death."

Hear ye, hear ye!

With a most heavy heart, the Queen Dowager Violet, beloved wife of King Calvisius, daughter of Duke Engelbert and Duchess Rania, announces the death of her only son, Humperdinck, King of Florin. In accordance with ancient law, he will be succeeded by Princess Buttercup, daughter of Frank and Mercia, his lawfully betrothed. She will be anointed Queen on the third eve of the first week of the fourth month.

Thus a farm girl became a queen. She ruled her country for three decades, aided by her counselors and her consort. Some years were hard and some years were easy and some years were nigh on impossible, but she loved her people and they loved her in turn.

One night, when the moon was full, she disappeared. In inns and taverns, they talked of Buttercup, daughter of fairies, and how she followed the moonbeams to her homeland, her steadfast knight at her side. Others said that she followed her love to the seas, swimming with mermaids and singing with naiads for the rest of her days.

When asked about the fate of her mother, Queen Penelope just smiled.