Once, in a time long before us, there was a woman known as the Sun.
The Sun was the most radiant woman in all the world. She had long golden hair and a golden heart that burned with warmth. Her soul shone so brightly that it lit up the whole world, and each day she would sing out to the sky, dazzling all the heavens with her light.
The world heard her song, and was enchanted by it, honored to have witnessed her lonely lullaby. Each time the Sun sang, the forests bloomed with color, the trees and flowers growing to new heights, the seas sparkling like jewels for her eyes alone. And so, though the Sun hung alone in the skies, she found comfort in watching the world below, and was happy despite her loneliness.
But one day, as the Sun slipped below the hills to rest, she saw a beautiful woman dancing on the seas…
“Are you nervous?”
Corona Kingdom at sunset is a sight to behold. High above, on the tallest hill just before Corona’s great border wall, the whole kingdom sprawls out below them. As the sun sets and the shadows lengthen, the sky colors from red to midnight purple. The stars peek out from the horizon edge, and the far-off setting sun casts dark shadows against the mountainous hills, painting the roiling bay a deep shining gold. Against the slowly darkening sky, the capital city of Corona seems almost like a mountain itself—a twisting spiral of ancient stonework and cobbled roads, lights dancing up and down the streets, turning the fabled trading city into a beacon in the fading sunlight.
Together, their small group huddles in the shadows, watching that distant sunset fade away. Their eyes track the meanderings paths of the light, the clusters of villages and the beaten roads. The wind whistles low and crooning through ice-laden trees, snow pooling at their feet, slushy from the warmth of the coming spring. The scent of salt blows in from the far-off harbors, the smell so strong it’s like standing right by the sea.
Rapunzel closes her eyes to the sight, and tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Not really,” she replies, in answer to Eugene’s question. She takes a breath and opens her eyes, her gaze distant and dream-like. She isn’t so much looking at the city as she is looking beyond it, through the sunset and past the horizon, onwards into the stars. The last rays of sunlight catch and gleam in her heavy braid of golden hair. “I’m just…”
She doesn’t finish, the words trailing off into silence. Beside her, Eugene reaches out and hooks his arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. He looks as tired and disheveled as Rapunzel feels—his usually styled hair rumpled from sleep, his traveling vest turned a dusty gray from the road, a wan pallor to his usually unwavering megawatt smile. The three days of rushed traveling hasn’t done him—or anyone, really—any favors. Rapunzel is well aware of how badly he smells right now, and just as aware of how bad she must smell. Seventy feet of unwashed hair: a nightmare for everyone involved.
At the time, when they were still on the road, once they’d realized how close to Corona they actually were, the rush had felt only natural. Why wouldn’t they race back? But now, three days later and lacking sorely on much-needed sleep, feeling aches and pains in places she didn’t know could have aches and pains, Rapunzel has a very different opinion.
Even so, they can’t be blamed for their haste. Home— it’s like a siren song, an irresistible pull. To be so close to Corona, yet so far—the need had been irresistible. But now they are within reach of the walls, and Rapunzel’s mind is clear.
They are tired, sore, and dirty—and home, no matter how sweet it sounds, isn’t likely to be the dream arrival Rapunzel once hoped for.
Still, the warmth of Eugene by her side makes something deep in her chest unwind, lightens the heavy load of her thoughts. She lets herself be drawn back into his hug, making herself comfortable in the nest of his arms.
Eugene laughs, rocking her back and forth. “You’re weirdly cuddly when you’re tired, Blondie, I ever tell you that?”
Rapunzel smiles into his arm. “No,” she says. “Because I’m always cuddly.”
“Oof. A solid rebuttal. Can’t argue with that.” He rocks her again, and then his head lifts, tired eyes trailing back to the horizon. Rapunzel follows his gaze. They look at it together for a long moment.
“Drinking it in?” Eugene says, after a pause.
“Overwhelmed,” Rapunzel decides. She tucks her head under his chin, breathing in the faint scent of pine from his vest. Dusty and dirty they may be, but Rapunzel has long since gotten used to the trials and troubles of living on the road. The smell comforts her, in its own way. She sighs against his chest. “It’s not nerves , really…”
Footsteps crunch in the snow behind her. Cassandra slips into view by Rapunzel’s left side, her short hair stuffed up under a winter cap and the soles of her snow boots caked with wet mud.
“Packing is all done. Maximus and Fidela are set to leave when we are,” she announces, smacking stray specks of ice from her coat. She glances up, casting a brief side-eye at Rapunzel. “Though to be honest, we could’ve left hours ago. Gotten back before sunset, even.”
Rapunzel dithers. “I’m sorry, I was just so tired—”
Rapunzel looks away, shame hot in her throat. Her excuse sounds weak even to her. Rapunzel can be clumsy, yes, but her “mishaps” during their last break—dropping the water pail over the saddles, tripping dirt into the fire, losing her pack—well. In hindsight, it’d been a very, very obvious attempt to stall. She’s not surprised they caught on.
Nevertheless, Cassandra’s prodding makes Rapunzel shrink back. Her smile is forced and thin, her eyes dropping down to the dirt. Her gloved hands twitch with the urge to reach up and tug at her hair—an old habit, a nervous tick—her hands rising up before Rapunzel can even think about it.
But Cassandra has already noticed. She reaches out and takes Rapunzel’s raised hands in a grip that is light yet firm. She brings both their hands back down by their sides.
Rapunzel blinks fast, looks down at their joined hands—and her smile flickers.
“You are nervous,” Cassandra observes, ever merciless, bringing back that question from earlier. She squeezes her hand, a gentle pressure above the wrist. Her pale eyes search Rapunzel’s face intently, as if looking for the answer. “Aren’t you?”
It’s not really a question. Rapunzel bites at her lower lip, half-pulling away from Cassandra’s hold. She wraps her arms around herself in a makeshift hug, and looks aside, not wanting to see the knowing expression on Cassandra’s face.
“Well,” Rapunzel says softly, and shrinks a little more into Eugene’s arms. He holds her up without comment. “…Can you blame me?”
Cassandra doesn’t answer that. Her lips press in a thin line, and her eyes dart away, a quick glance over to the burning horizon. She makes a face at the air.
“Yeah.” Rapunzel understands the sentiment almost too well. She looks back over to Corona’s shining, distant light, and gives a heavy sigh. “Oh, I hate feeling like this. I spent all that time missing home, and now…!”
Cassandra gives a wordless hum of agreement. Eugene’s arms tighten around Rapunzel, a quiet hug. They don’t say anything more, but then—they don’t really need to.
Behind them, a loud snap rings through the woods, a branch broken under the weight of iron horseshoes. Maximus trots up to their side, huffing white steam from his nose as he swings his head around to take in the view. Pascal, perched up like a king on the white horse’s head, is wide-eyed and watching. In the shadow of the trees, Fidela grazes quietly at the few grasses poking up from the melting snow.
Rapunzel smiles at them, reaching out. Pascal leaps off Maximus’s head and into her hand without mishap, and she brings him to her chest, cradling him close. “Sorry,” she says, stroking a finger down Pascal’s spine. “Didn’t mean to leave you all waiting.”
Pascal gives her a scolding sort of squeak and races up to her shoulder. Rapunzel laughs.
“Yes, yes,” she says. “I know.” She scratches at his chin and hums lightly under her breath. “What do you think, Pascal? Doesn’t Corona look just as we left it?”
She keeps her voice light and airy, and her smile stays strong. But Pascal stares at her with an uncertain expression, and next to them, Cassandra looks up and exchanges a glance with Eugene, wordless and indecipherable. Rapunzel doesn’t bother trying to translate the look, though she does resist the urge to roll her eyes. She hates it when they do that. It’s one of the things that followed them out of the Dark Kingdom—Pascal’s constant worry, Cassandra and Eugene’s wordless communication, and Rapunzel’s…
“Are you sure you want to wait until midnight?” Cassandra asks, finally. It’s a tactful change of subject, but Rapunzel’s frown only deepens. She doesn’t really want to talk about this either. “It’s not too late. If we hurry we can arrive by the last evening bell. I’m sure the people would love to see your return.”
“I’m sure.” About this, at least, Rapunzel is certain. She fiddles with her gloves, the leather stiff and warm against her skin, a new addition to her wardrobe that Rapunzel is still getting used to. In lieu of messing with her hair, tugging at her gloves is quickly becoming Rapunzel’s newest bad habit.
Sure enough: Cassandra zeroes in on the fussing. Her eyes narrow, her scowl disapproving. Rapunzel smiles faintly at the sight.
“Cass,” she coaxes, drawing Cassandra’s attention back to her. “I’m sure. I miss them all so much, but…”
She trails off again, and her eyes draw back to that distant silhouette. On the black horizon of a now dusky evening, Corona’s distant capital city shines like a pale star. The late hour means most of the light probably comes from only the castle and the streetlamps, now, as the rest of the city slowly falls asleep—but still, the light remains. Even if dulled by distance and half-swallowed by the rolling hills and great woods, there is no mistaking that light and the city it belongs to.
In this light, in this view—Corona is beautiful. But for all that some part of her is singing home, home, home at the sight… despite the beauty, Rapunzel feels cold in a way that has nothing to do with the winter wind.
“The rumors,” Eugene realizes, and he stills as he says it, a careful sort of stillness he only gets when he’s bracing himself for a blow.
Rapunzel looks down again. “…Yeah.”
There is a long silence. Their breathing is almost too loud in the night air, quiet but for the distant chitter of birds.
“It could be nothing,” Cassandra offers, carefully neutral, but even she doesn’t sound like she really believes it. “I mean— rumors of this sort are commonplace in politics. It could simply be an attempt to… to make Corona lose face. Nothing more.”
“Maybe,” Rapunzel allows, and turns to meet Cassandra’s eye. Her handmaiden, guard, and dearest friend looks haggard, and the press of her lips doesn’t speak of optimistic thinking. “Do you really think so?”
Cassandra’s mouth twists. She looks away.
Rapunzel folds her hands in front of her, fighting the urge to lace her fingers. “Still,” she says, after a pause. “I mean… even so…” The sun has almost set now. The sky is stained a beautiful ruby red, and Rapunzel smiles to see it, wishing not for the first time for some canvas and paint. “I—I am glad. To be here. To be home.” She almost sighs the word, and her breath catches on a sudden giggle. “I almost didn’t think we’d ever make it back!”
“Hah!” Eugene says, and he squints at the distant city. “Doesn’t feel quite real, does it?”
Cassandra scoffs. “‘Course it doesn’t feel real,” she retorts, dry as a desert. “It’s been—what, over half a year since we’ve been gone? Six extra months to make it back! I’d consider it weirder if it didn’t feel off.”
Over a year, Rapunzel thinks to herself, and her smile slips. She looks down and rubs absently at the palm of her hand. Eight months in total, she knows, give or take a few weeks. Eight months away from home. Eight months, come and gone. What has changed in her absence? Is it better or worse for things to be different?
Eugene must notice her mood turn, because he squeezes her to his side, his hand rubbing circles against her shoulder. “C’mon, Blondie, don’t look like that. It’s not your fault it took this long. We were in way less rush to return, anyway. Racing ourselves to the ground to get back, the same way we did leaving? Man, we’d be miserable.”
Rapunzel hums, unconvinced. “I know, I know.”
“Snow makes it hard to travel,” Cassandra adds, pointedly. Rapunzel eyes her. Cassandra refuses to back down. “There’s plenty of reasons why we were delayed. The King will understand.”
Maybe. Hopefully. The lack of communication after Rapunzel informed him of her late return doesn’t speak well to that. That isn’t really what worries her, though.
Rapunzel presses a little harder at her palm, feeling the rough pull of scarred flesh through the glove. It hurts, a little. Even after all this time, the wounds still ache, even if the scar tissue has built up after the months of careful care. Her fingers feel stiff and tight. “Mm,” she says. “But… I didn’t really help there, did I?”
“Don’t look at it like that!” Eugene protests, shaking her a little, as if to chase that thought from her head. “Don’t you remember what the doctor said?”
“Which part?” Rapunzel asks, smiling a little at the memory. On her shoulder, Pascal shakes his head, still annoyed over it. The doctor had said many things upon seeing Rapunzel’s hands, most of them rude and unrepeatable.
“Damn impossible!” Eugene quotes, pitching his voice in an unconvincing falsetto. “Meaning, in normal circumstances… Our return should have taken even longer, so! Six months? Blondie, we were speeding.”
Rapunzel snorts despite herself, biting her lip hard against a fit of giggles. “I wouldn’t say that!”
But she’s smiling now, truly and honestly, her heart lightened, and she can tell by Eugene’s pleased grin that was his goal all along. She lifts on her toes and presses a quick kiss to his cheek. “But thanks for making me feel better. You’re right. You’re both right. I’m home! That’s the important thing. I really am being silly, aren’t I?”
They both smile at her—Eugene, dopey and sweet; Cassandra, exasperated but fond. Rapunzel smiles bravely back and slips out from under Eugene’s arm, stepping up towards the lip of the hill.
The grass is cold and frozen under her bare feet, still wet from melting snow. The salt on the sea breeze burns in her nose. Rapunzel wriggles her toes in the dirt and looks down over her sleeping kingdom. “And I know that. I do.”
Pascal nudges her cheek. She turns into the touch, and her smile fades. “I know that,” Rapunzel repeats, quieter now. “I know . But still, I…”
She sighs again, long and heavy, the sound dredged up somewhere deep in her chest. She turns away from the horizon and looks beside her, reaching out to press one hand against dark stone.
Even with her leather glove as a barrier, blue light sparks bright at Rapunzel’s fingertips, traveling up the length of a towering spike. Crosshair patterns glow white-hot and deadly. The tip of the spire, a perfect edge, pierces the sky like a sword. They scour the hills, clutter under the trees, break up through the road—enough to turn the whole Coronan countryside into a spiny deathtrap, tearing the horizon in two.
Caught in the dim red glow of the setting sun, the black rocks burn with a sinister light.
“I just can’t help but worry,” Rapunzel says sadly, and finally turns away.
There is darkness all around him, cold and cruel. It presses against his eyelids like a lead weight. His dreams are formless and golden. There is pain prickling up his leg, searing from his ear, lightning under his skin that burns him alive. A pressure sits heavy on his chest, pressing down. He can’t breathe. He can’t speak. He can’t even scream.
The darkness breaks open, shattered by pale light. The silent dream gives in, replaced by the faint whistling of the wind. There’s a hand shaking his shoulder.
“Child. Little boy. Hey!”
When Varian blinks his eyes open, the world is blurred, a mess of color and shadow and light. Burning sunlight silhouettes the vague form of a stranger standing over him. There’s a buzzing in his ears, a fog sticking to the edges of his thoughts.
Even in the midst of the haze, though, Varian recognizes enough to know the stranger is annoyed with him. His own nose scrunches up on reflex. Hey yourself, he almost snaps, but then he notices the heavy weight of Ruddiger sleeping curled up on his chest, and his irritation fades. Ruddiger will be fussy if Varian is mean for no reason. He suspects it’s the raccoon’s way of scolding him.
“You cannot be here. Wake up, boy. Wake up!”
This shout is accompanied by a soft nudge to the ribs, like he’s been poked by someone’s shoe. It’s not a painful blow, but it’s enough to effectively break the last of Varian’s dozing. He lurches up with a yelp, sending Ruddiger falling into his lap and the stranger—a small woman about Adira’s age, with sun-darkened skin and a heavy scowl—leaning back, hands on her hips.
“Well?” she says shortly, her accent clipped. “Are you up? Go on, then.”
“What?” Varian says blankly. He blinks and rubs hard at his eyes. The strange woman is still there. He has… no idea who she is. “W-what?”
“What do you mean, what?” the woman snaps back, like she isn’t an absolute stranger yelling at Varian for no good reason. Her dark hair is cut short, curling wildly about her face; her eyes are as black as ink. Her foot taps restlessly against the dock. “You cannot sleep here, it is not allowed. You are lucky that I am the one who found you. Go , before the dockhands come and chase you out.”
“What?” Varian repeats, bewildered, but even as he says it the fog has lifted, the tinged exhaustion of sleep bleeding away. He rubs again at his eyes with one bare hand, pushing up from the wall to stand unsteady on his feet. Ruddiger rolls off his stomach to fall in a heap by Varian’s toes, snuffling sleepily in the sun.
Varian squints up at the woman, yawning absently into the sleeve of his arm. His mind feels stuck in molasses. “I…” Her words finally register, and Varian shoots bolt upright. “Oh. Oh .”
He scrambles to regain his presence of mind, sweeping Ruddiger off the ground and cuddling the pile of sleepy raccoon close to his chest as he edges his way out of the corner. “Oh, um, sorry. I didn’t…”
He looks around, wincing in the light. The docks are alive with life and light, people shuffling back and forth on wooden walkways. The small corner Varian had slept in—a shaded space wedged between a cargo hold and a warehouse—is one of the few places left untouched by the sun shining high, high above.
… Very high above.
Oh, damn it. Last thing Varian remembers it was morning, the sun barely starting to rise, but judging by the heat and that shine, it’s now either noon or a few hours past that. He’s screwed up. He’d only meant to lay down for a little bit, just rest his eyes, but by the looks of things, he’s severely misjudged his own exhaustion.
Adira, too, is nowhere in sight. She’s left him here on his own, once again.
Varian takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself. His teeth grit. His fingers curl deep in Ruddiger’s thick fur, holding tight, his hand shaking—then slowly, slowly steadying, the tremors easing away with every calming breath.
“Sorry,” Varian says again, to the woman. A thought strikes him, and he sucks in a sharp breath, one hand slamming down to check his satchel; the weight of the wallet at his hip, still heavy, nearly makes him wheeze with relief. Oh, bless, he hasn’t been robbed. “Um, I’ll go.”
“Good,” the woman says shortly. She looks severely unimpressed with Varian’s everything, and she’s still tapping her foot. “You are lucky no one tripped over you. Very lucky indeed. What sort of fool…” She trails off, and abruptly squints down at him, her scowl falling into a frown.
Varian eyes her warily. “…Look, I said I was sorry, I really didn’t mean to—”
“What’s your name?” she asks abruptly.
A flash of fear strikes through him, and he has to take a moment to regain his breath. “W-what? I’m—V-Vell. Why?”
The woman is still frowning. She pushes one hand back through her hair and scratches at her scalp. “Vell… hmph. Do I know you?”
He blinks blankly back. “Uh. No? I just got here.”
She considers him, chewing on the inside of her lip, and for a moment—for a moment, despite the sunshine and the chatter and the crowd, Varian no longer feels warm, and no longer feels safe. There is something about the look in her eye, the angle of her head, that makes him feel bizarrely targeted.
Then the woman shrugs, and the strange intensity breaks, the threat gone as if it’d never been. “Hmm, well. Do avoid sleeping on the docks in the future, yes? The shop fronts are much kinder.” She gestures, waving on hand to the streets. “Off you go.”
Varian takes a shaky breath and leans down to brush off his coat, trying to hide the tremor in his hands. “Okay,” he says. He feels faintly ill. What on earth was that?
He pushes past it and straightens up, turning away so he doesn’t have to look at the woman, shading his eyes from the sunny glare. It’s still achingly cold out, but this far down south the coming spring season is both brighter and hotter than anything Varian’s used to. His borrowed clothes, leftover winter wear from caravans and cheap merchants, are practically scorching him. “Okay,” he repeats, quietly, to himself. He takes one last breath and turns back to the woman. “U-um, where’s—where’s the market?”
He gets his directions in-between bouts of scolding and suspicious squinting, and then skips off the docks before the woman can think to question him again. Behind him, he can hear a sudden intake of breath, as if in realization, and a sharp “Wait!”—but Varian is already gone, vanished in the crowd.
He hurries through the throngs of people, keeping his head low. His breath rattles in his chest. Ruddiger is silent in his arms. Thankfully, the woman doesn’t reappear again, and after a little while Varian relaxes. He must have gotten away successfully, then.
He’s not sure what she wanted, or what she realized—but he’s glad he didn’t stick around to find out.
Safe and now firmly awake, Varian tugs up his coat collar to hide his face better and moves back into the heart of the crowd. The once-empty harbor is now bursting with life—dock-hands and merchants and ports stuffed full of ships, sea spray soaking the aging wood and colorful banners waving high in the air, their colors mingling into a mish-mashed rainbow. The pound of feet and raised voices creates a steady drumming din in his ears.
The harbor of Port Caul is one of the busiest in the country, if Varian remembers correctly. Small, close-knit, and placed securely between miles of flat farmland, the coastal city is apparently well-known for shipping fresh and bountiful fruit out and bringing in just about anything. If you wanted something strange, out-of-the-way, and downright bizarre without having to leave the western continent, you went to Port Caul.
Varian hadn’t known this before maybe three hours ago; everything he learned about this town had been in the dead hours of yesterday night, so late his eyelids had drooped and his head felt fuzzed, as Adira lobbed random city facts at him and repeatedly mused aloud on his inattention. There had been plenty of other facts about the city in her spiraling story, but whatever color the war flag and whatever the decoration in the churches, all Varian can remember now is the bit about the harbor.
This is, of course, probably because Varian was just sleeping on it.
For all that it was a rather comfortable sleep, dreams aside—the dock had been so, so warm; no matter how brisk the winter chill or how merciless the sea spray, those wood planks, warmed from the glaring white winter sun, had made for a nice and cozy place to curl up and nap—Varian wishes he’d managed to stay awake. Or, perhaps more accurately, he wishes Adira had actually cared enough to wake him up.
This isn’t the first time she’s left him behind, given him a job and then skipped off to let him fail alone, but it doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times she does it. It doesn’t make waking any less horrible, and it doesn’t make dealing with her any easier either.
He doesn’t even know why he’s even here. He knows Port Caul is a nice town, he knows there’s a bookstore he has to find and a package he has to pick up, but why he needs it and why they came here now— the things he needs and wants to know—these things, Adira does not tell him.
He hisses under his breath at the memory and aggressively dodges pedestrians as he marches onward. At his shoulder, Ruddiger gives a big yawn and blinks sleepy eyes at their surroundings, more and more awake as they head away from the docks and into the city proper. When Varian reaches up to pet him, the raccoon’s pelt is warm from hours in the sun, and Ruddiger chitters in his ear. Varian almost smiles.
“This place got busy, huh?”
Ruddiger gives a sad little coo at that. Which, yeah. The city isn’t looking any better than the docks—the streets are crowded, the air buzzing with noise and life.
And to think. Varian isn’t even at the market street yet.
Varian sighs, already dreading it. Damn Adira and her useless errands anyway. “Yeah, I know. Hang in there, buddy. It’ll be quick.”
Ruddiger curls up and settles, and Varian goes back to navigating his way through the streets. Port Caul, while smaller than other cities Varian’s seen, has become something entirely new under the midday sun. The amount of people walking around could rival the busyness of even Corona’s capital city, the market stalls flung open and the shops stuffed full of people.
Despite himself, Varian cannot help but compare it to Corona. If not for the strange styles of dress and the heady scent of foreign spices on the breeze, it would be almost a mirror image. The patterned brickwork, the way the streets spiral out like a conch shell, the buildings built tall and close like clusters of towers. It is not entirely the same: the banners flapping in the wind are black and blue rather than purple and gold, the houses built taller and the ground too flat, the horizon empty and endless, but even then—
It looks like home.
The thought, unbidden, sends him stumbling to a stop. He lurches on suddenly frozen feet, his hands rising to his head, tugging at dark hair. He pulls hard and vicious at the strands, furious with himself. No, no, no. Corona again. Damn it, he’d thought he was past this!
The slip darkens his already sour mood. Varian shoves his hands back through his hair, inhales sharp through his teeth, and then tears his way through the streets as if he can outrun his own nostalgia.
His jaw is clenched so tight it aches, his head lowered, his eyes drilling holes into the cobblestone. He can’t—he needs to stay focused. He’s not here for sight-seeing: he’s here for a reason, no matter how useless or uneventful the errand is. He doesn’t have time to waste on—on silly things like memories of Corona.
This is all Adira’s fault. He wouldn’t be here if not for her.
Port Caul is a beautiful town, belonging to a beautiful country. But like all the others, all it does is remind Varian once again of the places he’s left behind. Corona, mainly. But also…
His hands tremble, and he shoves them deep in his pockets. He bites his lip hard enough to draw blood, worrying the skin between his teeth. Even now, after all this time, the memory makes his heart seize up, sends fire burning up his leg and pain sparking in his half-ear.
Even places like this, sunny and bright—the sheer contrast draws these memories to the forefront. Memories of a darker place. The Moon’s tower. The labyrinth. That dead, withered wasteland, and the monster that lived there.
Has it really only been six months?
It feels like a joke, sometimes. Six months is so long, and yet, in a way that time feels as if it’s passed by as quickly as days. In comparison, the two months he spent traveling with Rapunzel and the others should be nothing. The week in the labyrinth…
Varian shuts his eyes at the memory, breathing deep through his nose. No. No, he’s not going to think about that right now. He has a job to do, after all, and he’s already six hours behind as it is. As nice as that nap was, it’s put him way behind schedule. Adira will be insufferable when he finally gets back.
Varian shakes his head and sets back his shoulders. He grips his satchel in one tight fist to ground himself. Okay. No more day-dreaming. It’s time to get to work.
For all his determination, it still takes him another half-hour to find his destination. The many market streets are bustling and the signs difficult to read. In the end, it’s Ruddiger who spots it first. It takes Varian himself a few more tries to spot it in the swelling crowd, but eventually the mob eases and he gets close enough to see the sign: the image of an open book painted on an old sign.
Varian pumps a quiet victory fist into the air, and then slips inside the shop with a sigh of relief.
The old bookstore is a quiet, crowded place—cramped and cool in comparison to the midday heat. The dark wood shelves cast long shadows, the shop smelling strongly of salt, aging paper, and ink. When Varian pushes open the door, an old woman snaps around to face him, moving so fast her neck creaks . Her eyes are milky and pale, and wrinkles line her dark skin. She looks Varian up and down and her mouth puckers, one eyebrow raised high at his attire.
Varian tries not to bristle at her look. Really, he does. He can’t even blame her for it, because he’d be the first person to admit what a mess he is: his hair is down to his shoulders and tangled from his impromptu nap at the harbor; he’s wearing oversized clothes made of cheap weave and threadbare cotton; and, of course: Ruddiger. Ruddiger, who while fantastic and wonderful and absolutely awesome… is also a raccoon.
But just because he understands the judge-y eyebrow doesn’t mean he has to like it. He shuffles on his feet, shrinking back, then realizes what he’s doing and straightens deliberately, trying to make himself seem taller. “I’m here to pick a package,” he says. “For—Adira?”
Another eyeball. The old woman looks him up and down again. “…You sure you got the money for that?”
He tries not to sound offended. He tries. “Yes!” A whole wallet-full, even.
“I don’t take dirty money.”
“It’s Adira’s money,” Varian says, trying to quell the sudden thrill of fear in his gut. What if she turns him away? What will he do then? Returning empty-handed—the idea makes him feel sick.
God. It’s been one stressful thing after another today; doesn’t Varian deserve a break? He has bad days and good days and then days like this, the in-between, which are almost worse. He’d been up early to feel rested, he’d been left alone and abandoned to pass out on the docks, woken up from dark dreams to the scowling face of a stranger and then nearly driven himself into having a breakdown in the middle of the street and—and he’s tired. He’s so tired. He’s sick of this.
Adira’s fault, all of it. In the early days of traveling, he’d thought she had the key to what he had to do next. He thought she had the answers, the direction, a purpose to give. But all this time, and he still has nothing to show for it. Nothing at all.
He is sick of this most of all: of being left in the dark, of feeling useless and small.
“I’m the carrier-boy,” Varian tells the shopkeeper, nearly desperate. “I don’t know what it’s for, okay? I’m just here to pick it up!”
She glares at him for another five seconds, as if to judge whether Varian is actually unimpressed or just faking it to steal her stuff, then grumps under her breath and turns away, shuffling into the back. “Stay there.”
He shuts his eyes tight in relief.
From there on, thankfully, the exchange is quick and painless—ten minutes later Varian exits the bookstore with an empty wallet and a heavy package in his arms, the tome wrapped securely in paper and water-proof oilcloth. It’s big and heavy, too large to fit in the satchel, and Varian hefts it in his hands with a sigh.
It’s only been two hours, and he’s already narrowly avoided having a breakdown over a book. This day is shaping up great .
Ruddiger coos at him, batting at his hair. Varian tries for a smile, and playfully shrugs his shoulder, sending Ruddiger rushing to his other side with a squeak and an earful of fretful chattering. Varian’s smile grows, settling into something stronger.
“Thanks,” he says quietly, and tilts back his head to the sun. “I’m okay, buddy. It’s okay. Let’s just go.”
Ruddiger croons at him. Varian keeps smiling, but when his eyes fall back to the busy street, his smile falters and then falls.
He hefts the package in his hands and gives the streets a weary look. Six months. How strange it all looks. How bizarre. Some days—most days—he wonders if he’s even here at all.
Six months, he repeats, to himself. Hard to decide if it feels more like a lifetime or just days ago. It’s been so long, in a way. His hair is longer. His clothes are different. He’s taller, a little bit. Stronger in some ways, but… weaker, too.
His left ear burns at the thought. Varian lifts a hand to rub at it, and the uneven edge catches under his fingertips. It’s long healed, perfectly sealed, but he can almost feel the painful prickle of a raw wound.
Everything—everything is different. Everything is new. He no longer has a home, now, no house and no proper bed; his life is spent out on the road, cities experienced and left behind in less than a day. His whole world has shifted on its axis, and yet—despite everything—
He still feels exactly the same.
He’s gone to more places than he can bother counting. He’s spent six months living on the road, traveling from place to place to place. So why, then, does it feel as if he hasn’t gone anywhere at all?
It’s been almost half a year, and still—sometimes when Varian wakes up, he can see iron bars. Stone walls, prison-cell cold. On the worst days, the worst nights, when he opens his eyes, he sees the darkness of the labyrinth instead.
And despite the warm sun, despite the midday heat, a chill crawls across his neck like the press of an icy hand.
A loud noise in his ear drags him away. Ruddiger is chattering up a storm, his little claws pulling hard at Varian’s hair. The world swims into focus, the darkness beaten back. Busy streets. Murmuring crowd. The book in his hands, and sunlight in his eyes.
Varian shakes his head, taking a deep breath through his teeth. The icy touch at his neck fades away. He rolls his shoulders, shaking off the ache, and finally slips back into the crowd.
It’s probably better not to think about it.
Rapunzel’s return to Corona is made in silence.
By the time they reach the gates of the capital city, it’s so late in the day it’s practically tomorrow morning already. The sky is pitch-dark, and the city, once bustling, is now silent and tranquil. The few lamps still burning are dim and flickering, and a heavy fog has drifted in from the harbor, low enough to tangle at their heels. The whole world has turned fuzzy and distant in the midnight darkness, vague shadows flicking at the corners of her eyes.
There are guards at the city gate, of course, and they see her enter—Rapunzel doesn’t want to sneak her way back home. Their eyes go wide when they spot her, their faces slack, and though they look surprised and confused when Rapunzel asks for their silence, they obey with little complaint. These are not the guards she knows; none of them will question an order from their Princess.
As Maximus and Fidela clop their way up the winding uphill roads, Rapunzel tilts back her head and soaks in the sleeping city. The gray cobblestone and the echoes of Maximus’s horseshoes on the ground; the painted shop signs and wooden houses; the flowers hanging from the iron-wrought balconies. The ivy crawling sideways up the houses has turned withered and brown in the winter chill, but some flowers are still blooming—droopy-headed snowdrops, a few pale sprigs of daffodils. It looks—it looks just as Rapunzel remembers it to be. It looks just as she left it.
But Rapunzel is not blind. It looks as she left it, yes—but she remembers the black rocks, tall and gleaming, right on the city’s edge. Not quite at the capital, not yet… but not gone, either. A danger delayed, rather than ended.
Her heart clenches in her chest at the reminder, and Rapunzel has to look away to catch her breath. Her mouth is dry, stomach wound tight. She’s sitting up high on Maximus’s saddle with Eugene just behind her, and yet she has never felt smaller. She has never felt so alone.
There’s a touch at her lower back, light and warm. Eugene rubs at her shoulder, and his arm loops around to tug her back into another hug. “Hey, Sunshine, you doing okay there?”
She lets out her breath in a shuddering sigh. “Yeah.”
He’s quiet, for a bit. Still holding her, just breathing. Rapunzel closes her eyes and sinks back into his arms, drawing strength from the beat of his heart in her ears.
“You don’t have to talk to them alone,” Eugene says at last, into the air. “No one’s asking you to. I can—”
But Rapunzel is already shaking her head. “No,” she says. “No, I—thank you, Eugene. Thank you. ” She sits up, turning in the saddle so she can cup his cheek. “That means so much to me. But I—I don’t want to be protected. If they’re… if they’re mad, then, I don’t want it to be at you.” She can hear Cassandra inhale as if to speak, from beside her, and adds, quickly, “Or you, Cass.”
Even in the dim light, she can see Eugene frown, the way his brow furrows. His exhale tickles through the leather of her glove. “Well, all right,” he says finally. “If you’re sure. But—even then, we’ll stay close, yeah? Even if you won’t need it.” His eyes search her face. “They… I’m sure they’ll understand. They won’t be… that angry, you know. Normal parent outrage at worst, I’m positive.”
This, he cannot deny. Eugene doesn’t even try—just reaches up and cradles Rapunzel’s stiff hand, pressing a kiss to her palm. His touch is so gentle it doesn’t even hurt, and Rapunzel smiles despite herself. “I—”
A voice calls through the fog, cutting her off. “Princess?”
The words catch in her throat. Rapunzel jolts, spinning back around—even Maximus lurches, missing a step, surprised by the call. Eugene catches her around the middle, and Pascal, falling from her head, catches himself on her hair. He swings back and forth by her face, his beady eyes wide with surprise.
“Princess, is that really you?”
This time, she recognizes the voice. “Xavier?” She peers down the street, squinting hard through the fog. Barely within view, she can see a dull silhouette, the fuzzy outline of a large man shadowed by a distant blacksmith’s flame. Her eyes widen. “Xavier!”
The figure moves away from the distant forge-fire, drawing closer to where the fog is thinner. She can see him fully, now—the moonlight glinting off the tools he still holds in one loose fist, his wiry beard streaked with soot, his apron blackened with ash and spotty from flying embers. Xavier the blacksmith, the storyteller, the one who helped guide her through that strange winter storm almost a full year ago.
Xavier laughs, short and soft, that familiar raspy chuckle. “Ah! I know that voice. So it is you.” His eyes are alight with a smile. “What familiar faces, though it’s been a while since I last saw you. Princess Rapunzel, Eugene Fitzherbert, Cassandra of the Guard… you have returned!”
“I…” Rapunzel stops, shaking her head, her smile glowing. She’d meant to avoid anyone she knew this night, but Xavier’s presence is soothing rather than nerve-wracking. There is something about him, ever calm, that makes it a relief just to see him.
It hits her suddenly how dearly she’s missed him—missed everyone. How could she have forgotten how kind he was, how reasonable his advice and his counsel? “Yes! This very night. Oh, it’s been so long—how are you? How are things? Has—”
In the background, Cassandra pointedly clears her throat. Rapunzel stops herself mid-word, feeling the heat climb to her cheeks. “Ah. I, um, probably don’t have time to chat right now. But—everything’s okay, right?”
Xavier’s smile is warm and fond. “Of course! There is always need for blacksmiths, Princess, and I am in good health. Even got myself an apprentice!”
“Yes! Skittish child, but she’ll do well in time. She’s new to the town, came in when the rocks…” His smile flickers, the good humor fading from his face. His eyes go wide. “The rocks. I— Princess, it has just occurred to me, but—if you are back—did you find a way to destroy the rocks, as you promised? Are they truly gone?”
It’s like a flash of icy water, like a slap to the face. The happy glow of returning stamped out by the reality. Rapunzel’s smile slips and falls.
Xavier doesn’t miss the shift. His eyes widen, and he looks back and forth between the lot of them, seeing the truth writ across their faces. “Ah,” he says, suddenly hushed. “I see.”
She has to answer him, Rapunzel knows. She must tell him why. Xavier—her parents—all of Corona deserves an answer. But the words stick in her throat, too heavy to speak.
Xavier looks up, away from her. Rapunzel startles.
Cassandra doesn’t quail under the weight of their attention; her chin lifts, her voice clipped and firm. Her eyes brook no argument. “Not yet,” she repeats. She says the words like a dare. “But we’re working on it. Sorry, Xavier, but we really should go. We need to report to the castle as soon as we can.”
“R-right, of course. But if I may—”
Something in Cassandra’s face turns calculating. “Just a thought,” she says, abrupt. “…Xavier. In these times, with what’s being said… would you be late to the castle?”
Realization flickers across Xavier’s face, followed by something much darker. He nods slowly, and doesn’t refute this; his frown is almost troubled, his glance back at the castle wary. Rapunzel’s heart drops to her gut.
It could be nothing. It could just be a coincidence. But it could also not be, and that possibility leaves her cold.
“…I understand. My apologies. This old man won’t keep you any longer.” Xavier steps back into the firelight of his shop, and the glow casts his whole face in shadow. She can see him hesitate. “I—please, tell me one thing. Men like me, we put too much faith in old myths… it would ease my mind to know.” He glances between them, his eyes lingering on Rapunzel. “Princess, if nothing else, at the end of that road… did you find your destiny?”
Cassandra sits up straight, pale eyes flashing in the moonlight. Behind Rapunzel, Eugene has once more gone carefully still, his hand heavy on her shoulder. “She doesn’t have to—”
Cassandra’s mouth snaps shut. She glances back, but Rapunzel can’t meet her eyes. She looks at Xavier, instead, and wills her hands to stay steady. “Yes,” she says. “I found it.”
It’s the truth. It’s the truth as she knows it. The Moon said it herself, after all: the Dark Kingdom, finding the Moondrop—this was the beginning of Rapunzel’s path. This is the start of her destiny, whatever it shall be.
It still feels like a lie.
The smile that breaks over Xavier’s face—the sheer relief— only makes it worse. “I see,” he says. “I see. Thank you, Princess, for humoring me.” His smile is wide and bright. Rapunzel feels ill. “And—ah, forgive me for not saying this sooner—welcome home!”
She forces herself to return it. “Thanks,” she says. Her voice is a whisper, scraping in her throat. Eugene’s arm tightens around her waist. Cassandra’s eyes are a weight on her back. Pascal nuzzles her cheek. “Thank you, Xavier.”
They leave Xavier there, the firelight of his shop dim and his smile glowing. Maximus nips gently at Rapunzel’s skirts in comfort, but everyone else is hushed. No one seems to know what to say, or how to say it. The silent night around them, once comforting, now seems stifling. The cobblestone houses close in like a cage. The fog, a trap. The winding roads: a labyrinth.
Her skin itches, the back of her neck crawling with cold. A dull ache throbs in her hands. Rapunzel forces her fingers to curl into her skirts, but even that can’t stop her from shaking.
Why does she feel this way? It hadn’t been a lie, what she told Xavier. It hadn’t been untrue. But it feels as if she’s given something away, or maybe hidden something else, and it makes her hurt all over.
How funny. To think—only six months ago, leaving the Dark Kingdom behind had felt like a victory.
Even now, it makes a lump rise up in her throat to remember it. Upon first leaving the Dark Kingdom behind, seeing that tower and mountain of black rocks destroyed, Rapunzel had assumed—hoped, prayed, pleaded—for that to be the end of it. The black rocks broken, the tragedy finally ceased. It wasn't until they made their way home, and found the way still marred by unnatural black stone, that Rapunzel finally understood that things wouldn’t be so simple.
I left to take care of the black rocks. I left to save my kingdom. To set things right. Instead she found her destiny, but even that, Rapunzel has cast away and scorned.
She doesn’t regret it. She can’t, not when that destiny would have destroyed her every moral belief, left Varian dead and Moon the victor. So she doesn’t regret it, but—still, it burns. She’s found the Dark Kingdom. She’s faced the Moon, she’s faced herself, her own fears, and conquered both. She’s done so much, and yet—it feels as if she’s accomplished nothing at all.
A low warble in her ears pulls her from her thoughts, and Rapunzel looks beside her. Pascal, perched up on her shoulder, rubs his small head at her cheek. His little face is pinched, his eyes knowing.
Rapunzel lifts her hand and cups his head. She forces her fingers to bend, to curl inward, a careful hug. He leans into the touch. Her smile trembles.
“It’s been so long,” Rapunzel whispers to her friend, her voice shaking. “Hasn’t it, Pascal?”
She hadn’t wanted to say it to Eugene and Cassandra, even though she knows they’re eavesdropping on her now regardless. Eugene’s arms are secure around her waist, and she can feel him stiffen at her back. But it’s okay to admit this to Pascal, to pretend the others won’t hear. Pascal alone will understand what she really means. He spent all those years in the tower with Rapunzel too.
And it matters, in this moment. The tower matters. She has spent eighteen years locked away and only one full year in this kingdom. The rest of her freedom, she spent it out beyond the walls, in these past eight months of pain and discovery and healing.
Compared to that… Rapunzel doesn’t really know Corona at all.
Her eyes prick with tears. Things have changed. Of course they have. But Rapunzel doesn’t know this place well enough to tell, and it makes something stick in her throat to realize that.
“It’s been a long time,” Rapunzel says, voice cracking, and Pascal closes his eyes and leans against her cheek, silent comfort.
She’s not sure if this feeling is homesickness or fear or exhaustion. In the few times she has daydreamed her return, she always thought it would be triumphant, victorious, a relief. And yet—
And yet. All she can feel is ill.
She doesn’t say anything more, though, and the rest of the journey to the castle is in silence. But Pascal’s comforting weight on her shoulder, Eugene’s grounding warmth at her back, Cassandra’s unfaltering and watchful gaze, the echo of Maximus and Fidela’s hooves against the cobble—they keep her company amongst her fears, and their support gives Rapunzel strength.
They approach the main gate to the castle, and Rapunzel pulls herself tall, pushing back her hood, letting the guards’ lantern light catch in her hair. She buries her fears in the back of her mind, and leaves her gloved hands folded in her lap. She meets the eyes of the guards and doesn’t look away, watching their faces as Cassandra dismounts and presents their papers, the proof of their identity.
Their eyes go wide. Their faces slack. The lamp-light flickers, and Rapunzel looks up into the shadow of the castle and ignores her pounding heart.
She’s home, now, for better or for worse. Her journey to the Dark Kingdom, her search for the Moondrop, is no longer. That road has finally come to a close.
This chapter of her story has ended. It’s time for her to start anew.
“Hello!” Rapunzel says, and gives the guards the brightest smile she can muster. Even if her fingers shake, they won’t ever know. “Please, if it’s not any trouble—Could you let the King and Queen know I’m back?”
Adira waits for Varian outside the city.
He sees her long before they’re close enough to speak. She’s leaning against a tree on the edge of the city limits, her arms crossed and eyebrow raised, face paint in place and dressed in almost the exact same outfit she wore when he first met her. A little ways away from her, off to the side, there is a loose circle of traveling carts and caravans, a makeshift camp of canvas tents and horse-drawn carriages.
Once a strange sight, these off-city camps have now become almost familiar to Varian—a grouping of merchants and travelers, come together to share food and stories around a fire. For all that they’d left behind a merchant caravan only just this morning, it seems Adira has already found another one to slip into. Around the fire at her back, there are as many as ten others, a cooking pot set over a pale flame and blankets spread out for seating. The people themselves are engaged in their own dealings; playing cards and taking drinks, stealing food. One man in particular is already rubbing his wrist, looking sullen and scowling at Adira’s back, no doubt already realized the folly of trying to best Adira at anything.
Rather predictably, once Varian is close enough to hear her, the first thing Adira says is, “What happened, Moony, did you get lost?”
Varian stares dully back, too tired to rise to the bait. None of Adira’s jokes ever strikes him as funny; from the awful nicknames to the sly sarcasm, everything about it feels condescending, like she’s laughing at a joke at his expense. The months they’ve spent travelling—and wow, isn’t that a trippy notion, because it sure doesn’t feel like months—have done nothing to endear them to him.
“I fell asleep,” Varian admits, a little sour. Adira lifts one eyebrow, silent and judging, and he bristles. “I was tired! We left that last caravan really early.”
This last bit he adds pointedly, with all the irritation he can muster—but all Adira does is shrug, looking like she wants to laugh at him.
He’s not getting anywhere with this, Varian knows, and drops the conversation with a scowl, kicking the toe of his boot against the ground. What little he’s learned of Adira over the past few months—and it is, quite infuriatingly, very very little—has taught him enough to know that he just can’t win any argument against her, mainly because Adira doesn’t seem to care about Varian’s grievances one way or another.
“I got the package,” Varian says, instead, and hefts up the book. His arms are killing him. “Um, can I ask—why do we need this?”
Adira hums absently under her breath and turns her back to him, heading back to the main glade, set up with tents and a few camping fires. The trees here are few and sparse, and horses and the caravans line the horizon. She heads towards the biggest fire and calls, “That’s for me to know and you to find out, Moony. Consider it training.”
Varian considers throwing the book at her head. He really, really considers it. “Was getting the book and lugging it over here ‘training’ too?”
“You catch on slow! Didn’t you already figure that out?”
Varian takes a deep breath. His fingers tighten on the book, and for a moment his vision blurs, faint with sudden rage. It would be so easy. Just lift the book and throw it, right at her stupid head, how hard can it be—
Adira looks over her shoulder at him. Her smile is all teeth.
The fantasy fades, driven back by that smile and Ruddiger’s fearful chittering. There’s a burning phantom pain in Varian’s left ear. No. He couldn’t. No matter how much he hates her, Varian knows this well: Adira is a better fighter than he is.
He lowers his hands. The weight of the book drags at his arms. Ruddiger fusses at his hair and Adira’s smile curls into something smug.
“Hm,” she says. She turns away and sits down by the fire, effortlessly inserting herself into the conversation and company of the merchants. Varian looks around the camp and falters at all the people looking back, but reluctantly approaches the circle, unsure of what else to do but follow her.
“Are we staying here tonight?” he asks finally, sullenly, but even as he says it he casts his eyes around, trying to find their stuff—the answer is almost always yes. But instead of their usual camp, he finds their bags in a pile off the side. He blinks blankly at it, confused.
“No,” Adira replies, light as the weather. “Just for lunch.” She looks him up and down. “Drop off the package and get some food. You are skin and bones, kid.”
There’s no bite to the words. Whatever Varian’s violent thoughts, all has apparently been forgiven, if Adira cared about it at all. It should comfort him, but instead—it feels like dismissal, like a mockery. It burns sour in his gut, angry words pressing against his tongue. He swallows it back, rolls his eyes instead, and marches away. “Whatever.”
“Such a teenager,” Adira remarks, and laughter follows after him, mingled in with the snickering of the nearby merchants. Varian’s cheeks burn. His chest is tight.
After everything he’s done, this is apparently all his life amounts to: vague errands and mocking laughter.
He stomps over to their stuff, piled in between two wagons, and sets both package and Ruddiger on the bags so he can change. This far out of town, the air is colder, the sunlit warmth lost somewhere in the endless plains. Where the city was too hot, here he is too cold—the chill sinks deep in his bones, stiffens his fingers.
It’s a relief to put on something warmer. Varian changes quickly into the heavy and warmer cloth clothes Adira bought for him weeks ago from one of the caravan merchants, and slips back on the heavy overcoat once he’s done. His shoes, also spares from Adira, are too big for his feet, and he rolls on two pairs of socks before slipping them back on. The end result is rather ridiculous—a small, unkempt boy with pale skin and twig-thin limbs practically swallowed whole by draping and oversized clothes—but at the very least, he’s no longer so cold.
Ruddiger jumps up on his shoulder, and Varian manages a smile, petting Ruddiger’s head absently as he makes his way back towards the fire. The sky has gone dim for now, the clouds moving over the sun, and it makes the already frigid air even icier. Adira passes him a bowl with the day’s stew and he nods in mute thanks before taking it. He has to wrap his hands in the sleeves of his coat to keep the heat from burning him.
Around them, the mix of merchants, traders, and travelers speak together in low voices. This sight has become commonplace to Varian, after six months of living with Adira’s weird looping travel techniques. He sips at his bowl of broth and does his best to ignore them, letting the conversation wash over his head.
“—see the harbor? Less boats every day.”
“Now, that’s the thing, I went by Echo’s Pass just last fall and it wasn’t nearly so—”
“—winter storms have been a problem in Arendelle for almost twenty years, didn’t you hear—”
“Port Caul may be booming but it won’t last, they must know…”
“…gonna reach Corona at some point. Has to. No way around that—”
Varian pauses mid-slurp, his interest spiked. He puts the bowl in his lap, turns towards the current speaker—an older man, with a full beard turned white from sea salt, his eyes solemn and voice gruff.
“I mean,” the man is saying now, “awful as it is to say it—sea-faring routes are closing up, all around. ‘S not only Valencia anymore. Even the Southern Isles are starting to pull back, not to mention Wesselton…”
The group titters around them, low murmurs of agreement. Varian stares down at his bowl. His fingers are white around the wood.
“Still,” another adds, “Corona’s the main trade kingdom… that capital city’s trench-deep in water. If it reaches that far— well. ” She makes a sign over her heart. “Sun bless us. Hope they don’t get those guards of theirs to start taking ships.”
“Hah! Just what we need, right? Soldiers searching the boats.”
“What if they close their harbors?”
“What! You kidding? They wouldn’t dare. A trade-kingdom like that, closing harbor… it’d be tantamount to suicide.”
Adira’s hand falls heavy on his neck. Varian freezes. “Finally listening in?”
He sips at his stew to keep from snarling at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She hums, nonchalant. “They’ve been talking about this issue for weeks. It’s a growing concern.” She waits. Varian doesn’t say anything. “I just find it a little interesting, Moony, that you’ve only started paying attention to the conversation now.”
He scowls down at his bowl and shrugs her hand off. “It’s—fascinating, that’s all.” She snorts, and his eyes narrow. “By the way, you going to tell me what that package is for?”
“Haven’t figured it out yet?”
“ No.” He hasn’t even been thinking about it. He has better things to do than play Adira’s games.
She sips at her broth, not even bothering to meet his eyes. Varian could snarl. “Bribery.”
The admission is so startling that Varian can’t help but stare. Adira— Adira never admits things that easily. She hasn’t—six goddamn months and all he’s gotten out of her is that she used to know his dad and knows something about the Moondrop, and now she just—
She gets a kick out of frustrating him, he’s almost sure of it. “ What?”
“Bribery. As I said. Are you having trouble hearing? Infections can cause nerve damage if—”
His torn ear prickles, and Varian glowers at her. It’s only the prick of Ruddiger’s claws through his jacket that keeps him steady. “My hearing’s fine.”
She shrugs. “If you say so.”
He waits. Adira sips at her broth. Varian— Varian breathes. Even Ruddiger’s calming croon isn’t enough to quell the rising fury in his belly. Adira is just… infuriating. Six months, and he still knows almost nothing about her.
He’d thought, back then, when he first met her—when she ambushed him on the side of the road, thrown his dad’s name out like a lifeline and called him Moondrop with such surety his heart stopped in horror—he’d thought, then, that if he waited her out, he could learn what she knew and then leave. He could do something. And yet—he’s still here. Training and running errands and doing whatever he can to prove he’s worth the answers, because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
“Who is it a bribe for?” Varian asks, and he means for it to sound angry but he just sounds tired instead.
Something must bleed through his voice, because this time Adira actually looks at him. Her gaze is scrutinizing. “An old acquaintance,” she says, a little softer now. “I’m afraid I’ve probably upset her, so this is— a bribe for forgiveness, I suppose.” She sighs and sets down her bowl. “That’s where we’re staying tonight, with any luck. You know, after lunch.”
It is an answer, but it’s not much of one. Even when she tells him things, there are always holes in the stories, obvious lies in the gaps and pauses. Varian rubs the strap of his satchel between his fingers, trying to keep calm. The worn leather is soft against his skin. This is Rapunzel’s satchel, and she gave it to him. Rapunzel wouldn’t get angry.
But instead of calming him down, this thought only fuels the growing pit swelling up in his chest. Rapunzel would not get angry—but Varian, Varian is not Rapunzel. He is not forgiving.
And he’s tired.
And all at once, he doesn’t care to pretend otherwise.
“No training today?” Varian asks sarcastically, and he can’t help the bite. He hates training. He doesn’t want it. Like most things, it’s something Adira decided he needed on her own.
Adira is— blank. Calm. Always, always, calm. “Do you want to?”
This last word is a shout.
Adira pauses. Conversation around the fire stalls. Everyone is looking at them now, and Adira’s eyes are dark with warning. “You all right?” she asks, mild, but her expression has gone cold. “You’re in quite the mood today.”
“I’m in a mood? ” Varian repeats. His voice is rising, almost shrill. “ I’m in a mood? You’re the most—” He can’t even finish, he’s so angry. There are no words strong enough to describe Adira.
Adira is outright scowling now. Her glance at the surrounding merchants is quick but pointed. She rises to her feet and tugs at Varian’s arm to pull him up with her. “Let’s take this elsewhere, hm?”
But Varian isn’t in the mood to comply with her wishes, and he doesn’t give a damn about whatever secrets she wants to hide. He’s tired of following her lead. He’s tired of not knowing. He wrenches his arm from her grip and stays stubbornly seated. “No.”
“Varian!” Adira snaps. She grabs his arm and drags him roughly to his feet. He fumbles on his footing, his half-eaten bowl dropping to the ground. Ruddiger screeches loud and alarmed in his ears. Adira’s voice is rising too, now. “This isn’t the place for this. We’ll talk later. Whatever issue you’re having—”
“Whatever issue I’m—my only problem here is you!”
“You’re always like this,” Varian snarls, the words torn rough from his throat. “ Later? When’s later? I’ve been—I’ve been traveling with you for almost six months and you’re still a stranger to me! I don’t know anything about you, or what you know, or—you promised me answers!” He feels raw, worn thin. He’s almost shouting. “You promised me answers but you haven’t told me anything!”
Adira scowls right back. “You aren’t ready for answers,” she snaps, sounding furious. “This little—tantrum—is only proving my point, kid. If you can’t even handle this—”
“I don’t even know you. What gives you the right to—to come into my life and tell me what to do—”
“I’m not talking about this with you.” Adira slashes her hand through the air, ending the conversation where it stands. “Go—watch over the package or something, I don’t care, but we are not yelling about this in the middle of the day—”
“ You,” Varian says, suddenly, furiously, “are not my Dad.”
Adira stops cold, just as Varian knew she would. It’s an awful card to play. It’s a terrible thing to throw into her face, not in the least because it hurts Varian to bring it up as much as it must hurt to hear it—but this is all he has against her. This is the only thing he knows: that whoever Adira is, once upon a time, she knew Quirin of Old Corona.
“You’re not my dad,” Varian repeats. The anger has deadened, turned cold and ashy on his tongue. “So stop acting like you are.”
Adira stares at him, utterly unreadable, pale under her face-paint. The fire is utterly quiet, the strangers silenced, dark eyes flickering between them. For this one second—one brief, blink-and-miss-it moment—her breathing stutters.
The moment stretches… and then it breaks. Adira steps back and draws herself up tall with effort, steady once more. Whatever effect his words had, she buries under an icy mask, a blank anger. Her eyes are burning; her mouth unsmiling.
In less than a second, her weakness is gone, as if she’d never faltered at all.
“I see,” Adira says. Her voice is flinty. “I’ll keep that in mind. Now, if you’re done throwing a tantrum, can we get back to the matter at hand? We’re leaving in three hours tops. Do whatever the hell you want, just be ready to go.”
Varian stares at her, open-mouthed in shock—but before he can even think to argue, she has already turned away, turned her back to him. She sits back by the fire and ignores him entirely, shutting the conversation closed with a resounding slam .
Varian stands there, alone and helplessly aware of all the eyes boring into his back, the strangers looking back and forth between them. His jaw works, angry words rising up, but this time he swallows it back.
Of course this is her response. Of course she just—brushes it off, just like that, like she does everything.
He’s not sure what he was expecting.
“Fine,” Varian says and the bite is gone, now. His limbs feel heavy. His eyelids hurt. It seems to take all his strength to stand. The flash of anger and hurt that fueled his outburst has cooled into something dull and disappointed. So stupid of him. So foolish. So goddamn pathetic, the fact he was expecting anything from Adira at all.
He’s so tired.
Varian turns away without another word and makes his way back to their pile of stuff, the two bags and one paper-wrapped package. He curls up on the blankets, the book beneath him, his boots still on and jacket still heavy on his shoulders. It helps, to have the coat. It helps, to have the shoes. It helps, to have open air and the fire flickering in the corner of his vision. It helps to have Ruddiger there.
But even then, Varian still cannot bring himself to close his eyes. The silence around the fire, muted and faltering, makes his skin crawl. Adira’s distant and clipped responses make his fingers curl. But most of all it is this: the ashy taste of anger on his tongue, the rasp in his throat from shouting, the quiet way Ruddiger curls around him in comfort, as though afraid to upset him further—it is this that makes his throat close up, tight with shame.
All these months. All this time.
So why, then, does it feel as if he hasn’t changed at all?
The day passes by, and Varian does not sleep.
Here is the thing: despite Eugene’s fears, despite Cassandra’s worry—Rapunzel isn’t afraid. Not really.
There are—there are things she is bothered by, yes, and things she doesn’t want to face. This is true. But fear is not the same as worry, and despite it all—despite the answers she’ll have to give and the fallout that will come from it— despite everything, Rapunzel is simply just delighted to be home.
So when she sees her parents—when they rush out of the palace doors, wide-eyed and still rumpled from their beds—Rapunzel doesn’t flinch, or look away, or falter. She doesn’t even think to hesitate. She sees her parents at the gates and it’s like seeing the sunrise for the first time: perfect, bright, and unfathomably wonderful.
It takes all she has to dismount safely from the horse. It takes all she has to approach the gate slowly, to avoid crashing into the guards. But the moment her feet are on the ground, the second she’s within reach, Rapunzel throws herself forward and into their arms, and knows that everything is going to be okay.
In this moment, Rapunzel’s fears are nothing more than ashes in the wind. Her uncertainties and anxieties are dissipated, gone without a trace. Even that lingering knot in her throat from speaking with Xavier has unraveled. In this moment, nothing else matters—because they’re here, her parents are right here.
She’s crying, Rapunzel realizes distantly. Her face aches from the effort to hold the tears back; her cheeks are wet. But that’s okay, because her parents are crying too.
“I’m back,” Rapunzel says, choked. “M-Mom, Dad, I—I’m so sorry, it took me so long, and I—but I’m back. I’m back.”
“That’s all that matters,” her mother says. Her arms are tight against her back, long hair soft against Rapunzel’s cheek. She is hugging Rapunzel the same way she hugged her when they first met, when Rapunzel first returned to them, almost a full two years ago.
“My dear girl,” her father says, and pulls back to cup her face. His smile is disbelieving and warm. “Oh, my dear girl, you have no idea how overjoyed I am to see you.”
Her father’s hug is warm and safe. Her mother’s laughter echoes in her ears. “Oh, Rapunzel,” she says. “You took so long!”
“So much happened,” Rapunzel admits. “A lot—a lot happened.” Her hands itch. “But I’m back, I came back.” A sudden realization like a hit between her ribcage, and she sinks deeper into the hug to hide her face, the growing despair. “Mom, Dad, I… the rocks. The black rocks. I’m sorry. I couldn’t…”
This time, it’s her father who shushes her, stroking gently at her hair. “It’s alright,” he says. “It’s—they have stopped growing as quickly, at the very least, and any other issues can be dealt with.” He thumbs a tear from her cheek and smiles. “Oh, my dear. Welcome home.”
Rapunzel can’t trust herself to speak. She makes a small noise and sinks into their embrace, drinking in the warmth and security of their arms around her. Home. She can finally believe it. The smell of her mother’s perfume, the soft silk of her father’s fancy robes—these simple things, these whispers of familiarity, convince her in a way nothing else could. Home is here, right in her arms. She has finally, finally made it back.
She buries her face into their shoulders. She doesn’t cry. She just—stays there, holding them, letting them hold her. Letting the truth of it settle in her bones.
“I’m here,” Rapunzel says, quiet as a whisper, and some knot of tension within her finally falls loose.
When they draw out of the hug, they are smiling, all three of them. Rapunzel wipes at her eyes and her mother dabs at her face, and her father shakes his head, his cheeks wet, his smile worn and oddly old. He gestures towards the doors. “Let’s head inside, then? You… probably have much to tell us.”
“Yes,” Rapunzel admits. She keeps the smile on her face, trying to ignore the growing pit in her gut. Questions, and the answers she doesn’t know how to give. “Yes. I, I can… Can we go inside?”
“Of course!” her mother says, smiling, and Rapunzel smiles back—but she doesn’t miss the stiffness around her eyes, or the way her father’s smile has almost become a grimace.
They turn away, heading back to the doors, arms linked. Rapunzel moves to follow, but a hand touches at her arm. Rapunzel pauses, dropping back—and turns to meet the eyes of her friends.
In the nighttime hour, most of the castle staff are gone—beyond the two guards at the gate and the two with her parents, the courtyard is empty but for them. Eugene is alone in unsaddling Maximus, and Fidela is still loaded with their bags and travel gear.
She meets Cassandra’s eyes and understands the wordless question. Cassandra and Eugene are busy here. They cannot go with her.
Rapunzel holds her gaze and nods once.
Cassandra searches her face and then steps back, silent acquiescence. Eugene frowns down at the bags he’s holding but says nothing, just lifts one hand to give her a thumbs up. Pascal, still riding on her collar, nudges at her cheek.
“We’ll unload the horses and get things settled,” Cassandra says, lowly. “We’ll wait for you in—the main hall?”
“Main hall,” Rapunzel confirms. “Yes. Yes.” She is struck with a sudden wave of gratefulness, and takes Cassandra’s hand, squeezing it tight. “ Thank you, Cass.” She lifts her head, meeting Eugene’s eyes again, and beams at him, hoping her meaning comes across.
His eyes crinkle at her, bright with love. Cassandra gives Rapunzel a thin half-smile. “You’re welcome.” She squeezes back. “Chin up, Raps.” You can do this, her eyes say, and behind her Eugene is smiling, soft and sure.
“Yes,” Rapunzel says again, and sucks in a deep breath. Pascal puffs up proudly on her shoulder. She lets go of Cassandra’s hand and smooths down her dress. Pascal’s weight on her shoulder, slight and near-unnoticeable, makes it easier to breathe. This time, her hands don’t shake. She smiles tremendously back and then turns away, walking with sure steps after her parents.
She can do this. She can do this. She must.
They go to one of the sitting rooms, the usual one for debates and treaty signings, with plush red couches and wide doors. Rapunzel pretends it’s a good sign, as she gingerly sits herself down, her parents seated together across from her. It’s not an interrogation. This is not a room for interrogations. This is treaties, conversation, compromise. It’s only—questions, for all the things Rapunzel hasn’t said and hasn’t known how to properly put into words.
Only questions. Nothing more. Nothing frightening.
Rapunzel is so exhausted she can barely keep her head up, but she still gives them her best smile. She’s missed them. Even with all this—she’s missed them so much.
Her mother smiles back, ear to ear, and even her father’s eyes are warm despite his serious expression. “Oh, my dear,” her mother starts, warmly, “you have no idea how happy we are to have you back.”
Rapunzel matches her enthusiasm. “You have no idea how happy I am to be back!”
Her mother’s smile widens, her hands clasped before her. “I’m sure. When I traveled alone for the first time—oh, the homesickness I felt then…!” She shakes her head in memory, and her eyes cast down, something shadowed passing over her face. “And you were… gone for a long time. I assume coming home was even more of a shock.” She lifts her head, but her smile has gone pale. “Oh, I hate to ask this of you so soon, but… Rapunzel, what happened out there?”
Rapunzel takes a breath. Pascal gives her an encouraging little poke with his tail. “A lot. A lot happened . It was—” She grimaces. “You… you must have a lot of questions, don’t you.”
“Among other things,” her father sighs. He sits back in the chair, rubbing hard at his brow. “Rapunzel—I truly hate to ask this of you so soon. But you have been gone eight months. The black rocks are still here. That boy—Varian—is missing, after the last report says he attacked you, and you have given no reason, location, or explanation of his absence. You—communication with you and your group cut out for a whole month, and you have given no reason for that beyond a mention of ‘complications.’ None of your letters since have been written by you. And—and there’s reports, Rapunzel, of bright lights and explosions and—and it took you six months to return.” He drags his hand down his face. “I don’t want to sound accusing, but…”
“It doesn’t paint a pretty picture,” her mother finishes, her face creased with worry. Her lips are pressed thin. “It—to be frank, dear, it doesn’t paint much of a picture at all .”
Rapunzel swallows hard, looking down. “I—that’s—” She stops herself. “Mom, Dad… I’m sorry. I know our letters were—less than helpful. And I… I know I said I’d go out to stop the rocks, and—and obviously that didn’t. U-um. Happen. I—I—”
She takes a breath, and starts from the beginning.
“I guess… I guess it started maybe a month after the start of our journey. When we found the ruins.”
She tells them—the warning, the cryptic song telling of the Moon’s tower. The dying land. The rocks, and the makeshift mountain.
She doesn’t tell them who translated the poem—she doesn’t mention Varian’s attack, or the strange symbols she found in the ruins and the labyrinth, the mirror image of her tower. But what she does say is more than enough. Her throat is sore. Her head feels stuffed full.
But her story is not even close to being finished, and Rapunzel steels her heart. “We approached the… the mountain of rocks,” she says, breath shuddering on the memory. “And—a-and then…”
Her voice catches, and she has to stop. She closes her eyes and tries to breathe, gritting her teeth past a blinding spike of pain. She’s so tired. Her eyes feel hot.
There is a long, painful silence. Her mother sighs.
“I… It’s all right, Rapunzel. You don’t have to tell us the whole story right now.”
Rapunzel looks up, startled. Her father’s eyes are wide, just as shocked. “Arianna—!”
Her mother gives her father a sharp look, then turns back to fix Rapunzel with a comforting smile. “You don’t have to tell us now,” she repeats. “Just, before you go— tell me one last thing, please. Rapunzel, darling, are you all right?”
Rapunzel stares at her. She swallows, and her shoulders slump. “Yes,” she says, soft and shaky. “I am. Just… tired. It’s been, um, a—a long few months.” Her voice cracks halfway. She tries to smile through it.
Her mother’s eyes are hurting for her, but when she reaches out to touch Rapunzel’s cheek, her hand is soft and her face is gentle. “I understand,” she says. “Go, Rapunzel. Rest. We can talk more tomorrow, whenever you’re ready.”
Rapunzel manages a weak smile. “Okay,” she says. “Okay. Thanks, Mom.” She lets herself lean into her mother’s gentle touch, her quiet concern. Then she stands up. “Good… good night, then.”
Her mother smiles back. Her father is frowning. “Good night, my dear. And welcome home.”
Rapunzel nods and moves away. She is not quite smiling but she wants to, in a way—can feel the pull of it at her lips, the way her heart lifts and soars. The chance to sleep, to think things through, to rest… that they will let her tell them when she is ready… it appeases that final lingering fear.
But just as Rapunzel is reaching for the door, her father’s voice stops her in her tracks.
“Rapunzel, wait. Please.”
Rapunzel hesitates. Her heart sinks. She closes her eyes and takes a breath for strength, and then she meets his eyes. Her stomach is twisting itself into knots, and her throat is tight—but she can’t understand why, not really. She doesn’t know why she braces herself, except that something in his voice makes her every instinct scream.
A distant memory echoes in her ears, another mother’s shrill command.
Her father notices. She can tell by the way he winces, the way his eyes shut as if to prepare himself. His jaw works on the words, his voice tight. “Rapunzel, daughter, I— I know you aren’t ready… ready to talk about what happened out there, not yet.”
She watches him. He manages a weak smile. “And that is fine . Take as long as you need. But… there is one issue we must resolve post-haste.”
Her mother is frowning too, now. “Frederic—”
“No, Arianna. This is a matter of kingdom security. It cannot wait.” He turns to Rapunzel, grave-faced and grim. “I have asked you, ordered you, again and again through the letters of the last six months. You have ignored this order.” He looks old, tired. “Rapunzel, I—please. I do not wish to fight with you, not again. So tell me. The boy alchemist. Varian. Where is he?”
Rapunzel stares back. Her mouth opens. She says nothing.
“I do not know why you insist on covering for the boy.” His expression is grief-stricken. “Rapunzel, please. Will you not answer?”
She should answer. She should tell him. But her throat closes up, and all she can think of is labyrinths and gods and the weight of a dead boy in her arms, and nothing comes out.
How can she tell him? How can she put this into words? It’s not that Varian became better, or even an ally. It’s not that she’s forgiven him, or him her. She has no proof beyond her own experience, her own belief. She has no real name or explanation for what she did or why, just the feeling that it was the right thing to do—the only choice Rapunzel could make.
Not the choice of a princess, in the end. Not the choice of a Sundrop vessel or a figure with a destiny. Just Rapunzel, the girl from the tower, the simple nobody with a hopeless dream—and how can she tell them, this King and Queen, her newfound parents, such a thing as that? That she made the choice not as their daughter, but as herself?
Not a princess, in the end. Not the Sundrop. Only a girl.
She can’t tell them that. She can’t.
“…I see,” her father says, and he sounds very old, then. He leans over the chair and breathes out slow, his back bowed, his head in his hands. When he finally straightens, his eyes are dark and his face is set.
It’s not quite anger. But it’s close enough.
“If I asked it of your guard Cassandra,” he says, coolly. “Or Eugene Fitzherbert. Would they tell me?”
There’s an awful pressure building behind her eyes. She feels choked. Even Pascal’s presence can’t keep her steady. “I—”
“I asked them not to say,” she whispers, and the look on his face is terrible.
“Oh, Rapunzel,” he says. He rubs his face, a momentary pause, but when he opens his eyes again, his face is cold and his tone unyielding. “I am sorry to do this when you’ve—” His voice stutters, a momentary break. “—you’ve just returned. But for your silence, and your friends’ compliance in your deceit, for the threat that boy poses to this kingdom and to ensure our continued safety, I must take action.”
“Frederic—” her mother starts.
“Your restrictions within Corona limits will be reinstated,” King Frederic says. “You cannot travel beyond the walls. Excursions from the castle must be with an escort. Cassandra will have to be reassigned; for now, a new guard will be assigned to you indefinitely. Eugene—”
“ Frederic! ”
The king stops mid-word at her mother’s shout, blinking fast. He stares at Rapunzel, momentarily mute, and Rapunzel stares back, all the blood drained from her face. His breath shudders. “I— never mind. Never mind. These… these conditions are non-negotiable. Until you give me a viable reason—”
Rapunzel’s horrified silence finally breaks. “Dad,” she blurts out, “Dad, please you can’t, I—I don’t need a new guard! Cassandra didn’t do anything wrong!”
“She gave her word to keep you safe and to keep that boy under watch. She has failed at both, and your refusal to elaborate on what’s occurred, and her complicity in your silence, is proof enough. I cannot have untrustworthy guards in my castle.”
“That is enough , Rapunzel,” he thunders, and Rapunzel’s mouth snaps shut. She flinches back, and his lips thin into a grave line. “I—we can talk more on this in the morning, if you wish. But it is late, and you are tired.”
“Good night, Rapunzel.” The ice in his tone is damning. Any warmth in his face has turned hard as stone. He doesn’t wait for an answer. He turns his back to her and sweeps out the opposing door, and he doesn’t look back.
Rapunzel stares after him, horrified, and turns to her mother, but her heart is already sinking. She is not surprised by the angry look in her mother’s eyes… but neither is she surprised by the shake of her head, the silent refusal.
Rapunzel closes her eyes. She ignores Pascal’s desperate tugs at her hair, his futile attempt to distract her, to keep her calm. She waits until the door has shut behind her mother, then turns and exits through the opposing door, into the main hall.
She closes the door neatly behind her, sinking back against it, her hands loosely curled around the doorknobs. Her fingers ache like a bruise from her grip on the slick metal, old wounds searing like fire across her palm.
Eugene and Cassandra are waiting for her in the hall, as they said they would—Cassandra, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed; Eugene, pacing back and forth, leaving indents in plush carpet. The floor-to-ceiling windows are pitch black, moonlight painting the hall a ghostly silver. It catches on their eyes, highlights the fretful edge to their expressions. When the door clicks closed, they startle and turn to face her.
“Blondie?” Eugene asks, turning from his pacing. He looks frazzled, hair sticking up from where he’d run his hands through it. Cassandra looks up from the wall. Rapunzel can’t meet her eyes. “How—how did it go?”
“Raps,” Cassandra says, quiet and wide-eyed. She looks stunned, her face white with anger or maybe horror. “Raps, are you—crying?”
“I’m fine,” Rapunzel whispers, but the words stick in her throat. She folds her hands, linking her stiff and shaking fingers. She closes her eyes against the burn of tears, and tries to forget the distance she had felt in that room, that awful sense of being alone, even with her parents right there with her.
She lived in Corona for only a year. So little time, in hindsight. Can she really say that she knows them , either?
Eugene reaches out, his face fallen open and hurting for her. “Rapunzel,” he says. He sounds helpless.
“I—I guess I just hoped—” she starts, and swallows the tears back. “Just—those tall tales, those s- stupid stories about—about how the King’s angry all the time and arguing with the Guard, the in-fighting, the—the fear, it’s, I guess it’s—”
They’re silent. Pursed lips and grim faces. They all suspected. They all knew there would be fallout from their choices, consequences for their secrets. They all knew that coming home would not be easy. It’s not a surprise.
It’s not a surprise, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
“I guess they weren’t just rumors after all,” Rapunzel chokes out, and runs for her room before they can see her cry.
The world turns slow on its axis, and in the blinding sunlight they go unnoticed. Settled in the shadows of her in-between world, bare feet brushing an endless sea, the Moon weaves her plots and smiles with every one of her knife-like teeth. In a dark cage beneath a shining castle, the prisoner in the dungeon shifts in his shackles and hisses threats beneath his breath. The pirate checks her maps with pen in hand, bold black marks crossing out the coast. The man in the woods guards a Great Tree, his cunning mind consumed by a terrible plot. The schemer in Vardaros rolls gold coins between gloved fingers and hums.
And in the deepest depths of the world, chained beneath the endless sea, Zhan Tiri sits back and smiles.