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Swear Not By The Moon

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It is said in stories and legends that magic once existed in every corner of the world, as natural as rain. Those known as mythics — rare beings with mystical properties, practitioners of sorcery, and those born with unexplainable abilities — lived alongside ordinary humans in complementary synergy. Masters of the occult craft freely shared their knowledge with curious acolytes, while human engineers did not hesitate to consult magical solutions to mundane dilemmas. Sea naiads weaved through the surf to guide fishermen to shore through misty waters, and human communities made efforts to protect ancient woodlands and the faeries that dwelled in them from wildfires and logging. But if there ever truly was such a time of magnificent harmony in the Seven Kingdoms, there remains no one alive who can remember it.

The growth of humankind and their technological prowess fed the maw of the great beast of their greed. Whatever bastions were in place to protect the scarcer population of mythics from the encroaching dynasty crumbled brick by brick over the centuries until only rubble remained. The mass of wealth that the great nation of Corona generated over the previous decades had grown so bloated that its holders began to fear of its being drained from them. The king had seen the escalating unrest of the mythic people in his realm as they fought off the teeth of the greedy beast, and became convinced that it was only a matter of time before they formed a united front to rise up and retaliate against the crown. The mysterious and powerful magic wielded by mythics poisoned anxiety into fear, and fear into hatred. Before long, the king announced that something had to be done about these people in order to protect Corona.

The land that had gifted the kingdom with its prosperity — its fertile farmland, the richness of precious metals and stones in the underlying rock, and the fortuitous situation of its trading port with waters from abroad — suddenly became unwelcome to mythics that had been settled there for generations. While the population was forced out in droves, Corona drafted an agreement with other kingdoms describing the threat that mythics posed to humanity and urging all human civilizations to bar mythic citizens and occupants. The leaders of other nations saw the misled paranoia underlying this agreement for what it was and were hesitant to concede to it, but those that relied on Corona for trade feared making a powerful enemy out of its king and felt they had little other choice.

The one exception was the dark kingdom of Diadem, a strong nation known for its fierce warriors and self-sustaining economy. Its proud queen refused to sign the agreement, seeing no reason why she should bow to the whims of a fearful king and banish her people to the wilderness. Corona was enraged by their obstinance and attempted to place sanctions on trade between Diadem and the other kingdoms, but the renowned strength of Diadem’s warriors guarding the trade routes made enforcing them too challenging. Over the years, the two kingdoms settled into a stagnant hostility, with neither side willing to risk war between their peoples, while maintaining openly unfriendly relations, fostering sentiments of hatred and opposition to one another in the youth of each kingdom.

Mythics from all over the Seven Kingdoms sought refuge in Diadem, including powerful families and individuals who offered to add their strength to the royal service. In Corona, mythics and magic became tall tales to frighten children with, and the topic of their very existence soured into taboo. So when Queen Arianna of Corona fell ghastly ill during her pregnancy, her husband, King Frederic, put his faith in science and medicine to save her.

For a few months, Corona celebrated the queen’s miraculous recovery and birth of the princess Rapunzel, but the details of this miracle were never shared with the public. Palace staff who had seen how close to the edge of death Queen Arianna had crept during her pregnancy spread rumors that the king, in his desperation, had sought the aid of a sorcerer who could cure her when all else had failed. But no evidence ever surfaced in support of this claim, and the crown never addressed it.

The joy of the royal family was soon perverted into despair weeks later when the infant princess mysteriously disappeared from her crib in the night. Some believe that this misfortune was actually fate punishing the royal family for forcing mythics into the shadows, and some suspected an act of war by Diadem, but most saw it as an ordinary tragedy. Each year that passed without Rapunzel’s return hardened the king’s heart a little more, and his rule became steadily harsher to reflect his despair. Despite the pain of the kingdom and its rulers, the king and queen sent out hundreds of paper lanterns into the night sky every year on Rapunzel’s birthday to remind her, wherever she was, that they hadn’t given up hope for her homecoming.

It was eighteen long years before that hope culminated in their daughter standing barefoot on the great balcony of the palace beside a scruffy young man who gave the distinct impression of being out of place. The lost princess explained how she’d escaped from the tower she’d been held captive in all her life and met up with the rogue — Eugene — along the way, who had instantly recognized her name and brought her home. Kingdom soldiers were dispatched to the location of the tower according to Rapunzel’s description in hopes of apprehending the kidnapper, but no trace of her was ever found and her fate remains a mystery.

The crimes of Eugene’s past and those of the crew of pub thugs who assisted in Rapunzel’s safe voyage home were pardoned by the crown in gratitude, and Eugene was given his own room at the palace, as he and Rapunzel had become good friends and were loath to part from one another. The king and queen were so overjoyed to have their daughter safely home that they planned to host a week of festivities in celebration, inviting the Coronan public and nobility from each of the Seven Kingdoms to attend.

And although there was little expectation of their participation, King Frederic was moved by grace enough to even extend an invitation to the estranged dark kingdom of Diadem.

Chapter Text

Every morning, Rapunzel wakes up and wonders if today will be the day everyone finds out she’s a mythic.

She scarcely set foot outside her tower before it became apparent that magic and those who possess it aren’t friends of the crown. People tend to lower their voices if they have to discuss the topic, as though anyone who overhears will throw them in jail. The realization puzzled her, but didn’t worry her much until Eugene brought her to a seedy, secluded pub filled with menacing strangers on their way to Corona. Her sense of danger pulsed through her like the unsteady flicker of a flame, and when someone’s blade got too close to her face, she exploded in a burst of blinding light as though the room was filled with gas and a match was struck. The pub patrons were uninjured, but Rapunzel was shaken to her core. Eugene stopped asking her about it after she pointedly ignored him on the topic four times.

It had never happened before. She supposes she’d never really been in danger before. She refuses to think about it, because the fear of being rejected by her new home so soon after she found it again fills her with crushing dread. She made Eugene promise to keep what he saw a secret, and he knows how seriously she takes promises.

Rapunzel struggles to find sleep on the night before the grand banquet to kick off the week of festivities. Sleep hasn’t come easily to her ever since she left the tower; between the pressure to keep her magic secret, the anxiety that her Mother was still out there, and the overwhelming cornucopia of new experiences she had been thrust into, she finds herself lying on her silk pillow and staring into the darkness of her new extravagant bedroom for hours every night. But the banquet and the anticipation of meeting dozens — maybe hundreds — of new and important people and living up to their expectations feels like a grating buzz in her brain that scarcely allows her to even close her eyes.

The weight of responsibility feels crushing to Rapunzel from the moment she steps out of bed in the morning. Her handmaiden, Faith, is at her side in an instant to assist with dressing her and making her look presentable for the occasion, all while respectfully avoiding eye contact and not daring to speak to her liege. Having a servant seems unnecessary to a girl who had been caring for herself with minimal assistance for so long, and Rapunzel thought making friends with Faith would make it a little less awkward, but the young woman replies to everything she says with a prim “Yes, Your Highness,” or a noncommittal hum.

Finally freed from isolation, and yet still so lonely.

At least Eugene will be at the banquet. He promised to do his best mocking impression of every straitlaced prince and noble as soon as they weren’t looking, and while Rapunzel doesn’t necessarily approve of mocking people behind their backs, she appreciates the gesture. Eugene is happy in the castle, relieved of the burden of fending for himself and having to sleep in a different town every night, but he can tell that Rapunzel doesn’t feel at home yet. His attempts to make her laugh are his way of showing support, and Rapunzel is grateful to have a friend in this new world of strangers.

Faith guides Rapunzel to the garden patio, as she still hasn’t quite nailed down the lay of the palace yet, and the greeting of the soft breeze instantly lifts some of her tension. She hopes she’ll never get used to the simple joy of being outside. She plans to make up for all the time she’s missed out on it.

Queen Arianna (Mother, Rapunzel reminds herself) stands from the breakfast table and gestures for Rapunzel to join her and King Frederic with open arms. Rapunzel reflects her warm smile and hurries over, taking a seat on one of the delicate, gilded chairs. The marble table is laid out with bowls of fresh fruit, poached eggs piled on biscuits with a creamy sauce, a steaming porcelain teapot with gold botanical accents, four different kinds of jam, and warm slabs of cinnamon toast drizzled with gooey icing. It’s excessive, even by the standards of the royal meals Rapunzel has partaken in so far.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” says Arianna as she pours Rapunzel a cup of bergamot tea. “How did you sleep?”

“Er...you know, fine,” Rapunzel says with the most convincing smile she can muster. She knows she’s not supposed to lie, but she doesn’t want to worry them on such an important day.

“You’ll need all your energy for the banquet tonight, Rapunzel,” says Frederic. “People have been dying to meet you ever since the news of your return to us. Everyone will be paying great attention to you when they first make your acquaintance.”

Rapunzel bites into a strawberry to stifle her grimace. “I haven’t forgotten, Dad, don’t worry.”

“I encourage you to be extra courteous to the eligible princes from the other kingdoms,” Frederic continues, a focused look in his eyes as he looks at his daughter across the table.

“Darling, we talked about this,” Arianna places a hand on his forearm and purses her lips.

Frederic lowers his voice and leans toward her. “Yes, my dear, but she needs to know. We can’t let her meet these young men unprepared.”

“Unprepared for what?” Rapunzel interrupts. “What do I need to know?”

Frederic looks between Rapunzel’s anxious expression and Arianna’s stern frown. He sighs and meets his daughter’s gaze. “As an heir to one of the most influential nations in the Seven Kingdoms, your hand will be greatly sought after by royalty of other nations.”

Rapunzel lifts her hand and looks at it like there’s something special about it that she never noticed before.

“He means your hand in marriage, sweetheart,” Arianna says gently.

Rapunzel chokes on her bite of toast, wheezing and hacking for a good few minutes before she can finally speak again. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I am so not ready for that!”

“I agree,” Arianna says through grit teeth, staring at her husband.

“I know, I know!” Frederic says, holding up his hands in mock surrender. “Any such arrangements would be far off in the future, when Rapunzel is ready. But the process starts from the moment of introduction, and it would be foolish to turn away potential suitors with poor manners.”

“I only found out a few weeks ago that I’ve actually been a princess all my life,” Rapunzel says desperately. “I’m still trying to make peace with knowing that my whole life has been a malicious ruse to torture my real parents! How am I supposed to balance that with trying to secure my future husband?”

Arianna turns her soft green eyes to her, sympathy plain in her expression. Every time Rapunzel looks at those eyes that resemble her own so closely, it’s a reminder that the woman she called Mother for as long as she can remember was only maintaining her like a prize horse. The kindness in the queen’s eyes reflects the tender, selfless motherhood described in story books and lullabies, and the sight of it gives Rapunzel the same sense of ease as the breath of wind.

“You won’t have to, honey,” Arianna assures her. “Just do your best tonight, okay?”

“Yes, that’s all I meant,” says Frederic. “We want you to enjoy yourself too. This celebration is for you, after all.”

Rapunzel is quiet as she finishes her breakfast, listening to her parents chat about which old friends they were most excited to catch up with, and hoping that she’ll remember to find some fun between the cracks of anxiety.

Eugene stands behind Rapunzel for all three hours it takes for every guest of the banquet to line up at the palace steps and shake hands with the princess, emphasizing how good it is to finally see her home. True to his word, he subtly coughs out a joke after the particularly distinguished nobles walk away and into the palace. The herald called out so many outlandish names, some so long they seemed to be full sentences, that there was no way Rapunzel could hope to remember even a fraction of them.

“Sir Saunterblugget Hampterfuppinshire, esquire, and entourage!” announces the herald.

“Oh, this ought to be good,” mutters Eugene, and Rapunzel can’t stifle a smile.

A man who looks about three hundred years old hobbles out of a low carriage and presses a damp kiss to Rapunzel’s hand with papery lips. He says something that was supposedly in English, but it’s far too garbled to understand. With a rigid bow, Sir Hampterfuppinshire hobbles away.

Rapunzel looks over her shoulder at Eugene with her eyebrows raised.

“Yeah, nothing I can say would be funnier than just that guy’s name,” he says with a shrug, and Rapunzel rolls her eyes and giggles.

Fifteen names later, the herald announces the arrival of one Prince Oleander of Antipe, and Rapunzel hears her mother sigh loudly and whisper, “Finally!”

A tall man of middle age with hair and eyes the same color as Rapunzel and her mother’s steps out of a lilac carriage and walks right past the princess to wrap the queen in a bear hug.

“So good to see you again, Ari,” says Prince Oleander, grasping Arianna’s arms with an exhilarated smile.

“It would have been nice to see you a bit earlier! You sure took your time,” says Arianna.

“Ah, well, you know how hard it is to leave mother behind,” says the man, and Arianna nods as if she understands implicitly.

Arianna guides Rapunzel over by the small of her back and introduces her. “Dear, this is my big brother and your uncle Ollie. Ollie, this is my daughter Rapunzel.”

Before Rapunzel can say anything, Ollie crushes her in a hug just like the one he gave the queen, and the surprise makes her laugh from the heart. When he puts her down, he exclaims, “Rapunzel! I can’t tell you how exciting it is to finally meet you! I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times today, but I really thought I’d lost my chance all those years ago. But here you are!”

“Here I am!” Rapunzel confirms, still beaming. “It’s exciting for me to meet my family, too!”

“Glad to hear it,” says Ollie, patting Rapunzel’s shoulder. “Your grandmother wasn’t able to make the journey tonight, but I’m sure you’ll have the chance to meet her soon.”

“Not too soon,” Arianna teases. “We’ll give her plenty of time to recover and prepare first.”

“Prudent as ever,” says Ollie, waggling a finger and leaving Rapunzel with a mixture of confusion and concern. “I’ll see you inside, Rapunzel! Better let everyone else have the chance to meet you, too.” With a respectful bow, he makes his way inside to join all the others.

Eugene leans forward and pipes up. “I can’t say anything mean about that. That was just straight-up heartwarming.”

Rapunzel laughs and braces herself for the next wave of introductions. The sun has just barely set and Rapunzel is starting to feel faint when a gleaming black carriage with a severe silhouette, pulled by four striking black horses, circles to the front of the palace. Rapunzel hopes desperately that it’s the last one and she will be able to sit down soon.

“No,” gasps her father from beside her. “That can’t possibly be—”

The herald clears his throat, which is undoubtedly hoarse beyond imagining at this point in the evening. “Now announcing, Prince Cassandra of the Dark Kingdom of Diadem!”

Rapunzel hears her father’s sharp intake of breath and looks back to see that even Eugene’s eyes are wide. Just who is this prince? Should she be scared?

Then the obsidian door swings open to reveal the most breathtaking woman Rapunzel has ever seen, and all thoughts skid to a halt.

Prince Cassandra sets foot on the ground with polished black boots that match the gleaming silk of her suit. Against the dark fabric, the silver epaulettes and threaded adornments shine like stars in the nascent moonlight, and a smooth velvet cape of royal blue drapes over one shoulder. A pale blue gemstone crest in the shape of a crescent moon glints from her breast and a rapier swings sheathed from her hip.

The woman walks up the steps and bows low to Rapunzel, the thick black curls of her short hair falling forward. She stands up straight and looks the princess evenly in the eyes, and Rapunzel feels a blush rising in her cheeks.

“Diadem is honored by the opportunity to meet the lost princess, Rapunzel,” she says smoothly, and then bends down to grasp Rapunzel’s hand in a leather glove and press her soft lips to the knuckles. She then bows to the king and queen and sweeps into the hall.

Rapunzel finally lets out the breath she was holding.

“Who on earth was that?!” Eugene exclaims the moment she’s out of earshot.

Chapter Text

Rapunzel has a hard time taking her eyes off of the captivating Prince Cassandra for the remainder of the evening, and she isn’t the only one. Heads turn to watch her as she moves through the great hall, and dancing couples stumble over each other as they swirl past to get a glimpse of the strange guest. Rapunzel gets the feeling that a lady with the title of prince is novel to everyone, and for once, she’s not the only one marveling at something new.

The way that her father watches Cassandra throughout the evening is undercut with a distinct impression of suspicion, rather than with the benign fascination behind the eyes of Rapunzel and most of the other guests. His hands stay clenched on the armrests of his throne, and he gives curt responses to polite attempts at conversation. He is steadfast in his tracking of Cassandra’s movements, as though she’s a bomb that might explode at any moment. It reminds Rapunzel to be nervous about her own explosive potential.

After Rapunzel has had a few bites to eat and regained some fraction of her energy, princes and young nobles begin approaching the long table where she is sitting with her parents on either side of her to ask her for the honor of a dance. Remembering her father’s insistent advice from breakfast, she accepts each and every invitation even if she’d really much rather stay and finish her mashed potatoes.

Stranger after stranger leads her around the hall in dizzying turns, and she’s happy to let them lead to disguise her unpracticed steps. Most offer her some bland conversation, but nothing keeps her interest long enough to fully distract her from wherever Prince Cassandra is in relation to herself at any point in the evening. She hopes she isn’t coming off as rude to her dance partners, but surely they can understand her curiosity. Pretty much all of them only want to talk about her escape from the tower and how she’s adjusting to society anyway, and she got sick of recounting it quite early on in the evening.

Uncle Ollie taps the shoulder of one of her particularly boring partners at one point, and Rapunzel suspects it’s an intentional reprieve. He subtly dances her back toward the table so she has an excuse to sit down when the song ends.

She’s nibbling on a lemon-flavored cake when Prince Cassandra separates from the crowd and approaches her seat, her face stern and unreadable. Rapunzel rushes to put the cake down and wipe her fingers on a napkin before she is addressed.

“Your Highness, Princess Rapunzel,” greets Cassandra with a deep and respectful bow. “It would be the delight of my evening if you would grace me with a dance.”

Rapunzel can feel her father’s gaze boring a hole into her, but she has been waiting for this all night. She stands so quickly she loudly bumps her knee on the underside of the table and her napkin flutters to the ground from where it was on her lap. Cassandra’s lips curl in a slight smirk but she courteously does not comment, only wordlessly reaching out her hand.

The two of them descend to the dance floor arm in arm, and when they turn to face one another Cassandra leans down close. For a split second Rapunzel thinks she’s going to kiss her and freezes in place, but Cassandra’s lips divert their path to her ear and she whispers, “You’ve got a bit of frosting on the side of your mouth, Your Highness,” before pulling back.

Rapunzel ducks her head immediately and swipes at her cheek with her thumb, and when she straightens back up, her face is burning with mortification and Cassandra is fully smiling at her. For the life of her, Rapunzel can’t discern whether she looks endeared or only amused.

A song picks up, led by the soft plucking of a harp and the swell of strings, and Rapunzel meets Cassandra’s bow with a low curtsey. For the first time all evening, her attention is fully fixed by her partner and she doesn’t even have to focus on her footwork, which seems to fall into place naturally. She can’t remember how tired she is. She can’t see the other couples, she can barely even hear the music. Cassandra never breaks her gaze, and stares down at her intently as though she’s tracing constellations of freckles with her eyes, and Rapunzel doesn’t mind because her vision is filled with this wondrous stranger and she couldn’t look away even if she wanted to.

And she somehow is even lovelier up close. Her eyes are a mossy green, closer to brown than Rapunzel’s own, and the color reminds her of running from her tower and soaking in the natural wonder of the outside world for the first time. The bridge of her nose is narrow and slopes gracefully downward, and the defined curves of her dark lips are almost statuesque.

The song ends, and as Cassandra steps back and bows again, Rapunzel realizes that they hadn’t spoken a word to each other. She wants to grab Cassandra’s sleeve, to pull her back and sit down with her, but she is already walking away and Rapunzel loses sight of her in the crowd.

She walks back to the table feeling a bit dazed, and her mother greets her by saying, “Wow, Rapunzel, you’re glowing!”

Her stomach drops. “I am?” she stammers, trying not to sound suspicious as she frantically glances at her hands. They look as non-luminescent as usual, but she was so engrossed in Cassandra during their dance that she could’ve been on fire the whole time and not noticed.

Arianna chuckles. “You are,” she says, and she doesn’t sound concerned. “You looked happier just now than you have been all night. Was Prince Cassandra a good dancer?”

Rapunzel hesitates, then realizes that it was just another unfamiliar figure of speech and exhales into a smile. “Yes, she was, I had a nice time. Did you...see where she went?” she asks in a tone that she hopes is nonchalant.

The glint in her mother’s eye gives her the suspicion that it is a vain hope. “I’m afraid not, sweetheart. But come, sit next to me for a while. Maybe she’ll come back.”

Rapunzel waits all night, until even the most invigorated dancers have retired to the guest wing, and Cassandra doesn’t reappear. She even sticks around for a little while after that under the guise of helping the staff clean up, but after her father insists that she get some rest, she reluctantly concedes that the night is over and lets him guide her up to her chambers.

Frederic is uncommonly pensive as they walk, and Rapunzel can’t help asking, “Father, you seem tense. What’s on your mind?”

Frederic’s bushy brows draw together in consternation. “It’s simply that...I was surprised that the heir to Diadem’s throne showed up to the festivities.”

“But you invited them, didn’t you?”

“Well yes, I did. But inviting them out of courtesy and actually expecting them to make an appearance are two different things. I had certainly not prepared for…” He waves a hand vaguely. “This.”

Rapunzel frowns. Those two things don’t seem all that different to her. “I don’t understand what’s got you so worried.”

Frederic sighs. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” He steps to the side when they reach the great ivory doors to Rapunzel’s bedroom, pulls her close by the shoulders, and kisses her forehead. “Goodnight, Rapunzel. Sleep well, events start first thing in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Dad,” Rapunzel says. She watches him walk away down the darkened corridor for a few moments before turning inside.

The next day is laden with sporting tournaments where each kingdom can attempt to best one another in feats of strength and skill. Queen Arianna explained to Rapunzel that it was once a contest to determine the most deserving suitor for a particular princess or noble lady, but that its modern iteration is solely a friendly competition. Rapunzel isn’t clear on what’s so friendly about pointing weapons at each other all day, but she decides not to question it. It might be interesting to see what everyone can do, and if it looks fun maybe Rapunzel will toss her own lot in. She did have to rely on a bit of hand-to-hand combat to reach Corona from the tower, after all.

Eugene sidles up to her as she strolls around the different arenas, watching the competitors warm up. He hands her a paper cone filled with warm candied nuts that smell like a cozy fireplace. “So, Sunshine, ready to discover the worthy knight who will win your very eligible hand?”

Rapunzel rolls her eyes and pops a candied nut in her mouth. “Out of curiosity, just how many of those jokes am I going to have to endure today?”

“Oh, an innumerable onslaught, I’m sure,” he says. “How was the ball last night? Did you ‘accidentally’ trip anyone on the dance floor? Because if you didn’t, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.”

“I managed not to, though there were a handful of close calls. Everyone was...very nice.”

“I think I’m versed enough in Rapunzel-speak by now to know that means everyone was very boring and probably a little irritating,” Eugene says, raising an eyebrow.

“I wouldn’t say irritating...”

“I know you wouldn’t, that’s the point of Rapunzel-speak.”

“Some of them were very good dancers!” Rapunzel protests.

Eugene crosses his arms and lowers his chin at her. “Oh yeah? Like who?”

“Like…” Rapunzel tries desperately to come up with an example aside from the obvious one, but she can barely even remember anyone else’s name. She looks aside and mumbles, “Prince Cassandra from Diadem wasn’t bad.”

Eugene scoffs. “Oh, come on. She was probably the most stiff and unfriendly one there. I mean, you saw how she rolled up in that dramatic all-black gothic getup, right?”

“You didn’t see her dance. It was like everything else…” she sighs and leans her elbows on a fence. “Melted away.”

Eugene hesitates, then moves to stand next to her. “Well, maybe she’ll get her butt kicked during the tournaments today and that’ll clear the stars from your eyes.”

A fanfare of trumpets signals the opening ceremony of the tournament, and King Frederic and Queen Arianna walk together onto a podium overlooking the arenas, flanked by mounted knights holding jousting spears. The two of them declare a long speech about how honored they are to receive so many skilled and distinguished warriors and their hope that the festivities would solidify friendship among the Seven Kingdoms, and then more trumpets hail the tournament start.

The first event is jousting, as suggested by the royal entourage. Rapunzel watches with interest, munching on her portable snacks, as knight after knight smash into each other and splinter a dozen wooden lances into smithereens. She wonders if the horses have any idea what’s going on.

Rapunzel straightens up unconsciously when Diadem’s velvet black banner, bearing a pale blue crescent moon, flutters in the hands of the standard-bearer as he announces the championship match. From the far end of the arena, a sleek black horse that unmistakably resembles those that pulled Cassandra’s carriage last night trots forward, stirring up clouds of dust around its shiny hooves. On its back is a rider in black armor with trimmings of sapphire blue, with a matching blue plume streaming from her helmet.

In an instant, the two horses are charging forward, and with every inch that closes the distance between them, Rapunzel’s heart rate doubles. The riders lean in, and Cassandra twists in her saddle and takes aim with the tip of her spear. Hooves thunder against the packed dirt in time with Rapunzel’s furious pulse, and she forgets to breathe.

Cassandra’s spear connects with her opponent’s breastplate, launching him clean out of his saddle and onto the ground. His horse stutters and then skids to a stop while the victor circles around to the arena fence. She discards her helmet and pulls her hair loose from its tie, a triumphant grin radiating from her face, and waves at the crowd. When her gaze passes over Rapunzel, it seems to linger on her, and the look in her eyes seems almost challenging. It makes Rapunzel blush and she’s not sure why.

“Okay, that was a fluke,” says Eugene from beside her. “So she can ride a horse and point a big stick, big deal. We’ll see how she holds up in archery.”

Cassandra sweeps the archery tournament. She strikes every target with astounding accuracy, even the moving ones, even from horseback. The fencing competition leaves her without a scratch, and her javelin soars past everyone else’s in javelin-throwing. She even makes it far in the grappling contest, losing only to a couple of hulking brutes twice her size. Rapunzel glances at her father out of curiosity, and it seems that each of Cassandra’s successive victories twists his clenched jaw a little tighter. He spoke of international camaraderie a few hours ago, but that’s not what Rapunzel sees in his dark expression.

Eugene returns to their seats with an armful of popcorn bags and some kind of fried bread. He’s bought a hat with the name of one of the bear-men who had bested Cassandra embroidered on the front: Wreck Marauder. It’s unclear what kingdom Sir Wreck even hails from, but Eugene has seemed determined to uphold his honor from the moment he pinned Prince Cassandra to the ground. Rapunzel rolls her eyes at him.

“Hey, don’t you judge me as though you’re not biased,” Eugene says through a mouthful of bread. “It’s not even fair to let Diadem compete, if you ask me.”

Rapunzel turns to him, brows drawn. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, the Dark Kingdom’s known for its warriors, right? Cassandra was probably just born good at this stuff. I doubt she even earned her skills. She probably came out of the womb with a sword drawn.”

“You’re being a little uncharitable, Eugene,” Rapunzel chastises.

“I’m just saying! Like, what if you traveled across the sea to participate in a painting contest that would win you glory and riches beyond imagining, and then you get there and the freaking Giovanni is ready with his brush poised to paint your doom. How would you feel about that?”

Rapunzel gasps with delight, clapping her hands together. “Oh my gosh, I would be so excited to learn from him! Do you really think we could arrange that?”

Eugene glares at her, and then sighs and waves his hand dismissively. “Okay, whatever, I’m right and you just don’t get it. Now eat your popcorn, the Dead Man’s Circle is up next.”

The rules of Dead Man’s Circle are simple: you get to choose your weapon, and if you set foot outside the ring painted in white on the ground at any point, you are disqualified. The last person inside the ring is the victor.

This challenge feels different to Rapunzel; it seems far less controlled and far easier for people to get seriously hurt. The other tournaments were organized brackets with clear guidelines for sportsmanship, but the Dead Man’s Circle is a chaotic frenzy and it makes Rapunzel nervous. She doesn’t want to watch anyone get maimed today.

A loud trumpet blast marks the challenge start, and the contestants lunge toward the center of the ring all at once in a mess of flailing limbs. For the first minute, it’s impossible to keep track of any one participant or to even discern what’s really happening, and it doesn’t help Rapunzel’s concentration that Eugene is screaming his support for Wreck Marauder right next to her.

After a dozen fighters are flung out of the ring, it becomes easier to follow. Rapunzel catches sight of Cassandra near the center of the circle, holding her own with a broadsword, and a bit of tension leaks from her posture. Wreck Marauder is still in as well, wielding a massive club the size of his tree-trunk arm, and he is sending anyone who doesn’t dodge its swing flying toward the stands. Cassandra’s movements are graceful but steady, like she’s practiced the steps so many times she could fight with her eyes closed and still come out on top. It almost reminds Rapunzel of her dancing steps, and she wonders briefly if there’s music playing along in Cassandra’s head.

Ten minutes later, three fighters remain: Wreck, Cassandra, and a woman archer from Ingvarr. Cassandra and the Ingvarr woman seem to have struck a flimsy truce in order to team up on Wreck, with a steady hail of arrows distracting his attention while Cassandra tries to get close with her sword. It looks like it might work until the woman’s quiver runs dry and Wreck sees his chance to eliminate her. To Cassandra’s credit, she tries to intervene by challenging him herself, but he ignores her to lunge for the archer, haul her over his head, and physically throw her outside the ring.

Eugene hollers so hard his voice cracks, and the spectators for the most part are also cheering for Wreck. Even Rapunzel has to admit that things are looking grim for Cassandra’s chances at victory unless she pulls off a miraculous feat of strength, but Cassandra herself looks unflinchingly determined. In a move that, at first glance, looks like surrender, she tosses her sword away and raises her hands in a wrestler’s ready stance. Wreck recognizes what this is at the same time Rapunzel does. Cassandra has turned the Dead Man’s Circle into a grappling rematch.

Wreck bellows a mocking laugh and points his club in his opponent’s direction. “We all know you can’t win against me unarmed!” he taunts, looking knowingly to the crowd as they howl in agreement.

Cassandra barks a laugh in response. “What’s the matter, Wreck? Too scared to fight me without a weapon?”

Wreck’s cruel grin twists into a scowl, and he chucks his club away without a second thought, much to the shock and distress of the spectators. Eugene even shouts, “What are you DOING?” with a look of genuine despair on his face.

The arena is silent as a wake for a few seconds as the two challengers slowly circle each other with the intensity of wild dogs right before they leap at each other with fangs bared, their fingers flexing in anticipation. The tension shatters as Wreck breaks his stance to charge headlong at his foe, and Cassandra deftly steps out of his path at the last possible moment. The crowd lets out a collective sigh of relief as Wreck quickly changes course to avoid charging right past the bounds of the circle, and in that time Cassandra has maneuvered behind him, bending down so that he stumbles backwards when he turns around. The man’s massive shoulders hit the ground with a cringe-inducing thump, and Cassandra is on him like a tiger before he can get his bearings.

Rapunzel observes with admiration that Cassandra knows she can’t overpower her opponent with brute force, so she deliberately uses leverage to turn his own power against him. It’s almost like she’s counting on him throwing her off his front in an attempt to pin her to the ground, because she tucks up her knees to her chest before her back even hits the dirt. Using Wreck’s momentum as he leans over her, she places her feet on his hips and, with a mighty kick, launches him off of her so that he tumbles over her head in a violent somersault.

The stadium gasps. Rapunzel is leaning so far forward her feet are almost off the ground. The referee jogs over and squats next to Wreck, where the man’s legs from the knees down are fully outside the ring. Startling fanfare signals the end of the event as Cassandra stands and brushes the dirt from her knees, and the referee enters the circle to raise her hand in the air in recognition of her victory.

Hesitant applause trickles from the spectators, but judging by the thrilled grin beaming from Cassandra’s sweaty, smudged face, she’s got pride enough to celebrate without anyone else’s encouragement.

The jokes and speculation regarding which of the tournament’s challengers will win Rapunzel’s hand stop completely after that.

Chapter Text

“Man, what a day, huh?” Eugene groans, stretching his arms over his head. After the feast to conclude the first day of the tournament, Rapunzel insisted that she needed a quiet stroll to calm her reeling mind before heading to bed, and Eugene offered to accompany her. She really had meant to catch a brief glimpse of alone time, but telling people no isn’t her strong suit.

They walk at a leisurely pace past the hedgerows in the royal garden, the scent of pine and summer blossoms easing Rapunzel’s nerves. She’s left her crown locked up in her bedroom, because it has proved to be a burden in more ways than one by giving her a headache from wearing it too long. Rapunzel breathes in deep through her nose and lets a smile rise up on her cheeks. “I’ll say,” she agrees. “I’m so exhausted, and I didn’t even participate in the athletic events. I have no idea how the contestants are going to keep this up all week!”

“It sure is fun to watch, though.”

“I can’t argue with that,” Rapunzel giggles. “What was your favorite part of today, Eugene?”

Eugene scratches his goatee in consideration. “It was pretty dang funny when the stilts guy tripped over that rogue pig and collapsed the shaved ice stand on the way down.”

Rapunzel clicks her tongue. “I still can’t believe I missed that.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t have if you weren’t too busy making goo-goo eyes at Cassandra,” Eugene teases.

Rapunzel gasps in offense. “Goo-goo — Excuse me?! You are sorely mistaken, mister! I can assure you that—that my interest in her success is perfectly objective and political!”

“Are you going to try to tell me you weren’t envisioning your future icy marriage with Tall, Dark, and Loathsome? Now that’s an exercise in futility.”

“You’re being ridiculous!” Rapunzel shouts. “Prince Cassandra is —”

“Right here!” Eugene exclaims with a chuckle that comes out sounding far more suspicious than probably intended. Rapunzel snaps her head up with horror to see they’ve rounded a corner to a small alcove where Cassandra is seated alone on a stone bench, raising her eyebrows at them. “Would you look at that! What are the chances? We were just discussing your performance today!”

“Yeah, I heard you,” Cassandra says, her face betraying no reaction.

Why couldn’t Rapunzel have invisibility powers instead of scary light magic?

Silence hangs between them for a few torturous seconds, during which Rapunzel is straining her willpower to stay put and not turn right around and run up to her room. And lock herself in there until the festival is over. Or possibly forever.

While Rapunzel struggles for something to say, Cassandra stands up and bows curtly. “My sincere apologies for disturbing your stroll,” she says. “I’ll take my leave.”

“Wait, you don’t have to go!” Rapunzel cries, reaching out an involuntary hand. “Really, we were disturbing you! Please stay.”

“You’re generous, Your Highness, but it’s time I went and got my rest. Good night,” she says, and she’s walking away before Rapunzel can stop her.

Rapunzel collapses on the bench with her face buried in her hands. “She must think I’m such an airhead.”

“There, there, Sunshine,” Eugene says, patting her shoulder. “You’re the princess of Corona. It would be quite the massive feat to get the Diadem heir to like you, anyway.”

Rapunzel groans.

Rapunzel seriously considers staying in bed instead of being present for the following day’s events, even fabricating a story about how she’d fallen into the water while walking along the docks last night and was incapacitated by a fierce earache, but she decides that trying to squirt water into her own ears for the sake of plausibility is more trouble than it’s worth.

The third day of celebrations is a music festival, with talented artists from all over the Seven Nations showcasing their unique styles and instruments. This sort of event is much more to Rapunzels’ tastes, and she spends the whole day sitting in front of countless musicians and swaying to music she’s never heard before. She’s entranced for a full hour by a trio of women who are expertly playing steel pan drums to turn bright, wavering notes into a cheerful harmony. She wonders about the first people to figure out that a big indented metal bowl makes a nice sound when tapped, and whether there are all kinds of undiscovered musical instruments that are just waiting for someone to touch them and make them sing.

The only cloud hanging over her sunny day is that she hasn’t seen Prince Cassandra anywhere since last night, and she can’t help chalking it up to their awkward encounter. What if she made her feel so uncomfortable that she left and went home to Diadem? She might never see her again, and with such a terrible final impression! Or what if she is here, but she’s avoiding Rapunzel so she doesn’t have to talk to her? Oh, that’s almost worse.

Rapunzel resolves to find her somehow and clear things up, because it wouldn’t be fair if Cassandra was missing out on the festivities because of her. And she’d be lying if she said it wouldn’t put her own mind at peace; disapproval or hostility from others hurts like a splinter under her finger, and she fears doing anything that would drive it deeper until it is removed.

Now, where would she go if she were the strong and mysterious heir of Diadem? The fact that Rapunzel has exchanged maybe a dozen words with her does complicate her plan, and she’s a bit flustered to realize that she thinks about her so much while knowing so little of who she is. She considers the stable, but that’s just because she saw her ride a horse. She probably has attendants who take care of her mounts for her. The armory is under strict lockdown while Corona is hosting visitors from abroad, so she couldn’t get in there even if she would probably want to look at the weapons. Rapunzel has no idea which room in the guest wing she’s staying in, and it would be inappropriate to just show up at her door right after dinner, so that’s for the best.

At dusk, Rapunzel ends up heading for the hedgerows where she encountered her last night, because she is completely struck for a better idea. Maybe Cassandra likes plants, or stone benches. When she reaches the small clearing, it’s empty, and she sighs and flops down onto a seat with her chin in her hands.

She’s debating giving up and making peace with her failure when the sound of boots crunching the gravel-lined path startles her, and she looks up to see Prince Cassandra pausing mid-step between two hedges, her eyes wide.

Cassandra quickly smooths her features from surprised to cordial. “Please excuse my intrusion, Your Highness,” she says, and as she turns to go Rapunzel lunges toward her and touches her arm.

“Wait!” Rapunzel pleads. “Please, I came here hoping to speak with you.”

Cassandra blinks at Rapunzel’s hand for a second, then exhales and allows Rapunzel to guide her to the bench, where they sit side by side. “What can I do for you?” she asks, her shoulders still tense.

Rapunzel puts a hand on the back of her own neck. “Well, I just wanted to apologize for making you uncomfortable the other night. I am so embarrassed, and I’m really sorry.”

Cassandra furrows her brow like she doesn’t remember. “When did you make me uncomfortable?”

“You know...when Eugene and I ran into you here last night while we were loudly discussing you.” Rapunzel can’t look her in the eyes.

“I wasn’t uncomfortable,” Cassandra says simply.

“You -- you weren’t? Aren’t?” Rapunzel fumbles.

Cassandra shrugs. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Princess, but everyone here has been talking about me since I set foot in Corona.”

“Well, that’s what happens when you steal the show by winning every competition in the sporting tournament, right?”

Cassandra scoffs, and Rapunzel feels her shoulders closing in on her in shame. Did she say something wrong? When Cassandra meets her eyes again, she looks almost sad. “There’s no need for you to apologize, Your Highness, I assure you.”

“Well, regardless,” Rapunzel says, digging her fingers into the fabric of her skirt. “I’m sorry.”

Cassandra nods in acceptance, and the two of them sit in silence for a minute. It’s somewhere between awkward and companionable. Rapunzel is not quite comfortable, but at the same time she isn’t itching to break it. She looks over at Cassandra, her curls stirring in the evening breeze, and ventures, “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why do you carry the title of prince rather than princess?”

Cassandra tilts her head and raises her eyebrows like she was expecting a different question.

“I’m sorry...was that inappropriate?”

“No,” Cassandra says. “No, most people are curious. I did try to be a princess at first, you know. But I took no pleasure in my duties, and I wasn’t good at it, either. In Diadem, princes of the royal line are tasked with supervising the military and strategy, while princesses take care of domestic social affairs and diplomacy. I found that I can do a lot more with a sword than with a pen, so I spoke with my mother about changing my title to reflect my role.”

“Wow, that’s amazing that you can just do that!” Rapunzel gasps. “I’m not very good at princess things either. Or prince things, now that you say that. I don’t really have many useful skills for a ruler.”

“You were raised in isolation, that’s to be expected.”

“Yeah, all my skills are solo hobbies like painting and reading. I wish there was a third royal title, one whose duties are just decorating and collecting books! I’d be great at that!”

Cassandra snorts, and then laughs behind her hand. The sound is like the shattering of her poised mask, and Rapunzel’s heart flutters at what she sees through the cracks. She was fascinated from the moment Cassandra kissed her hand in greeting, but this feeling outshines the desire to simply meet her, to have a new and interesting friend somewhere in the world. Now that she’s had an unobscured glimpse of her, she wants to know her. She wants to know what makes her laugh and what she considers herself skilled at, she wants to know her favorite food and her favorite time of day. She wants to know her and carry a piece of her in her pocket, to have an undercurrent of the delight and warmth she feels right now flowing through her everywhere she goes.

She asks about Cassandra’s hobbies, and finds out she has a trained owl (whose name is just “Owl”) who she often takes out on morning horseback rides to clear her head. Rapunzel enthusiastically informs her of her own pet, Pascal the chameleon, and Cassandra says she’d like to meet him sometime. They talk aimlessly for hours, and there’s always something else Rapunzel is excited to tell her. It must be close to midnight when Cassandra finally insists that she head to bed, and Rapunzel wishes desperately that she could follow her to her room and put on comfy pajamas with her and just stay up all night talking, but Faith is probably a few minutes away from raising the alarm about her absence already.

They stand up and hover for a moment, neither quite sure how to say goodnight.

“I just want to say...thank you,” Cassandra says with a soft smile.

“For what?”

“For talking to me like a person, and not just the representative of my kingdom. I know Diadem isn’t well-liked around here, so I’ve gotten used to being treated like I have some contagious disease. I expect it. But you aren’t like that. So, thank you. This was nice.”

Rapunzel smiles and takes her hand. “Well, now you know where to find me,” she says.

Cassandra bows to her, but it’s noticeably less rigid than it has been, and turns to walk back to the palace. As Rapunzel lies on her pillow that night, she thinks about how lonely Cassandra must be, and how similar they are for two heirs to opposing crowns.

The rest of the week flows by like a creek after a storm -- speeding and overwhelming during most stretches, but some pockets are stagnant cesspools. Rapunzel dreads her ceremonial duties and every other situation where she’s pressured to foster good relations between Corona and representatives of other kingdoms. But for the most part, getting to meet so many interesting people and witness their amazing and diverse abilities has been like a dream. If only she could somehow go back to the young girl in the tower who would spend hours staring out the window, imagining what the world is like out there, and tell her about all the amazing things it has to offer.

Rapunzel can only think about the garden and meeting up with Cassandra again for the entire fourth day of festivities. When her mother asks her why she’s so restless during the inventions fair, she tells her that she is just inspired to design some revolutionary tool of her own. This only created a new problem, because that evening her mother decides to foster her child’s intellectual creativity by arranging a post-dinner meeting with the first place winner of the inventions fair. Luckily, the best inventor of the Seven Kingdoms turns out to be a teenage Coronan boy and not some fussy uptight noble, so Rapunzel is able to convince him to cover for her while she sneaks away to the gardens.

Cassandra is already there when she finally makes it to the meeting place, squatting down to examine a camellia bush. She straightens quickly when Rapunzel greets her, and while it’s hard to say for sure in the dim light of the moon, it looks like she has a dusting of blush on her cheeks. It contrasts nicely with her composed, proper manners up until now, and Rapunzel can’t help smiling at it.

“I was starting to think you wouldn’t come,” Cassandra confesses.

Rapunzel chuckles and rubs the back of her neck. “Yeah, sorry, I got myself into an exclusive one-on-one interview with the champion of the inventions fair. Don’t ask.”

“The Varian kid?”

“Yeah, that’s his name. I hope I didn’t offend him by ditching him to come here…”

Cassandra shrugs. “I doubt it. I saw his presentation at the fair, and he’s very, uh, energetic. He was probably way more excited to meet you than the other way around.”

They sit down together and discuss the fair and all the eccentric inventors, and Rapunzel is relieved that they can fall into such easy conversation just like the previous night. She feels a sense of pride for getting past Cassandra’s guard, because she’s probably the only one in the kingdom who knows what she’s really like. She might even be the only one in either of their kingdoms; Cassandra tells her about her solitary life back home, and how she has no real friends since no one sees her as anything more than Diadem’s warrior prince. It’s not the same as growing up in an isolated tower, but Rapunzel understands. Neither of them have much experience with making friends, and so they have no expectations for each other. It’s simple and natural in a way that Rapunzel has never felt before.

When it’s time to say goodnight, Rapunzel says, “Goodnight, Cass,” before she can think better of it. Cassandra widens her eyes and blinks, and for a heart-stopping moment Rapunzel is afraid that she overstepped the boundaries of their burgeoning friendship.

But Cassandra’s expression melts into a fond smile, and she says, “Sleep well, Raps,” before they part ways.

Faith is so agitated when Rapunzel returns to her chambers that the guilt almost supersedes the giddy warmth still lingering in her mind. Her handmaiden visibly deflates with relief when she sees her, flitting her hands all over to make sure nothing’s out of place.

“Your Royal Highness, please forgive my impertinence, but I must know your whereabouts from the past two evenings,” Faith says, bowing her head in deference. “Sir Varian had no idea where you disappeared to, and I nearly alerted the Captain of the Royal Guard.”

Rapunzel doesn’t want to tell anyone about her secret meetings, but it would be far worse to have to come clean about them to the Royal Guard. And Faith is so flustered that she feels like she owes her an explanation, so she sits down and tells her, “You don’t need to worry, Faith. I’ve just been spending some time getting to know Prince Cassandra, that’s all.”

“Th-the heir to the throne of Diadem, our kingdom’s enemy?” Faith splutters, her eyes blown open wide. “Your Highness, it’s not safe for you to be alone with her! I really should tell the king...”

“No!” Rapunzel interjects, reaching out a hand. “Please don’t tell anyone. Especially not my dad. I won’t be able to see her anymore, and I have so few friends.”

Faith stares at her, chewing her lip, for a few seconds. A clear internal battle is playing out in her head: come forth with concerns for the princess’s safety, or keep quiet about her own inattentiveness in allowing her liege to be endangered on two occasions. She sighs and squeezes her eyes shut before meeting Rapunzel’s intent gaze. “As you wish, Your Highness, but I implore you to be more cautious.”

The final day of the festivities arrives, and the most celebrated champions of each day’s events are acknowledged and rewarded at the grand feast. Rapunzel has the honor of presenting each champion with their medal, and the ceremonies start with Cassandra as the most accomplished victor of the sporting tournament. She smiles at Rapunzel as she steps up to accept her award, and Rapunzel absentmindedly squeezes Cassandra’s shoulders after bestowing the medal around her neck.

A composer hailing from Pittsford takes home the musical prize, and Varian beams a buck-toothed grin as he accepts the prize for invention. After Rapunzel has acknowledged the victors of the animal mastery competition and the culinary competition, the five champions have the privilege of sharing a dinner table with the princess for the rest of the evening. She tries her best to engage with everyone equally, but it’s a challenge not to focus on Cassandra sitting right next to her. She keeps reminding herself that she will have the chance to give her full attention to Cassandra once the dinner is over, and the prospect gives her the boost she needs to get through the last of the festivities with a smile.

A light rain rustles the branches of the hedgerows and dots the camellia petals with shimmering baubles of water. It grieves her that the last night she has with her new friend will be cut short by rain, when it will already feel too brief of a time to say goodbye.

Rapunzel forces herself to sound cheerful when she says, “Congratulations on your win.”

Droplets of water hang from the tips of Cassandra’s curls and from her eyelashes like jewels. “My mother will be pleased that I accomplished what I set out for. ‘Well done, Cassandra. It’s high time we reminded Corona of our strength,’ she’ll say.”

“You really showed us. You couldn’t get anyone on this side of the ocean to wrestle with you now,” Rapunzel says, and the joke makes the hard line of Cassandra’s lips soften.

The rain fills the silence for a few minutes.

“Are you looking forward to your journey tomorrow?” Rapunzel asks.

“I’ll probably sleep for most of it,” Cassandra shrugs. “It’s fourteen hours long by horse. Diadem is far northeast, by the cliffs. We’ll have to travel through most of Antipe to get back.”

“I’ll visit you sometime,” Rapunzel says.

Cassandra laughs, and the drops of rain shake from her hair in a little shower. “Sure you will, Raps.”

“I’m serious! This isn’t going to be the last we see of each other, I promise,” Rapunzel says, putting a hand on Cassandra’s and levelling their gazes. “And when I promise something, I never, ever break that promise.”

Cassandra’s dark eyes reflect a guarded hope, and she nods. “I believe you.”

They sit together for a little bit longer before turning in to bed. In the morning Rapunzel wishes she had spent more time saying goodnight, because Cassandra had already left before sunrise.

Chapter Text

Palace life returns to the way it was before the week of festivities, but to Rapunzel it feels somehow shifted. When Rapunzel first arrived in Corona, it seemed impossibly vast, like the palace alone was such a magnificent maze that she could explore it for weeks and still not reach all its corners. Compared to the one room she’d grown up in, where every inch was a canvas she’d studied for hours, she thought a place so spectacular could never make her feel confined again. But meeting so many people from all over the world has suddenly turned Corona into another stifling tower.

And Prince Cassandra is so far away. Rapunzel feels like she was sitting in front of a blazing fireplace for the past week, and she’s just been abruptly thrust back out into the snow.

It doesn’t help that the royal guard is back to monitoring and shadowing her every waking moment, on orders from the king. He explains that he means to utilize every reach of his power to ensure the safety of the daughter that was once stolen from him, but Rapunzel wishes she could make him see how closely his protection resembles imprisonment. She was told all her life that she can’t handle the reality of the world and that she needs to be stripped of her freedom for her own good. If she escaped the tower only to find that was true all along, what else was her Mother right about?

She doesn’t want to think about it.

A soft knock sounds from her bedroom door, and the queen’s warm face peeks through the crack. Rapunzel looks at her with tears in her eyes, and her real mother rushes in to sit beside her on the bed and wrap her in her arms. Rapunzel buries her face in the silk sleeve at the crook of her elbow as Arianna strokes her hair and presses kisses to the top of her head. She doesn’t roll her eyes and tell Rapunzel to get a grip, she doesn’t remind her that she looks ugly when she cries. She holds her until the tide ebbs.

When Rapunzel sits back up, Arianna wipes her cheeks with her thumbs and gives her a smile. “Your father will see sense,” she says, patting her hand.

“I understand why he’s so worried,” Rapunzel sniffles. “The two of you went through so much.”

Arianna nods thoughtfully. “Yes, losing you was agony, sweetheart. But my sorrow could not compare to the rage and indignation I felt when you told us of your captivity. Rapunzel, what you’ve endured is scarcely imaginable. Your father thinks that this way of protecting you is how we right that wrong, but do you know what I think?”

Rapunzel hiccups. “What?”

“I think that the only way to make up for what you’ve lost is to give you the freedom to be who you truly are.”

The words nearly throw Rapunzel back into sobbing, because she wishes so badly she could take them to heart, but she doubts whether her mother would feel this way if she knew the truth of who her daughter really is. If she saw how Rapunzel had thrown countless grown men backwards into the wall with that blast of brilliant energy, if she could feel the constant glow of magic that Rapunzel feels flickering under her skin, she would reconsider her stance. There’s no way she wouldn’t, not the ruling monarch of Corona, the capitol of mythic paranoia.

Arianna hums and presses a small wrapped object into Rapunzel’s hands. “This is for you,” she says. “I think it’ll help.”

Rapunzel gingerly tears open the wrapping to reveal a leather-bound journal. Her smile perks up as she leaves through the thick blank pages, flipping all the way to the back cover. An inscription is embossed there, and Rapunzel squints at it. “Plus est en vous?” she asks.

Plus est en vous,” her mother smoothly corrects her clumsy pronunciation. “It means, ‘there is more in you.’ I had a journal like this when I was growing up and seeing the world, and now that that part of my life is in the past, I get to relive it whenever I want by going back to my old entries. I want you to have that same chance, whatever you choose to do with it. There is so much more in you, Rapunzel, and it’s not right to keep it locked up.”

Rapunzel sets the journal aside so she can throw her arms around her mother’s shoulders and squeeze as hard as she can. Hiding her magic feels like hanging from a great height by a thread that could snap at any moment. She wants to trust her mother to catch her if she falls, and maybe someday she will. But until then, Rapunzel clutches her thread tighter.

Rapunzel wakes to a gentle but urgent tapping sound from her window. She pries her eyes open, although judging by the thick darkness of her bedroom and the way her eyelids feel glued together, it must be an obscene hour of the night. She glances at the glass doors to her balcony and doesn’t see anything, so she rolls over and tries to get back to sleep.

The tapping resumes the moment she gets settled.

With a heaving groan, Rapunzel drags herself over to investigate. She unlocks the window, intending to poke her head out and look for a branch that could be bumping against the glass by the wind, but as soon as the glass doors open a creature swoops down from the sky and into her bedroom. Rapunzel gasps and spins around to see a small brown owl alighted on the edge of her painting easel, a roll of parchment tied to its back. It seems calm, blinking at her with enormous yellow eyes, apparently waiting for her to do something.

Rapunzel cautiously approaches the owl, glancing nervously at Pascal near her bedside and hoping the bird of prey doesn’t notice him. But the visitor doesn’t flinch, and Rapunzel swears that its narrowed eyes and ruffled feathers give it the distinct impression of impatience. She holds her hand out and the owl presses the top of its head into her palm with a soft hoot, and allows her to untie the scroll on its back.

Rapunzel unfurls it and reads:

You know who this is from.

Her heart drops into the pit of her stomach and for a moment she is convinced that her Mother is finally coming for her, or that she is being blackmailed by one of the pub thugs who witnessed her magic. But she pushes down her anxiety and reads on:

I couldn’t risk signing my name in case this message is intercepted, although I trust Owl to deliver it safely. He is a capable creature and a steadfast companion. Please scratch the top of his head for me.

Owl! Of course! It’s from Cassandra! Fear falls from her like a heavy dewdrop from a blade of grass, and she sits down on the windowsill to continue by the light of the moon.

I find that my duties have become dull and burdensome without someone to talk to. I miss your friendship, and while I was thinking of ways to remain in contact with you despite the distance, I realized that Owl could deliver messages if I tell him where to go. I understand this arrangement is strange and may even pose a risk for you, but I thought it was worth trying. Owl is gentle and intelligent, so if you attach a response to his back and send him home, we may correspond if you wish.

Sincerely

Rapunzel nearly drops the letter in her hurry to the desk on the other end of her room, and she doesn’t give consideration to the noise she’s making as she lights a large candle, tears out a stretch of parchment, and uncaps a bottle of ink to draft a reply.

Her quill hovers over the top of the page. How does she address this? “Dear?” Without a name following it, the salutation seems far too intimate.

Rapunzel chews her lip and decides to forgo the greeting entirely.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

This is a wonderful idea! I have missed talking to you, too! I’m still thinking of a way to keep my promise, but until we can meet again, correspondence would be a delight!

Owl is adorable. I will give him as many head scratches as he wants. Please ask him not to eat Pascal.

Sincerely

Rapunzel cocks her head and frowns at her penmanship. Too many exclamation marks? She shrugs and curls the parchment into a scroll, tying it with a green ribbon before fastening it to Owl’s back. As promised, she gently scratches the top of his head until he gets annoyed and flies off back through the window, immediately steering himself to the northeast.

Weeks go by before Owl returns to Rapunzel’s window. She understands that he must fly over vast stretches of land and sea to get between Corona and Diadem and that he must have time to rest between journeys. But now that she knows she can contact Cassandra during their indefinite time apart, it’s hard not to stay up watching her balcony for winged visitors every night.

She hasn’t told Eugene yet. It’s not that she doesn’t trust him, it’s just that she dreads his stubborn negativity regarding Prince Cassandra. He’ll tell her that it’s too dangerous and Cassandra can’t be trusted, and why does Rapunzel even want to talk to her anyway, what could the two of them possibly have in common?

Rapunzel sighs. She’ll tell him eventually, but for now it stays between her and Cassandra.

On a clear, cool night, Owl finally returns to her window with another scroll on his back. Rapunzel idly scritches the top of his head as she reads the letter:

I was so relieved when I read your message. I know it’s not much, but hearing from you helps to keep the loneliness at bay. Thank you for taking care of my friend, but after the great efforts he’s gone to to keep us in contact, he can eat whichever lizard he wants.

I’m kidding. I asked him to stay away from Pascal.

How are things where you are? Are you still friends with that very loud man? I’m not sure why you would willingly spend time with someone like that, but I guess I don’t know much about friendship. I have Owl and my horse Fidela, but in the way of friends, nothing’s changed here since I got back. My mother still has harsh expectations of me, and the staff and citizenry alike are still skittish around me.

There is one noblewoman who seems a little friendlier with me than usual. She is nice enough, but it doesn’t feel easy like how it feels with you. I can’t help feeling a little suspicious at the sudden interest. Or do you think I should give her a chance?

Write back soon.

Sincerely

Rapunzel is already dipping her quill in her favorite violet ink before she reads the last line. Her tongue pokes out between her lips as she writes in her quick, curling hand.

Dear,

It feels too awkward not to use a greeting. And besides, it’s not exactly inaccurate.

I’m happy to hear from you too! I’m sorry that you’re still feeling lonely. I think you should try talking to that noblewoman sometime! She was probably just too shy to approach you before, and she sounds really nice. What do you have to lose by giving people the benefit of the doubt? My loud friend was something of a dishonest ruffian when I first met him; if I had judged him based on that, then I might not have even made it back home. And then I wouldn’t have met you!

I’m doing alright, myself. My father has been more overbearing than usual, but I know he’s just worried about me. My mother has been helping me get through to him. I just want to go out and meet new people and see the world! I’m sure he can understand that, right?

I wish there was a way I could visit you. Did you know I’m really good at making pillow forts? I bet a pillow fort would cheer things up where you are.

Sincerely

After a few months of exchanging letters, Rapunzel starts to get a sense of rhythm for when to expect Owl at her window. It gives her more time to think about what she wants to tell Cassandra instead of waiting up for a new message in vain every night.

Time passes, and Rapunzel learns more about how Corona is ruled and governed from her parents, she meets some of Eugene’s old friends, and works on filling her new journal with as many memories as she can. During the less hectic days, she tries to give time to all the hobbies that had occupied her in the tower. She doesn’t have much spare time for honing her skills in candle-making, chess, or ventriloquy anymore, but they’re still important to her. She even crochets a little backpack of sorts for Owl, because simply tying letters to his body seems neither secure nor dignified.

One evening in the late spring following the summer of the festivities, Rapunzel receives a letter that fills her with an intense giddiness that she hasn’t felt since the very first time Owl flew in from her balcony.

Dear,

I cannot believe I didn’t consider this earlier, but I think there’s a way for us to meet in person.

Part of my duties is to routinely visit the forts on the borders of my kingdom in order to supervise military activity and to train with specialized instructors. It’s a decent way south from where I normally live, so when I go I usually spend at least a week there before returning home. And because my mother trusts me to take care of everything on my own, I look forward to these trips where I’m not so closely monitored and bound to my predetermined schedule (I’m sure you understand what I mean).

What I’m saying is that it would be feasible for me to sneak past the borders during one of these trips and ride overnight to where you are, if you can manage to sneak yourself out past the city and into the woodlands to the east. I know your dad hasn’t let up his restrictions much, but I don’t think I could get too close without being recognized.

Think about it and let me know if you want to try it.

Yours

Rapunzel’s heart steadily thrums with excitement as she reads, but it’s the last word in the message that trips it into skipping a few beats. Yours. She reads it again, whispers it to herself in the darkness of her room. She takes a moment to float in the light sensation it inspires in her before pulling parchment to write her emphatic assent.

In her eagerness to see Cassandra again, Rapunzel barely considers the practical concerns of sneaking out of the castle under her father’s strict guard, account for her absence for at least a few hours, and sneak herself back in before Faith arrives to wake her up at daybreak. She just reasons that if Cassandra is willing to travel all the distance between their two kingdoms in one day, then Rapunzel could figure something out.

But since Cassandra wrote back with details of the time and exact location they plan to meet, Rapunzel has realized that she’s going to need to enlist the help of someone she trusts to make this work.

At dusk, Eugene saunters over to the docks where Rapunzel is waiting with a small rowboat. He quirks an eyebrow at her. “So, Sunshine, you told me to be here and here I am. You gonna tell me what this is all about?”

“Get in the boat first,” Rapunzel orders, stepping down carefully to seat herself on one of the planks.

“Yikes! As you wish, Your Highness,” Eugene says with a mocking bow, and he follows suit. Rapunzel rows them out a good length from the docks so that they can’t be overheard by passerby.

She takes a deep breath and levels her gaze with Eugene’s. “I’ve secretly been exchanging letters with Prince Cassandra for the past eight months and I need you to help me sneak out of Corona so I can meet up with her in person.”

Eugene gapes at her for a few seconds. “You wanna run that by me again?”

“Which part isn’t clear?”

“Oh, I don’t know, the all of it?!” Eugene exclaims, flinging his arms out to the sides. “Are you nuts? You’re talking about the heir to the throne of your family’s enemy! What, you want me to help you meet up with her in some dark secluded alley so she can assassinate you with no witnesses? Not happening!”

“Eugene, come on! I’m not that naive! I trust Cassandra, we’re friends!”

“Rapunzel, you talked to her for five days last year. You can’t possibly know her that well. She could be lying to you in whatever letters she’s sending you and you would never find out!”

“Well, friends just have a way of knowing,” Rapunzel says, casting her gaze to the side. “Please, Eugene, I really want to see her again.”

Eugene scoffs, shaking his head. “Would you listen to yourself? You couldn’t be more ridiculous even if you were in love with her.”

Rapunzel bites her lip and focuses all her willpower on suppressing her blush, but she feels her face heat up despite her efforts. Eugene blinks at her and the few seconds of silence are so painful Rapunzel almost wants to jump out the side of the boat.

“Rapunzel…are you in love with her?” Eugene asks, and his tone is less condemning.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Rapunzel says, tugging on the ends of her hair and still incapable of looking Eugene in the eye. “I don’t know anything about love, but when I think about her, I feel so...comforted. Like the thought of her is a candle burning steadily in the back of my mind, and it casts a warm glow on everything else in my life. You know?”

Eugene sighs. “So what you’re telling me is you have a crush on the Prince of Diadem.”

“I...guess so?”

“The one prince in the Seven Kingdoms the king would never allow you to marry.”

“I can’t help it!”

A distant ripple gently rocks the boat as Eugene stares at Rapunzel, and she tries not to fidget under his narrowed gaze. Finally, he slaps his thigh and shrugs. “Well, I’ve gotten myself entangled with much more futile endeavors. If you’ve got your heart set on this terrible idea, what kind of friend would I be if I let you go through with it alone?”

“Oh, thank you thank you thank you!” Rapunzel squeals, throwing her arms around Eugene’s shoulders and nearly toppling them both into the water. “I knew I could trust you!”

“Yeah, yeah, thank me later when you’re gonna need me to remove the knife from your back.”

Together, they discuss the details of the escape plan, crafting contingencies for every possible wrench that could be thrown their way. They decide that Rapunzel will only be out of bed between midnight and dawn, and Eugene will have to cover for her during that period. Rapunzel suggests that, should anyone try to see her in the night, Eugene should just tell them she’s busy brushing her teeth, but Eugene insists on a more substantial excuse.

“Just leave it to the guy whose livelihood once depended on crafting believable lies, Sunshine,” he says. “I’ll come up with something, and when I’m done, no one will suspect a thing.”

Rapunzel has trouble pretending to be tired the night she plans to sneak out. She says goodnight to her parents outside her bedroom door, faking a yawn that she hopes comes out looking natural. The racing of her heart threatens to betray her anticipation if she allows her hands to tremble or if she smiles too much, but when midnight arrives and no one has come to check on her, she feels confident that she managed to sell it.

She goes over the stealthy path out of Corona that Eugene mapped for her one more time, pats Pascal on the head, and steps over the side of her balcony. She swallows her fear and grips a couple of crossbow bolts to scale down the wall, through the narrow blind spot in the guard routes that she pinpointed earlier in the week through meticulous observation. Once on the ground, she pulls the hood of her dark cloak over her head and breathlessly scurries through the hidden passage between the courtyard and the palace fence, bracing for a guard to call after her at any moment. But no one does, and she manages to slip over the fence without being spotted.

With the hardest part behind her, Rapunzel can scarcely stop herself from breaking into a sprint to the bridge out of Corona and forcibly reminds herself that she’ll look less suspicious the slower she walks. She ducks down dark alleys and vacant side streets, avoiding the business areas of town where the guards patrol most frequently. When she catches sight of the looming stone gates of the Great Corona Bridge, she veers to the right and slides down a small dropoff to a hidden alcove on the water, as per Eugene’s instructions. There, Eugene’s trusted friend Lance is waiting for her with a small rowboat.

“You made it!” Lance exclaims in a hushed voice. “I knew you had some ruffian in you, Princess.”

Rapunzel raises her hands in a hushing motion with a nervous smile. “Thank you for waiting, Lance! Are you sure no one will see us?”

Lance waves his hand dismissively. “Eugene and I pulled this off hundreds of times in our thieving days. It’ll be a piece of cake!”

The moon is new, so the waters are dark and unreflective around Lance’s oar as he ferries Rapunzel across the bay to Old Corona. Every few minutes he glances over his shoulder to give Rapunzel an encouraging smile, but the two of them are silent as ghosts passing through the mist. Once they reach the rocky shore on the other side, Lance helps Rapunzel disembark and pats her shoulders.

“Go get your girl, Princess,” he says with a grin, and Rapunzel’s stomach flips at his phrasing, but she manages an enthusiastic thumbs-up before she lights her oil lamp and takes off into the underbrush.

She read Cassandra’s directions so many times that by now she has them flawlessly memorized. Head east until reaching the old sign for directions to Old Corona in peeling paint, then veer north to follow the star that never moves. There’s a small clearing, secluded from nearby settlements and closed in by willow trees, where Cassandra promised to be waiting.

Rapunzel feels the cool night air tangling her short hair as she picks through the overgrown grass, wiping the chilly dew on her skirt. Before long, the light of her lantern reveals a thinning of the trees, and she can see the draping branches of willow trees beyond. She nearly trips over a root in her rush to shove the bushes aside and stumble into the clearing.

She looks up. Another lantern glows from the opposite treeline, and by its illumination, Rapunzel sees a pale face framed by dark curls.

“Raps!” Cassandra cries, and she’s moving toward her as Rapunzel sprints to close the distance. She leaps at Cassandra, arms outstretched, and Cassandra catches her in a twirling embrace. They’re laughing as they cling to one another, and oh, how Rapunzel had missed that sound. She buries her face in the crook of Cassandra’s neck, feeling the soft tickle of her hair and breathing in the scent of her.

They reluctantly release each other, and Rapunzel finally looks down and sees the pile of pillows and the blanket laden with plates of fruit that Cassandra has set on the grass. Her black horse, the same one she rode in the joust, is happily munching on tufts of grass a few feet off.

Rapunzel steps back and looks at Cassandra’s face, and that sense of easy joy blooms inside her and dispels all her tension. She takes a deep breath and beams.

“I missed you, Cass.”

Chapter Text

Cassandra’s sword rings out as it deflects a blow from above, but the force of the strike knocks her backward and her back thumps against the ground when she falls.

“Your stance was too narrow,” says her swordplay instructor, an older woman named Adira. Cassandra’s mother had seemingly plucked her out of the ether to train her daughter in combat, and the only thing more astounding than her skill with a blade is how little effort was made to uncover anything regarding her background before placing her in front of the kingdom’s heir.

“I know,” Cassandra grunts, picking herself up and brushing the dust from her backside. She pushes her bangs out of her face, though some stubborn strands stick to her sweaty temples. “Again,” she commands, narrowing her eyes.

Adira raises her eyebrows at her, but shrugs and leaps forward to swipe at Cassandra with her two-handed claymore. Cassandra effortlessly dodges the swing, sidestepping to Adira’s right and bringing her own blade in an upward slash. Adira parries her strike, and the two exchange blows until Cassandra is pushed backward against the wall of the training arena. Cassandra strains against the pressure from Adira’s weapon, and she makes a move to duck beneath her opponent’s elbow and strike at her flank. But Adira reads her intent clearly and trips her student with an outstretched foot, levelling the point of her claymore at her chin when she falls again.

Cassandra huffs and swats the tip aside so she can stand up, but Adira presses the flat of her blade to her chest to keep her down. Cassandra frowns. “What are you doing?”

“Your head’s not in it, Prince,” Adira says, tucking a stray white strand of her hair back into its bun as she straps her sword to her back. “Go wash up, we’re done for today.”

“What? No!” Cassandra demands, sitting up. “We’ve barely started sparring!”

“Yes, and I’ve already beaten you twice. You’re never this sloppy. If you want to be taught, then I expect you to act like it.”

Cassandra stammers for a few seconds, but she knows better by now than to argue with her teacher, who is as stubborn as she is eccentric. She settles for a scowl before she rolls over, gets up, and marches out of the arena. As she washes the dust and sweat from her face, she scrubs a little too harshly out of indignation at Adira’s remarks. She hates it when that woman is right; as much as she appreciates the opportunity to learn from a true master, her attitude sits with Cassandra about as well as week-old trout.

But there’s no denying that she’s distracted. Today’s the day she sneaks out from the ramparts in the south of Diadem to secretly meet Rapunzel in person for the first time since the Coronan festival last year. If she’s caught, she might never be able to see her again, so of course she’s nervous.

Well, that’s not true. Cassandra would find a way.

She’s had everything she needs for the journey packed in her quarters at the fort for the past two days, but that doesn’t stop her from checking one more time before she loads it all up on Fidela and rides for Corona. A large blanket was the first thing she thought to pack, so they wouldn’t have to sit on the grass among the mud and the insects. Then she tossed in a few pillows (for comfort, not because Rapunzel mentioned pillow forts), and some apples when she thought they might get hungry. Before she hauls everything out to the stables after sundown, she grabs a few extra apples for Fidela, too.

Fidela nickers happily when she sees her rider push into the stable, making sure the door swings slowly shut so that it doesn’t squeal. Cassandra tacks up her horse in silence, strapping her bag to one side of the saddle and sheathing a broadsword on the other.

“Okay, girl,” Cassandra whispers when she’s checked that everything is ready and secure. “Are we really doing this?”

Fidela bumps her nose into Cassandra’s hand with a soft snort.

Cassandra takes a deep breath and puts a dark cloak over her shoulders. “You’re right. It’s too late to change my mind.” She leads Fidela from the stable to a passage out of the fort that Cassandra recently discovered while looking for ways she could get out without being seen. It’s clearly been forgotten for at least a decade, since the stonework is cracked and crumbled and the pathway overgrown with poison ivy and thorny bushes. Once she picks her way to the other side, she mounts her horse and steers her to the southern cross of stars in the clear, moonless night sky.

The trip through Antipe was challenging, but as Cassandra waits in the clearing she’d described in a letter to Rapunzel, she decides that the agony of fourteen hours on horseback cannot compare to that of her current uncertainty. She suddenly feels like an incomparable fool, standing alone in the middle of the woods, at great personal risk, at the behest of someone whom by all accounts she is not meant to trust. What if Rapunzel has changed her mind and is sleeping in her bed with no intention of rising from it until morning? What if, instead of Rapunzel, a squadron of Coronan soldiers appears on orders from their princess? Why did she come here? What was she thinking? It’s not too late to turn back, she only needs to get on Fidela and --

The crack of twigs and the brush of branches nearby interrupts her thoughts. The soft glow of a lantern peeks through foliage bordering the clearing, wobbling in the hand of a traveler. Cassandra’s sword feels heavy at her hip, and her hand moves to hover over the hilt, her breath caught in her throat.

Then Rapunzel stumbles over a bush and looks up at Cassandra with wide eyes, a leaf caught in her hair, and the dam of trepidation is broken by a flood of joy.

Cassandra nearly drops her lantern as she moves toward her, calling to her. Rapunzel’s skirt streams out behind her as she flies into Cassandra’s arms, and Cassandra keeps up her momentum by spinning her in the air by the waist. She clutches at her back for a few moments, wondering how she could have doubted their friendship for even a heartbeat.

“I missed you, Cass,” says Rapunzel when they finally release each other.

Cassandra can’t help smiling at the nickname. Months of letters without saying any names, all the while being addressed formally by those around her, had really made her miss being Cass. “I missed you too. I’m so glad you made it here safely. Are you sure no one saw you?”

Rapunzel shrugs. “Yeah, pretty sure. Eugene’s really good at sneaking around, and we practiced. I’d be more worried about yourself, crossing two kingdom borders in one day!”

“It wasn’t so hard. Fidela and I stuck to the wilds, and we’re not afraid of that, are we, girl?” Cassandra calls to her horse. Fidela’s ear twitches in her direction, but she is too engrossed in her grazing to look up.

Rapunzel watches Fidela with warm eyes for a moment, then drifts her gaze toward the blanket setup that Cassandra laid out. “What’s all this?” she asks.

Cassandra steps over and sits down on it, patting the space beside her. “I always come prepared.”

“I can see that,” Rapunzel giggles. She sits down next to Cassandra, not touching but close enough that they could. She picks up an apple and takes a loud crunching bite out of it.

“I want to apologize,” Cassandra blurts, her words coming out way too fast.

Rapunzel chews slower, frowning. “It...it tastes fine?”

“No, not the apples,” Cassandra says, waving her hand. “For earlier, um, much earlier. When we met.”

Rapunzel blinks at her.

Cassandra groans and pushes a hand through her hair. “What I mean to say is, I’m sorry for how cold I was to you at the beginning. I’m not...very good at people. I never really had a friend before you.”

The confusion in Rapunzel’s expression dissolves into a smile. “You don’t have to apologize for that, Cass. It’s not like the girl who lived in a tower for eighteen years was going to judge you for inadequate social skills. You’re my first girl friend, so we’re learning together.”

Cassandra chuckles. “Well, I’m not exactly a paragon of femininity. I’ve never really felt at home with that whole idea. My mother couldn’t even pretend to be surprised when I decided to take the title of prince.”

Rapunzel tilts her head in interest. “What’s your mother like?”

Cassandra chuckles. “I’m surprised Corona hasn’t already given you an idea of what kind of woman the queen of Diadem is.”

“Oh, well, there are rumors, but it’s...nothing terribly kind,” Rapunzel admits. “You probably don’t want to hear it.”

“Oh, no, now you have to tell me.”

Rapunzel speaks slowly as though each word is a thorn she plucks from her skin. “People say she’s harsh and blunt. That she abides by no virtues and cares only for war. But I’m sure that’s just --”

Cassandra cuts her off with a hearty laugh. “No, no, that’s all true.”

“No! It can’t be, can it?” Rapunzel gasps.

“It can, and it is,” Cassandra says through her laughter. “That woman is about as warm and nurturing as a rock. In fact, I’m sure if she could replace the soft parts of her body with stone, she would. And believe me, she wouldn’t be offended by that reputation. She would wear it like a badge of honor.”

“Oh, come on, there has to be some caring side of her. She’s your mother!”

“She cares about her throne, I’ll give you that. She cares about me only as the person who will eventually sit on it. She sees the future ruler of Diadem as an unyielding warrior of unmatched strength. One who will embody our kingdom’s storied history as the birthplace of the Seven Kingdoms’ most undefeated fighters. That’s my mother’s caring side.”

Rapunzel hums in thought. “And what do you want for Diadem, when you eventually take the throne?”

Cassandra snaps her head up and stares at her as though no one had ever asked her that before. “I…” she pinches bundles of grass from the ground and chews her lip. “It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Cassandra, don’t be silly,” Rapunzel says. She reaches over to cup Cassandra’s cheek, and she startles at the touch but lets Rapunzel guide their gazes together. “Of course it matters.”

Cassandra breathes in deeply. “I guess I want to be more like you, Raps.”

Rapunzel laughs. “You want to be awkward and naive?”

“I want my people to love me the way Corona loves you,” Cassandra says. “I saw it at the festival, in the way that random people gave you cookies they’d made, in the way that inventor kid was so excited to win the competition because it meant he got to meet you. It’s nothing like what I’ve known. When you make public appearances people line up to get a glimpse of you; when I leave the palace people are so afraid of me they can’t even look me in the eyes. I don’t want that fear to be my legacy as a ruler.”

“It won’t be. Your kingdom will see the kindness in your heart, if you let them,” Rapunzel assures her. Her eyes are soft, glinting in the dim light of the lanterns. “And my people only adore me because I’m the Lost Princess, not because of anything I’ve done. Maybe they’d change their minds if they really got to know me.”

“I can’t picture that ever happening.”

Rapunzel glances at her hands for a moment, and when she looks up, she looks as vulnerable as an early spring blossom. “I hope you’re right.”

The two of them sit together for the rest of the night, and Cassandra isn’t bored for a second of it. At one point, Rapunzel claps in delight when Cassandra shows her how she can slice an apple in midair with her sword, and asks if she could teach her the basics of swordplay. Barefoot on the grass, Rapunzel copies Cassandra’s demonstration of fencing forms, using a branch to jab at the air. In exchange, Rapunzel shows Cassandra how to weave the small white flowers growing in the clearing into chains, and they make bracelets and crowns for each other.

About an hour before dawn, Rapunzel’s sleepy swaying starts to make Cassandra concerned that she’ll drop unconscious at any moment long before she can get back into her bed in the castle. She leans her head on Cassandra’s shoulder, rolling forward like she’s going to collapse onto her chest.

“Raps, can you even make it home like this?” Cassandra chuckles.

“Five more minutes,” Rapunzel mumbles.

“Alright, up you get. I’ll carry you to the Snuggly Duckling, and then hopefully your friend can drag you back to Corona.” Rapunzel told her earlier that she struck up a convenient arrangement with a man named Lance, who serves drinks at a pub on the outskirts of Old Corona and offered to smuggle the princess across the bay on nights that he works. Cassandra has no idea where Rapunzel finds these people, but if she trusts him with the knowledge of their secret meetings then she can trust him to get Rapunzel home safely.

She shoulders Rapunzel’s half-limp body onto her back and sets off in the direction of the pub, careful not to trip over roots underfoot. She’s approaching the dirt path out of the woods when she feels Rapunzel rub her forehead into the side of her neck, whispering her name in her sleep, and it takes tremendous willpower not to lose her footing and fling them both onto the road. She does, however, stop dead in her tracks while she tries to determine whether that really just happened. But Rapunzel doesn’t move again, and she decides to pretend she didn’t notice.

It doesn’t keep her mind from lingering on the feeling the entire way home.

Rapunzel dreams about kissing Cassandra. They’re sitting together on the blanket in the clearing, much closer than they were before, fingers entangled and heads bent close. She leans in and melts into a deep kiss, letting Cass gently push her onto her back. She hears the song of crickets and frogs in the surrounding woods, but it’s quickly drowned out by her own heartbeat pounding in her ears when Cassandra’s lips move down to her jaw and then to her throat. Rough hands slide up and down her sides, and dark hair is soft against her cheek as Cassandra laps at Rapunzel’s pulse. Breathing heavily, she grasps Cassandra’s face and drags her up to look into her lidded eyes. Cassandra glances between her mouth and her eyes, her thumb grazing Rapunzel’s cheekbone, before she leans in and --

Faith is right on time, throwing back the curtains to let in a harsh slap of sunlight to rouse the princess awake. It takes all of Rapunzel’s willpower to bite back the loud groan in her throat. She couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour last night, and her brain did that to her, right before she has to act normal all day. Luckily, Faith is as deferential as usual as she goes about helping Rapunzel get dressed and prepared for the day, and if she notices anything off about her liege’s mood this morning, she blessedly says nothing about it.

The morning audiences go by as achingly slowly as a drop of honey suspended over a starving mouth. Rapunzel tries not to fidget, and has to force herself to stay seated on her throne instead of getting up every time she has a distracting thought. She can feel her parents staring at her, but they don’t ask, and Rapunzel nearly runs for the door at noon when the audiences conclude.

The king gave his daughter permission to walk around town that afternoon, as long as she was accompanied by at least one man who could protect her. Eugene rolled his eyes at the stipulation but readily offered to intimidate anyone who looks at Rapunzel funny.

Rapunzel meets up with him just outside the palace gates. He’s leaning against a wall, examining his fingernails, and looks up when he sees her. “Hey there, Sunshine! Can’t tell you how good it is to see you looking so well-rested and un-assassinated.”

Rapunzel glares at him and playfully smacks his arm. “I told you there was nothing to worry about.”

“Well, since I’m apparently your bodyguard now, it’s my duty to be worried,” he says. “Come on, let’s go get you something to eat. Attila just opened up the sweetest little cupcake shop, and you’re gonna love it!”

“Ooh, I do like cupcakes!” Rapunzel says, perking up. Eugene leads them to the main square in the city, where a huge marble fountain sits in a round cobblestone plaza that’s lined with shops and stands and bustling with people. Rapunzel was captivated by this place the first time she saw it on her journey from the tower, and it hasn’t lost a bit of its magic. A huge porcelain mosaic of the royal family borders the plaza on one side, and at the foot of it children are snacking on pretzels and caramels. The static hum of the fountain provides a pleasant backdrop for the chatter of townspeople, the hawking of vendors, and the clipped tread of horses pulling carts full of goods through the square.

“Ugh, looks like there’s a line to get into Attila’s new place,” Eugene groans. “You know, you could just wield your royal authority to cut to the front of it.”

Rapunzel laughs. “You know I’d prefer to wait my turn like everyone else.”

“Tell you what, I’ll wait in line for both of us and you can go get your fill of town before you have to go back to the palace.”

“Really?” Rapunzel gasps. “Thank you so much, Eugene! You’re the best!”

“Yeah, yeah, tell me something I don’t know. Now go play, I’ll come find you,” Eugene says, shooing her with his hand.

Rapunzel springs away, flitting from cart to cart like a hummingbird in a garden full of its favorite flowers. She’s particularly captivated by one vendor selling art supplies, leaning over a spread of fine-tip squirrel-hair paint brushes, smooth imported ink blocks, and sketchbooks with thick ivory pages and bound in fine leather. She exchanges a few coins for a couple of brushes and tucks them into her pocket, turning to investigate a stand on the other side of the fountain selling some kind of delicious-smelling cheese.

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

Rapunzel turns to see a teenaged girl with bright red hair in twintails, looking up at her with drawn brows and pursed lips. Rapunzel stops and gives her a smile. “Hi there. Do you need help? Are you lost?”

The girl nods her head. “I went to use the bathroom, and when I came back my mom and dad weren’t where I left them. Can you help me find them?”

“Of course! I know how scary it is to be lost and separated from your parents, believe me. We’ll find them together. What do they look like?” Rapunzel says, putting a hand on the girl’s upper arm.

The girl tugs on her hair. “They both have hair like mine, and my dad has a long beard. The last time I saw them, they were over there,” she says, pointing at the northwest path out of the square.

“Okay, let’s start there!” Rapunzel says, letting the girl lead her down that street. She keeps an eye out for anyone who matches the description of the girl’s parents, not paying close attention to how far they’ve wandered from the square. Eventually, she notices how quiet it is and how she can’t hear any of the bustle from the main plaza anymore.

She turns to the girl. “It doesn’t look like they’re down here. Why don’t we head back and check somewhere else?”

The girl turns to her with a pitying expression, and something about it turns Rapunzel’s blood cold. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, but we are right where we’re supposed to be.”

Rapunzel gasps when she feels the flickering of her magic under her skin, the same feeling from the first time she felt threatened at the pub. She straightens up to run back the way she came, but hands shoot out from the darkness, gripping her arms and pressing a damp cloth over her mouth and nose. She’s only able to get out a muffled scream before her vision goes dark.

When Rapunzel comes to, her wrists and ankles are bound in rope behind her back, with a knot running between them so that she’s forced to kneel. Her surroundings are dim, but scattered lamps and candles provide enough illumination that she can tell it’s some sort of cellar. She’s sitting against the back wall, opposite a stone staircase leading down from a closed door. The room lacks windows, but there are puddles of dirty water in the corners of the room. Squinting, Rapunzel can see a small wooden table on the other end of the room, to the right of the staircase, where two figures are sitting and apparently playing cards. One of them is the redheaded girl who led her away from the square.

“Hey!” she shouts, and the two girls startle upright and look at her. The other girl has straight black hair in a short ponytail on top of her head. “What’s going on here? Who are you?”

“Oh, you’re awake,” the redheaded girl says, standing up and approaching her.

“Hey, stop it! The boss said not to talk to the prisoner!” The dark-haired girl snaps, and the other girl stops in her tracks.

“It couldn’t hurt to just tell her our names.”

“She doesn’t need to know them, you dummy!”

“If you don’t tell me your names,” Rapunzel interjects, and the girls pause to look at her. “I’m just going to call you Red and Angry.”

The girls glance at each other, and then Angry groans and throws her hands up. “I’m Keira. She’s Catalina. That’s all you get to know!”

“Thank you, Keira,” Rapunzel says in the tone of a schoolteacher who just got a student to begrudgingly apologize for calling someone names. “Could I bother you for one more thing?”

“No!”

“I’m so thirsty,” Rapunzel says. “Do you have any water?”

“I said no!”

“Oh come on, Keira, it’s just water,” Catalina says.

“Sit your butt back down and wait for the boss like she told us!”

“Stop telling me what to do!”

“Stop talking to the stupid prisoner!”

The door at the top of the stairs bangs open, and the girls’ bickering is instantly smothered. Rapunzel swallows and stares up at the backlit silhouette in the doorway, seeing more details of “the boss” as she descends. She’s a thorn of a woman not much older than Rapunzel, with short sleeves revealing tattoos down both her arms and curly auburn hair piled up in a bun. The blade of a pirate’s cutlass reflects the orange light of the lanterns in her hand.

“Lady Caine,” says Keira. “The prisoner’s awake.”

“I can see that,” drawls Lady Caine as she saunters to where Rapunzel kneels on the floor. She squats to lean in close to Rapunzel’s face, scrutinizing her, and at this distance Rapunzel can see the dark makeup around her eyes and her deep red lipstick. Lady Caine hmphs before standing up suddenly, looking down at Rapunzel. “Sleep well, princess?” she says.

Rapunzel narrows her eyes. “What do you plan to do with me?”

“Oh, nothing to worry your pretty head about,” Caine says. “That is, as long as King Freddy plays along.”

Rapunzel’s heart pounds in time with the persistent flickering of her magic. “Plays along with what?” she demands.

Lady Caine raises an eyebrow at her, considering something. Then she scrapes one of the wooden chairs across the floor, and sits on it to face Rapunzel. “You know, Corona is a funny place. Everywhere you turn you’re reminded that mythics aren’t welcome here, and it’s like everyone is under the same delusional agreement to pretend the last mythics were thrown out of the kingdom ages ago. And the only way you’d know that there are still some hiding in the cracks of Corona is if you’re one of them. The crown thought that if they simply told all of the mythics to get out of Corona, it would solve their little problem. But those who couldn’t afford to leave and those who simply refused to abandon their homes remained, and continue to remain in hiding whether the king wants to acknowledge them or not.

“Not for lack of trying on the mythics’ part, mind you. You will have never heard of The Nightingale, the peaceful advocate group of Coronan mythics. But for decades they pushed against the tide that would erase them like the etchings in sand on the shore, showing the people that magic is nothing to be afraid of and encouraging them to reopen their minds to mythics living among them. They were ready to lend their magic to anyone who needed help, so when King Frederic came in secret to the leader of The Nightingale about the deathly illness plaguing his pregnant wife, she was ready to help the man who had never helped her.”

“What?” Rapunzel gasps. “No, my mother recovered with medicine.”

“Uh-huh. I’m sure that’s what your father told you,” Caine sneers.

Rapunzel bites her lips and sits back, and Caine continues.

“The Nightingale’s leader was a powerful sorceress with a kind heart, and she would’ve healed the queen without asking for anything in return. But when she told the other mythics about the king’s need, many of them saw an opportunity to break down the wall that the rights of mythics in Corona had been stopped at for generations. They told their leader to agree to help the royal family, but only in exchange for action to repeal at least some of Corona’s anti-mythic rulings.

“After that night, The Nightingale never saw their leader again. But when Queen Arianna made a miraculous recovery and gave birth to a healthy princess, they knew what King Frederic had done.”

Rapunzel’s heart wrenches, and she cries out, “No, he wouldn’t! He wouldn’t hurt someone who saved my life. He...my father wouldn’t do that. You must be mistaken!”

Caine groans. “Oh, Princess, it’s exactly that kind of blind faith in the king’s word and eagerness to blame mythics for everything that’s happened to them that’s the problem. You want to be part of the problem?”

“No! I...I want to help,” Rapunzel says, and she means it. Caine could never guess just how much she means it.

“Then stop bloody interrupting and let me finish,” Caine snaps. “Now, where was I? Right, the birth of the princess. The Nightingale were enraged by the king’s actions, and decided that they weren’t going to lie down for him to step over anymore. In the weeks following the royal birth, mythics in Corona planned for an uprising that would force the people to demand change. And then the stupid royal brat got kidnapped and, well, that ruined everything.

“By his automatic assumption that mythics were behind the disappearance of his daughter, King Frederic admitted his guilt. He believed that The Nightingale had retaliated for the extrajudicial execution of their leader by having a little execution of their own. He was so sure of it, in fact, that he had the royal guard raid every home in Corona to arrest the remaining members of The Nightingale. After locking up or banishing every mythic who had ever stood up for themselves, the crown believed it was finally safe from the supposed threat.”

After Caine is silent for a minute, Rapunzel ventures a question. “Why...why are you telling me all this?”

“Because I never saw my father again after that night, and it’s all because of you,” Caine seethes, and Rapunzel flinches like her words are blows. “And if King Frederic won’t budge when mythics ask nicely, maybe he’ll be more gracious when his precious daughter’s life depends on it.”

“Lady Caine, you don’t have to do this,” Rapunzel says, struggling against her bonds. “I can help you.”

Caine scoffs and raises the tip of her sword under Rapunzel’s chin. “Like any mythic is gonna believe those words from a Coronan royal ever again.”

“If what you say is true, then my family owes it to you and the mythics in this kingdom,” Rapunzel says, glancing nervously at her reflection in the blade. She feels her magic thrumming in her veins in response to the danger, threatening to break loose. “And...and it’s different this time, with me, because I’m --”

“Rapunzel!”

Everyone in the room whips their gaze to the top of the stairs, where Eugene has just kicked in the door with a sword in his hands. Caine leaps up and swings her sword from Rapunzel’s face to point it at the intruder, while Keira and Catalina stand at the ready. Eugene halts midway down the stairs when he sees the weapon in Caine’s hand, but he doesn’t lower his own. “Let her go!” he shouts.

“Eugene, it’s fine!” Rapunzel calls to him. “I can handle this. Just go back upstairs!”

“You have orders from the princess,” Caine taunts. “I suggest that you follow them.”

Eugene scoffs. “Or what?”

Caine narrows her eyes and smirks. “You really want to find out?”

With an indignant roar, Eugene rushes down into the cellar and slashes his blade overhead at Caine, meeting her cutlass with a deafening clang. Rapunzel shouts for them to stand down, but with her hands and feet still bound she can do nothing but watch as they ignore her. She hears a dog’s growl from the other side of the room, and snaps her gaze to Catalina, whose eyes begin to glow red as her teeth extend into fangs. Rapunzel watches in horror as the girl transforms into a massive bipedal wolf, snarling as she and Keira lunge toward Eugene. As if that’s not scary enough, Caine laughs menacingly before her sword bursts into flames, and she advances on Eugene, who is starting to look comparatively defenseless.

“Eugene, please just run!” Rapunzel screams, her wrists starting to burn in her struggle against the ropes.

“I’m not abandoning you!” he shouts back, catching a claw with the flat of his blade and pushing Catalina away from him.

Caine jabs her blade at Eugene’s stomach, the tip just narrowly falling short of his skin, but the flames catch on his clothes and he drops his sword in his panic to put them out. He manages to quench the flames, but now that he’s unarmed Keira steps in to throw him to the ground, where Catalina pounces on him and keeps him down with her massive paws. Her jaws are poised over his throat, saliva dripping from her fangs to his face, but she waits for Caine to give the command.

“Let this be a lesson to you,” Caine says, and Eugene clenches his eyes shut in helpless terror.

Rapunzel tries to shout, but her voice and everything else are drowned out by the explosion that bursts forth from her core, filling the dingy cellar with blinding brightness and scorching the ropes that bind her. Keira drags Catalina off of Eugene to force her to shield her eyes, and Caine throws her sword aside and falls to her knees.

The light fades, and Rapunzel stands up and approaches an awestruck Caine. “Please don’t hurt my friend,” Rapunzel says, extending a hand to Eugene to help him up. “We don’t want to fight you.”

“You’re...one of us,” Caine manages to say, her eyes still blown wide. She sinks her forehead onto her hand. “The Lost Princess is a mythic.”

“I tried to tell you,” Rapunzel says, rubbing her arm.

“How?” asks Keira, who is supporting Catalina now that she’s back in her human form.

Rapunzel shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’ve never met another mythic, so I was hoping maybe you could tell me.”

“Coronan mythics don’t know much about our history,” Caine says, standing up. “You’d be better off asking someone from Diadem, but good luck with finding someone from the Dark Kingdom who will talk to you.”

Rapunzel says nothing, and Eugene, wisely, keeps their shared thought to himself.

“Does the king know?” Keira asks.

Rapunzel looks at her sadly. “Would you tell him?”

Keira and Catalina exchange glances, and then look down.

“I really do want to help you,” Rapunzel says. “Not just because I have magic, but because the way Corona has treated mythics is wrong. Maybe it’s because I was raised in a tower and not in the castle so I’m not used to it, but I can’t understand how anyone could think it’s right.”

Caine takes a deep breath, then approaches Rapunzel and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Well, I’ll admit you’d be more useful as an ally than a hostage.”

“Thank you.”

“But if you double-cross us, I will kill you.”

Rapunzel laughs nervously. “I promise I won’t turn my back on you. And I don’t break promises.”

Caine grips Rapunzel’s hand and shakes it. “Then it’s a deal. Now get out of here before I change my mind.”

Chapter Text

It would be another month before Rapunzel can see Cassandra again, and the wait is both stretched into an eternity and cramped into a heartbeat. Rapunzel is bursting with anticipation to ask Cassandra about the mythics in Diadem after Lady Caine’s comment, but she has far too much to come to terms with before she can approach that conversation. Cassandra still doesn’t know that Rapunzel is a mythic. Rapunzel considered devising a way to probe her mind without coming clean about that detail, but she doubts she can pull it off. Especially in front of Cassandra, who seems to see her so clearly for who she is.

In truth, part of her wants to share it with Cassandra, but she’s scared. She has never willingly told anyone about her secret, and she’s not even sure if she would have told Eugene had he not witnessed it firsthand twice now. Her hesitation branches not from distrust, but rather from fear. She doesn’t understand her power, and it’s clearly dangerous. She’s barely come to grips with its existence herself, and the more people know about it the less she feels in control of it.

But Cassandra is her best chance to learn about it, the first step to seizing that control. And at least Rapunzel doesn’t have to worry about the prince of Diadem, the mythic refuge of the Seven Kingdoms, rejecting this part of her. She hopes.

In the meantime, she tries to devote her attention to her etiquette lessons and other princessly duties, with the vain hope that the menial occupation of her mind will distract her from her anxiety. Her father, at least, doesn’t seem to notice any change in her demeanor, but she can’t say the same for the others around her. More than once, Faith has turned to Rapunzel and opened her mouth as though to say something, only to shake her head and return her gaze to the floor. The queen has asked her daughter repeatedly if there’s anything she needs, if she’s feeling at home in the castle yet, if she has a favorite dish she can ask the cook to whip up for her. Each time, Rapunzel’s heart aches with the desire to tell her mother everything that’s weighing on her, but she can’t bring herself to do it and simply smiles and reassures her that there’s no cause for worry.

The new moon finally arrives, and with Eugene in place, Rapunzel once again makes for Lance’s boat at the edge of the city. It’s less nerve-wracking this time, now that she knows she can do it, and it leaves room in her head for her to be anxious about other things. She asks Lance to talk to her about something, anything, as they cross the dark waters, and he happily explains the rules of pinochle in hushed tones. He tells her that it’s one of the card games he plays with the patrons of the Snuggly Duckling, and that he’s so unbeatable that it’s pub policy that anyone who can beat Lance at the game gets free drinks for the whole night. It’s fascinating enough that Rapunzel is sufficiently distracted right up until the moment the boat butts up against the rocky shore on the other side of the bay. And then it’s just her and her thoughts until she finds Cassandra.

When Rapunzel breaks into the clearing, Cassandra is lying down on her back, her hands behind her head on the blanket and her eyes closed. When she hears the cracking of twigs under Rapunzel’s step, she bolts upright and draws her sword before she recognizes Rapunzel and relaxes.

“Sorry to wake you,” Rapunzel giggles, crossing the clearing to sit beside her.

“No, it’s fine,” Cassandra mumbles, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. “It’s just been a tiring journey. I hope I didn’t scare you.”

Rapunzel waves a hand dismissively. “Thank you for coming all this way for me. I don’t think I said that last time.”

Cassandra looks at her with a soft smile. “Well. It’s nice to be away from my duties, anyway.”

Rapunzel hums, then lies down on her back to look at the dark, clear sky. After a beat, Cassandra joins her. They stargaze in comforting silence for a few minutes, listening to the rustling of tall grass in the night breeze, and Rapunzel asks her, “What’s your favorite constellation?”

Cassandra points up, tracing a boxy shape in the sky with a finger. “The legendary hero Hercules,” she says. “He is said to have achieved twelve great feats of strength and cunning, and earned the blessing of the gods.”

“Oh, the lily!” Rapunzel exclaims when she recognizes the shape.

“What?”

“When I was in the tower, I charted stars and the movements of the planets every night. I never had any books on astronomy so I had to come up with my own constellations. I thought that one looked like the sprawling petals of a lily.”

“It’s not a flower, it’s a fearsome warrior,” Cassandra says, turning to face her.

“Well, to me it’s a delicate bloom and to you it’s a big tough guy with a spear,” Rapunzel laughs. “The stars don’t know the difference.”

Cassandra shrugs her shoulders. “I guess that’s true. I have to say it is actually pretty impressive that you did that, Raps.”

“It’s how I knew that the lanterns that went up into the sky every year on my birthday weren’t stars,” Rapunzel says. “Stars are always constant. Even the planets follow a predictable path in the sky. But I could tell the lanterns were something else, and I wanted so badly to see them up close for what they really were.”

“I’ve heard about that tradition in Corona,” Cassandra says, looking back at the sky. “I’ve never actually seen it. Diadem’s sky is too distant. I bet it’s really something.”

“It is,” Rapunzel says fondly. “You’ll see it someday.”

Cassandra closes her eyes and chuckles. “I won’t hold my breath.”

“I mean it, Cass,” Rapunzel insists, propping herself on one elbow so she can fully turn to look at her. “If I can break myself out of the top of a tower to go see those lanterns, I can find a way for you.”

Cassandra blinks, speechless for a moment, and she looks so sweet that Rapunzel has to suppress the urge to lean over and kiss her. Maybe then she would understand what lengths Rapunzel will go to in order to bring Cassandra’s dreams within reach. But then Cassandra’s expression changes, her eyebrows drawing together and her eyes narrowing, and it’s enough to send Rapunzel’s fantasies to the back of her mind where they belong. “How did you escape?” Cassandra asks. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard the real story.”

Biting her lips, Rapunzel sits all the way up and avoids meeting Cassandra’s eyes. Cassandra follows suit, sensing that she’s brought up a difficult topic. Rapunzel takes a deep breath and says, “I haven’t told anybody the real story.”

“You can tell me.”

Rapunzel hesitates.

“By my honor as a prince, I will keep it between us,” Cassandra adds, with an encouraging smile. Rapunzel wishes that trust was the only thing stalling her tongue right now.

Rapunzel picks some flowers beside her, focusing her nervous energy on weaving them together as she speaks. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go outside and see the world, but my Mother -- well, not my real mother, the person I thought was my mother all my life -- warned me of its dangers, telling me that I would wind up dead within a day if I ever tried to leave. I know now that she was just trying to keep me away from my real family, but as a little girl, it scared me. And as I grew up and the restlessness inside of me got stronger, that fear grew stronger, too. It cast a shadow on everything around me, and I started looking at my Mother as another thing to be frightened of.”

“Raps…” Cassandra whispers, touching Rapunzel’s knee.

Rapunzel keeps her eyes fixed on the flower stems in her hands. “There’s something inside of me that responds to fear, Cassandra. I think it wants to protect me when I sense danger, but when I was trapped in that tower with someone who scared me for reasons I couldn’t place, it felt like a guard dog with a muzzle. I was always on alert, but powerless to do anything. Eventually that suffocating burning grew stronger even than my desire to see the world, and I couldn’t bear it any longer. I waited for my mother to go for a trip that would take her at least a few days, and I climbed out the window and ran.”

“That was brave of you,” Cassandra says. Rapunzel risks a glance at her face, and sees sincerity reflected in her dark eyes.

“That was only the beginning,” Rapunzel continues. “I found out that that feeling inside of me that burns when I’m afraid...it isn’t just a feeling.”

“What do you mean?”

Rapunzel breathes in deeply through her nose, and then levels her gaze to Cassandra’s. “You really promise not to tell anybody?”

“I swear it.”

Even now, Rapunzel can feel it tingling under her skin, pulsing along with her nervous heartbeat. “When I encountered the first person to truly make me fear for my life, I learned what that feeling really was. It’s magic, Cass.”

Cassandra raises her eyebrows, but she doesn’t back away. “Magic? Are you sure?”

“Unless there’s something else that can basically turn me into a bomb that explodes in a flash of blinding light when I feel threatened, then yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

Cassandra nods slowly, absorbing this new information. “Well, I can see why you never told anyone,” she says at length.

Rapunzel feels her heart clench with anxiety. This isn’t what she thought a rejection would look like. “I...I understand if you don’t want to see me anymore,” she says, her voice so quiet it’s barely audible.

“What? Why would I--” Cassandra stammers, snapping her head up. She huffs like a spurred horse, twists her torso to fully face Rapunzel, and reaches out to tilt her jaw with the palm of her hand so that their eyes meet. “Rapunzel, I think that’s amazing.”

“You...you do?”

“Of course I do. You have a power inside of you that is there to protect you when you go out and live your life the way you want to. That’s incredible.”

Rapunzel bites her lip to keep her eyes from welling up. “I wish you could make my father believe that, too.”

“Ugh! Corona,” Cassandra exclaims, throwing her hands up. “Sorry. I know it’s your home, but it also used to be their home. Mythics, I mean. No one should have to be forced out of where they live, or made to feel unwelcome there. And the way magic, which is just a natural and wonderful force, has become such a dark subject everywhere is wrong too. The mythic accords Corona came up with all those years ago made a huge mess of everything and caused so much pointless suffering. And now it’s troubling you.”

“It’s okay,” Rapunzel says, smiling sadly. “It would have troubled me even if I weren’t a target of it.”

“I wish you could come live in Diadem,” Cassandra sighs, and the thought makes Rapunzel’s heart flutter. “But even if you could, there are already so many mythic refugees, and we can’t take care of all of them. Diadem was right not to sign those accords back then, but we have limits. We can’t host every mythic in the Seven Kingdoms. Self-sufficient we may be, but...no one kingdom has the resources for that.”

“No, you’re right,” Rapunzel says thoughtfully. She hadn’t even considered that before, and it gives her even more to think about in addition to what Lady Caine said. She’s not sure how she’s going to face her father the next time she sees him, and pretend everything is fine.

Cassandra scrapes a hand through her hair, then turns to Rapunzel with a weary smile. “Hey, thanks for trusting me. It means a lot.”

A smile blooms on Rapunzel’s face in turn. “Thanks for being so trustworthy.”

“You know, you might not be able to come to Diadem, but if you want to try and practice controlling your magic so it doesn’t explode unexpectedly...this clearing would make for a good practice ring.”

“Really?” Rapunzel says, excitement bubbling into her voice. “I -- I’m not sure I know how.”

“Well, I’m no sorcerer, but I can try telling you what I know about magic. Maybe that will help.”

“Okay!” Rapunzel says, smoothing her skirt and watching Cassandra like an eager student in a classroom.

“The way I understand it, magic is an element of life that inhabits mythics, a vital force like the air in your lungs and the water coursing through you as blood. You can’t help breathing or having a heartbeat, but if you focus hard enough you can control your breath and even, to some extent, your heart. There is air all around you, and water in streams and oceans, and in the same way there is magic inhabiting this world. If you can envision those parts of you in connection with the natural world, it’s easier to understand and influence. Your breath may be the ruthless wind you need to run from danger, or a breeze caressing your lungs when you sleep. Your blood could be a hammering torrent pumping fight through your veins, or the gentle rhythm of the waves on the shore. What is the magic within you? Is it an explosion, or is it the warmth of the sun on your skin?”

As Cassandra speaks, Rapunzel closes her eyes and tries to feel her magic as a natural element flowing through her, sustaining her. She has always thought of it as something foreign and ominous, and she never felt at peace with it enough to try and connect with it. But Cassandra’s voice, her words, her warm presence beside her, make it easy. She feels her magic as a slight pressure at her surface, like her mother’s soft hand rubbing her arm to comfort her. It glows within her center, right beside her heart, spreading through her like candlelight filling the corners of a dark room. It rises and ebbs like the tide, and she feeds it through her fingertips as though she were simply breathing out, taking what she needs from nature and then giving it back.

“Raps, look.” Cassandra’s soft voice disrupts her reverie like a raindrop on the surface of a stilled pond. Rapunzel opens her eyes, and floating over the palms of her open hands is a small sphere of light the size of her fist, pulsing slightly in time with her heartbeat.

Rapunzel watches it for a minute, entranced as though she were staring into the flames of a cozy bonfire. It feels warm, cooler than fire, but a soft heat radiates from it as though it were alive. She turns to Cassandra, beaming, and Cassandra’s eyes turn to crescents as she smiles back.

The royal library of Diadem is relatively small, and Cassandra has only been inside it a handful of times. She’s never seen much point in reading; it seems a waste of time to sit inside and stare at a page to learn about something when she could just go out and learn by doing. But admittedly, some topics that are out of her reach, such as magic, leave her no choice but to turn to books for information.

Cassandra pushes open the dark walnut double doors of the library and steps around the tables where a handful of scholars are reading by candlelight. The library is located within one of the castle turrets, and as such the black stone walls of the room form a tight octagon while the ceiling is higher than a chapel’s. It gives Cassandra the strange feeling of being trapped in a dark can that’s lined with hundreds of books. One of the many reasons she prefers not to spend her spare time here.

But she’s not here for herself today. Rapunzel told her during their meeting last week that she has no idea where her magic came from, considering the king and queen of Corona are the least likely people to be mythics in all the Seven Kingdoms. Cassandra’s immediate thought was that Rapunzel may not truly be the child of King Frederic, but she wasn’t sure how Rapunzel would take the suggestion that her mother may have had an affair with a mythic before she was born. But both of them were at a loss for other possibilities, and it’s not like Rapunzel can read up on magical theory and mythic history in Corona’s royal library to find answers.

So Cassandra is here in Diadem’s, discreetly glancing over her shoulder as she gravitates toward the section on magic. Scanning the shelves, her eye catches a spine with the promising title of The Mythical World: Origins of Magic on Earth, and she tugs it out and eagerly cracks it open. Aside from the faint smell of mildew and dust, though, the pages don’t have much to offer her, only creation myths and ancient poems that are just vague enough to be totally useless. She sighs through her nose and puts the tome back into the gap it came from.

Cassandra is on her third unhelpful book when a voice from behind her startles her. “Good evening, Your Highness. It’s not often the royal library has the honor of your visitation.”

Cassandra rushes to shove the book back onto the shelf so that the topic of her perusal doesn’t draw attention, but the book fumbles from her hand and hits the floor with a loud smack, soundly defeating her efforts. Turning to face the visitor, she sees that it’s one of her mother’s new court advisors, Zahn Tiri, who was recently promoted from her lifelong position as royal mage. Cassandra never took much notice of her in her years of palace service, but in recent months Zahn Tiri has been reaching out to her more, apparently in efforts to make friends as the two are roughly the same age. Her sudden interest raised Cassandra’s suspicion, and she told Rapunzel as much, but upon Rapunzel’s insistence she is trying a new thing called “giving the benefit of the doubt.”

Cassandra offers her a smile she hopes looks casual. “Zahn Tiri, hello. Yes, um, just trying to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.”

“Your knowledge on magic?” Zahn Tiri prompts, tilting her head to the side to look at the titles behind Cassandra.

Cassandra chews her cheek, considering the best lie that she could use as a reason for her sudden interest. But as she looks at Zahn Tiri’s elegant silk magician’s robes which are embroidered with celestial imagery, it occurs to her that a court mage could provide far more answers than a book, if she’s careful about the way she asks for them. “Indeed,” she says. “As the future ruler of the Seven Kingdoms’ mythic capitol, it is my responsibility to educate myself on such matters.”

“How prudent of you, Your Highness,” Zahn Tiri says, smiling wide as a Venus flytrap. “Perhaps I may be of some assistance, in that case?”

“Actually, that would be greatly appreciated,” Cassandra says, and gestures to a pair of armchairs of worn mahogany leather on either side of a small table. “Please, I would be happy to receive your expertise.”

They sit across from one another, and the amber glow of the candles flickers over Zahn Tiri’s pale face. Her prominent cheekbones catch most of the light, casting shadows below them down to her jaw, and it gives her a nearly skeletal appearance. “Is there any topic in particular you are hoping to understand better?” she inquires.

Cassandra hesitates, considering her words carefully. “I have recently become intrigued by the existence of magic-wielding humans, such as yourself. Am I correct in assuming that those who can and cannot bear magic are not distinguished by any sort of inherent biological aspect? That is to say, mythic humans are not marked by any physical differences that allow them to practice magic.”

Zahn Tiri nods. “That’s correct. Without my magic, I would be a normal living human just like yourself.”

“So what determines whether or not a human will be born a mythic?”

“It is bound by blood in nearly all instances,” Zahn Tiri says. “Magic is passed down through a family line in the same way as eye color, or propensities for certain afflictions.”

“Nearly all?”

“Your Highness?”

“Are you saying it’s possible for a human to be born of two non-mythics, but still possess magic themselves?”

Zahn Tiri chuckles. “Magic is vast and often unpredictable. Anything is possible. Though I know not of any such case myself, one could conceive of magic finding a human host through other means.”

“Other means?” Cassandra chases, forgetting not to sound too eager. “What kind of other means?”

Zahn Tiri turns her head and eyes Cassandra out of her periphery. “Forgive my presumption, Your Highness, but could this interest be sourced from a desire to perform magic of your own? I assure you, there is no need, for the mages in service of the royal family are at your command.”

Cassandra waves her hand dismissively. “No, no, nothing like that. I just...want to understand.”

“I don’t doubt it, but it may be easier for me to provide you with the most useful information if I knew the precise purpose you need it for,” Zahn Tiri says.

Cassandra can’t help but agree, seeing that her vague questioning will get her only vague answers. She can afford to cough up some details of Rapunzel’s situation, as long as she’s careful not to give anything that might identify her. She sighs and meets Zahn Tiri’s dark eyes. “I have a friend who recently discovered her own magic, but both of her parents are non-mythics, so she doesn’t know where it came from. She doesn’t believe that her mother could have had an affair, and wants to find out if there’s any other way this could have happened.”

Zahn Tiri hums, stroking her chin. “I see. Well, your friend may have to face the uncomfortable truth that an affair is what likely happened.”

“Is there any way to know for sure?”

“There are a variety of divination spells that can uncover hidden truths,” Zahn Tiri says. “One of my specialties is summoning spirits for such purposes, and it would be my honor to assist you and your friend in this matter.”

“That’s not necessary,” Cassandra says. “If evidence of infidelity was confirmed by such a spell in front of others, my friend would be mortified. But the offer is appreciated.”

“Of course, my prince. I regret that I cannot offer more help in this endeavor.”

“You have been very helpful,” Cassandra says, honestly. She pushes back her chair to stand up, and gives Zahn Tiri a short, polite bow. “I must attend to my other duties. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me.”

Zahn Tiri stands and curtsies, lowering her gaze in respect, and Cassandra turns to go. Once she finds herself alone in a dim hallway, she bangs the side of her fist on the stone wall and groans. Another wasted afternoon in the library. For the first time, she dreads her next meeting with Rapunzel and having to witness the look in her eyes when Cassandra tells her she can’t help her.

Of all the weapons available to her, the spear is perhaps Cassandra’s least favored. She’s more of a swiping and slashing person; if she’s going to pierce something, she prefers the bow. The spear puts her in melee range, but doesn’t allow her to counter with her usual methods, and she usually ends up throwing it from a distance anyway. But the warrior prince of Diadem must have no weaknesses, so here she is in her personal practice ring stabbing training dummies like a farmer with a pitchfork.

During the initial construction of the royal palace many years ago, a handful of caves were discovered beneath the earth’s foundation, each one with dark, smooth stalactites hanging from the ceiling like fangs. Glossy obsidian stone lines the walls, and light from outside scatters under the surface of the rock to illuminate it an elegant blue. Rather than destroy these natural wonders, the builders decided to make use of them and convert them into various underground chambers for the palace. Cassandra’s training ring is one such chamber.

The prince is taking a breather, tying her sweaty hair back, when the heavy metal doors from outside swing open to permit a single visitor. Squinting in the sunlight, Cassandra sees the soft violet of Zahn Tiri’s long, wavy hair contrasting with the white of her skin. She sets her spear against the wall and waves to her.

“Good morning, Your Highness,” calls Zahn Tiri, approaching her with a swift curtsy. “I apologize for the intrusion.”

“It’s nothing,” Cassandra replies. “What’s the matter?”

“Do you recall our discussion in the library earlier this week? I haven’t stopped thinking about a way to help your friend without exposing her secrets to others. And I think I’ve come upon a solution.”

Cassandra’s heart races with delight at the same time that a wave of relief rushes over her, and she can’t keep the grateful grin off her face. “Really? That’s great, Zahn Tiri. Let’s hear it.”

Zahn Tiri hands her a small roll of parchment, marked by her elegant handwriting. “After conferring with the elder, more experienced mages of my family, I discovered a less potent divination spell than the one I described to you. It has limited utility and is therefore rather rare; I’m lucky that I could find records of it at all. Rather than all-seeing spirits that inform more powerful divinations, this one requires only the power of blood.”

Cassandra pales. “Blood?”

“Indeed,” Zahn Tiri nods. “In this spell, only visions involving members of the caster’s blood relatives may be seen. All that is required to power it is a small amount of the blood running through the caster’s own veins, as well as a handful of common spell ingredients. I’ve written them down for you there, as well as everything I could gather on how to perform the divination.”

Unfurling the scroll, Cassandra reads through the list of ingredients Zahn Tiri noted: amethyst crystals, sprigs of rosemary and lavender, dust of ground weasel’s tooth...and a few drops of the caster’s blood. The rest of the ingredients will be easy to acquire, but Cassandra is resistant to the idea of asking Rapunzel to bleed for this. She figures she could write to her about this before their next meeting and let her decide whether she wants to try it. It’s an option, and Rapunzel deserves to know about it. At the very least, she won’t have to return to Rapunzel empty-handed now.

Cassandra beams at Zahn Tiri, and gives her a low bow. “My friend may be able to use this. You have my most sincere gratitude for your efforts.”

Zahn Tiri returns her smile. “My efforts are worth the reward of such warm enthusiasm from our prince. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look so excited, Your Highness.”

Cassandra feels heat rise in her face, and her efforts to suppress it only stoke it higher. “I’m simply happy to help a friend in need, that’s all.”

“Your friend is very lucky to have you.”

Cassandra turns around so that Zahn Tiri doesn’t witness the brilliant red glow she feels in her cheeks. “Thank you again, Zahn Tiri,” she says. She hears the rustle of skirts as Zahn Tiri curtsies again, bids her farewell, and then leaves Cassandra to her thoughts.

Maybe there is some value in being willing to trust people rather than casting suspicion at everyone she meets. Rapunzel may be naive, but it seems her endorsement of Zahn Tiri’s friendship will pay off, after all.

Chapter Text

After Owl returned with Rapunzel’s thrilled agreement to try the divination spell, Cassandra discreetly gathered all the other necessary ingredients on her hunting trips and stowed them in her saddlebags for her journey to the southern forts. She arrives at their meeting place first again, and takes the time to settle her nerves while she waits for Rapunzel. In her letter, Rapunzel seemed to leap at this chance without a care for the possible risks, and Cassandra can’t decide if she’s worrying too much or just making up for Rapunzel’s apparent total lack of concern.

Rapunzel arrives a short time later, her grin so wide it appears to glow white in the dark. She’s brought a box of cookies this time, soft and cinnamon-flavored, and shoves them into Cassandra’s hands. “I baked them myself,” she says through a high-pitched laugh. “To thank you for helping me with this spell.”

Cassandra doesn’t really eat sweets, normally preferring the heavy richness of savory flavors when given the choice, but she accepts the gift with an easy smile. “You didn’t have to do that, Raps. I’m here for you, for whatever you may need.”

It comes out sounding more vulnerable than she intended, like the raw honesty of her attachment to the princess has cut through her words to reveal something Cassandra isn’t ready for her to see yet. But Rapunzel only beams brighter and gives her a quick hug before sitting down on the blanket, looking up at her expectantly.

Cassandra steps over to Fidela where she grazes and rummages through her saddlebags for the spell ingredients and the scroll Zahn Tiri gave her. Tucking them under her arm, she reaches for a roll of gauze and a small knife she’d packed for the final ingredient. It’s the least menacing blade she could find, something that could be mistaken for cutlery instead of a weapon, but still she bites her cheek as she holds it. She sighs and lays everything down on the blanket between her and Rapunzel.

Rapunzel picks up the herbs, smelling them in turn before setting them down and exchanging them for the small vial of ground weasel tooth that Cassandra prepared. She pinches it between her forefinger and thumb, holding it above her head as though the starlight could reveal something special about it. Finally, she grasps the knife, examining it with the same benign interest, turning its lacquered wooden handle over in her hands like it’s some kind of puzzle.

“So how do we start?” she says, turning to Cassandra with bright eyes.

Cassandra fumbles for the scroll, even though she’s read it so many times by now she should be able to recite it from memory. “We put everything in that bowl, and crush them to powder. Then add the, uh,” she gestures at the knife, “the rest. Then we just smear some of the mixture on your eyelids and recite the words of the spell while your eyes are closed. You should receive the vision you seek.”

“How will it know what I want to see?” Rapunzel asks.

“I think it just...knows,” Cassandra says with a shrug.

“Huh. Alright then. Will you read the words to me? I won’t be able to read them if my eyes are closed.”

“Oh, of course,” Cassandra says, glancing down at the scroll again and clearing her throat before reading out a stanza of words in some unfamiliar language.

Rapunzel hums, eyes scanning the sky as she recites the words back to herself. After a moment, she puts the herbs into the bowl and grinds them with a stone, adding the powdered tooth when she’s done. When she reaches for the knife, Cassandra’s hand shoots out to stop her. Rapunzel blinks at her, her hand frozen by Cassandra’s tight grip around her wrist.

“Let me do that part,” Cassandra breathes, releasing her and picking up the blade herself.

“Are you sure?” Rapunzel asks.

Cassandra nods, swallowing her anxiety. “I know how to handle a blade. It’ll hurt less if I do it.”

“Okay, Cass,” Rapunzel says, looking at her with a soft, encouraging smile. “I trust you.”

Rapunzel unbuttons the hem of her sleeve and rolls it up, offering her bare forearm to Cassandra palm-up. Cassandra gently turns it over so that the fair hairs and freckles face her instead of prominent veins and wiry tendons. This side is less likely to bleed too much, and although Cassandra would never be so careless as to accidentally strike an artery, she doesn’t want to take the chance. She tears a piece of gauze and wets it from her waterskin, and rubs it over Rapunzel’s forearm as well as the edge of the knife to cleanse them.

With the pad of her thumb, she smooths Rapunzel’s warm, unbroken skin and meets her eyes. The look in them is ambivalent; a glint of fear is overshadowed by deep determination. “Ready?” Cassandra whispers, knife poised.

Rapunzel averts her gaze and clenches her fist. “I’m ready.”

Breathing in slowly to steady her hand, Cassandra puts the edge of the blade to Rapunzel’s delicate flesh and slides it toward the outside of her elbow, leaving a thin red cut in its wake like a threaded bracelet. She applies just enough pressure to draw blood so she won’t have to do this twice, but watches Rapunzel’s face for any sign of reluctance or pain. Rapunzel has her bottom lip pinched between her teeth, and her chest is heaving with focused breaths, but she bears it well enough. So Cassandra sets the knife aside and tilts her arm so that the beading crimson droplets fall into the bowl, over the other ingredients. She watches as warm blood sluices over the cut and wets the powder below, and counts exactly five drops before she tears another stretch of gauze and covers the wound.

Rapunzel lets out a loud exhale as Cassandra wraps her arm with care, then stirs the mixture in the bowl with her fingertip before the blood dries. She meets Cassandra’s gaze one more time before saying, “Well, here goes nothing,” and swiping the reddish-brown paste on her eyelids, reciting the words of the spell.

For a minute, nothing happens, and Cassandra holds her breath in anticipation as she watches Rapunzel’s face. Rapunzel is so still that Cassandra surmises that the divination must induce a trance of some kind, but then her face twitches, a contraction of her brows together, a downward tug of the corners of her lips. She gasps, and Cassandra reaches for her hands like a reflex, holding them between her own as though to keep them safe. Although Rapunzel’s eyes remain closed, tears start to gather at her lashes and pool down her cheeks, and her expression is one of utter despair.

Should she try to snap Rapunzel out of it? What if it was hurting her? They may have done the spell wrong, or Zahn Tiri could’ve...Cassandra’s heart drops with sudden panic, and she releases Rapunzel’s hands to cup her face and wipe the tears that flow down it. What has she done? How could she let this happen? Just as Cassandra is about to shake her by the shoulders to bring her back to herself, Rapunzel’s eyes suddenly snap open, the emerald green of her irises brought out starkly against the faint red around them. Her pupils expand and contract until she fixes her sight on the face in front of her, and Cassandra relaxes only when she knows Rapunzel can see her again.

“Raps?” Cassandra says, cautiously. “Are you--”

Rapunzel slumps forward, her forehead colliding with Cassandra’s collarbone, and she sags when Cassandra puts her arms around her shoulders. Cassandra can tell that she’s crying only because of the teardrops that wet her chest; otherwise, Rapunzel is still and silent in her arms. It’s eerie -- for every moment that Cassandra has known her, the princess has always been overflowing with expression and enthusiasm, and this is so strange and unlike her that the pit of anxiety grows heavy again in her stomach.

With soft hands, Cassandra pushes Rapunzel back upright so that they can look at each other. “What happened?” she says, leaning forward to wipe the smeared paste from her eyelids with her fingers.

“Lady Caine...was right,” Rapunzel mutters, her voice sounding like it could be knocked over by a breeze. She’d told Cassandra of this Caine woman during their last meeting, and of how she’d turned Rapunzel’s world on its head with brazen tales of the mythic injustice and insurgence of Corona’s past. “My mother was healed by magic.”

“And that’s what gave you yours?” Cassandra says.

Rapunzel shuts her eyes and shakes her head, once. Her heavy expression tells Cassandra that the vision showed her more, but it seems near impossible for Rapunzel to put it into words.

Cassandra reaches for Rapunzel’s hand again, and squeezes it.

Rapunzel meets her gaze. “You told me that magic is an element of life that sustains mythics,” she says. “One who was born with magic could not give it up any more than they could give up the breath in their lungs. There is only one way to endow someone with magic, who was not born with it.”

Cassandra does not like where this is going.

“My mother was healed by magic, as part of a bargain with my father that would someday see Corona’s mythics restored. But my father, he...went back on his word,” Rapunzel clenches her jaw and squeezes her eyes shut, and Cassandra can infer what she means. “The healer, instead of submitting to the king’s order, saw a way to bring into his life a mythic he could not turn away so easily.”

“She gave her magic to you,” Cassandra breathes, harrowed by the realization. “Knowing her life was already lost, she gave her magic to you.”

“Yes,” Rapunzel says, and the syllable catches in her throat. “My father doesn’t know exactly what she did. I think he believes she just...took her own life in defiance. He never told my mother the truth of her recovery. He thinks that neither she nor I will ever find out.”

Cassandra rubs her back between her shoulders. “I’m so sorry, Rapunzel.”

Rapunzel turns her face into the crook of Cassandra’s neck, pressing her eyes against her skin as though it could suppress the burning tears. “I’m tired,” she mumbles against her pulse.

Cassandra presses her cheek to the top of Rapunzel’s head, breathing in the light, floral scent of her hair, and tightens her embrace. “I’ve got you.”

Even after hours of rest, Rapunzel is still in no shape to make the journey back to Corona on her own. Dilution of the night sky at the horizon to a milky gray foretells that sunrise is near, and if Rapunzel isn’t back in her bed by the time it arrives, there will be trouble. Cassandra glances at the princess in her fitful sleep, and sets her jaw. She will have to bring her back into the city herself.

Cassandra has been mistaken for a boy before, either because of her princely title or her muscular figure, and she has never minded. Though she isn’t a man and has never felt like one in her heart, knowing that she could be perceived as one brings her a particular sense of satisfaction. And tonight it will come in useful; Coronan guards will not leap to recognition of Diadem’s heir if they know her as a woman. Standing apart from Rapunzel, she pulls off her shirt to bind her chest with what spare linen she has, and tucks her hair under a tapered hat that she pulls from the depths of Fidela’s saddlebags.

She steps over to Rapunzel and jostles her shoulder until she opens her eyes to look at her. “Cass? What are you wearing?” she mumbles, voice still thick and heavy with exhaustion.

“I’m taking you home,” Cassandra says, and hands her a heavy cloak of navy blue. “Put this on, it’ll help disguise you.”

Rapunzel sits up slowly, blinking in confusion. “You can’t come into Corona, it’s not safe.”

“You’re too weak and drained to go alone,” Cassandra retorts. “It will be safer if I go with you. Don’t worry, I’ll pose as a man to avoid recognition. And you’ll be my wife, no one will look twice at me carrying you on horseback that way.”

Rapunzel swallows, and in the dim light of oncoming dawn Cassandra swears she can see color rising in her cheeks. After a moment, she stammers, “What about your own cover? If you arrive home later than usual, your mother might be suspicious.”

Cassandra shakes her head. “I’ll be fine. Come on, we don’t have much time.”

They ride out of the woods on Fidela’s back, Rapunzel clutching her forelocks weakly with Cassandra’s arms steadying her from behind. The stone of the great bridge of Corona makes far more noise under Fidela’s hooves than Cassandra would have liked, and she can’t help cringing every time the hollow sound rings out through the night air. They come to the guards posted at the gate, and using her best man’s voice, Cassandra explains that her wife took ill suddenly at their home in Old Corona, and she must see their physician urgently in the city. With a curt nod, the guards let them past, and Cassandra forces herself not to let her shoulders sag with relief.

The cobblestone streets of Corona are empty, the odd hour prior to sunrise filling the space between buildings with that uncertain haze, that uncanny quiet. Cassandra’s breath quickens as she realizes that getting into the city is one thing, but she won’t be able to get near the palace without Rapunzel being recognized in the arms of some mysterious man.

“Raps,” she whispers, leaning down close to Rapunzel’s ear in front of her. “Is there anyone you know that can get you inside from here?”

Rapunzel shivers awake. “Eugene…” she mumbles. “He should be keeping watch by the gate…”

Cassandra dismounts, and catches Rapunzel in her arms as she half-climbs, half-slides off the saddle. “Wait here, girl,” Cassandra says to Fidela, who seems to understand. Cassandra tugs the brim of her hat a little further over her forehead as she shoulders Rapunzel’s weight, following her drowsy, vague directions to the gate where her friend will hopefully be waiting for her return.

She catches sight of him through the dark mist, and he rushes forward as soon as he sees them. Panic clearly alights in his eyes at Rapunzel’s drained state, but Cassandra raises a hand to calm him. “She’s just tired. Get her into bed and let her sleep. If she can rest tomorrow, see that she does. Tell the palace that she’s ill if you have to.”

Eugene presses his lips together and nods stiffly, leaning Rapunzel on his shoulder as Cassandra passes her to him. “...Thank you. From both of us,” he says, and turns away to take her inside.

Cassandra lingers for a brief moment to watch them go, before returning to Fidela and spurring her into carrying her away from Corona, speeding back to home.

As predicted, her mother is not pleased when she finally returns, having missed her morning training with Adira without precedent. All that Cassandra can do is reassure her that it was nothing but a symptom of the increased pressure around her from her duties, and that she needed a bit of extra time for herself. The queen condemns her lapse in judgment and orders her to remember her discipline, and Cassandra vows not to let it happen again.

A little over a week after the divination, Queen Arianna tells Rapunzel that it’s finally time to visit her side of the family in Antipe. Her eyes harbor cautious excitement as she tells her of the travel plans, of the carriage that will take them to the east and then north, and of the relatives Rapunzel will meet there. Rapunzel recalls her Uncle Ollie and his easy familiarity from the festival last year, and hopes that all of her mother’s family will make her feel as welcome as he did in those early days when everything was so strange and raw. At the very least, she’s looking forward to seeing him again.

Rapunzel has never traveled before, not really. Her escape from the tower was an adventure, surely, but it wasn’t travel. She finds herself humming with delight as she packs her bags, even though Faith insists on doing such menial work herself. Rapunzel can’t bear the thought of leaving Pascal behind, so she stows a little purple pillow for him to sleep on among her clothes and painting supplies. The little chameleon rests on her shoulder during the carriage ride, content to sleep in the rays of sun that beam through the glass windows.

As her eyes scan the rich landscapes that roll past, Rapunzel can’t help thinking about how every turn of the carriage’s wheels bring her closer to the borders of Diadem, and Cassandra within them. She can’t go to see her, and it would be infeasible to even try, but it doesn’t quell the giddy rise in her chest when she imagines the look on Cassandra’s face if Rapunzel were to surprise her at home. She pictures it over and over -- where would Cassandra be right now, if Rapunzel could interrupt her day? Combat training, probably. Or maybe she has a moment to herself, lying down in her bedroom. What does her space look like? Is her bed draped with black sheets? Would she sit up on them to look at Rapunzel if she came through the door, her hair tousled from a nap? The hours in the carriage go by like a dream as Rapunzel plays scenario after scenario over in her head.

It helps ease her regret of being too tired to say goodbye the last time they parted.

“We’re here,” calls her mother’s voice, rousing her from a sleep she didn’t even realize she fell into. Rapunzel sits up and peers out the window: it’s midday, and a line of servants waits outside the door to welcome them into a gleaming marble palace. The colors perfusing the walkway are rosy and golden, from the pale pink stone of the pillars flanking the entryway to the bright orange rose bushes that sway in the breeze. Rapunzel itches for her paintbrush, as the sight stirs such a sense of warmth in her that it must be committed to her journal.

The footman opens the carriage door and helps her mother down first, then Rapunzel. They go together down the stone walkway toward a man and a woman smiling brightly near the palace doors. As they get closer, Rapunzel recognizes the man as Prince Oleander, and though she has never seen the woman before, she bears such a close resemblance to her mother that the two can only be sisters.

Uncle Ollie opens his mouth in greeting: “Welcome to An--”

He is cut off by the woman beside him suddenly leaping forward, throwing one arm around Rapunzel’s neck and the other around Arianna’s, squealing with delight. Arianna eases out of the embrace, meeting the other woman’s eyes. “Hi, Willow,” she says.

“Ari! Oh, it’s so good to see you!” Willow exclaims, then turns her energetic gaze to Rapunzel. “And you must be my long-lost niece!”

Rapunzel chokes in another brief but crushing hug. “It’s nice to meet you, Aunt Willow,” she says.

Willow turns back to Ollie, beaming. “Did you hear that? I’m Aunt Willow!”

Ollie chuckles and steps closer. “I heard it. Welcome to Antipe, Rapunzel. And welcome home, Arianna.”

Arianna hugs her brother in greeting. “It’s nice to be back. Where is mom?”

“Inside,” Ollie says. “Ready to meet your grandmother, Rapunzel?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Rapunzel says with a smile she hopes is encouraging. Truthfully, she’s been nervous since they set out from Corona. She’s never had a grandmother before, and she hopes that she doesn’t disappoint her older, wiser relative.

Ollie and Willow lead them through the enormous carved mahogany doors and down halls lined with checkered marble and oil paintings, punctuated by vases overflowing with fragrant flowers. FInally, they come to a cavernous dining room with an unreasonably long table, at the far end of which sits an old woman hunched over a salad.

Ollie clears his throat. “May I present my mother, Queen Louisa of Antipe. Mother, this is Rapunzel, Arianna’s daughter.”

A loud scraping noise is followed by a graceless clatter of a chair onto the floor, and Queen Louisa is rushing toward Rapunzel with her arms open for another bear hug in what seems to be the family tradition. The elderly woman’s spry strength defies Rapunzel’s expectations of the fragile grandmother who was too unsteady to make the trip to Corona last summer to meet her, but it is not unwelcome. Rapunzel squeezes her back until she is released, and the queen immediately begins fussing over her and pinching her cheeks.

“Look how big you are!” she exclaims, patting Rapunzel’s shoulders. “I didn’t realize until now that I was expecting a little girl!”

“Rapunzel is twenty years old, mom,” Arianna informs her. “She was already a grown woman when she came back to us.”

“Well, that’s quite the marvel, isn’t it?” the queen says, then turns to Rapunzel, clutching her hand. “I apologize for not making the journey to Corona so I could meet you sooner, dear, though I would have run all the way there myself if someone” -- she shoots a glare at Ollie -- “didn’t treat me as though I were made of paper and glass. As you can see I’m in the prime of my life, but alas, my son calls the shots around here nowadays.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry!” Rapunzel rushes to say. “I’m just glad I have the chance to meet you now! We can run to Corona together, sometime.”

“A splendid proposition, dear!” the queen exclaims, much louder than she needs to. She grasps Arianna and Willow by the hands. “Why don’t we go now? Just us girls! See who can run the fastest!”

Willow laughs and jokes that she’s game, but Arianna sighs. “Maybe another time, mom. We only just got here.”

“Afraid you’ll lose, are you, dear?” Louisa taunts with a cackle. Arianna only rolls her eyes and ushers her mother back to her uprighted seat.

Ollie and Willow excuse themselves then, regretting that they could only make time to greet them today but promising more time together tomorrow, and leave the other three to sit around the queen as she finishes her lunch. Queen Louisa, however, spends far more time gushing over Rapunzel than bothering to put lettuce in her mouth, and Rapunzel and Arianna take turns patiently answering every question she has for them.

When the queen finally notices Pascal sitting on Rapunzel’s shoulder, she squeals with delight like a child. “You’ve got a sweet little lizard!”

Rapunzel giggles and nuzzles Pascal against her cheek. She can tell he’s preening at the praise. “This is my best friend, Pascal. He’s been with me since I was a child in the tower,” she says, cupping him in her hands so that her grandmother can see him up close.

“A splendid choice in companion, my dear!” Louisa says, patting Pascal’s scaly head. “Reptiles are the finest pets -- I keep a herd of tortoises, myself!”

Rapunzel gasps. “That’s amazing! Can I see them?”

Louisa springs from her seat, salad forgotten, and drags Rapunzel up by the wrist. “You shall see them posthaste! They are out sunbathing in the garden -- no time to lose!” She hurries down the hall with Rapunzel in tow, as though they aren’t off to catch sight of the slowest animals known to man, and Rapunzel glances over her shoulder to wave at her mother with a smile.

The queen leads Rapunzel to a courtyard closed in by palace walls, with broad-leafed trees offering shade in the corners and a clear pool of water glinting in the sunlight on one side. Lounging in the warmth are a dozen tortoises about twice the size of Rapunzel’s head, so still that Rapunzel mistakes them for lumpy boulders until she sees a wrinkly head peeking out from beneath a patterned shell.

Rapunzel’s hands fly to her face and she squeaks happily, rushing forward to get a closer look. She’s never seen animals like this before, and she trails a fingertip over the grooved surface of its shell in awe. “They’re so adorable!” she exclaims.

“Aren’t they just?” chuckles her grandmother, tossing bits of carrots to the ground. She goes on chattering about everything that comes to mind, speaking too quickly for Rapunzel to follow everything, but she’s content to listen as the tortoises munch on veggies. She picks up the gist as the queen veers from topic to topic: the specific dietary regimen of the tortoises, the bi-annual races she hosts for them, the massive white bears from the north she had kept in this garden until the “incident,” and how she had to find some animals to keep her company that were less likely to break into the castle hall when it was hosting visiting nobility from neighboring kingdoms -- mind you, dear, the tortoises do their best to break in, they're just not nearly as successful -- of her wishes for Rapunzel to see all the greatest attractions Antipe has to offer, how their land boasts the second tallest single drop waterfall in the Seven Kingdoms, and their artifacts vault at the top of one of their mountain peaks contains the most documents on mythic history and enchanted items this side of the Diadem border--

“Wait, what?” Rapunzel stops her mid-ramble. “Didn’t Antipe sign the mythic accords? I thought complying nations had to turn out all mythics and destroy any magical artifacts.”

Louisa frowns at her, like her train of thought has unceremoniously switched tracks. “Eh? What are you on about, dear?”

Arianna chooses that moment to rejoin them, breezing through the archway with two glasses of lemonade. She hands one to Rapunzel, then says to her mother, “Why don’t you finish your lunch while Rapunzel and I admire your tortoises, mom?”

The queen claps her hands together and nods. “Excellent idea, Arianna. I will go get my lunch and feed it to my tortoises!”

“That’s not what I --”

But the queen has already turned to go back inside, marching with purpose, ignoring Arianna’s outstretched hand. Arianna sighs and turns to face Rapunzel, and her level gaze tells Rapunzel that she interrupted for a reason.

“Mom?” Rapunzel ventures.

“I should have talked about this with you before we came,” Arianna says. “I just didn’t think it would come up. I’ll explain tonight, once your handful of a grandmother is asleep, okay?”

A sense of foreboding turns Rapunzel’s stomach, but before she can dwell on it any more, Louisa returns with her salad bowl and promptly tosses handfuls of its contents to the ground like confetti.

That evening, Rapunzel is unpacking and stacking her clothes on the shelves of her room in the guest wing when her mother gently knocks on the door and asks if she can come in. Rapunzel has been waiting for her to come by for the last hour, unable to stop the turbulent river of thoughts in her head ever since her grandmother’s inadvertent admission. She has always assumed that every kingdom except Diadem is just like Corona in their treatment of mythics; they have to be, due to their compliance with the accords. If Antipe is different, if it holds even the slightest degree of greater tolerance for mythics in comparison with Corona, then it inspires some hope in Rapunzel that change is possible for her home.

“Come in,” Rapunzel calls, smoothing her skirts and sitting on the edge of the bed.

Arianna steps in, clicking the door shut behind her. “Hi, sweetheart. Are you settling in okay?”

“Yes, it’s just lovely here. I’m happy I get to see the place where you grew up,” Rapunzel says.

A fond smile lifts Arianna’s serious expression. “Yes, my siblings and I got up to a fair amount of shenanigans here, back in the day. We were quite the handful for your grandmother.”

Rapunzel chuckles. “It’s hard to imagine her having to reign you in, I have to admit. It seems like maybe things are the other way around now.”

“Your grandmother, she…” Arianna sighs. “She’s always been energetic and outgoing, like you. But as she’s gotten older, her self-restraint and her judgment have become a little frayed. It’s why Ollie, the crown prince, leaves her at home when he goes on diplomatic journeys like the festival we held for you last summer. We love your grandmother, but it would have consequences for all of us if she were to offend other kingdoms unintentionally. Do you understand?”

Rapunzel nods. “Was she not supposed to tell me about the secret...magic...vault...thing?”

“She -- hmm. It wasn’t meant to be kept a secret from you, Rapunzel, but telling you about it should come with an explanation. We don’t tend to talk about mythic affairs much at home, but at some point it becomes unavoidable.”

“Please tell me,” Rapunzel says, controlling her tone so that she doesn’t sound too eager. “Being kept in ignorance reminds me of being in the tower, so...please don’t feel like you have to hide anything from me.”

Arianna smiles and caresses her daughter’s cheek. “I understand, sweetheart. In that case, then, you have likely already noticed Corona’s largely negative outlook on mythic affairs. But not all of the Seven Kingdoms share that viewpoint. Diadem is the starkest example, as the only kingdom who refused to sign the accords. But Diadem was also the only country that could afford not to -- the other nations have always relied on maintaining trade and peace with Corona, so they agreed to the accords, even if they saw no threat in the mythic population themselves. Antipe is one of those kingdoms.

“Now, I know you don't have a lot of experience with mythics, Rapunzel, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you have none at all. But despite the culture in Corona, there is a rich history across the Seven Kingdoms of mythics and our people living and working together, thriving in tandem despite the pockets of strife. It has never been all bad, the way Coronan policy makes it sound.”

Rapunzel swallows. Her mouth feels dry. “That makes sense. So Antipe...disagrees, then, with Corona’s views?”

“It’s...complicated. Aside from signing the accords that required expulsion of mythics from the kingdom, the Antipean court never took any other internal action. So in the years following the accords, when many mythics started fleeing across our borders from other kingdoms, usually seeking refuge in Diadem, Antipe made no moves to intervene. Many scholars here took the opportunity to commit the stories of these people to writing, and some mythics offered artifacts or enchanted items in exchange for the passage they were given. The history and collection gave rise to the vault that your grandmother mentioned earlier.”

“I see…” Rapunzel says, chewing her cheek. Learning the culture that her mother grew up in begs another question, one that Rapunzel has always feared the answer to. But if she doesn’t ask it now, she might not get another opportunity. “So then...what about you?”

Arianna cocks her head. “What about me, dear?”

Rapunzel forces herself to meet her eyes, raising her brows slightly in a show of benign curiosity. “What are your own views on mythics? You grew up here, but you also married dad, and he seems a lot, well...stricter.”

A sigh blows past Arianna’s lips, like this is something she has spent much time deliberating. “Well, I did grow up here, yes. But like I told you when I gave you your journal, I also traveled the world before marrying your father. And on those travels, I had many experiences with mythics, most of which I look back on with fondness. I have no personal grief against mythics, but that matters little when you are the queen of Corona.”

Hearing this nearly drives Rapunzel to tears, and she chokes them back as well as she can, but the fear that once bolstered the dam inside her has just cracked and shattered. The torrent is coming, Rapunzel can feel it. “What about dad, then?” she asks.

“I don't think your father is as personally negative about mythics as he may seem,” Arianna says after a pause. “Corona's laws may be intolerant, but they were put in place long before your father took the throne, and he has never been a zealot about enforcing them. Except for the time immediately following your kidnapping...there was much hysteria among the population, but nothing your father did--”

The dam breaks, and the words flood from Rapunzel’s mouth, barely outpacing her heartbeat. “Mom, I need to tell you something.”

Arianna blinks in confusion, but pats her daughter’s hand. “Go ahead, sweetheart.”

The truth spills out of Rapunzel, tumbling quicker than she can anticipate it, she feels the unpleasant pressure that beats within her when she’s around her parents steadily drain as though she’s drawing out poison. She tells her everything about her escape from the tower, about the incident at the pub, about the magic that bursts out of her beyond her control. She tells her of how she fought so hard to find the home where she belongs, only to fear at every moment that she will be thrown out if her true self ever becomes known. Hands shaking, she even conjures a pearl of light over her palm as proof, and it sheds golden droplets that disperse like dust in time with the tears that gather and fall from her chin.

Arianna rushes to wrap her arms around her child before the first tear falls, and Rapunzel leans into her embrace for strength to continue her story. She’s quiet as Rapunzel speaks, but it’s a warm, patient silence rather than the kind that hangs over the words between them like frost. When Rapunzel is done, Arianna squeezes her tightly for a moment, then speaks:

“Rapunzel, it breaks my heart to think of the distress you must have been feeling for so long. I’m so sorry that I made you feel like you couldn't tell me about this sooner.”

Rapunzel hitches another relieved sob, rubbing her nose on her sleeve. “It’s not your fault, mom. You couldn’t have known.”

Arianna shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. A child must never be made to feel like their parent’s love for them is conditional on anything. I love this part of you the same as I love the rest, and I’m so grateful you trust me with it.”

Rapunzel’s fingers tighten in the back of her mother’s dress. How could she have ever thought that the woman who kept her in a tower and controlled her by belittling her at every turn for nearly two decades was her real mother? It seems like a sham, a transparent facade of love in the face of the real thing. She breathes out, and when she inhales again it feels cleaner, purified. “And...dad?” she finally asks.

“Of course he loves you, more than words could ever express,” Arianna assures her. “I will...figure out a way to soften him up until you are ready to share this with him, in turn. It’s my duty as a parent to make sure that Corona is home for you...but, dear, I want you to know that if anything goes wrong, if you ever feel unsafe, Antipe and your family here will always be a welcoming haven for you."

It fills Rapunzel with a sense of ease that she hasn’t felt since her feet touched grass for the first time.

When Rapunzel returns to Corona, she can’t keep herself from counting the hours until her next meeting with Cassandra, watching the moon with anticipation as it gets slimmer and slimmer each night. Though they haven’t acknowledged it in the open, it hasn’t escaped Rapunzel’s notice that the next new moon will mark one full year since that night Cassandra stepped out of her carriage in the Corona palace courtyard and into Rapunzel’s life.

And Rapunzel has the perfect gift to mark the occasion. She’s been roping Eugene into helping her practice for it these past few weeks, and she’s so excited to show Cassandra she feels like might burst. She lies awake at night trying to imagine the look on Cassandra’s face when she finally sees it. Cassandra looks so beautiful when she smiles, the bow of her lips complimenting the crescents in her dark eyes; just picturing it fills Rapunzel’s chest with warmth.

Rapunzel arrives at the clearing first for once, stretching and jumping and cartwheeling to do something with her energy while she waits. When she finally hears Fidela’s hooves crunching the underbrush just out of sight, she springs to attention, clasping her hands in front of her heart. She leaps at Cassandra in a hug the moment she comes into view, startling her more than anything, but after a pause Cassandra puts her arms around her with a soft chuckle.

“Someone’s eager,” she says when they pull apart. “What, did I not ride fast enough for you?”

“I’m just happy to see you,” Rapunzel chirps, helping her stretch out the blanket. She watches Cassandra’s face for any sign that she realizes what day it is, and sees her avert her gaze and put a hand to her cheek, like she’s embarrassed. She chalks that up as a “maybe.”

They settle down on the ground, and Cassandra takes a drink from her waterskin. “So, how was your tr--”

“I have a present for you!” Rapunzel cuts her off. If she holds it in for another second she probably would actually burst into flames.

Cassandra freezes, glancing at the ground around them as though she missed an obvious gift. “Um...okay?”

“Did you know it’s been a year since we met?” Rapunzel asks.

Cassandra considers this. “Huh. I guess it would be about a year since the festival.”

“A year exactly!” Rapunzel says.

“Really? You’ve been keeping track?” Cassandra’s cheeks seem to darken in the dim light.

“Of course, silly! And I have a present for you, to show you how happy I am to have met you. Seriously, Cass, my life is so much better with you in it.”

The redness in Cassandra’s face is unmistakable now. “Raps, you didn’t have to…”

“Shush,” Rapunzel says, putting a finger to Cassandra’s lips. “Let me show you how much I appreciate you, okay?”

Cassandra breathes out, her face melting into a gentle smile. “Okay. Show me.”

“Close your eyes,” Rapunzel says, and Cassandra raises an eyebrow at her but does as she’s told. “And don’t open them until I say you can!”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Cassandra says, amused.

Rapunzel watches her for a few seconds to make sure she’s not peeking, and then takes a deep breath to focus herself. Since she first conjured that little warm sphere of light with Cassandra a few months ago, she’s been practicing on her own and with Eugene to see what else she can do with her magic. When she managed to send three glowing orbs into the air at once, the sight reminded her of the lantern festival on her birthday, and that was when inspiration struck. Gradually, Rapunzel has trained herself to split the orbs into more and more floating points, and now as she sits beside Cassandra in their willow clearing, she sends up one after the other until the two of them are surrounded in golden lights.

Rapunzel glances around at her handiwork. It looks like a field of giant fireflies, pulsing and glowing with her heartbeat, like living lanterns. Each tiny sun floats lazily on the night air, illuminating their dark surroundings and sparkling against the dew drops that cling to the grass. Satisfied, she puts a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder and tells her to open her eyes.

Cassandra’s mouth instantly falls open in a reverent gasp, and the shine of her eyes is warm and golden as she beholds the sight Rapunzel has created for her. She puts a hand over her mouth, watching the dance of lights around them, and then turns to Rapunzel. “Raps, this is…I don’t know what to say. It’s beautiful.”

Rapunzel smiles. “I told you I would show you the lanterns one way or another, didn’t I?”

Tears well up and glint in the corners of Cassandra’s eyes. She breathes out and covers Rapunzel’s hand with her own, resting together on the blanket. “The best part about this is that I can finally see you in the light again. I didn’t realize that I’d missed it.”

Rapunzel’s heart thunders in her chest so hard it makes her fingers tremble. “Cass…”

Cassandra leans forward as though a line between them is suddenly pulled taut, her eyes lidded. Rapunzel can’t breathe, can’t move, with her face so close like this. She knows she’s supposed to close her eyes, but she can’t bear to look away for an instant just in case this is really a dream. But she knows that it isn’t, beyond a shadow of a doubt, when she finally feels Cassandra’s lips touch hers.

It’s soft, light, and far too brief. Cassandra pulls away before Rapunzel can really react, and she can’t meet her eyes. “I...I’m sorry,” she mumbles, wringing her hands. “I shouldn’t have presumed --”

Her words are halted by Rapunzel’s lips claiming hers again, pressing with fervor to make up for their stillness in the last kiss. Cassandra’s hands scramble to find purchase in the back of Rapunzel’s dress, clutching at her waist as Rapunzel climbs over her legs and wraps her arms around her neck. Their mouths part against each other, and Rapunzel savors the sweetness that pours in against her tongue like honey, letting out a soft sound of pleasure. Cassandra’s lips taste like cloves and lemon icing and bright steel and dewdrops, and Rapunzel laves her tongue over them on instinct, chasing that sweet nectar. In her infinite dreams about this very moment, she could never have anticipated the way she tastes or just how soft her lips are or the shivers that the hands at her waist send through her.

Rapunzel breaks the kiss to turn her face to the sky and suck in heavy breaths, and Cassandra’s mouth, displaced, seeks the tender skin at her throat. Rapunzel’s fingers tighten in Cassandra’s hair and a moan bubbles up from her chest when she feels the light graze of teeth against the side of her neck. The summer breeze is cold against the wet trail that Cassandra leaves on her skin, and Rapunzel can’t bear it anymore, angling Cassandra’s face back up so she can crush her lips against hers.

The stars turn above them, Rapunzel’s lights slowly fade and flicker out, but the two of them don’t notice. For once, the time they spend together isn’t packed with conversation, with words they have been saving up for each other. They don’t talk much for the rest of the night, and yet they say so much more than they ever have before. When the inevitable dawn forces them apart, and Rapunzel presses one last kiss against Cassandra’s smile before she reluctantly mounts her horse and rides away, the only regret she has is that she did not kiss her more.

Chapter Text

Corona has so many festivals and traditions that it’s hard for Rapunzel to keep up with them all. When she was first adjusting to her new home, it seemed like there was some sort of celebration in the kingdom every week. Not that Rapunzel would ever mind -- after so long watching the world from afar, she leaps on every chance to meet new people and try new things. But after spending a full year in Corona, she thinks she’s witnessed every occasion for the palace to throw a party.

In hindsight, she should have known better.

“The Gala of Seasons is an opportunity to let your creativity out of the gates, Rapunzel,” King Frederic informs her over lunch one day. “Every year, the Gala’s theme changes, and we get to see delightful interpretations of it in the palace decorations and the attire of the guests. Last year we did not host it, because the timing overlapped with the festival to celebrate your return to us. But this year, we shall certainly outdo ourselves, now that you are here to help with the planning.”

“A ball, hm?” Rapunzel says, stroking her chin. She would relish the chance to put on extravagant matching outfits and dance with Cassandra, now that the nature of their affection is out in the open between them. She wants nothing more than to sway in her arms for a whole night, and maybe show her off in front of the other nobles a little. But… “Is everyone invited?”

“Nobility from all over the Seven Kingdoms are welcome to attend each year,” King Frederic says, taking a bite of his shepherd’s pie. He swallows and then adds, “Except those from the Dark Kingdom, of course.”

Of course.

The soaring bird of Rapunzel’s enthusiasm meets the sudden bars of a cage. As the princess, she will be expected to be both present and active at this Gala, but if Cassandra won’t be there then she doubts she will manage any semblance of excitement. Just thinking about being obligated to dance with other princes and random men she barely knows, without the prospect of a turn with the one prince she actually wants, makes her heart sink.

So Rapunzel seeks refuge in the place that’s always there for her when her usual pep is overcast by despondency. The library welcomes her with afternoon sunbeams pouring through vast crystal windows, illuminating the dust that swims lazily through the air. No matter how many times she visits this place, Rapunzel hopes that the rush of contentment flooding through her chest never subsides. The forest green carpeting underfoot soothes her as she strides in, gravitating toward the romance section for...no particular reason. The towering oak shelves housing Corona’s love stories is ensconced on a small landing that is raised away from the other sections by a few marble steps and a polished wood banister. An armchair of well-worn leather sits across from the shelves, beside a small table and an oil lamp, for those who can’t help reading long after the sun has set.

Rapunzel’s finger trails along the spines of books she’s already read until it lands on a new title. She tugs it out and flips through the first few pages: it seems to be a story about a singer in love with her childhood friend, whom she is forbidden to see by a mysterious, vindictive spirit haunting her concert halls. Rapunzel sinks into the armchair, folding her legs up beneath her and curling the book in her arms. The sunlight from outside warms from white to a golden glow until it concedes to lavender twilight as Rapunzel hungrily turns the pages.

The young singer’s troubles resonate sharply with Rapunzel, and she finds herself seeking answers in the story’s twists and turns. If this heroine can find a way to overcome the challenges barring her from her heart’s true desire, maybe there’s something that Rapunzel can try so that she can be with hers.

Inspiration strikes her like a revelation when the next chapter in the story brings about a masked ball, where the dancers find a thrill in obscuring their identities and the two lovers can be together in public without drawing the jealous gaze of the spirit. With a gasp, Rapunzel snaps the book shut, startling clouds of dust out of its pages, and makes way for her bedroom and her paintbrush as though the idea is a flickering flame that will die out if she does not feed it immediately.

“A masquerade?” Cassandra asks, flipping the invitation card over in her hand as though an explanation will be printed on the back.

Rapunzel hums in affirmation, settling in closer against Cassandra’s side as they lie on their blanket during the next new moon. Cassandra’s arm tightens around her waist in response, and it fills her chest with a giddy fluttering. “Doesn’t it sound exciting?”

Cassandra looks at her. “It does, but...I’m confused. How did you convince your father to extend an invitation to Diadem?”

“Well -- about that,” Rapunzel starts, averting her gaze. “He isn’t exactly super aware that I’m inviting you, but...”

“Rapunzel.”

“He expressly forbids Diadem nobles from attending,” Rapunzel admits, biting her lip.

Cassandra stares at her for an agonizing stretch of silence. Behind her eyes, her mind seems to be working out the unsaid part of this invitation, and her slight frown solidifies into a scowl when it all comes together. “No,” she says, finally.

“Come on, Cass!”

“No!”

“Don’t you want to dance with me?” Rapunzel does her best to gaze up through her eyelashes and pout her lips.

“I mean, obviously, but --” Cassandra groans, running her free hand through her hair and avoiding the pleased look in Rapunzel’s eyes. “It’s too dangerous. Whatever you’re thinking, we can’t risk it.”

“Will you at least hear me out first?” Rapunzel pleads. “If I tell you about my plan, and you still don’t think it’s worth the risk, then we won’t do it. I won’t push you if you’re really not comfortable with it. Okay?”

Cassandra tugs her lips to one side, narrowing her eyes as she deliberates. At length, she sighs and concedes, “Okay, Raps. What are you thinking?”

Rapunzel squeals and sits up, her eyes sparking to life. “So the whole point of a masquerade is that everyone is wearing a disguise, right? And you’ve already successfully pulled off a disguise in front of Coronan guards that time you dressed as a man to take me home.”

“That was the middle of the night, and I only had to fool two guards. A gala hosting nobility from all over will be a lot more secure,” Cassandra counters.

“Let me finish! That invitation I gave you has a genuine seal on it, so it will get you inside the palace. You’ll be masked and disguised as a man, but not just any man. We’re going to make people think you’re Eugene.”

Cassandra pulls a face. “In what world would I be mistaken for that loudmouth?”

“In a world where everyone’s distinguishing facial features are obscured!” Rapunzel retorts. “You two are about the same height and build, and if you wear a hat over your hair and a precisely tailored outfit, I doubt anyone will look twice. Everyone knows that Eugene is my friend, so it would make sense for him to be beside me all night. Only it won’t be him.”

Cassandra chews her cheek, and Rapunzel can tell she’s running out of reasons to protest. “Where will Eugene be? If there are two of him at the same party, it’ll raise the alarm even if we can pass for the same person.”

“He’ll start out at the party with me, and then right before dinner is served he’ll rendezvous with you once you get past the gates and swap clothes so you can take his place,” Rapunzel says.

Cassandra sits back and regards her with raised eyebrows. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

Rapunzel chuckles. “I really, really want to dance with you.”

“Alright, Rapunzel. I think we can make it work,” Cassandra says. Rapunzel throws her arms up to cheer, but Cassandra holds up a finger to cut her off. “On the condition that an escape route is secured beforehand. If it feels like things are going to go south at any point, I need to be able to get out of there.”

“Deal,” Rapunzel says, snuggling back into Cassandra’s arms. “I wouldn’t want to put you in danger, Cass.”

“Oh, well, that’s a relief,” Cassandra jokes. “You left me wondering for so long.”

Rapunzel rolls her eyes and tilts her face up to kiss her, humming in blissful contentment.

Eugene has been standing in front of the floor-length mirror in Rapunzel’s bedroom, examining his reflection, for the last fifteen minutes. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into shaving my goatee,” he whines for possibly the hundredth time.

“Oh, stop. You look fine,” Rapunzel says from the loveseat near her bed, where she is putting the finishing touches on the matching masks she made for herself and Cassandra. She drew inspiration from Owl the last time he flew to her window, his great yellow eyes seeming to glow against his dark plumage. The masks mimic his face, with feathers adorning the crown and a beak-like projection to cover the bridge of the nose, which will hopefully serve as another safeguard against recognition. Rapunzel decorated her own mask with white feathers and sparkling, clear rhinestones, while the one she made for Cassandra is as dark as her hair and studded with black pearls.

“Well, I know that,” Eugene scoffs. “There is no iteration of this beautiful face that could be described as anything less than fine. But my smolder just isn’t the same without it.”

Rapunzel stands up, pleased with her handiwork, and hands the black mask to Eugene. “It’ll grow back before you know it, Eugene. Thank you again for doing this for me.”

“It’s not like I was going to turn down the chance to play an integral role in a dramatic stealthy escapade in the name of love,” Eugene says, holding the mask up in front of his eyes. “This is exactly the sort of shenanigans Flynn Rider was known for.”

“Well, I appreciate it nonetheless,” Rapunzel says. “You saved me from my backup plan of trying to rope Faith into taking my place, which would have been preferable except for...you know.”

“How she’s incapable of going along with anything fun that the king didn’t personally endow with his stamp of approval? Yeah, I think that was the right call.”

“Still...it would have been nice to be free from my responsibilities as princess for one night. Pretending to be someone else...being openly romantic with the prince of my dreams…but that’s just a fantasy,” Rapunzel sighs.

“You can pretend to be into me for one night only, if that would give you carte blanche to make eyes at your girlfriend for the entire ball.”

Rapunzel laughs and shoves his shoulder. “No, thank you, I don’t need that kind of kingdom gossip following me around for the next year.”

“If you insist, Sunshine, but let the record reflect that Eugene Fitzherbert has done all in his power to be the world’s best wingman.”

Rapunzel raises an eyebrow at him.

“Do you get it?” Eugene says, pointing at the bird mask with a goofy grin. “Wingman? Because --”

“That’s very funny, Eugene,” Rapunzel says, patting his shoulder.

“These are the jokes, kid. Now you get into your fussy gala getup and let’s get this party started, huh?”

“Let’s!” Rapunzel chirps, and Eugene salutes before heading into the hall, mask in hand.

This is a terrible idea. This is the most ridiculous, senseless idea Cassandra has ever willingly gone along with. She can’t think about all the ways this could go wrong, because the sheer volume of disastrous visions she foresees in her mind’s eye is completely overwhelming. It’s unbelievable that she even managed to convince her mother to let her go to this Gala of Seasons. The festival last year was one thing; the Queen of Diadem was eager to publicly reassert the strength of her kingdom, but Cassandra didn’t expect that logic to pull through twice, especially not for a celebration that doesn’t feature anything close to a sporting tournament. But when she showed her mother the invitation and suggested that it would be amusing to remind Corona of its humiliating defeat at Diadem’s hands by accepting an invitation that was likely sent out of spite, the queen was thrilled by the idea. Cassandra was shocked by her enthusiasm, because the idea seemed too petty to be reasonable to her, but perhaps her mother was just pleased to see such warrior’s pride growing within her heir and hesitated to discourage such sentiments.

Cassandra’s mother insisted on a guard entourage to accompany her to this event, surely to augment her magnificent, princely aura, but Cassandra ditched the assembled party the night before they were instructed to leave. No need to give Corona the impression of a surprise invasion from its hated rival. She’ll come up with some cover story to explain her absence later.

Now Cassandra stands before the open gates of Corona’s palace, in the plainest coat and hat she could find to cover her bound chest and pinned hair. And despite the trepidation she feels, she can’t deny that she is trembling with excitement. The thrill of concealing her identity may even be contributing to the giddy rush she feels in anticipation of the night’s events; the chance to sweep Rapunzel across the dance floor in romantic spirals is worth the risk of being discovered. She would not be here if she thought otherwise.

She closes her eyes and steps over the threshold. She is realizing just how far she is willing to go for Rapunzel.

As Rapunzel promised, the palace guards accept her invitation and let her inside, not questioning her guise as one of the princess’s reformed criminal friends she met during her famous escape. Her eyes scan the antechamber for the side passage to the gardens that Rapunzel described, reminding herself to seem casual as she makes way for it. The hedgerows greet her once she’s back outside, looking just like Cassandra’s memories of them from the long nights when she and Rapunzel first made each other’s acquaintance. She navigates through the twists and turns of the garden until she stumbles upon a man in a broad-brimmed hat and a mask resembling the face of a bird.

“There you are!” he whispers, beckoning her over with urgent hands. Cassandra recognizes the voice of Rapunzel’s loud friend and joins him in the narrow clearing.

Eugene greets her by swapping their hats, and Cassandra blinks at the sudden action. Eugene regards her with pursed lips, then nods in apparent approval. “Emerald green was a great choice, Your Highness. Your coat will complement my natural peach undertones much better than this grim number Sunshine made for you,” he says, gesturing at his own outfit. It’s ambiguously tailored, loose around the waist with a silk capelet over the shoulders, and woven through with shining silver embroidery.

“You call the princess ‘Sunshine?’” Cassandra asks, frowning as she unbuttons her coat.

“What, you don’t think it suits her?”

“I didn’t say that,” Cassandra says with a shrug. “It’s just -- commoners where I’m from would never dare to be so informal with me.”

“I can give you a disrespectful nickname, too, if you want,” Eugene says, shouldering off his coat and exchanging it for Cassandra’s.

Cassandra stares, unsure if he’s serious. “That’s...not necessary.”

“Suit yourself,” Eugene says. The two of them finish buttoning up their swapped coats, and Cassandra unties her plain striped mask and hands it over in exchange for the one that has Rapunzel’s handmade charm shining through its gleaming feathers. When she’s finished, Cassandra looks up and takes in the sight of Eugene in her clothes. Loath as she is to admit it, he’s a decent dupe for her.

“Like looking into a mirror,” Eugene says, smiling. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go be inconspicuous somewhere. Have fun, you lovebirds.”

“Thank you, Eugene,” Cassandra says.

“Do you get it?” Eugene says. “Lovebirds? Because --”

“I get it.”

“Man, tough crowd tonight. Well, enjoy the party!” he says with a jaunty wave, and then he runs off to rejoin the celebrations.

Steeling herself with a deep breath, Cassandra shortly follows suit and strides into the main hall with as much confidence as she can fake. Between marble pillars the size of towering trees, a golden light perfuses the atmosphere, radiating from lanterns strung high and low. It looks so different from the banquet hall where Cassandra first danced with the princess of Corona, but perhaps that’s because she isn’t pressured to view it through the lens of a prince who is supposed to be superior to this kingdom and its people. She lets herself bask in the beauty of the hall, from the delicate gilded leaves trailing down the walls from the upper level to the meticulous tile mosaic depicting the sun, Corona’s kingdom symbol, at her feet. Laughter and music ring through the air, accompanied by the swishing of petticoats and the tapping of shoes as masked couples float past.

Cassandra picks through the crowd, her head swiveling on her neck in search of Rapunzel. She comes up against the grand staircase, admiring its intricately carved banisters for a moment before she feels a tap on her shoulder and turns.

Rapunzel is smiling at her, and the beauty radiating from her like brilliant starlight smites Cassandra’s heart. Even with most of her face obscured by a matching bird mask, she is the most beautiful sight Cassandra has ever beheld, her delicate curves swathed in fine chiffon of a pink so pale that its layers coalesce into a rosy ivory. Tiny gemstones are inlaid in the fabric draped from her collar and in her skirt, sparkling like dew in a rosebush, and her hair is pinned back from her face with delicate enamel flowers gilded with gold at the edges. Cassandra finds her gaze drawn to the smooth curve of Rapunzel’s bare shoulder and the amber freckles scattered there, but drags her eyes back to somewhere more proper.

“You’re really here,” Rapunzel whispers, taking Cassandra’s hands in her own and stepping closer. “I’m not dreaming, am I?”

“I’m really here,” Cassandra chuckles, and she feels the pull of the kiss they both wish they could share. She smiles warmly, hoping that her affection comes across without the gesture.

“You look…” Rapunzel’s eyes trail down to take in Cassandra’s ensemble, and Cassandra can see the flush of her cheeks spreading down her neck. “Wow.”

“Wow, yourself,” Cassandra returns, and holds out her hand. “Now, I believe I was promised a dance?”

Rapunzel giggles and places her hand in hers, curtsying. “Well, since you came all this way…”

The orchestra is swelling with a smooth cello duet, accentuated with the bright notes of a piano and the gentle background of a harp, and it sounds like the music pulled the wistful, contented feeling straight out of Cassandra’s heart and draped it over the hall like gossamer curtains. She rests her hand on Rapunzel’s waist, lifts their joined hands, and leads them in a waltz. Rapunzel’s steps are more practiced than the first time Cassandra danced with her, mirroring her partner’s movements effortlessly and circling her like a spiral drawn inward. Cassandra cannot keep the smile off her face, not with Rapunzel beaming at her like this is the happiest night of her life.

They turn and turn, leaning in close to exchange secret whispers as the night wears on, and Rapunzel talks to scarcely anybody else all evening. At one point, Queen Arianna waves at the pair and starts making her way over to check on her daughter, and Cassandra squeezes Rapunzel’s hand before fleeing from her side under the guise of refreshing their drinks. Rapunzel rejoins her a few songs later, once she’s danced with her father and with a couple of other kingdom nobles under her father’s insistence. She tugs Cassandra back toward the dance floor by her elbow, but Cassandra stays her hand. “Aren’t you tired, Raps?”

Rapunzel looks at her like she is unfamiliar with the concept. “Not really. Why? Are you?”

“Just...take a break for a minute. Come have a drink with me,” she says, offering her a crystal flute of sparkling wine.

“But you’re here,” Rapunzel says, tilting her head entreatingly. “You’re here, in my home, and I don’t want to be passive for a moment of this night.”

Cassandra’s eyes soften, and she sighs fondly. “You’re right. This is your home. But there’s got to be more to it than this ballroom, right?”

Rapunzel’s eyes light up behind her mask and she gasps. “Do you want to see the rest?”

She barely waits for a response before grabbing Cassandra’s wrist and pulling her up the stairs, laughter ringing behind her.

The night wanes as Cassandra follows Rapunzel through the vacant palace halls. Their first stop is the royal library, which is such a far cry from the one in Diadem that Cassandra hardly recognizes it as such. She barely has time to take it in before Rapunzel whisks her to her family’s portrait gallery, listing off names of increasing absurdity as the paintings go down her ancestral line. The painting of Rapunzel is simple and elegant: she poses between her two parents, smiling serenely at the viewer in a spring green dress. Cassandra wonders what it would be like to have a likeness of Rapunzel hanging on her wall, so she could see her face in between their meetings instead of always relying on her memories.

“I think I look too buck-toothed in my portrait,” Rapunzel muses, tilting her head to the side as she and Cassandra examine the painting.

“You look beautiful,” Cassandra says, then turns to Rapunzel. “It doesn’t do you justice, though.”

Rapunzel blushes, and seems to swell on the balls of her feet at the praise. Her gaze lingers on Cassandra for a moment, then it shifts into determination, and she’s grabbing Cassandra’s arm again. “Come on, I have one more place to show you.”

Cassandra lets herself be led again, half-wondering if Rapunzel is going to bring her to her bedroom. But no, it would be under guard right now, and besides, Cassandra cringes thinking about the vicious rumors that would spread if Rapunzel were seen abandoning party guests to bring a man to her bedroom. Her chest relaxes when they descend the stairs again, bypassing the ballroom to the garden outside.

The night sky is clear and crisp, the cool swipe of galaxy overhead contrasting with the golden glow of the lanterns dotting the hedgerows. Most of the flowers are closed up, the crickets and frogs singing softly in tune with the gentle static of the fountain in the courtyard. Rapunzel guides them to a space that is shielded from onlookers by trees and hedges, and Cassandra leans against the bark of a magnolia.

“Do you remember this place?” Rapunzel asks, still looking at her through the eyes of her owlish mask.

“Of course I remember,” Cassandra says.

“I dreamed of bringing you here so I could do something I couldn’t do back then, even though a part of me wanted to,” Rapunzel says, her voice low and breathy. She moves to stand closer to Cassandra, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Oh yeah?” Cassandra teases, trailing her hand lightly against Rapunzel’s ribs. “What might that be?”

“Close your eyes,” Rapunzel whispers, and Cassandra does. She feels her mask being lifted away from her face, smells Rapunzel’s floral perfume as she leans in closer. The warmth of her breath on Cassandra’s cheek heralds the sweet kiss that follows, and Cassandra parts her lips under their pliant pressure. Her arms tug Rapunzel’s waist closer, holding their hips flush together as they fall into a seamless rhythm, one far more intimate than the evening’s dances.

Every kiss from Rapunzel feels like a gift, one that Cassandra isn’t sure she’s worthy of. Rapunzel is radiant, beloved, a miracle by the truest of definitions. Cassandra reveres her, holds the affection she feels for her close like a fragile blossom that must be guarded, never expecting that it would one day be let into the light. It flourishes under Rapunzel’s glowing warmth, becoming something tender and beautiful that Cassandra never would have pictured living within her heart.

Rapunzel pulls away, her eyes lidded and glazed. She strokes a thumb over Cassandra’s cheek. “You have no idea how hard it’s been to resist doing that all night,” she mutters.

“I think I have an inkling,” Cassandra says. “If it’s anything close to the restraint I’ve had to exert.”

“Look at us, so proper,” Rapunzel says, and the words in combination with her flushed cheeks and love-bitten lips make Cassandra snort. She leans forward into another kiss, forgetting everything but the way Rapunzel feels against her.

But it can’t last forever. Reluctantly, Rapunzel withdraws from her embrace and tilts Cassandra’s mask back down over her face. “We have to go back inside,” she says. “People are probably wondering where I am.”

Sighing, Cassandra presses a swift kiss to Rapunzel’s cheek and offers her arm. “I’ll walk you back inside, and then I must set off for home. It is a long journey.”

Rapunzel curls her wrist through Cassandra’s elbow and leads them back to the main hall, lingering just outside the archway to give her one more hug. “Be safe. Write to me,” she whispers into her neck.

“As soon as I’m able,” Cassandra promises. “Goodnight, Rapunzel.”

“Goodnight,” Rapunzel says, holding onto Cassandra’s hand until it’s pulled from her grasp. As Cassandra makes her way back to Fidela, the night breeze seems unusually cold. She realizes she forgot to ask about the emergency escape route she demanded, but it hardly matters. Nothing could have dragged her from Rapunzel’s side tonight. She’s starting to believe that nothing ever will.

Chapter Text

Transfiguration spells are difficult to learn, but easy to master, even for the most prodigious of mythics. As a girl, Zahn Tiri struggled with even the simplest disguise magic, incapable of so much as changing the color of her hair to something less conspicuous than its natural lavender hue. But failure, and perhaps more specifically, spite, have always been the most potent motivators for Zahn Tiri to overcome challenges. After decades of discipline and practice, Zahn Tiri’s skill in transfiguration has risen to such heights that her family has begun to rely on her for any task that requires it. And it turns out that keeping tabs on the unsociable prince of Diadem has necessitated a sort of discreet espionage, when the standard coy conversation of the court would have sufficed for anyone else, and the brunt of the charge has fallen to Zahn Tiri’s reliable skill.

Only an upbringing saturated with the disciplined manners of nobility could have schooled Zahn Tiri’s face from expressing her abject shock when Prince Cassandra spoke of a friend the other day in the library, particularly with such fondness. Prince Cassandra does not have friends. As one who has been attempting the impossible task of winning her favor for years, Zahn Tiri would know. Less refined members of the palace staff even refer to the surly heir as “Her Royal Moodiness,” such is the frigidity of her demeanor. How she could have forged a bond so strong that she would be willing to try hazardous, poorly-documented divination spells to help her get answers is beyond Zahn Tiri’s reckoning.

Such unexpected circumstances bode poorly for the plan that Zahn Tiri’s family has been orchestrating for generations. Diadem’s throne is uniquely poised to destabilize Corona, the kingdom that stripped mythics of their land and dignity on a fool king’s whim. When Prince Cassandra exhibited an affinity for the arts of war in combination with her obedience to her duties, she presented an opportunity to mobilize schemes that have long been fermenting. If Zahn Tiri can manage to secure sway over Cassandra’s allegiance, then she will prove a perfect vessel of vengeance. It is no simple task, but everything that Zahn Tiri stands for hangs in the balance of its success.

So the introduction of this friend, this unaccounted-for factor in Cassandra’s utility, must be resolved as a matter of urgency. It is what has brought Zahn Tiri to the prince’s bedchambers, disguised under the appearance of an anonymous maid tidying up while her liege is away. She sweeps into the room, glancing around at its severe decoration. The floor is dark, polished wood, with a cobalt-blue square rug under the imposing bed, which boasts four great mahogany bedposts carved to resemble the jagged rock formations in the caves beneath the castle. The black stone walls are bare except for a handful of mounted arms that the prince is particularly partial to: a well-loved brass halberd, a rapier with a handle of gem-encrusted jade and ivory, a poleaxe whose broad blade is engraved with scenes of epic mythological battles. The prince’s wardrobe looms tall across from the bed, and Zahn Tiri crosses over to it and charms its silver lock into opening before her.

She rifles through its contents and finds nothing but the expected raiment of varying extravagance. The only thing worth noting is some kind of small knitted accessory at the back of one of the drawers, among the equipment for Cassandra’s trained owl; it catches Zahn Tiri’s eye on account of its bright lilac color, out of place with the dark, desaturated tones of Cassandra’s tastes. She lifts it and turns it over in her hands, examining the button closure, but she can’t fathom what it could possibly be used for. She stashes it back where it was and turns her attention elsewhere.

Zahn Tiri sweeps her hand on top of the wardrobe, ducks to check beneath the bed, swipes the curtains aside to check the room’s corners, and finds nothing that would explain where this friend came from. She’s starting to wonder if Cassandra actually fabricated the whole story and that she was interested in using magic herself, after all, when the toe of her shoe catches on the edge of a floorboard raised almost imperceptibly above its neighbors. Drawing her brows together and frowning, Zahn Tiri bends down and prods at the edge until it lifts just enough to reveal a compartment beneath.

Heart racing, Zahn Tiri reaches down and pulls out a thick roll of parchment, held together with twine. She hastily unties it and spreads out its contents, eyes scanning the words written in a single, consistent hand.

They are letters.

Both the address and the signature are left anonymous, and any identifying names or details are omitted or coded. Anxiety rises in Zahn Tiri’s chest like bile -- the prince that she’s placed all her hopes on has been concealing a secret correspondence for what must be months, judging by the sheer quantity of letters. This could throw everything off, this could turn into a gravity well that alters the course of their prince, their unwavering moon. Who could be writing these letters that Cassandra would go to such lengths to protect their identity from her family and her court?

The messages make reference to secret meetings, and while the times and locations are not elaborated upon, Zahn Tiri gathers that she should expect the prince to sneak past the kingdom’s borders sometime in the next month. But this time, she won’t go unwatched. With a practiced flourish of her hand, Zahn Tiri conjures a familiar in the form of a sparrow.

“My eyes through your eyes,” she mutters, caging the creature in her bony fingers. “Discreet as the breeze, dutiful as the tide, you will follow the prince. It is time to meet this ‘friend.’”

She releases the bird through the bedroom window and watches it fly off in search of its target.

It is some unholy hour between midnight and dawn when Zahn Tiri feels the tug of her familiar at the edge of her consciousness. It is like the prodding sensation of daylight through sleeping eyelids, except her bedroom is dark as pitch when she opens her eyes. She sits up, folding her covers over her lap and squinting with residual sleep, as she mediates on the link with her little sparrow.

It takes a few minutes of intense focus, but the mist of her mind’s eye clears from a blurry smear of shadow to a vision that she can make sense of. From the bird’s perch in the branches of a tree, she looks down upon Prince Cassandra loading her horse’s saddlebags and leading her away from the border fort where she’s been stationed. She is alone and has the bearing of a thief attempting to sneak away with their plunder, dutifully checking her surroundings and muffling the sounds of her passage. She mounts her horse and rides south -- is she leaving Diadem? Zahn Tiri knows that the prince takes pleasure in hunting trips, but why would she need to leave in the middle of the night, or without an entourage? The cloak she wears to enshroud her face bodes ominously, most of all.

The sparrow takes flight to follow the prince as she rides through the night, barely stopping and with the unfaltering determination of a wartime messenger. Zahn Tiri can’t help but wonder if she is spying on a spy -- but how could Prince Cassandra of all people have strategic contact with other kingdoms without anybody knowing? She was trained since birth to be loyal to the crown, and it would defy reason for the heir to one of the most powerful kingdoms’ throne to betray it. Besides, Cassandra is no great pretender. Her inability to disguise her intentions has long confounded her etiquette tutors, she could not keep such a heavy secret from her own court.

Zahn Tiri stays up until sunrise tracking Cassandra’s journey through the eyes of her familiar, but her daytime duties eventually pull her attention away. She instructs the little bird to alert her again if Cassandra reaches her destination or if anything changes, and surrenders her senses back to her actual surroundings.

It isn’t until night falls once more that the link sings again, and Zahn Tiri abandons her bedtime preparations to attune her mind to her familiar. When the haze clears, she sees the prince dismounting her horse along a dirt path among dense trees. There aren’t any buildings or people nearby that could indicate where she is, and Zahn Tiri squints as though she could discern any other details that way. She watches as Cassandra leads her steed into the trees, emerging in a small forest clearing where another young woman is waiting. Is this the “friend” Cassandra mentioned? The sparrow flits to a closer branch so that Zahn Tiri can make out her appearance through the surrounding darkness, and —

It’s...the Lost Princess. Rapunzel, heir to the throne of Corona. As Diadem’s spymaster, Zahn Tiri recognizes her enemy’s progeny instantly.

Before Zahn Tiri can right her flipped stomach and make sense of what she’s seeing, Rapunzel rushes toward Cassandra, and for a moment Zahn Tiri fears that she is about to helplessly bear witness to an assassination. But instead of attacking, Rapunzel lunges into a tight embrace, and Cassandra reaches under the princess’s chin to guide her into a kiss.

With a tight gasp, the link to Zahn Tiri’s familiar shatters, and she snaps her eyes open in her own dim bedroom. Her heart is pounding in her chest, her fingers sweaty and trembling, like she’s stumbled back from a great height and is grappling with the vertigo. Her mind grasps at the scene now burned into her memory, trying to convince herself that she must have erred with her spell or mistaken someone else for the Coronan princess. But the longer she considers it, the more it makes sense...the hidden letters, the long absences, the unexplained friend, the meticulous secrecy.

This could turn into an unprecedented disaster, laying waste to the plans that her family has sacrificed and worked so hard to set in motion. Zahn Tiri grits her teeth and tears aside her bedcovers to get dressed and call an emergency family council. Something must be done, before it is too late.

Zahn Tiri sits at the head of the table in her family’s home, focusing on not fidgeting with the material of her skirt. It’s the middle of the night, and the elders will already not be pleased at being summoned, especially not for such bad news. She sips from a glass of water and rephrases the announcement in her head over and over. Logically, she knows that she could not have foreseen this, but the blame will fall to her nonetheless if the asset of Prince Cassandra is lost. If she cannot find a way to circumvent this problem, she may be disowned by her family or worse. The daunting stakes almost make her wish she could just ignore the issue altogether, but she will not run away from this. She will be there to see it when Corona falls.

Bit by bit, the family files into the great dining hall and take their seats at the table. They greet Zahn Tiri politely enough, but she can see the bitterness in the bruised bags under their eyes. Servants bring tea and coffee, and the atmosphere is as quiet as a wake while they wait for the meeting to be officially called.

“Thank you for heeding me at this hour,” Zahn Tiri begins, standing from her seat and bowing her head in deference. “I would not have asked you all here if it were not imminently urgent. As you know, my eyes have been fixed on the movements of Prince Cassandra for some time, to ensure her critical position in Diadem’s hierarchy does not come under threat. I have called for counsel because a threat has made its way past our preventative measures, and I fear we will lose our asset unless it is dealt with.”

A few people gasp at the notion, many others narrowing their eyes and frowning in suspicion or premature condemnation. Zahn Tiri’s great uncle Bertrand speaks up, his voice gruff from both age and from his recent sleep. “You know the stakes, Zahn Tiri. If Prince Cassandra has already been swayed, she is as good as lost. Her obedience and malleability are what make her useful.”

A cousin scoffs as this. “At least let us assess this threat Zahn Tiri speaks of, uncle, before we shoot the racehorse we have invested in so much.”

“Bah,” Bertrand says, waving his hand and sitting back in his chair. He glares at Zahn Tiri, daring her to go on.

Zahn Tiri clears her throat. “The prince recently made comments to me, suggesting that she has a new friend for whom she is willing to go to great lengths. She asked me for a divination spell, to put this friend at ease. I investigated the matter, because of course we must have tabs on everyone who gets close to the prince. I discovered that she has been hiding a secret correspondence with Rapunzel, the princess of Corona, for some months.”

The room bursts into chatter. Bertrand and several others stand up and slam their fists on the table in outrage, with others tugging on their sleeves to implore them to sit back down. Zahn Tiri looks around and meets gazes that range from skeptical to panicked.

“This cannot be borne!”

“How could you let this happen?”

“You must be mistaken, child.”

“How can you be certain that the letters are from Princess Rapunzel?”

Zahn Tiri breathes deeply and raises her voice in response to a question she can actually answer. “I confirmed the identity of the prince’s illicit consort myself, through a tracking familiar. This very evening, Prince Cassandra traveled to Corona on her own to meet with the Coronan princess. I did not understand why the prince would go to such great lengths to see someone, until I saw…” she sighs, bracing herself for the fallout. “They appear to share a romantic involvement.”

For a few seconds, the table is silent, all eyes trained on Zahn Tiri in uniform expressions of shock. Then the room is consumed by a cacophonous panic that makes the previous bout of indignation look utterly tame. Cousins stand up and shout their displeasure at the head of the table, elders wail with despair and regret, married couples argue with each other over the gravity of the matter. Zahn Tiri focuses on holding her head high, shutting her eyes to maintain her composure.

“A union between the heirs of our nations would dash any hope of retaliation!” cries great-aunt Greta. “The war we’ve worked so long to bring about is over before it has even begun!”

Greta’s wife, Phila, chides her for being hysterical. “Nothing will come of this,” she says with a stern nod. “King Frederic would never permit such a marriage, this romance will choke on its own smoke and die before it can set fire to anything else. I say we go ahead as planned; Prince Cassandra will take the throne soon enough, and with Zahn Tiri as her advisor we will be in position to urge Diadem to war with that wretched kingdom. Something this frivolous cannot stop us from taking back our ancestral lands.”

“Oh, Phila, always so short-sighted,” says her brother Malcolm from across the table. “Frederic may not permit it, but he will not be king forever. Need I remind you that the Coronan line can take the throne without marrying? Once the Lost Princess has that power, no one can stop her from marrying whomever she pleases. If Prince Cassandra is still infatuated with her when that day comes, then all will be lost. We cannot take this risk, something must be done!”

“You say that like it’s simple!” roars Bertrand, slamming his hand down on the table hard enough to rattle the glasses atop it. “Like we have not already been doing everything we can to keep the prince under our thumb! What, do you propose, is this measure you insist upon? What can we do that we have not already done?”

Malcolm rolls his eyes and scoffs, gesturing around the room as though someone else will answer the demand for him. He splutters for a few seconds, his face turning so red it nears a bruised purple, and then throws his hands up in the air. “Well, if anyone has such prescient insight, I would like to hear it!”

“I have an idea.”

All eyes snap to the head of the table, where Zahn Tiri smoothes her skirt and raises her gaze. “In my time monitoring Prince Cassandra, I have earned a modicum of her trust. If I am careful and deliberate, I believe I could win over more than just that.”

“What are you saying, Zahn Tiri? Out with it!” Greta urges.

“I am saying that we must break up this couple, but direct interference is unlikely to prevail, if the barriers of distance and title that they have already overcome in order to be together are any measure of their willfulness. We could even risk pushing them closer together by enforcing separation, or worse, bring our underlying plans to light after all this time. What this requires is a...delicate approach. We must convince Cassandra to end this dalliance of her own accord. We must pull her heart in another direction.”

“Set her up with another, you mean?” says Phila. “We determined long ago that that route of influence was fruitless with the prince. She will not marry anyone she does not wish to.”

“Such attempts have been rebuffed in the past because Cassandra has no interest in marrying for the sake of it. But to marry for love...as we have discussed, this is a real possibility. The only way to ensure she does not marry Rapunzel is if she marries someone else.” She takes a deep breath. “If she marries me.”

Muffled gasps arise from around the room. “Zahn Tiri...what makes you think that this will come to pass if she has already overlooked you countless times in favor of Princess Rapunzel?” asks an elder.

“Leave that to me,” Zahn Tiri says. “If I am able to pull off what I have in mind...not only will I drive our prince away from Rapunzel, but our two nations may be provoked to war sooner than we could have hoped.”

She can pinpoint the moment that the interest in the faces around her flares into blistering determination.

The atmosphere of the royal audience chamber of Diadem’s palace is more foreboding than welcoming. Ten-foot marble statues of past monarchs and warriors stand guard along the walls, their stone blades looking just as sharp as steel. The ceiling is cavernous, with obsidian buttresses supporting its angled peak, and the throne itself is imposing in its size and severe in its gothic style. Queen Edith sits upon it now, with her daughter Prince Cassandra standing dutifully at her side.

Zahn Tiri keeps her eyes to the floor in deference as she approaches, and curtsies deeply before raising them. Queen Edith is always a stark sight, with charcoal-black hair tied back from her sharp face, and skin the color of bleached bone. She wears armor with her regalia, a gleaming pauldron sitting atop one shoulder and silver bracers over her wrists, as though daring anyone to try and attack her. Nothing about her suggests warmth or lenience, and looking upon her one could understand the birth and propagation of rumors that she killed her own husband to clear her path to Diadem’s throne, once he provided her with an heir.

Prince Cassandra herself looks as stern as usual. Zahn Tiri scans her face, but finds nothing to suggest that she is aware of what Zahn Tiri now knows.

“Lady Zahn Tiri,” Queen Edith addresses her in her low, gravelly voice. “You urgently requested an audience, and as you are the kingdom’s spymaster, I heeded you with priority. Nevertheless, I expect you to waste none of my time.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Zahn Tiri says, bowing her head for good measure. “I am grateful for your valuable time. I am afraid I come to you with grave news. As you know, my spy network has been monitoring intelligence around Coronan affairs, to identify any threats to our kingdom’s security. I must inform you that my spies have discovered just that: evidence of a plot to overthrow your rule, Your Majesty.”

The queen scoffs. “This is hardly unheard of. Many wish to see this kingdom’s downfall, but none have the power to bring it down.”

“Almost none,” Zahn Tiri says.

The queen’s eyebrow twitches. “Speak plainly. Who plots against us?”

“The only one who could stand a chance against Diadem’s might, Your Majesty,” Zahn Tiri says. “King Frederic of Corona.”

Prince Cassandra’s eyes widen in the split second before she schools her features back to neutrality, but Zahn Tiri does not miss it. The queen’s expression darkens into a scowl. “What kind of plot?”

“We have intercepted intelligence from Coronan couriers that hint at an operation to ‘strike at the heart of Diadem,’” Zahn Tiri lies. “We are still deciphering the precise meaning, but with such a sentiment from the Seven Kingdoms’ other great power, we cannot be too cautious. Do you not agree, Your Majesty?”

Queen Edith strokes her chin, frowning deeply. “This is troubling indeed. We must take no chances with these Coronan lowlives; I will see to it that our kingdom security is doubled in the coming months.”

Prince Cassandra finally speaks up. “Mother, we must not be rash in our actions. With such scarce evidence, Corona may interpret a sudden enhancement of defensive measures as intent to attack. We could be inviting war instead of avoiding it.”

“Cassandra, you flout your ignorance!” the queen roars, and Cassandra narrows her eyes but does not flinch. “By speaking so, you only show how little you understand of Corona. If they mean to strike at us, we shall not make it easy for them.”

“We don’t know that they mean to strike us,” Cassandra argues. “I say we bide our time, wait until Zahn Tiri’s spies gather more information before taking action.”

“The benefit of the doubt is something that that wretched kingdom lost the right to generations ago, and you should know that, Cassandra,” the queen seethes, locking her intense gaze to her daughter so that she feels her scrutiny. “You have forgotten yourself, ever since you returned from that festival last year. I would never have sent you, had I known it would weaken your defenses against our enemy so. Your enemy.”

Cassandra lifts her chin defiantly. “You think me blind, but to hate another people for no reason other than national pride is the peak of ignorance.”

Pride?!” the queen bellows, her face growing several shades darker. “Pride, indeed! Perhaps Zahn Tiri can remind you why Corona has rightfully earned our ire, if you have become so deluded as to think your mother is prey to the whims of her pride.”

The queen looks at Zahn Tiri meaningfully, and she realizes that was a legitimate entreaty. Zahn Tiri preens internally, as detailing the case to condemn Corona is effortless for her. She clears her throat and begins, “Corona has been grappling with Diadem for control over the Seven Kingdoms for centuries, in order to force total economic reliance on themselves and cement their trade empire. The mythic accords were only one of Corona’s many attempts to force Diadem under their thumb, and they would take any chance to wrest our kingdom’s power and independence from the hands of our monarchy. Corona has avoided declaring war thus far, but they have become emboldened by the return of the Lost Princess and the restored hope in the continuation of their royal line. They are stronger than ever, and they are in the perfect position to mount a coup against Diadem if we are not careful. Your Highness, insufficient as the evidence may seem to you, I assure you they have no reason not to. To believe otherwise is to play directly into their hands.”

“You see, Cassandra?” the queen says, her smugness so strong that it is nearly tangible. “We must keep our heads about us or we are nothing but victims. You would do well to remember that.”

Prince Cassandra bites her cheeks and balls her fists like she’s suppressing an outburst, but after a breath she bows to the queen and says, “Yes, Mother. I understand.”

With the queen and prince primed for retaliation against Coronan aggression, there is only one more element that must fall into place before Zahn Tiri can put her plans into motion. She can’t afford to hesitate at the risks, and she knows if she brought it up with her family at their council, they would have talked her out of it. If they find out she even seriously considered this step at all, they will be appalled. But they don’t need to know. All that matters is that Zahn Tiri will be the one to bring Corona’s empire crashing down under the weight of its own corruption, at any cost.

Zahn Tiri waits until nightfall, and makes way for one of the palace’s underground caves, where she stashed the components of the spell upon which everything now hinges. She is careful to ensure she isn’t followed, glaring at every bat and lizard that crosses her path until she’s certain they aren’t tracking familiars. She has no reason to believe that anyone is watching her, but the consequences if she were to be found out tonight are astronomical. She tugs her hood a little closer around her face, giving the empty corridor one last glance before shutting herself inside the dark little cavern.

With a practice flick of her wrist, Zahn Tiri sends a tiny flame around the room to light the candles she set on the floor earlier in a meticulous swirling pattern. She crosses to the center, where the two entwined spiral paths of light converge on a single point, and picks up the vicious-looking ceremonial dagger she snuck from her family’s storage. Its dark blade curves wickedly like a dragon’s tooth, and the pommel is set with a foreboding ruby that resembles a watchful eye in its size and shape. No one could mistake this dagger for a common weapon. It was made for one purpose, and it has been sealed away in efforts to keep it from serving it. But tonight, for the first time in hundreds of years, it will finally be put to use once more.

Zahn Tiri closes her eyes, breathing deeply as she disrobes. Her heart pounds in her chest, as though begging her to reconsider this desecration, but she tightens her grip on the blade’s hilt and banishes her doubts. She thinks of the sorrow in her elders’ faces when they speak of their regrets that they will likely not live to see their homeland again. She thinks of Diadem’s streets, overflowing with mythic refugees with nowhere else to go. She thinks of the stubborn queen, of how she only needs one good reason to send her warriors marching on Corona. She thinks of the day that King Frederic falls on a Diadem blade, repaying the debt of blood that he owes.

And she drags the tip of the dagger across the flesh at her breastbone, carving the shape of a dark sigil that has been buried for an age. The bite of the blade hurts more than a normal cut, the acid heat of the heavy act scalding her blood as it slices through her pale skin. She bites her lip to keep herself from crying out, only to draw blood that seeps through her mouth, tainting her breath with hot iron as she pants from the pain.

Her blood is dark, almost black, as it flows out of the wound and along the edge of the blade, flickering red in the light of the surrounding flames as it drips to the stone at her feet. Zahn Tiri feels the pull of energy beyond the veil like a call that she must answer, like the anticipation of caged animals before a feast of raw meat. She opens her mouth to beseech them, the demonic spirits that are sealed away from exerting their corruption upon the mortal world except through forbidden dark magic rituals. The pain in her chest, the wet sheet of blood dripping down her body, seem to pulse like a quasar and then brighten to an almost unbearable point -- and then it’s over. Zahn Tiri opens her eyes to darkness; the candles have all been snuffed out. Her wound stings, but no more than a mundane cut. The flaying agony inflicted by the forming of the pact is gone. Her offering was accepted, she feels the crackle of dangerous magic simmering like the embers of a wildfire behind the sigil in her skin.

She gathers her clothes and presses a rag against the still-flowing blood, and she cannot keep the smirk off her face. Her family will not find out about the power she now bears, but her desires are so nearly within reach that her fingertips can brush the tantalizing prospect of victory in vengeance.

If collective anathema was the only thing barring mythics from this power, then they were fools to have shunned it for so long, anyway.

Chapter Text

Rapunzel’s glowing lights split into orbs the size of apples, and she tosses them in arcs between her hands as though she’s juggling. She glances at Cassandra with a cheeky smirk, and Cassandra laughs. “Very impressive, Raps,” she says.

“You think so?” Rapunzel beams, the lights blinking out one by one as they fall back down to her hand. “Just a little something I’ve been working on.”

“Have you been working on anything else?” Cassandra asks, leaning closer to wrap her arm around Rapunzel’s waist.

“I have! I’ve found that I’m actually pretty good with healing magic, actually,” Rapunzel says. “Last week, I cast a revival spell on a poor orchid that was barely hanging onto life, and it perked right back up under my touch! It was amazing, Cass, I wish I could have shown you.”

“That does sound amazing. I know nothing of healing or medicine, only the opposite. Combat and fighting are all I’m good at,” Cassandra says.

Rapunzel reaches a hand to Cassandra’s cheek. “You’re good at horseback riding, and ballroom dancing, and wilderness survival, and you’re a wonderful conversationalist once you open up, and though I have no comparison, I daresay you’re pretty good at kissing.”

“Alright, alright!” Cassandra protests, laughing. “That wasn’t an appeal for praise.”

“I will take every opportunity to remind you how lovely you are,” Rapunzel says, and Cassandra can’t meet her adoring gaze in the same way she can’t look directly into the sunrise.

“You are impossible,” Cassandra says, but her tone is light with fondness rather than bearing any real scolding. She ducks her head down and meets Rapunzel’s lips, losing herself to the familiar rhythm of their embrace. It is easy to lose track of time in Rapunzel’s arms, and Cassandra eagerly surrenders herself to the sweet haze.

It is the sound of rustling underbrush nearby that abruptly snaps Cassandra’s attention away. She stands in one fluid motion, a hand on her sword hilt, squinting as she scans the trees for intruders.

“What’s wrong?” Rapunzel asks, still sitting on the blanket and confused about why their kiss was interrupted.

“Shh,” Cassandra commands.

The rustling gets closer, and Cassandra relaxes a bit when she determines from the sound of its steps that it’s a four-legged animal rather than a human. She knows how to handle wild creatures, but dealing with people who stumble upon secrets requires a delicate touch that Cassandra doesn’t have. But her relief is short-lived, and she draws her blade in a flash when a wolf breaks past the treeline, its hungry eyes fixing on the two women.

“Stay where you are, Rapunzel,” Cassandra mutters. “Don’t make any sudden movements.”

“Cass...it’s hurt,” Rapunzel whispers, and Cassandra notices the broken arrow shaft sticking out of its back. It’s escaped from a hunter, or fled a shepherd protecting their flock, perhaps.

Rapunzel starts to stand, but Cassandra fixes her with an urgent glare. “Wounded animals are more dangerous. Don’t do anything rash.”

“Let me help it, please” Rapunzel says, standing despite Cassandra’s insistence. “I can try to heal it. If we let it go like this, it could die.”

“If you get any closer, you could die,” Cassandra hisses, staying focused on the wolf but stretching her arm out in a feeble attempt to keep Rapunzel back. But Rapunzel slowly steps around her, lowering herself with a hand outstretched to the beast. “Raps! Leave it, just trust me!”

Rapunzel ignores her, and Cassandra wants to grab her arm and drag her back to safety, but she risks provoking the wolf if she doesn’t stay still. Rapunzel coos at it like it’s a baby, like it can understand her benign intent. “There, there...you’re just scared, aren’t you? I’m not going to hurt you, it’s okay…”

The wolf growls, its ears flattening against its head and muzzle wrinkling in a clear display of aggression, and Rapunzel hesitates, but persists in her approach. Years of hunting and traveling through the wilds has made Cassandra intimately attuned to the signals of beasts, and it is this that alerts her to the wolf’s intent to attack in the fractured second before it leaps at Rapunzel with its sharp teeth bared. Cassandra splits into the space between them like a bolt of lightning, raising her forearm to catch the creature’s biting maw. She cries out in agony as its fangs sink into her arm and tear at the flesh, and with a mighty twist of her shoulder she manages to fling the beast away, forcing it to release her. Her arm pulses with excruciating heat, blood pouring from the gashes left by the wolf’s teeth, but through the daze of pain, she manages to raise her sword.

Vaguely, Cassandra hears Rapunzel sobbing her name in terror behind her, and although she’s not sure how well she can fight with this injury, she would rather lose her arm than fail to protect Rapunzel. She brandishes her blade and advances on the wolf, which snarls with its hackles raised. It rears up to lunge at her again, and this time Cassandra nimbly sidesteps and slashes it along the ribs as it passes her. The wolf yelps and whimpers as it stumbles, then raises its matted head to look back at Cassandra. It wisely decides to cut its losses rather than go up against the sword again, and it runs off, back into the woods.

When it’s gone, Cassandra grunts as she sinks to the ground, gripping her injured arm at the wrist and gritting her teeth in an effort to bear the pain. Rapunzel is at her side in an instant, her hands flitting over her as though she’s not sure where they can do the most good. “Cass!” she cries, her cheeks streaked with tears. “I didn’t mean for this to happen, I --”

“Why didn’t you listen to me?” Cassandra snaps, and Rapunzel recoils, clutching her hands to her chest. Cassandra groans, scowling with both pain and rage. “I told you to stay back!”

“I’m sorry,” Rapunzel says, her voice breaking. “I didn’t know -- I should have listened. I just wanted to help…”

“This is helping?” Cassandra says, lifting her arm for emphasis. “I thought you trusted my judgment!”

“I -- I’m so sorry,” Rapunzel chokes, burying her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry, Cass.”

The sight of Rapunzel so broken cuts through Cassandra’s indignation like a sudden wind clearing hazy fog. She sighs, softening, and reaches out to take one of Rapunzel’s hands and bring it away from her face. “I know, Rapunzel,” she says.

“Let me fix it,” Rapunzel sniffs. “Your arm. I can at least stop the bleeding.”

Cassandra hesitates. “Are you sure that’s...safe?”

Rapunzel nods. “Please, I can’t bear to see you in pain.”

While Cassandra is not keen on the idea of letting anyone practice magic on her body, she figures that the risk is low for something like a healing spell. At worst, it does nothing and she’s just left with her mauled arm. And besides, despite her anger and Rapunzel’s brash foolishness, Cassandra still trusts her. She sighs and meets her eyes. “Alright, Raps. I’m in your hands.”

Rapunzel’s pinched features smooth with relief and she places her hands on Cassandra’s forearm, disregarding the blood that instantly coats her palms. “Are you ready?”

Cassandra swallows and nods.

Rapunzel cups her hands together like she’s praying, and she whispers the words of a spell. A golden apparition of a beautiful flower appears between Rapunzel’s hands, glowing like a tiny star. As Rapunzel recites the last lines, it dissolves into a glittering wave that sinks into Rapunzel’s palms, which beat with bright magic. Rapunzel takes a deep breath and reaches for Cassandra’s arm again.

The instant her fingers make contact, Cassandra shrieks and recoils at the feeling of vicious pain shooting through her arm. With a shocked gasp, Rapunzel withdraws her touch, but it’s too late. The skin of Cassandra’s arm bruises to a sickening purple, and then rapidly withers into a charred state of decay like a branch consumed by fire. Rapunzel screams, but Cassandra barely hears her -- it feels like her arm has been sunk into molten steel, and if the wolf’s bite was painful then this is unspeakable torture. She scrambles backward, away from Rapunzel, and struggles to her feet in speechless horror.

“Cass, wait!” Rapunzel cries, hand outstretched. But Cassandra stares at her with a look of reproach that Rapunzel never thought she would see in her eyes. Without a word, she turns away to find her horse to carry her home.

In her absence, Rapunzel hears the stirring of leaves in the branches above her. She looks up, but it’s only a sparrow, flying away.

On the way back to Diadem, Cassandra practices using her left hand for swordplay. She has training with Adira first thing in the morning the day she returns, and since her right hand is incapable of so much as gripping the hilt, she needs an alternative so that she doesn’t spend the better part of the day getting lectured by her instructor. She doesn’t even want to think about what her mother will say if she finds out about her withered hand. All her life, she’s been brought up to be the perfect warrior, and this kind of setback will be unforgivable. Even if Cassandra could tell her what happened to her, her mother would still condemn it as her fault. Her own undoing.

And she’s not entirely sure she could recount exactly what happened. It seemed clear from Rapunzel’s abject mortification as the healing spell unfurled into dark, hideous rot that she didn’t mean to hurt her, but…

Her mother’s voice, unbidden, echoes her earlier warning: You have weakened your defenses against our enemy.Your enemy.

No. No. Rapunzel could never be her enemy. She just made an honest mistake with the spell; if anything, Cassandra truly does bear the blame for letting an inexperienced sorceress practice magic on her. Rapunzel is more than the heir of Corona, more than the offspring of her kingdom’s enemy, and Cassandra is ashamed of her momentary mistrust of her. Rapunzel would never hurt her, would never cast suspicion upon her solely for her heritage.

Cassandra regrets, suddenly, that she took off the way she did. Rapunzel must be out of her wits with worry, and now she has to go weeks without knowing if Cassandra will be okay. Cassandra barely resists the impulse to just steer Fidela around and go back, but it’s too late. She’s already halfway through Antipe -- if she turns back now, she won’t have enough time to get back to Diadem before she’s scheduled to leave for the palace. And Rapunzel will have certainly gone home by the time she gets there, anyway. Cassandra resolves to send her a reassuring letter as soon as she figures out how to write with her left hand.

Fidela dutifully bears her back home, seeming to sense that her rider is weak and indisposed. Cassandra slinks back into her bedchambers in time to get a fitful wink of sleep before waking at dawn for training. In the pale, grey light of morning, Cassandra drags her arm out from under the covers, praying that it will somehow be back to normal, that the nightmare she recalls was nothing more than that. But the persistent ache betrays her reckless hope before she even gets a look at the charred, shrunken limb. The sight of it pricks at tears behind her eyes, but she sucks in a breath to steady herself. A tearstained face will be a dead giveaway to Adira that something’s off. She will have to delay her grief until after training, at least.

Cassandra gets ready for the day, donning clothes her handservant laid out for her the previous night, as has become routine. The castle servants noted early on that Cassandra is not what one would call a “morning person,” and give her a wide berth just after she rises from bed. Cassandra is grateful for it now, as she clumsily wraps her injured arm in linens and shoves it into a thick leather glove with a muffled shout. The contact with the damaged flesh stings like dressing a burn, but she does her best to grit her teeth and ignore the pain.

Adira notices instantly. Cassandra should have known better than to expect that simply obscuring her injury would fleece the seasoned swordmaster. Adira is suspicious when Cassandra insists on practicing with her non-dominant hand, but when Cassandra flinches when she is forced to use her right wrist to block an attack, Adira straightens up and sheathes her sword.

“What’s the matter with you?” she demands bluntly.

“Is something wrong with my form?” Cassandra asks, throwing in an innocent tilt of her head.

“Don’t play coy, prince. You’re no good at it,” Adira scolds, stepping closer. “Take off your glove, let me see your injury.”

Cassandra swallows and backs up half a step. “I just bruised my wrist falling off my horse yesterday,” she lies. “I already got it checked out by the physician, he said it would be fine as long as I don’t overwork it.”

Adira says nothing, only narrowing her eyes and holding out her hand. Cassandra sighs, knowing that there’s no way out of this situation without Adira seeing her arm. The woman is impossibly stubborn. Cassandra pulls off the glove, biting her lips as she offers up her forearm for Adira to see.

Adira furrows her brow, frowning deeply when she sees the blackened flesh of her fingers. She tugs the wrappings up, ignoring Cassandra’s hiss of discomfort, and shakes her head. “It looks like frostbite, but the season is far too warm for something this severe.”

“It’s...not frostbite,” Cassandra admits.

Adira clicks her tongue. “I don’t know why you’re hiding this, prince, and frankly it’s not my concern. But I can tell you that you will lose your arm if you don’t let someone help you, and that does make my job harder.”

Cassandra withdraws her arm and casts her gaze to the ground. “There’s nothing to be done. I don’t think it can be healed.”

“And you’re an expert?” Adira says, raising an eyebrow. “I’d suggest you seek out Zahn Tiri, or one of the royal mages. And by ‘suggest,’ I mean if you don’t bring this to her attention, then I will.”

Cassandra bites down her protest, and nods. “Yes, teacher. I understand.”

When Cassandra is summoned to the audience chamber on her mother’s request, it stokes her heart rate so high that her stomach churns sickeningly. It feels like someone’s stirred her insides with a hot fire poker, and every nerve in her body urges her to ignore the summons. But she has never disobeyed her mother, and if she starts now it will only spike suspicion, so she drags herself to the austere hall.

Her mother stands at her full imposing height before the throne, with Zahn Tiri waiting beside her. Cassandra approaches like a prisoner to her hearing, swallowing down her anxiety.

“Cassandra, Master Adira has informed me of your injury,” her mother says. “It will not do to hide it, not when we must be on guard against the threat of attack. I have requested that Zahn Tiri get a look at your arm so she can heal it, and you may resume your training as soon as possible.”

“Mother, it’s...truly of no consequence,” Cassandra says, cradling her arm to her chest defensively. “It will heal itself in less than a month’s time, I am sure.”

“Your Highness, with all due respect,” ventures Zahn Tiri. “Why wait weeks when I can simply restore it now? There is no advantage to choosing impairment.”

“Show her the injury, Cassandra,” orders the queen, a hint of impatience tinting her tone. “Let us be done with this matter quickly.”

Cassandra sucks in a deep, bracing breath, and steps forward. Once again, she discards her glove and allows Zahn Tiri to examine her arm.

Both the queen and Zahn Tiri gasp at the sight, but the depth of Zahn Tiri’s horror betrays a deeper, foreboding understanding of the wound. The mage’s spindly fingers hover over the wrappings like insects that can’t decide where to land, and worry carves wrinkles around her eyes. “Your Highness...this...I had hoped I would never see something like this with my own eyes. This is no mundane injury. This is a powerful decay curse,” she says, then looks up to meet Cassandra’s eyes. “It is almost always lethal.”

“Lethal?!” Cassandra yelps.

Zahn Tiri nods. “Your Highness, we must find the caster as soon as possible. You are lucky that the spell lost power at your elbow...whoever did this to you intended to kill you.”

“Th-that’s not possible,” Cassandra stammers, her mind reeling too quickly to consider her words. Rapunzel would not do this. It was an accident. She wouldn’t intentionally harm her.

“Who did this to you?” Queen Edith demands, fury burning in her normally cold eyes. “This threat must be dealt with immediately!”

Cassandra only manages to shake her head weakly. She is too stunned to fabricate a cover story, but she can’t come forward with the truth. She bites her tongue and doesn’t answer.

“Cassandra!” the queen roars. “Tell me what happened this instant or I shall have to pry it from you!”

Her indignity is met only with stubborn defiance and tight lips. Queen Edith turns to Zahn Tiri and snaps, “Zahn Tiri, you are capable of casting truth spells, are you not?”

Cassandra’s breath catches in her throat, her heart beating like a rabbit’s. Zahn Tiri blinks, taken aback. “I -- yes, Your Majesty, but only as a last resort.”

“We will have the truth one way or another, Cassandra,” the queen says, narrowing her eyes. “Cast it, Zahn Tiri.”

Zahn Tiri swallows. “Surely --”

Now.

Cassandra’s eyes flash to Zahn Tiri in a silent entreaty for mercy, but Zahn Tiri only returns her gaze with regretful resignation. Friends they may be, but defying a direct order from Diadem’s queen has consequences that Cassandra could not rightfully expect anyone to bear for her. Zahn Tiri steps down and approaches the prince, holding her hands out helplessly. “I am sorry about this, Your Highness,” she whispers, then she taps a cold finger on Cassandra’s temple and murmurs a spell under her breath. Cassandra feels a strange sensation of separation, like her mind is a cotton ball being pulled apart. Her memories and experiences are drawn to the forefront, while her will is banished far to the back where she can no longer access it.

“I will ask you one more time,” the queen commands. “Who did this to you?”

Cassandra tries to stay her tongue, but the magic is too strong, and it rips the answer from her easily, like tearing a page from a book. “...Rapunzel,” she admits.

“Princess Rapunzel?” her mother says. “The Coronan heir?”

“Yes,” Cassandra mutters.

“But Zahn Tiri has said that the injury was inflicted by magic,” the queen says, stroking her chin. “The Lost Princess...is it possible? Is King Frederic’s child a mythic?”

Cassandra swallows dryly, remembering how she swore to Rapunzel that her magic would stay between the two of them. Her feeble willpower flails in desperation, dragging against the power of the truth spell. But it is useless. She closes her eyes, clenches her fists. “...Yes.”

Queen Edith narrows her eyes. “Tell me everything about your contact with her.”

The command compels Cassandra; resistance is completely beyond her reach. The truth of the past year comes tumbling forth into the open. She speaks of her letters and midnight excursions, of her feelings for the princess, of the lengths she has gone to for her. The queen’s scowl deepens as she recounts the tale, outrage etched plainly in her face. By the time Cassandra gets to the details of the masquerade ball, tears are starting to spill from her eyes. Everything she has guarded so closely, the only thing she cared about protecting...she has surrendered it all. She is left with nothing, and once she has thrown the last precious memory out of the safeguard of her mind, she stands silently trembling with helpless rage before her mother.

The queen is fuming, her jaw set and eyes hard as coal as she glares down at her child. Her anger escalates from a simmer to scalding hot the longer Cassandra speaks, and by the end her complexion has paled to a ghostly white. A moment passes in harrowing silence, the hall around them feeling like the mouth of a great beast just before it snaps shut. Then Queen Edith speaks, breaking the still air in a raspy, hushed voice, “So this is how it happens. The plot to strike at Diadem’s heart. To corrupt my only heir, to snatch my line out from beneath me.”

“Rapunzel would never use me like that,” Cassandra whispers back. The statement comes freely, unhindered by the truth spell.

“Your Highness, as much as I hate to say it...it would be a powerful ploy,” says Zahn Tiri, looking at Cassandra with concern in her gaze. “How much information about Diadem’s military and internal affairs have you shared in the princess’s confidence? How many times have you put yourself at risk or lied to the queen for her sake? She even got you to acquire a powerful spell from the archives of Diadem’s state mythics for her use.”

“No,” Cassandra says, quivering. “She never asked me for anything. It was always offered freely. Because I -- because I care for her.”

Queen Edith scoffs. “You did not know she was a sorceress until a year after you met her, foolish child! You put your trust in someone who was bending your will with her magic, and you served as an unwitting spy against your own kingdom. And now that Corona knows everything they need to conquer us, she has tried to dispose of you at the end of your usefulness. Let us be grateful that she only succeeded in mutilating you.”

Cassandra’s knees give out beneath her and she staggers backward, putting a hand over her forehead and staring blindly at the floor. “No...it’s not true,” she repeats, over and over. “It can’t be true…”

“Zahn Tiri, please escort the prince back to her chambers so that she can recover her wits,” the queen orders, turning away from Cassandra. “I must call a war council.”

The pain of Cassandra’s injury does not fade over the next few weeks, showing no inclination toward recovery. At baseline, the skin throbs and stings like a fresh burn. Though every now and then, the whole limb is shocked by a spasm of sharp pain that momentarily blots Cassandra’s vision. Zahn Tiri apologized profusely that this type of advanced magic was beyond her power to reverse, but she has at least been there to support Cassandra as she grapples with the tempest of grief within her.

According to Zahn Tiri, Cassandra was lucky to get away with her life that night. She visits Cassandra for a few hours every day just to offer company and comfort. She helps her process the depth of the betrayal she has suffered; if not for her, Cassandra might still be overcome with reckless denial and heartbreak. Zahn Tiri is there to reassure her that, despite the harsh judgment of the queen, it’s not her fault that she was manipulated. Rapunzel met her when she was lonely and starved for friendship, and took advantage of that vulnerability, steering her into opening her heart so that she could receive her poison. It has been hard to accept that, but it is the only way to move forward. She tries to remind herself, when she feels like a wretched fool, that her capacity for love did not make her weak. But now she knows to guard it more closely.

She burned Rapunzel’s letters. She carried them out into the courtyard one night, ripped them to shreds in her hands, and let a match consume them. She watched in mute stillness, hoping the flames would smoke out the feeling still stubbornly lodged in her heart.

One evening, Cassandra receives a courier from Zahn Tiri at her bedroom door, requesting that Cassandra leave her chambers to meet her in the armory for some unspecified reason. Although she’s loath to trust again, she owes Zahn Tiri at least a little bit of time after all she’s done for her in recent weeks, so at dusk she makes her way down to the base of the west turret where the armory is located.

It’s dark when she steps through the door, and all she can see is the glinting reflection of fading sunlight from the shining breastplates and weaponry. “Hello?” she calls, hesitating in the threshold.

“Your Highness, you came!” says Zahn Tiri from somewhere inside. “I apologize for the darkness. I have a gift, and I wanted to surprise you.” With a click of fingers, the torches around the room flare into a warm glow, and Cassandra sees Zahn Tiri standing next to a gleaming black suit of armor in the center of the room.

Cassandra steps inside, eyes widening as she takes in the magnificent craftsmanship. The armor is both severe and elegant, with spiked pauldrons and a graceful curving placart engraved with celestial imagery. Its black-tinted steel is polished to a shine, and there’s an aura of power around it, like it will burn her if she dares to touch it. She looks down and sees the hilt of a sword in its scabbard, and exchanges glances with Zahn Tiri before she draws it out. Its blade is shaped like a massive spike and is black as the night sky, and its weight is far easier to bear than its size suggests.

“Do you like them?” Zahn Tiri asks, a smile in her voice.

“They’re amazing,” Cassandra says, examining the sword more closely. “They’re...for me?”

Zahn Tiri chuckles. “Of course they are. Both the armor and the sword are unbreakable -- I enchanted them myself. No one will get the better of you again, Prince Cassandra.”

Cassandra looks at her, feeling her throat catching with gratitude. “This is very kind of you. But I...I’m afraid I have little use for armor or weapons when I cannot fight with my dominant hand.”

Zahn Tiri nods like she was expecting her to say that, and ducks down to rustle in a bag at her feet, producing a brilliant blue right-handed gauntlet and passing it to her. Cassandra takes it, and she sees that there are other colors dancing just below the surface of the metal in bright flecks: pink, jade green, the yellow of the full moon. “It’s stunning,” she says. “Is this enchanted, too?”

“Yes,” Zahn Tiri says. “Go ahead, try it on.”

Cassandra unbuckles the clasps, and slips the gauntlet over her blackened forearm. Instantly, she feels the strength and feeling return to her hand, and she flexes her wrist and fingers in awe. She grips the hilt of the sword and lifts it, swinging it in twirling arcs with an ease she hasn’t felt for weeks. She can’t help the mirth that flies out from her chest as laughter; her heart feels so light she could sing. Breathlessly, she sheathes the sword and unbuckles the gauntlet to look at her healed arm, but to her dismay, it is still the weak and withered limb it was before.

“I’m afraid I still do not have the power to heal your wound,” Zahn Tiri says gently. “But while you are wearing that gauntlet, you will wield your old strength.”

Cassandra is struck speechless, looking at Zahn Tiri like she hangs the moon just for her. Gratitude clusters in her throat and propels her forward, sweeping up her friend in a pressing embrace. She feels Zahn Tiri’s arms wind around her, and Cassandra stifles a sob in the crook of her shoulder.

At least now, if it comes to war, Cassandra won’t be so easy to conquer again.

Chapter Text

Owl has not come to Rapunzel’s window since before her last catastrophic meeting with Cassandra. She knows it’s a futile endeavor to stay up watching for him, but her mind can focus on little else, with no other way of knowing if Cassandra is alright. The memory of her arm shriveling under Rapunzel’s touch, of her horror-struck expression before she fled in a panic, keeps her far from sleep regardless.

Rapunzel wears her distress like a cloak around her shoulders; it is clear to anyone who looks at her that darkness weighs on her. Eugene has made ample opportunities for Rapunzel to open up to him about it, but he knows by now that he cannot draw Rapunzel’s pain out if she is blocking the wound. He has been patient, bringing her pastries and new paints and gossip from the Snuggly Duckling, and although Rapunzel is grateful for his friendship, she’s not ready to address what happened. She hasn’t even been able to sort through it with herself. Her memories of the event are strangely scattered and disjointed, like it is a book and she has only read every other page. It happened so fast, and even now she doesn’t understand what she could have done to warp a healing spell into something so evil. She can’t trust her own hands now, horrified by the devastation that they brought about so carelessly.

After the first incident of her magic unleashing an explosion of light upon the unsuspecting pub patrons, Rapunzel’s anxiety about her inscrutable new power urged her to suppress it entirely. She finds herself shrinking back to that state now, the severe consequences of the risk she poses amplifying her shame and unease to dizzying heights. The confidence and mastery that she discovered through Cassandra’s encouraging support have decayed along with the prince’s flesh, and Rapunzel is once again ruled by fear.

Her magic came to her through death and betrayal, and it seems that it will return to its origins. Without Cassandra, Rapunzel is cut off from seeking any new answers about magic, and so this thought wages war on her mind with little opposition. She is compromised, corrupted, the seed of vengeance planted in her finally splitting open into the cruel sentence it was meant to be. Rapunzel looks out from her balcony at the stars, desperate for the peace she once found in them during her long imprisonment, but it is far out of her reach now.

She turns back to her desk and the dozens of scrapped letters scattered in piles around it on the floor. No matter how long she dwells on it, she cannot think of what to say to Cassandra, should Owl make an appearance. But she must say something. She owes Cassandra that much.

Dear,

I am so sorry. I don’t know what

Dear,

Are you alright? Can you use your hand? Well, I guess obviously you can, if I’m replying to a letter you sent me, unless you wrote it with your left

Dear,

Please do not hate me. I understand if you do. But I

Dear,

I need to know if you are okay. Please, please send word. I am afraid that

Rapunzel wants to tell her mother, to seek the comfort that she has so readily offered in the past. But this is not like in Antipe, when she came out about her magic, something she could not help having. Rapunzel cannot bring herself to come forward about lying to her parents, intentionally deceiving and disobeying them for over a year to consort with someone they disapprove of. She could not bear to tolerate harsh words against Cassandra, who is already suffering so much because of Rapunzel. She knows that she should not love her. She doesn’t need to hear it condemned, not after seeing the ruin that her love has caused.

So Rapunzel conceals her anguish as best as she can, even though that has never been easy for her. She forces herself out of bed at sunrise, greets Faith with her usual smile, reassures Pascal that he has no reason to worry over her. She begins to feel the unsteady buzzing of her magic pulsing against her skin again, the way it felt in the months before she got a handle on controlling it. It throbs like a sore wound, like something that threatens to fester into a searing fever the longer it goes unchecked.

Today, her parents have requested that the princess be present at this month’s town hall, when the audience chamber is open to the people of Corona to air their complaints. Rapunzel dons her crown, hoping its brilliance will detract from the haggard creases under her eyes, and joins her parents where they sit on their thrones.

She hopes that hearing the townspeople detail their own plights will pull her mind away from thoughts of Cassandra, but it can be distracted only for a few minutes before the memory of Cassandra’s blackened flesh and cries of pain inevitably surge back to the forefront of her thoughts. Her peripheral vision catches sight of her mother glancing at her in concern more than a few times, but Rapunzel forces herself not to meet her eyes, standing a little taller.

During a brief recess, her father turns to her with concern pinching his brows. “Rapunzel, have you had trouble sleeping? You seem out of sorts.”

Rapunzel flashes the brightest smile she can manage. “It was just a bit drafty in my room last night, Dad, nothing to worry about!”

King Frederic narrows his eyes. “You can tell me if something weighs on you, dear.”

Rapunzel pats his broad hand. “Of course I know that. It’s nothing, I promise.”

He looks like he’s about to say more, but before he gets the chance, the crowd of townspeople in the hall are suddenly parted by a disturbance. Frederic stands, and Rapunzel can see a group of palace guards escorting an unfamiliar man dressed in black, bearing the emblem of Diadem on his breast. Two different guards are gripping him by the arms, half-dragging him into the hall although he shows no resistance.

Frederic glares down at the man, frowning. “A messenger from Diadem? What is so urgent that this hearing must be interrupted?”

The messenger clears his throat and tugs his arms free from the guards, brushing his sleeves. “Her Majesty, Queen Edith, demands that Corona answer for their attempt to assassinate Diadem’s crown heir,” he announces.

Rapunzel’s heart drops like a stone. She hears her pulse in her ears, sees her vision mottling. The feral thrum of her magic pricks her skin everywhere, like a caged animal biting at the bars.

“What is this madness?!” Frederic demands, stepping forward. “There has been no plot of assassination. Has your queen completely abandoned her wits?”

The messenger tilts his chin up, unintimidated. “Prince Cassandra herself has attested to the Coronan princess’s recent attempt on her life, which has left her permanently disfigured.”

All eyes in the room fix on Rapunzel. Frederic’s stormy face churns in disbelief, shock, and fury; Arianna’s gaze is bright and piercing with concern. Rapunzel’s mouth is dry. She cannot find words to respond. She vaguely thinks that she should sit down, the dizzy spin in her head threatening to cut her limbs slack any moment, but she finds that she cannot bring herself to move. Her stomach lurches sickeningly.

“My daughter has been confined to the castle since her return,” Frederic bellows, whipping back to face the messenger. “It is impossible that she could have even come into contact with your Prince Cassandra.”

“Queen Edith has become aware of evidence that reveals Corona’s hypocrisy: that King Frederic invoked sorcery when Queen Arianna fell ill during her pregnancy, only to have the sorcerer executed. Now, he once again illicitly uses the power of a mythic, his own child, to destabilize his enemies.”

Frederic stands stunned, stricken for words in the face of such accusations. Arianna stares at him, wide-eyed. “Frederic…” she says, her voice low and grave. “What have you done?”

“It’s not true, of course!” Frederic shouts. “Paltry attempts by the Dark Queen to slander our royal line. It is not possible that my daughter could be a mythic. Queen Edith is beyond reason if she takes such hateful rumors seriously!”

Arianna catches Rapunzel’s eyes, questions in her gaze. Rapunzel shakes her head, trembling. It was not me. I could never hurt her. Something is wrong.

The people in the hall murmur amongst each other, uncertain what to make of such alarming rumors. “It could not be true. Diadem has no honor, we cannot take their word,” Rapunzel hears them say. “Though, long have we questioned our Queen’s recovery...there has never been another explanation.”

Frederic roars, stomping down from the dais to loom over the messenger. “Inciting dissent in my kingdom has consequences, and Diadem will pay for this slander.”

The messenger steps back, but clears his throat. “Indeed, Diadem intends to retaliate for these offenses. Queen Edith sends a declaration of war with Corona.”

The people in the audience hall explode into a frenzy, most of them rushing towards the doors so that they can get home and tell their families. The cacophony beats against Rapunzel like a hurricane tosses a boat, and she can no longer stand. She falls to her knees, her knuckles clenched tightly against the stone tile, and a vicious heat rises within her to meet her terror. The flimsy barrier containing her magic dissolves all at once, and Rapunzel’s sight is lost to a blur of golden light that seems to drip from her eyes like tears. She lets out a sob, and it is like the detonation of a tremendous explosion -- the quivering plasma hovering around Rapunzel’s body rapidly bursts into blinding light that thrashes against the walls. The windows of the hall are blown out with a deafening crash, the chandelier on the ceiling falls and shatters on the tile, and anyone still trapped in the audience hall is forced to take cover behind upturned tables. Rapunzel burns like a forest blaze, barely aware of anything beyond the light radiating from her core.

It’s only a matter of seconds before the light dies, but Rapunzel feels each one like an age. The sound of screaming brings her back to the present, and she staggers backward, holding her head.

Her father is staring at her like he doesn’t know her.

Her mother steps toward her, arms outstretched as though to scoop her up and keep her safe, but Frederic’s arm shoots out to stop her. “Stay away, Arianna. It’s dangerous.”

“She is our daughter!” Arianna protests. “How can you be afraid of her?”

“Guards! ...Detain the princess,” Frederic orders, his voice regretful, but unbending.

“No!” shouts Arianna, but Frederic restrains her as the guards turn toward Rapunzel. Rapunzel raises her hands, backing up and struggling to find her breath. The tips of their halberds glint like teeth, and Rapunzel cannot stop the wave of panic that shoots out from her hands in a forceful gale of magic. It catches the approaching guards across the torso, bending them in half like puppets and sending them flying backward across the hall.

Rapunzel covers her mouth in horror, and she does not stay long enough to see the look on her parents’ faces.

The palace corridors blur past Rapunzel as she runs, eventually giving way to the courtyard where townspeople are still lined up to get into the palace. The crowd can hardly get out of the way before the princess barrels through, and she has to shove some people aside so that the palace guards don’t catch up to her. She can’t know what will happen if they do, if they drag her back before her father and force her to face untold consequences. She runs faster than she has ever run in her life, faster than the day she broke free of her tower, faster than she expected her legs to be capable of. She does not look back. She barely looks ahead, tearing through the city with no destination in mind.

Someone accosts her from behind, grabbing her by the waist and dragging her to the side of the street. Rapunzel screams, kicking and scratching with flailing limbs as she tries to get free.

“Sunshine, Sunshine, calm d -- ouch! It’s me! Would you stop -- ah!

Rapunzel stills and whips around to see Eugene, rubbing a cut on his cheek from Rapunzel’s nails. She deflates with relief and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Eugene! I am so sorry! Are you okay?”

“I was going to ask if you were okay,” Eugene says. “I tried to call out to you, but you didn’t hear me. It’s not every day you see palace guards chasing the crown princess all through the town. What happened?”

Rapunzel looks behind him, up and down the street, then pulls him into a narrow alley, ducking behind a few barrels that block the view from the road. “Sorry about your face, but frankly, you’re lucky I didn’t accidentally do worse. My magic -- it’s unstable. I couldn’t control it. I’m afraid I hurt someone.”

“When? Where? Why are the guards after you, Rapunzel?” Eugene whispers. “Did you steal something? Swindle a noble? Rob horses from the stables? Smuggle rare spices from the palace kitchens?”

“Those are all things that you did, Eugene.”

“Look, I’m just saying that when I see guards going after someone, I assume they’re overreacting to something minor like that.”

Rapunzel shakes her head, tugging her knees to her chest. “Well, not this time.” She means to explain, but her emotions suddenly catch up with her, rising up through her throat and spilling over as tears. Her shoulders shudder with stifled sobs, and she hides her face on her arms. She feels Eugene reach around to rub her back, unsure exactly how to comfort her when he doesn’t know what’s wrong. Rapunzel leans into despair, seeing no way out of this disaster she’s created. The war that her people have always dreaded is now imminent, her father thinks she’s a monster, and she is once again a fugitive, a hostage in her own home.

Worst of all, Cassandra is lost to her. Cassandra, who opened up to her and crossed the great chasm between their nations to be with her, the only person to have ever seen the most hidden parts of Rapunzel, and accepted them all with unwavering affection. Who planted trust and devotion in Rapunzel’s heart, which have taken root as a deeper feeling that Rapunzel is hesitant to name.

Cassandra thinks that Rapunzel tried to kill her.

The thought tears at Rapunzel, flaying her chest and ripping her heart asunder. She sobs, and her stomach again heaves with the threat of retching. Eugene wraps his arms around her and pulls her to him, whispering words that Rapunzel cannot hear.

Finally, the tide ebbs far back enough that Rapunzel can wipe her face on her sleeve and meet Eugene’s deeply concerned gaze. She sucks in a quivering breath that does little to steady her. “Diadem has declared war on Corona,” she says.

Eugene blinks, stunned. “That’s -- well, they’ve been threatening to do that for literal ages. But why now?”

“Because,” Rapunzel sniffles. “Their queen believes I attempted to assassinate her heir.”

What?” Eugene gasps. “But Cassandra knows you would never do that. She must have tried to dissuade her.”

“Eugene.” Rapunzel bites her lips, looking down. “I’ve done something terrible to her.”

Eugene looks at her, waiting, his face open and free of judgment as she tells him about that awful night. His brows twist tighter with anxiety the longer she speaks, and he shakes his head wordlessly when she’s finished.

“Rapunzel, if they catch you, you could go to prison,” he says.

“What should I do?” Rapunzel croaks, desperately.

Eugene chews his cheek, looking aside. “I don’t know. But I think there’s someone else who will.”

Eugene seems to remember the way flawlessly, and Rapunzel wonders if he has been back here since their first encounter. His steps are sure as he leads them over to a chipped oak door, and he knocks in a particular rhythm.

After a few seconds, the door gives way to a teenage girl with black hair piled on her head in a short ponytail. “Princess?” says Keira, cocking her head. “What are you doing here?”

“Is Lady Caine here? I need to speak with her,” Rapunzel says. “I will explain everything.”

Keira hesitates for a moment, then steps back to let them inside. It is a modest home, and it seems that Keira has been keeping watch beside the lit hearth. Catalina is napping on pillows piled in front of it on the floor, her long hair loose and swirled around her curled body. Keira crouches beside her to wake her, whispering something indistinct. Then she turns to Rapunzel and Eugene, instructing them to sit on a couple of wooden chairs near the windows. “Wait here,” she says.

When Keira disappears up the stairs, Catalina sits down across from the visitors, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Rapunzel fidgets, unsure whether she should make up some excuse for the obvious signs of crying in her face. She takes a breath to say something, but Catalina stands up and walks to the kitchen before she can utter a word. The girl returns with a glass of water, handing it to Rapunzel.

A smile blooms on Rapunzel’s face as she takes it. “Thank you,” she says, sipping.

Two sets of footsteps descend down the stairs, and Keira returns with Lady Caine behind her. Caine’s face is free of the dark makeup she wore the last time Rapunzel saw her, and she looks startlingly different. Less severe, somehow. Looking at her like this, Rapunzel could believe she is the mother of two children. She saunters into the den and stands with a hand on her hip. “Well, well, Princess. Didn’t think I’d have the pleasure of seeing you or your friend here again. Not many people seek out someone who once held them at swordpoint.”

“I’m sorry to impose on you without notice,” Rapunzel says. “I...I need your help. There’s been an emergency.”

Caine furrows her brow and frowns. “What kind of emergency?”

Eugene fills her in, sensing that recounting the entire story again might crack Rapunzel’s fragile state. Caine interrupts a dozen times, mainly to ask if they expect her to believe something so outlandish. The heirs of Corona and Diadem, together? That sort of fairytale nonsense doesn’t happen in real life.

“What kind of spell did you use on her?” she asks Rapunzel, after Eugene tells her of Cassandra’s withered arm. “I’ve never heard of something like that.”

“It-It was just a simple healing enchantment,” Rapunzel stammers, trying to recall exactly what she did. “I invoked the stargazer. I used it to restore a limp flower once.”

Caine narrows her eyes and hums in consternation. “Something about this isn’t right. To get to the bottom of this, you’d need to seek out an expert.”

“There are no experts on this anywhere for at least a hundred miles,” Eugene helpfully provides.

“My father would know what it was,” Caine says, holding her chin. “But he was exiled to Diadem years ago, along with most of the Nightingale.”

Rapunzel’s spine straightens as something clicks in her mind. “Mythics that are turned out of Corona go to Diadem.”

Caine raises an eyebrow at her. “Very good, Princess. You understand the bare minimum of our national relations.”

“No, what I mean is --” Rapunzel stands up, pacing around the room. She stops, looking at Caine and the girls. “You guys can lie low here and hide from the crown. But I can’t. My father isn’t going to stop looking for me.”

Caine hesitates, then sets her jaw in understanding. “You can’t stay in Corona.”

Rapunzel nods, her heart pounding in her chest.

“Sunshine, what are you saying?” Eugene gasps behind her.

“She’s saying that her only recourse is to seek refuge in Diadem,” Caine says, then sighs. “What do you plan to do once you get there? They won’t exactly be happy to see you.”

“I need to find Cassandra and talk to her,” Rapunzel says. “She’s the only one who can stop this war. I know I can get through to her.”

“And what if she turns you away? Where are you going to go?” Caine asks.

The prospect makes Rapunzel feel like she’s been slapped. Would Cassandra turn her away? She wishes she knew what Cassandra is thinking, and feeling. But that’s all the more reason she needs to see her. “I...I don’t know,” she admits. “I don’t know anyone else in Diadem.”

The room falls quiet, everyone pondering over the apparent dead-end. The hearth crackles, ticking away the seconds. Then Catalina pipes up, “What about your father, Lady Caine?”

Caine blinks and looks down at her. “My father?”

“Yeah!” Keira agrees. “Didn’t you say he was exiled in Diadem? If we come with, maybe we could find him there!”

“I...I’m not sure I would know where to find him,” Caine mutters, turning her pensive gaze to the floor. “Although if he’s still active in politics, it’s likely he would be somewhere in the capitol.”

“Would you come with us?” Rapunzel asks. “I would be honored to travel with you, and meet your father. He could help me understand how to right the wrongs of Corona’s mythic policies.”

“I want to meet him too,” Catalina says, and Keira agrees.

Caine looks between their faces. “It may not be a safe journey.”

“We’re not afraid of danger,” says Keira.

Caine smiles fondly, then turns to Rapunzel. “Well, Princess. It seems your opportunity to repay me for sparing your life may have come up sooner than we thought. All those years ago, my father was torn from my side because of you. And now, you may be the very thing that brings us back together.”

The idea finally brings a bright smile to Rapunzel’s wearied face. “Then we will all go to Diadem together. Erm...preferably as soon as possible.”

Eugene hums. “We’re not just going to walk there, are we? Does anyone know where we could get horses?”

“I can run pretty far when I’m in wolf form,” Catalina offers.

“Not that far, you goof,” chides Keira. “And it’s not like you could carry four people on your back, anyway.”

“I have a better idea,” Caine says, smirking. She turns to Eugene. “You. Flynn Rider. Life of crime, right? Lived all over the place, on the run from the law?”

“You don’t have to put it like that, but yes,” huffs Eugene.

Caine grins. “You ever learn to sail?”

The ship is smaller than Rapunzel was expecting. After all the time she’s spent reading epic adventure novels, she was picturing a massive, stately galleon that would bear her to Diadem. She’s not disappointed with a humble schooner, though, and it’s in her best interest to avoid the ostentatious while she’s technically a fugitive.

To Lady Caine’s credit, she managed to get everything lined up in two days. In the meantime, Eugene took it on himself to smuggle Rapunzel between his old favorite hideouts from the days when he needed to hide from the palace guard. Nevertheless, the kingdom edges closer to a complete lockdown the longer the princess evades detainment, so Rapunzel appreciates Caine’s efficiency.

The ship itself only needs about a half-dozen people to crew it, so they don’t need to recruit a ton of strangers for this illicit mission. In fact, the only addition to the five of them is Lance, who seems eager to relive his adventurous youth of evading law enforcement on the high seas. The girls take to him immediately, as he often indulges them in play-fighting on the deck and regaling them with exciting, probably embellished stories. Rapunzel is grateful for the opportunity to get to know him better, when she’s not nervously sneaking out under the cover of night.

Lady Caine serves as captain, with Eugene as first mate, overseeing the workings of the ship. Lance and the girls do most of the work, since Rapunzel is more or less clueless, but she is more than thrilled to learn from them. When she’s not watching them, or when the ship is on a smooth stretch of peaceful water, Rapunzel passes the time by climbing up the masts and mapping out each of the sails in her journal. She’s never been out to sea before, and looking out over the vast waves is a sight breathtaking enough to distract her from the ache in her heart, at least temporarily.

The air gets colder the further north they travel, and Lady Caine makes use of her magic to keep everyone warm with fires that need no fuel to burn. Three days after they set out from the capitol city, Caine announces that they’ve made it around the Coronan Peninsula, and are sailing parallel to the western coast of Antipe.

The sheer cliffs of Diadem’s coastline make for poor harbors, so they decide to dock near the border where the Antipean beaches are still hospitable. Rapunzel pays a shipyard to keep the schooner safe for a few days, and then they seek out a stable that will lend them horses for the rest of their journey.

The black spires of Diadem’s capitol loom in the distance to the north. Somewhere within, Cassandra grappling with unknowable pain, and Rapunzel yearns more than anything to find her and put an end to it.

Chapter Text

Gaining entrance through Diadem’s city gates is relatively seamless; the sheer volume of displaced mythics flowing through has slackened security measures by necessity, and Rapunzel and her friends have no trouble passing themselves off as anonymous travelers. The group emerges into the main square, where streets branch off in every direction, and a colossal bronze statue of a king that Rapunzel doesn’t recognize looms majestically on a pedestal in the center. The roads are smooth and paved, looking sleek and narrow in comparison with the broad, ambling cobblestone paths in Corona. Below the raised pedestal of the giant statue, stone ledges jut out like large stairs, serving as benches for the townspeople to sit and gather. There aren’t many taking advantage of it, though, only a handful of hungry-looking people pleading for alms from passersby. Rapunzel reaches into her pouch for a coin to drop on the tray of a young boy, and then sits on the ledge just below the statue.

“We made it,” she sighs, lowering the hood of her traveling cloak. She runs her fingers through the ends of her chestnut-brown hair to untangle the knots. “Now what do we do?”

Lady Caine clicks her tongue. “The girls and I will need to ask around to see if anyone knows about activism campaigns that my father might be involved in. It’s not the most rock-solid approach, but...I haven’t had any contact with him since I was ten, so that’s the best lead I can think to go on.”

“I’ll help you,” says Lance, as he pulls off his shoes to rub his sore feet. “As a bartender, I have a talent for getting information out of people. They look at this handsome face and want to tell me all their secrets.”

“Why does bartending have anything to do with that?” Keira says.

“You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“I’d offer to help, too, but…” Eugene shakes his head. “Rapunzel, you’re going to want to talk to Cassandra as soon as possible, right?”

Rapunzel bites her lip. “I came all this way for her. The sooner we can find her, the sooner we can prevent this senseless war.”

“Then I’ll go with you,” Eugene says. “You’re gonna need the help of a master thief to get access to the palace. And I’m not about to let you walk into the lion’s den on your own, regardless.”

Rapunzel smiles at him. “Thanks, Eugene.” She looks at Lady Caine. “Will you be alright if we split up for a while?”

Caine scoffs. “We’ll be just fine, but if I were you, I would consider a more cautious approach for your prince.”

“What do you mean?”

“You said that she thinks you tried to kill her, right?”

Rapunzel frowns. “Yes.”

“And in light of recent developments, the two of you are now hostile political enemies.”

“I guess technically, but --”

Caine puts up a hand. “Look, all I’m saying is that you should prepare yourself for the possibility that she’s not gonna be too thrilled to see you. Go and find her if that’s what you really want to do, but I suggest you don’t go unarmed.”

“Now hold on,” Eugene says. “I can finagle a way out if palace guards catch us sneaking around, but if they catch intruders who are also bearing weapons, it’s a whole other can of worms. That’s the sort of crime that keeps executioners employed.”

“Cassandra may be scared and confused, but she would never try to hurt us. And I’m not going to hurt her,” Rapunzel insists, squeezing her hands together. “We’re not bringing weapons. I just need to talk to her.”

“Suit yourself,” Caine says, shrugging. “However it shakes out, you’re not going to want to stay in the palace for long. We should regroup before sundown.”

“What if we haven’t found your father by then?” Catalina asks.

Caine hesitates. “Then we’ll find somewhere to rest for the night and keep trying in the morning.”

“Okay,” Rapunzel says. “We’ll meet you back here at sundown, then. Good luck with your search.”

“Good luck with yours,” says Caine, her dark eyes stern.

“Keep each other safe,” Lance says, patting Eugene’s shoulder. Then he, Caine, and the girls stand up and descend from the tiered pedestal, dispersing into the crowd at the base. Rapunzel is left with Eugene and the hammering of her heart in her chest, so powerful she can feel it beating behind her eyes. How many times has she imagined surprising Cassandra by showing up to see her in Diadem? Her daydreams always conjured a look of starstruck delight on Cassandra’s face, giving way to sweeping embraces and tearful kisses. Under any other circumstances, Rapunzel would be buzzing with enthusiasm and dragging Eugene to the palace without a moment’s delay, but now she sits wringing her hands and chewing her lip.

“Are you ready, Rapunzel?” Eugene asks gently.

Rapunzel breathes out, meets his eyes, and nods. “As I’ll ever be.”

According to Eugene’s apparently encyclopedic knowledge of castles and how to break into them, the simplest route into the Diadem palace is through a system of underground tunnels and caverns (“Which is funny,” he adds, “because the weak spot of Corona’s palace is actually a skylight in the east wing. Opposites in everything, it would seem.”). Rapunzel recalls that beneath the castle is where the royal guard and local troops are boarded and trained, and that Cassandra’s private practice arena is somewhere within the network. The two of them stow themselves in crates of rations as they’re wheeled into the barracks, and when Eugene peeks out and confirms that they’re alone, they borrow some soldiers’ uniforms from the stacks on the back wall.

“We should still try to be stealthy,” says Eugene, fastening the straps on his breastplate. “These disguises won’t fool anyone up close, but at least we won’t draw attention to ourselves.”

Rapunzel twists her gauntlets into place, nodding. “I wish I knew where to find Cassandra’s training arena. This place is like a maze!”

Sticking together, they duck into the dark hallway, lit only by flickering torches every few meters. The dense shadows are a comfort to Rapunzel’s nerves, though she still bows her head to hide her face whenever anyone passes them. They pass the doorways to mess halls, an armory, conference chambers, and even a smithy, but there’s no sign of Cassandra anywhere. The halls are mysteriously sparse; there aren’t even many soldiers around -- and Rapunzel’s blood chills when she realizes that they’ve all probably been stationed at the border forts in preparation to attack Corona. She swallows, and quickens her pace.

They round a corner and Rapunzel’s nose nearly collides with the leather cuirass of a tall, muscular woman with white hair wrapped up in intricate buns. Rapunzel looks up instinctively to see a face that is painted red on one half, bearing an inscrutable expression. Before she can excuse herself, Eugene grabs her wrist and starts marching back the way they came.

“Hold it right there,” commands the woman, and the pair halts but doesn’t turn. “Identify yourselves.”

Rapunzel’s heart leaps into her throat, constricting any words she might utter. Eugene tenses, then stammers, “Apologies, ma’am, but we’re already late to our posts!” He urges Rapunzel to keep walking, but they don’t make it three steps before the woman calls after them again.

“I said halt!”

After a split-second’s contemplation, Eugene breaks into a sprint, dragging Rapunzel behind him. Rapunzel yelps and hears the scrape of steel against a scabbard as the woman draws her weapon, followed by thundering footsteps in pursuit. Outrunning such a clearly seasoned warrior is a fool’s endeavor, but Rapunzel and Eugene make a valiant effort as they barrel through the dark halls. Still, it is only a matter of seconds before a huge hand grips Rapunzel’s shoulder, spinning her around to face their pursuer.

The woman’s stormy eyes widen in recognition when she gets a good look at Rapunzel’s face. “The Lost Princess. What are you doing here?”

Rapunzel swallows, shifting in discomfort as strong fingers dig into her shoulder. She meets the woman’s eyes, trying to discern a shred of intent behind her stony features. Despite the weapon in her hand, something tells Rapunzel that she is not their enemy -- a soldier who is unflinchingly loyal to Diadem would be turning her over to the queen, not questioning her intentions. Rapunzel breathes in, pushing through the haze of her fear. “I am here to speak to Prince Cassandra and put a stop to this war. Will you help me?”

Eugene elbows her, but she ignores him, keeping her gaze steady. For several tense seconds, the woman is silent, pursing her lips and narrowing her eyes, and Rapunzel forces herself to breathe deeply to control the anxious fluttering of her magic in anticipation of danger. Then, the woman’s expression shifts, her eyes softer and her jaw set. The internal battle in her head reaches a concession, and she releases Rapunzel to point down the hall behind her. “The prince has just finished her fencing lesson for the day. If you hurry, you can catch her in the practice ring before she leaves to meet with the queen for the war council.”

Rapunzel’s tension melts all at once, her face alighting with a relieved smile. “Thank you,” she breathes as she sets off down the hall. “Thank you!”

“Be careful,” the woman advises, then turns and resumes her own leisurely pace, hands clasped behind her back.

Rapunzel isn’t exactly sure what she’s looking for in her haste, but she knows when she’s found the training ring. She stops in front of huge iron doors embedded in the tunnel wall, left ajar from the swordmaster’s recent departure. She looks at Eugene, who nods his support with a brief squeeze of her hand, and then pushes inside.

The arena is cut out from a natural cavern, the black rock of the walls shining an iridescent blue in the torchlight. The gray stone floor is chipped and marred from decades of sparring, and the far wall houses a rack of practice weapons. And standing there with her back to the entrance, polishing a vicious black sword, is --

“Cassandra!” Rapunzel cries, bounding toward her as though propelled by the relief flooding from her chest. She’s alive. Cassandra is alive. All the sleepless nights, all the empty hours of half-life that Rapunzel spent not knowing what happened after that spell...they fade away instantly as Cassandra turns to face her.

And then Cassandra raises her sword, leveling the tip directly at her, and Rapunzel stutters to a sudden halt, raising her hands. “Whoa, Cass, it’s me! I’m so glad you’re o--”

“Not a step closer,” Cassandra hisses, emphasizing with the point of her blade. “Stay where you are, witch.”

“Witch?” Rapunzel repeats, lowering her open palms. Her eye catches on the shimmering glint of the strange gauntlet adorning Cassandra’s injured wrist. “Cass, what...what’s the matter?”

Cassandra scoffs. “You can give up the coy charade, now. You succeeded in making a fool out of me once, but you won’t be so lucky as to sway me again. I don’t know how you got in here, but I’ll make sure you don’t make it back out.”

“Rapunzel, maybe we should leave…” Eugene suggests from behind her, staying close to the door.

“No, we came too far to give up now,” Rapunzel says. “Cassandra, I don’t know what you think I did, but I never meant to hurt you. Please, we can figure this out together.”

Cassandra circles her, swordpoint tracking her like a compass around a pole. “‘Figure this out,’ huh? Let me guess, you want me to overlook the fact that your kingdom wants me dead, and take you at your word so you can get me to risk my life or defy my duty for you?”

Her hurtful words find their mark, and tears begin to prick behind Rapunzel’s eyes. She tries to keep her voice level as she says, “I didn’t know that you saw it that way. You could have told me.”

“I could have done nothing!” Cassandra shouts. “All this time, you’ve been playing my vulnerabilities to control me! And I...I just let it happen.” She clenches her fist and looks aside for a heartbeat before raising her piercing eyes again. “But I will never let you use me again!”

She lunges forward with a ripping scream, stabbing her sword and aiming for the heart. Rapunzel shrieks and ducks out of the way just in time for Cassandra to fly past her and sink her sword into the stone floor. “Cassandra, please! This isn’t you!”

“You don’t get to tell me who I am!” Cassandra yells, dislodging her sword and whipping it around in a deadly arc just short of Rapunzel’s face. Rapunzel feels her magic threatening to burst out in her defense, and it takes all of her concentration to shove it down. She won’t let her magic hurt Cassandra ever again.

“I’m not here to fight you!” Rapunzel pleads after dodging another strike. “I need you to help me stop the war between our kingdoms!”

“Stop it?” Cassandra seethes, stalking closer. “You started it. What did you think would happen when you cast a lethal decay spell on me?”

Confusion swarms Rapunzel’s thoughts, but she latches onto the one thing she knows is true. “I would never try to hurt you, Cassandra. Please, believe me. I only want to talk.”

“Talk to my blade, you lying snake,” Cassandra says, and then advances on her again. Rapunzel scrambles back, finally conceding that she isn’t going to get through to Cassandra this way and that her only recourse for now is to escape. But Cassandra is fast, and when she lunges for her, Rapunzel’s mind flashes back to the fencing competition where she first watched Cassandra swing a sword. Memories surge forth: of Cassandra’s lips gentle upon Rapunzel’s hand, of her muted smile when Rapunzel bestowed the sporting medal around her neck, of the shine of raindrops clinging to Cassandra’s eyelashes, of the scent of camellia bushes drifting through cool night air. Rapunzel’s heart stutters just long enough for Cassandra’s blade to catch her upper arm, biting deep into her flesh and drawing blood. Rapunzel cries out in pain, and her vision whites out as a shockwave explodes from her center, throwing Cassandra away with such force that her back slams into the wall and she collapses in a heap on the floor.

“Cass!” Rapunzel shouts when her senses return, and she starts to run toward her motionless form, but Eugene drags her back toward the door. Rapunzel screams at him to let her go to her, but his grip on her wrist doesn’t budge.

“I need to make sure that she’s -- that I didn’t --” Rapunzel pleads, her words crumbling away into sobs.

“She’ll kill you if she wakes up,” Eugene says. “We have to go, Rapunzel. We have to go.”

Rapunzel is numb as her feet carry her behind Eugene, the wound on her arm painless in comparison with the knot of despair tightening her chest. She barely registers when the stifling darkness of the tunnels gives way to fading sunlight, relying entirely on Eugene to guide them back to the square without being stopped by guards. She lets herself be maneuvered into a sitting position when they arrive back at the bronze statue, and when her legs are finally allowed to slacken, her grief starts spilling forth as hot tears.

“So that didn’t quite go as planned,” Eugene mutters beside her.

“That wasn’t Cass back there,” Rapunzel sniffles. “Something’s gone wrong.”

“Well, yeah, I gathered that much. I knew she was prickly, but swinging a sword at you seemed over the line,” Eugene says, trying unsuccessfully to cheer her up with a joke. “But...what got lost in translation here? The way you described the incident with her arm, it sounded like an obvious accident. But she seems convinced it was some kind of deliberate assassination attempt.”

“I don’t know,” Rapunzel says. “There must be something I’m missing. And I can’t help feeling like the answer lies in the decay spell Cassandra mentioned.”

“Yeah, what was that all about?”

“I couldn’t look into it back home…” Rapunzel twirls her hair around a finger in thought, wiping her tears with the heel of her other hand. “Normally I’d ask Cassandra to see what she could find out in the Diadem royal library, but…”

“Not a chance, Sunshine,” Eugene refuses. “You’re not going anywhere near Cassandra or the royal palace.”

Rapunzel sighs. “You’re right. Let’s hope Lady Caine had better luck than us. If her father could help me solve this, it would save both our kingdoms.”

A few minutes later, Rapunzel catches sight of Keira and Catalina trotting up toward them from one of the many branching streets. She stands and descends the steps to meet them, and the exhilarated smiles on their faces promise sorely-needed good news.

“We found him!” Keira exclaims, bouncing on her heels.

“He’s better than I imagined!” Catalina adds.

“Caine’s father?” Rapunzel asks, and the girls nod emphatically, each of them grabbing one of her hands and leading her away. They pass rows of compact houses, cross a plaza with a small jagged fountain, cut through a promenade lined with vendors, and Rapunzel is dizzy by the time the girls come to a stop in front of an unassuming building with a faded purple curtain over the carved wooden door. Keira knocks about a dozen times until the door swings open, and Lady Caine greets them with an uncharacteristically warm smile.

“Good to see you in one piece, there,” she says, then her eyes catch on the crusted blood on Rapunzel’s sleeve. “Or, almost, I guess. Come in, you’ll want to get that looked at as soon as possible.”

The girls lead the way inside, and Rapunzel is instantly struck by the sweet scent of lavender perfusing the entryway. The house is a bit cramped, with eclectic furnishings pushed up against each other and various items stacked on every surface, but something about it draws Rapunzel inside and envelopes her in a sense of safety. Maybe it’s the green rug or the lovingly-curated clutter, but the whole space reminds her of Corona’s royal library.

She pushes her way into the kitchen, where Lance is waiting at the table with another man with graying hair and sharp features like Caine’s. A stout fellow about the same age is up and about, tending to bubbling pots on the stovetop. All three of them look up when Rapunzel enters and greet her with a smile.

The man at the table stands and extends a hand to Rapunzel, grasping her wrist warmly. “I had heard the news when Corona’s Lost Princess was finally found, but it’s something special to see it with my own eyes. You’re the spitting image of Queen Arianna.”

“Thank you,” Rapunzel says, for she takes this as the highest compliment. “You must be…?”

“Peter Caine,” he confirms as he ushers her to a seat at the table. “And this is my husband, Xavier,” he adds, gesturing to the man at the stove, who waves in greeting. Peter looks back at Rapunzel, his dark eyes reflective in the lamplight. “Thank you for bringing my Gertrude back to me.”

“Hold on -- Gertrude?” Eugene snorts. “Your name’s --”

He’s cut off when Lady Caine punches him in the arm. “Shut it, Fitzherbert,” she snaps. “You of all people ought to know that the inhabitants of Corona’s underbelly would never have taken me seriously if I used my real name.”

“I think it’s a lovely name!” Rapunzel says, earnestly. “And it’s the least I could do, when my father was the one to separate your family in the first place.”

“Hearing a Coronan royal speak in such a way stirs the hope in my chest,” Peter says. “It has been collecting dust for far too long. Now come, let me see your arm. Best to deal with wounds like this quickly, before it festers.”

Rapunzel rolls up her sleeve and lets him examine it with delicate fingers. He nods to himself and wordlessly conjures a healing spell that glows in the cup of his hand, smoothing it over Rapunzel’s wound. The skin absorbs the golden light like a cloth soaking up water, and the magic disperses beneath the surface. After a beat, Rapunzel watches in awe as the edges of the cut are drawn together, closing up and leaving her arm unmarked as though it were never hurt.

“That was amazing,” she says under her breath, then meets Peter’s eyes. “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing, child. I’ve been healing injuries like that since before you were born, you might say it’s something of a specialty,” he says.

Rapunzel’s eyes light up. “Then maybe you could tell me what I did to Cassandra’s arm!”

“Stew’s ready!” interrupts Xavier, beckoning the girls over to the stove to help him dole out steaming bowls of stew loaded with chunks of vegetables and beef. As Keira and Catalina ferry bowls to the table, Lance takes up a bread knife and slices off a wedge of rye bread for each person. Once everyone has sat down, crowding together at the modest table, Rapunzel digs into the first hot meal she’s eaten since before leaving Corona. The robust flavors and hearty ingredients feel just as healing as Peter’s spell, and Rapunzel thinks that Xavier must be some kind of magician, too.

“Now then,” Peter says after everyone’s gotten the chance to eat. “What’s this about Cassandra’s arm? You don’t mean Prince Cassandra, do you?”

“Actually, I do,” Rapunzel says. “It’s a long story, sir. But the war on the horizon was ignited by a terrible misunderstanding and a healing spell that went wrong, and I was hoping you might help me fix it before it’s too late.”

“If it’s in service of the one who reunited me with my daughter, then I’ll help in any way I can.”

Rapunzel describes the night Cassandra’s arm was hurt, including as many details as she can possibly recall. Catalina seems to shrink as she hears of the encounter with the wolf, but Keira pats her hand to reassure her. Peter’s eyes narrow in focused thought as Rapunzel recounts the stargazer healing spell, and his frown lines deepen progressively when she paints the picture of Cassandra’s arm rapidly withering under her touch.

Peter shakes his head slowly, his brow etched with worry. “No healing spell could have caused what you describe. I have learned of decay curses before, but hoped I would never need to use the knowledge.” He sighs and meets Rapunzel’s eyes. “This is the work of wicked dark magic, the kind that has been banned among mythics for centuries.”

Gasps are drawn from around the table, and Rapunzel swallows. “Why is it banned?”

“Dark magic bestows a mythic with exceptional abilities, and powerful capacity to cause harm and destruction, for one. In order to gain access to a spell like that, a caster would have to open themselves as a host to demonic spirits by mutilating their own body with an occult sigil. This ritual is irreversible, and corrupts the magic and the very life-force of the caster forever. Such practices are incredibly dangerous, and have historically been attempted only by the very desperate. In addition to risking their own lives, mythic clans and societies do not hesitate to banish practitioners of dark magic.”

Rapunzel exchanges a concerned glance with Eugene. “That doesn’t sound like something I could have done…”

“Indeed not!” Peter says, head snapping up in alarm. “A decay spell like that would take years of study to learn, and a dark ritual to enact it. I couldn’t imagine that the average mythic would have the ability to cast such a curse. The only mythics with that kind of power anymore are the ancient families, but they have all pledged service to Diadem’s crown since the accords.”

“So they wouldn’t try to hurt their own prince,” Rapunzel surmises.

Xavier hums. “It’s hard to guess at the motives of those in the ivory tower. The mythics that live in the palace, the queen’s advisor Zahn Tiri...who knows what they would do to get their war?”

“Get their...what are you saying?” Rapunzel asks.

Peter shakes his head and sighs. “That family has been the largest detriment to mythic rights campaigns that I’ve encountered outside of Corona. Since I was exiled here, I have been trying to petition the crown to encourage the other kingdoms to rescind their agreement from the mythic accords. We could dispatch Diadem warriors to protect them, should Corona retaliate to withdrawal. But the old families care more about punishing Corona than protecting their people. They won’t approve any measures that would diminish Diadem’s army in the event of a war.”

“But a war between Corona and Diadem would be catastrophic!” Eugene protests. “If you think there are a lot of refugees now...it would be terrible for mythics and non-mythics alike!”

“It is their idea of justice,” says Peter, sadly. “Revenge on the nation that banished them from their home, no matter the cost.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Rapunzel sees Lady Caine bite her lip and look down at her empty bowl.

“There has to be a better way to right that wrong,” Rapunzel says, pressing her knuckles to her lips in thought. If Zahn Tiri’s family wants to push Diadem to war with Corona, then somehow orchestrating the incident with Cassandra’s arm in a way that frames Rapunzel would align with that motive. But rushing to lay blame is what started this disaster, and Rapunzel isn’t eager to make it worse. She refocuses her aim on healing a different hurt: “Mister Caine...do you know of any way that the decay curse on Cassandra could be reversed?”

Peter exchanges a glance with his husband, a silent conversation that Rapunzel can’t translate. Then he meets her eyes and says, “There is only one spell that could negate the power of a decay curse. It is called the Sun Drop Invocation, so potent that it has been known to pull people out of the grasp of Death. But it is attempted only by the most experienced sorcerers -- I myself have never even tried it. You see, while the Sun Drop can bestow great healing, it carries an equal risk.”

“What kind of risk?” Eugene asks.

“The spell is so powerful because it taps into the reservoir of magic within the caster, which courses through them and sustains their life. Other healing spells pull energy from the world, from nature, not from the much stronger magic within their own caster.” Peter pauses, leveling his gaze with Rapunzel as though to make sure she’s listening. “Once invoked, the Sun Drop may be difficult to control, and can completely drain the life from the caster.”

A beat of silence settles over the room, and then Eugene slaps his leg and says, “Alright, well, that’s off the table then!”

“Can you teach it to me?” Rapunzel pleads, reaching across to grasp Peter’s hands.

“Rapunzel, no!” Eugene says. “Are you crazy? Did you hear the part about ‘only the most experienced sorcerers have ever attempted it?’ Did you hear the part about death?

“Princess, you can’t,” adds Catalina, turning her concerned gaze to Rapunzel. Keira nods in agreement.

“I have to,” Rapunzel says. “It’s the only way to show Cassandra that I’m on her side. It’s the only way to save our home, our people.”

“There have got to be other ways,” Eugene insists.

“There’s no time to look for them. I need to do this, Eugene.”

“Would Cassandra do the same thing for you?”

Rapunzel whips her head to face him. “I don’t care! I would give anything for her! Any sacrifice, any price!”

The table is silent in wake of the rare outburst, Eugene stunned into stillness.

Rapunzel squeezes her eyes shut to suppress the threat of tears. “I...I love her,” she whispers. “I can’t just let her suffer.”

Xavier reaches to Peter’s shoulder, fixing him with another meaningful look, one that Rapunzel reads as pity. Peter sighs long and hard, and then meets Rapunzel’s gaze again. “I will teach it to you,” he says, and Xavier stands up to rummage in the other room.

“Thank you,” Rapunzel says.

“I must insist upon caution,” Peter reminds her as his husband comes back, handing him a massive burgundy tome. He seeks out a certain page, then turns it so that Rapunzel can see an intricate sigil design. “If you find that you cannot stop the invocation once started, you need only to break the binding sigil and the spell will lose power.”

“We’ll be careful,” Rapunzel promises.

“There’s one more thing you need to know,” Peter says. “By now, you must have learned that the most powerful spells draw upon the other vital forces in the body -- this one requires blood.”

Rapunzel nods. “I’ve used my blood for spells before. I’m not worried.”

“Not yours,” Peter corrects, shaking his head. “Cassandra’s.”

Chapter Text

Cassandra wakes with a dull ache pounding up from the base of her spine, culminating in a vicious throb in her head. Her vision is fuzzy when she opens her eyes to scan her surroundings with mounting alarm, which deflates when she sees that the training ring is abandoned. Rapunzel, however she managed to get in, is now long gone. Cassandra’s gut twists at the realization, but she can’t pin down the feeling behind it. She should not have let such a dangerous threat to her kingdom escape with her life, but...a part of her is grateful that she did not have to be the one to strike Rapunzel down.

The thought makes her grimace, and she throws it aside in disgust as she struggles to her feet. Weakness. Just like the fractured second of relief she felt at the sound of Rapunzel’s voice calling out to her, just like the slight hesitation behind each swing of her blade. It is a stubborn weakness that refuses to die, like the gnarled roots of a plant that has long since withered. They dig and curl into the crevices of her chest, persistent and hardy, and Cassandra is starting to think that the only way to be free of them is to starve out her own traitorous heart.

She brushes the dust from her clothes, ignoring the way her head pounds with vertigo. She has no idea how long she was unconscious -- it feels like only an instant, but she’s sure she will get an earful from her mother when she shows up late to the war council. She quickly changes into her formal military uniform, bearing the silver stripes of an army’s general, and makes her way to the secure chamber where the strategy meetings are held.

The guards posted on either side of the double doors nod at their prince in deference, pulling the entrance open to admit her inside. A wall of arched windows looms opposite the doorway, with Diadem’s coat of arms wrought in iron at the peak of the tallest, center arch. A long, polished wooden table laden with maps and pages of notes stands in the center of the room, surrounded by elegant chairs and an imposing throne at the head of it. Queen Edith rises from the throne when her daughter steps in, and her dark expression deepens into a scowl.

“Making a mockery of our time, General?” she says.

Cassandra bows. “My deepest apologies, mother. I was delayed. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it does not. I expect you to comport yourself in a manner equal to the gravity of your station. Take a seat,” the queen says with a dismissive wave. Cassandra strides to the head of the table to sit beside her mother, who resumes the conversation. “What is the risk of moving our troops through Antipe?”

Some secretary straightens his glasses and clears his throat. “Although Antipe is technically a neutral territory, they have closer relations with Corona through royal marriage. While it’s unlikely we would meet direct resistance from the Antipean crown, there is a good chance that they will send envoys to inform King Frederic of our movements.”

Cassandra quickly loses track of the discussion, despite her efforts to stay attentive. When her mother appointed her as general of the troops, Cassandra saw the honor for what it truly was: a chance to prove herself as the worthy heir that Edith wants. It is a heavy responsibility, and she intends to carry it with grace, by involving herself in the development of battle strategies. But her body aches all over from being thrown across the room, and her arm still twinges with sharp pain even with the gauntlet, and the mental shields that hold back doubt and despair are cracked and brittle.

The thought that her heart’s not in this war slips through, tugging her attention away from the talk of tactics and victory. Even though she’s been trained since birth to wield a weapon, and takes great pride in her combat prowess, conflict has never been her inclination. War may be Diadem’s legacy, and Cassandra has always known that it’s expected of her as the kingdom’s crown prince, but she can’t make herself ignore the massive toll it takes on the people like her mother seems to. Another weakness, maybe. Though Rapunzel never saw it that way.

And then there’s Rapunzel.

Smouldering heartbreak still burns in Cassandra’s chest, and even on her best days she still feels the smoke of grief bearing down and smothering her lungs. The knowledge that their relationship was a farce, a vicious trick, should have shattered Cassandra’s cultivated love like a glass illusion -- but those feelings were always real. They remain whole and intact, at violent odds with the darkened perception of their source in Cassandra’s mind. Seeing Rapunzel revitalized them, like rain after a drought. But the fire of Cassandra’s rage and pain blazes hotter to meet them, fueled by the indignity of feeling a thrill of delight at the appearance of her own attempted killer.

A belated realization strikes her then: she should have reported Rapunzel’s infiltration and attack immediately, the moment she walked in the room. But almost as though by instinct, she hid her, protected her from Diadem the way that she always has. She steals a glance at her mother, considering interrupting the strategy meeting to inform her of something so much more pressing, but something stills her tongue.

No. Rapunzel is no one else’s to deal with. She will face Cassandra’s sword again before this is over.

Zahn Tiri tries to catch the prince’s eye all throughout the war council, but it seems her mind is far beyond the confines of the room.

Now that Diadem’s war on Corona is in motion, there are few obstacles in the way of Zahn Tiri’s vision. Soon, Corona will be brought to heel and the wealth and land within will return to their rightful owners, her family will glorify and reward her for her pivotal role in escalating tensions, and Zahn Tiri will sit on Diadem’s throne as Cassandra’s queen consort. As long as her family remains ignorant of the dark magic that she invoked to bring this to pass (and Zahn Tiri has no doubt that she will be able to keep it under wraps), there is only one conquest left.

And she is refusing to meet her eye.

At least she hasn’t taken off that gauntlet. It was a complicated enchantment, but the best way to ensure Cassandra wears it as often as possible was to augment the strength in her withered hand. What she does not know is that the gauntlet also acts as a conductor for Zahn Tiri’s magic -- as long as Cassandra is wearing it, Zahn Tiri may manipulate the sensations in her arm at her whim. It has been a useful tool, soothing and aggravating her pain in order to maneuver her emotions into position. But it isn’t enough to secure her heart, and the longer it evades Zahn Tiri’s grasp, the more exasperated she becomes.

As the meeting adjourns, Zahn Tiri meets Cassandra at her side, pinching her brows in concern. “Your Highness, are you quite alright? I could not help but notice how distant you seem today. Does something weigh on you?”

Cassandra does not meet her eyes, staring blankly forward as she strides down the hall. “I’m fine, Zahn Tiri. We have other things to worry about.”

“Our army needs its commander at her best,” reasons Zahn Tiri. “Perhaps you might allow me to draw you a bath to calm your nerves. I will enhance the waters with magic that will revitalize your strength and focus.”

“We must both attend to our posts. I am sure you have many pressing duties,” the prince brushes her off, not even looking at her.

Zahn Tiri clenches her jaw and suppresses a twitch in her face at the insolence. If she had any idea of the suffering Zahn Tiri could inflict upon her without even lifting a finger… She takes a deep breath and remembers that this is Her Royal Moodiness, and patience is the key to the slow buildup of trust she has been cultivating. Whatever that Coronan princess sees in her, Zahn Tiri has no idea. The constant rebuffing of her advances is infuriating enough to make her wonder if, after all, Rapunzel had been using romance and seduction as a political ploy. Handsome on the surface she may be, but Zahn Tiri is sure Cassandra has no deeper appeal beyond her utility.

Steeling herself, Zahn Tiri forces Cassandra to stop and look at her by stepping into her path. She stands close, reaching a hand to her cheek to hold her gaze. “Your Highness, please. I can’t help but worry for you. Let me help bear your burden. You’ve carried it alone ever since…” she trails her hand down to rest on Cassandra’s gauntlet.

Cassandra jerks her arm back, looking at her with narrowed eyes. “I am needed at the border forts,” she says, stern, then steps around Zahn Tiri and leaves her behind.

Zahn Tiri’s temper flares. She sucks in a breath through her nose, glowering at the prince’s back, and with a clench of her fist she shocks Cassandra’s arm with a stinging jolt. Cassandra stumbles, gripping her right elbow with a tight, pained moan, and Zahn Tiri rushes to catch up to her.

“Your Highness, what’s the matter? Are you hurt?” she says, supporting her with a hand on her back.

To her satisfaction, Cassandra leans into her touch. “My -- nngh -- my arm,” she pants. “It -- it just suddenly --”

Zahn Tiri shushes her, petting her shoulder with her other hand. “I understand. Magical injuries can be unpredictable. Come, Your Highness, let’s get you to your chambers. You can hardly lead the army in such a state.”

Cassandra does not argue, limping along as Zahn Tiri guides her through the corridors to her room. Once she shoulders past the heavy door, Zahn Tiri instructs the maidservants to close the curtains and bring water and medicine, and one of them helps her lie Cassandra onto her bed. Zahn Tiri perches beside her, running a cool hand over her forehead.

“It’s going to be alright,” she says in a low voice.

Cassandra winces, and doesn’t speak. Her face is pale and she’s trembling weakly, her expression twisted into a deep grimace. Perhaps Zahn Tiri may have overdone it a bit.

A servant arrives with a sedative potion, putting a few drops in a glass of water and handing it to Zahn Tiri. “Thank you,” she says, taking it. “Leave the bottle here, in case the pain does not respond.” The servant nods, sets the tray on a bedside table, and curtsies before leaving back through the door.

After a moment, Zahn Tiri stirs in twice the normal dose of sedative before turning to Cassandra, pressing a hand on the small of her back to encourage her to sit up. “Drink this, Your Highness. It will dull the pain, and you’ll have your strength back very soon.”

Cassandra gulps down the potion, panting heavily once it’s down her throat. She shivers and lies back down, groaning. “It hurts,” she mumbles.

“I know,” Zahn Tiri said, using one hand to cast behind her back and withdraw some of the pain. With her other hand, she brushes Cassandra’s hair back from her sweaty face. “It’s awful that this is happening to you. But you will be just fine soon.”

“Not...soon enough,” Cassandra says, her words slurring as the sedative takes hold. “I must...lead my people...the border forts…”

Zahn Tiri presses a finger to her lips. “I will handle it, my prince. The war can wait a few hours until the army’s general is back on her feet.”

Cassandra turns her face away on the pillow, clenching her left fist in the sheets. “The war…it’s wrong. Too many people...must be a better way…”

“This is the only way,” Zahn Tiri says. “If there were any other path, I swear we would have taken it. But Corona must answer for doing this to you.”

Cassandra squeezes her eyes shut. Zahn Tiri can tell by her voice and movements that the drugged haze has set in, and she leans down closer to stroke the prince’s face. “Rapunzel...Rapunzel said...,” Cassandra chokes, a tear slipping from the corner of her eye.

“You must not heed her poisonous words,” Zahn Tiri says. “She tricked you, remember? She wants to plant doubt in your mind so that you would not fight, because she knows you are Diadem’s strongest warrior. She wants to deny you your place in our history.”

“Our history,” Cassandra repeats softly, as though dreaming.

Zahn Tiri hums. “Your people will tell their children of Prince Cassandra the Mighty, who had the strength and willpower to cast away those who would use her, who sought her own destiny. You will be folded into the legends that you grew up hearing, and you will live on in glory for a thousand years.” She pauses to wipe the tears from Cassandra’s ashen face. “This is what you’ve worked for all your life, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Cassandra whispers, then abruptly turns her head to look at her. “I always thought -- Zahn Tiri...you...are hurt?”

Zahn Tiri’s brow furrows in confusion, then she follows the prince’s gaze to where her robes gap away from her chest as she leans over her. The bandage covering the carved sigil is clearly visible, and Zahn Tiri snaps upright and clutches her robes tight. “Y-Your Highness! Such ogling -- it’s improper!”

Etiquette does not seem to pierce the fog over Cassandra’s mind, because she simply frowns like she doesn’t get the joke. “Someone attacked you?” she says.

Zahn Tiri’s shoulders descend from next to her ears. “You must be seeing things in your weakened state, my prince. I am perfectly unharmed, I assure you. Now just focus on trying to relax, and you will feel quite healthy when you wake up.”

Cassandra curls toward the edge of the bed where Zahn Tiri sits, reaching out and grasping her hand. “Stay with me,” she murmurs.

A smile creeps across Zahn Tiri’s face, and she gently squeezes her hand. “With pleasure.”

Rapunzel lies prone on Peter Caine’s sofa, wringing her hands and staring at the cracked plaster ceiling for clarity. It’s been only a day since she arrived in Diadem, and she is already so exhausted. She and Lady Caine spent hours last night learning the theory and practice of healing spells under Peter’s instruction, building up to the daunting Sun Drop Invocation. Using her magic for such a long time has left Rapunzel feeling like she just ran the distance between here and Corona in one night. It doesn’t help that trying to sleep only brings visions of Cassandra lunging at her throat with that cruel blade. It has been weeks since Rapunzel could sleep through the night, and it is starting to feel like she bears heavy chains dragging her back as she ghosts through the motions of life.

There are so many problems she must solve, so many catastrophes she must avert, and she is running out of time. She groans audibly, throwing her arms up toward the ceiling.

“Maybe she’s a blood donor somewhere,” Eugene suggests from the floor, where he is losing at cards with Lance.

“I still think your best bet is to sneak in and take some while she’s sleeping,” says Lance. He plays a card that makes Eugene loudly lament his woes.

“We’ve been over this. She’s a light sleeper, she would wake up immediately,” Rapunzel says. “And she has chronic insomnia anyway.”

“How do you know that? You don’t live together,” Eugene says.

“You could try checking the prince’s laundry,” Lady Caine says, sitting behind Catalina and brushing out the tangles in her long hair. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and find it’s her time of the month.”

“Gross,” Keira and Catalina whine in unison.

Lady Caine shrugs. “Given the choice between rifling through some dirty laundry and going anywhere near that unhinged warrior woman again, I think I’d choose the former. I know the princess has a shocking disregard for common sense, but I prefer to keep my limbs attached to my body.”

Rapunzel sighs. “It wouldn’t work. Her time of the month was last week.”

“Again, why do you know these things?” Eugene demands.

“I don’t think there’s any way to get Cassandra’s blood without her noticing,” Rapunzel says. “Our best option is to confront her directly.”

“What, and just ask nicely?” Eugene says. “You do realize she’ll be even angrier than last time, don’t you? You wouldn’t be able to get a word out before she tries to cut your head off.”

Rapunzel shakes her head. “No. Next time I’ll come prepared for a fight.”

“Oh, that’s great,” Lady Caine interjects. “Beat her bloody, that’ll convince her that you’re on her side.”

“I’m not going to hurt her if I can help it. I just need to find some way to…” Rapunzel groans, shoving the heels of her hands into her eyes. “There has to be something!”

“If I may offer a suggestion, Princess,” says the low, gentle voice of Xavier. “I make a living as an apothecary, and I happen to have a stock of knockout gas.”

Rapunzel bolts upright and meets his eyes. “Knockout gas?”

Xavier nods, reaching up on a high shelf in the kitchen for a small glass bottle and bringing it over. “The fumes of this potion induce unconsciousness almost instantly when inhaled. It is useful for doctors who need to put patients to sleep for surgery, but I imagine it would work for your purposes quite well.”

Rapunzel takes the vial in her hand, examining the milky white contents. “Is it dangerous?”

“No. The gas disperses rapidly, and there is not enough in that dose to cause any lasting damage. If you can get Prince Cassandra to breathe it in, she will fall asleep long enough for you to gather what you need, then wake up unharmed after you’ve gone.”

Rapunzel’s face lights up, and she throws her arms around Xavier’s neck. “This is exactly what I need! How can I pay you?”

Xavier chuckles and pats her shoulder. “If your plan works, it will be payment enough. And if it doesn’t...well, it will hardly matter then.”

“Now we just have to get close enough to get her to smell our new perfume without getting hit by a giant sword,” Eugene says. “Not to mention that I doubt we’ll be able to get into the castle again after that catastrophe.”

Peter steps forward, holding a large mug of tea and scratching his chin. “Actually, I can offer assistance with that. Now that I’m already instructing the princess and Gertrude in magical healing, I can teach you some defensive spells.” He turns to Lady Caine. “That’s something I would want you to know, anyway, Gertie dear.”

Lady Caine looks aside bashfully, while Rapunzel looks up at Peter with wide eyes. “Like a shield of magic?”

“Sort of. More like an enchantment that will protect you from harm up to a certain number of strikes, but it’s the same idea.”

Rapunzel feels her heart beating faster, pumping hope through her veins. It’s such a bright feeling that her exhaustion is forgotten if only for a moment, and she can finally see a positive outcome starting to take shape. This plan can work. It won’t be easy to face Cassandra’s rage in battle again; it was agonizing enough the first time, and Rapunzel fears both for her life and for her heart. She dreads the prospect of having to inflict any harm on Cassandra, even if it’s just to take a tiny amount of blood, but she will forgive her if Rapunzel can heal her arm. She has to.

The following morning, Rapunzel and Eugene take a couple of their rented horses and journey into the kingswood behind the castle. According to Rapunzel and her intimate knowledge of the prince’s daily life, Cassandra rides through the woods to clear her head just before the break of dawn every day, and Eugene agreed that it seems like their safest bet to catch her alone.

In the early hours of the morning, when the sky is still a soft indigo before giving way to the waking sun’s peach glow, they station themselves at one of the tall hills in the wood. The vantage point will allow them to see Cassandra, or any patrolling royal guards, if they pass through. True to her prediction, Rapunzel catches sight of a black horse streaking through the underbrush nearby, and she rushes to mount her own horse to intercept its path. Her cloak flies behind her as she rides, branches clawing at the fabric as though to drag her back. She feels the vial of knockout gas in her pocket, beating against her thigh as she rides. When she cast the shielding enchantment on herself before they left, Peter told her it would break after three strong blows and leave her as vulnerable as an overturned snail. She would only have one chance to throw the potion, and she desperately hopes that the spell will protect her until she is close enough for a good shot.

Cassandra pulls her horse to a sudden stop as soon as she catches sight of another rider, about fifty meters away. Rapunzel sees the cold flash of her black sword as it is drawn forth from Cassandra’s back, and the stirring of dead leaves under her steed’s stomping hooves. The morning mist hangs like murky water between them, and the wind is the only sound cutting the silence.

“These woods are off-limits,” Cassandra calls. “Leave now, or I will make you leave!”

“She’s in a bad mood again,” Eugene mutters behind Rapunzel, having just caught up to her.

Rapunzel dismounts, planting her feet in the packed dirt, and throws her hood down. She straightens up and calls, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You! How dare you --” Cassandra growls. “Come to finish me off? I won’t make it easy for you.”

“No, Cassandra,” Rapunzel says, walking toward her at a cautious pace. “I have come to talk to you. There is something you have to know: I was not the one who cursed your arm. Someone else, someone who can use dark magic, wanted to hurt you, Cass. I don’t know who or why, but I’m asking you to help me figure that out. Please, so that we can save both of our peoples.”

“Your words hold no power over me anymore,” Cassandra seethes, steering Fidela to face her head-on. “You’d better save your breath -- while you still can!” She spurs her horse into a sudden gallop, her sword arm outstretched to cleave Rapunzel in half as she charges. Rapunzel forces herself to stand her ground, balling her fists at her sides and feeling her heart jump further up her throat with each beat. She focuses on the magic fortifying her shield, trusting with every ounce of her ability that she’s not about to be torn to ribbons by the woman she loves. Cassandra closes in, the hooves of her steed thundering in Rapunzel’s ears, and rears her arm back to strike.

Her sword makes contact with the invisible barrier surrounding Rapunzel, the magic gathering to block the blade in a brief flash of white light. It makes a metallic splitting sound like a wire the size of a tree branch snapping under a tremendous strain, and the recoil throws Cassandra from her saddle. Her body skids across the dirt before colliding harshly with a boulder, and she groans. Fidela rears back in fright, turning around and running back toward the palace, to safety.

Gripping the vial of knockout gas in her pocket, Rapunzel rushes over to where Cassandra is sprawled. But before she thinks to throw it, worry cinches around her throat, and she thinks of the visceral thud of Cassandra’s back against the wall of the arena. She slows in her approach, extending a hand. “...Cass?”

In the blink of an eye, Cassandra springs to her feet and slashes her sword in a defensive arc. The swing should have caught Rapunzel straight across the chest, but the enchantment blocks it once again. Before Rapunzel can respond, Cassandra leaps back, her face twisted with apprehension. She is just barely too far, and Rapunzel tries to step closer, but Cassandra responds by backing up further.

“Cass, please, I’m not your enemy!” Rapunzel pleads, opening her empty palms.

“You should never have come here,” Cassandra says, keeping her distance from Rapunzel and her magic. “You abandoned your people in a time of war, and they will be that much more vulnerable when I lead the attack on Corona’s capitol. They stand no chance against the might of Diadem.”

“That’s what your mother wants from you, isn’t it? To be a ruthless warrior who crushes her kingdom’s enemies,” Rapunzel says. “But that’s not who you are. You and I both know you’re better than what she wants you to be.”

For a split second, Cassandra’s stony guard opens up. Her form falters, her eyes soften, and Rapunzel watches for which way the scales will fall. But her expression is quickly darkened by a scowl again, and Rapunzel reaches for the potion in her pocket as a roar rips from Cassandra’s throat, and she rushes forward with her sword. Rapunzel takes a deep breath and holds it, waiting until Cassandra is within arm’s reach, and shatters the vial on the ground in the same instant that Cassandra’s sword comes down over her head and breaks the magic barrier.

Before Cassandra can lift her weapon again, she breathes in the pale cloud of the knockout gas, her body swaying as she loses strength in her limbs. Rapunzel dives forward to catch her before she falls, securing her arms around her waist and lowering her slowly to the ground. Cassandra glares at her, impotent wrath burning in her eyes before they close and she loses consciousness.

Rapunzel strokes her cheek, brushing stray hairs away from her face. “I’m going to help you, Cass. I promise.”

Eugene heaves quick breaths as he runs up behind them, carrying the pouch of bloodletting equipment. He puts a hand on Rapunzel’s shoulder, and when he speaks his voice is squeaky with anxiety. “Can we please never do that again? I swear I had four separate heart attacks back there.”

Rapunzel looks back at him apologetically. “Sorry, Eugene. But it worked, thank goodness. Let’s get what we came for before she wakes up.”

Eugene nods, preparing the small lancet and the vial enchanted by Peter to prevent clotting of the blood it contains. Rapunzel reaches for Cassandra’s left hand, unbuckling the black, clawed gauntlet and tugging off the glove beneath it. Eugene hands her the needle and a cotton ball wetted with spirits, and Rapunzel cleanses the pad of Cassandra’s thumb. With a deep breath, she pierces the calloused skin and a ruby bauble of blood comes forth, and Eugene holds the vial against her skin while Rapunzel gently squeezes out a few more drops.

When they have enough, Rapunzel wraps her thumb with a strip of gauze, and...she can’t help it, she places a soft kiss over it before putting the glove back on. She glances back at Eugene. “Okay, hand me the letter.”

Eugene pulls out a sheet of parchment that Rapunzel wrote on before they left and passes it to her. Rapunzel bites her lips, staring down at Cassandra’s artificially placid expression, and tucks the message on her chest, under her hand.

“Okay, let’s get out of here, Sunshine,” Eugene insists, straightening up and bouncing nervously on his feet.

“One more thing,” Rapunzel says, and reaches for the clasps on Cassandra’s cape so that she can bunch it up and put it under her head. Hurting Cassandra may have been unavoidable earlier, but Rapunzel can at least try to ensure that she’s comfortable until she wakes up. She spares one more long, wistful look at her, and then Eugene grabs her by the wrist and pulls her away.

Chapter Text

Something soft is nudging Cassandra’s head. It’s warm on her skin, it’s fine as velvet, and it’s...breathing?

Cassandra jerks to her senses, nearly headbutting the tender muzzle of her loyal steed. She blinks at the animal, shaking her head. “Fidela! You came back!” she says, rubbing her horse’s nose gratefully. She shakes her head and sits up, squinting around at the mid-afternoon light filtering through the orange leaves above her. The sound of rustling papers draws her attention to a piece of parchment that has slid from her chest to the ground.

Frowning, she reaches for it. It’s a letter written in Rapunzel’s familiar hand, albeit a good measure hastier than her usual expressive, curling script. All of Cassandra’s fury boils to the surface, her fingers trembling as she pinches the pages between them like she could snap them if she tries hard enough. She should tear it up, throw it away, burn it like she did all the others. It’s what her mother would expect her to do, and Zahn Tiri would assure her it’s just another ploy to manipulate her. But as she glares at the page in ambivalent desperation, she catches sight of the first word: Dear. The remainder of her resistance instantly crumbles.

Dear,

I can’t be sure that you will read this, but I have to try to get through to you. There has been a terrible misunderstanding that needs to be righted before it is too late. The night that your arm was hurt, I was so confused and terrified. I thought that it was my magic that did that to you, but I know better now. I was framed, and I can’t be sure by whom or for what reason, but it’s probably somebody who wants to bring our kingdoms to war.

I would never want to hurt you intentionally, and certainly never for such a purpose, but there’s someone out there who does. You must be careful. It could be someone close to you, who even might live in the palace. The curse on your arm is a product of dark magic; a mage must carve an occult sigil into their own skin to have access to that kind of power. Stay vigilant -- look for the sigil.

I’m sorry it has come to this, but no matter what happens, I won’t fight you. I will never turn my back on you, and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that.

Yours

Cassandra reads the message three times over, her fingers feeling numb as her mind struggles to find sense in its contents. Not only had Rapunzel spared her life when she had her enemy at her mercy, but Cassandra woke up with her own cape pillowed under her head and a letter warning her of danger. What kind of game is she playing at? She had the perfect chance to finish what she started when she mutilated Cassandra, but instead she seems bent on clearing her name of guilt. Cassandra stares at the words on the page, brows twisting in consternation. Is it possible that…?

No, she can’t surrender herself again. Rapunzel must know that the Diadem army would be disorganized and weaker without Cassandra leading it. She means to destabilize their military from within, by corrupting the willpower of its commander with lies and deception. It’s another strategy, a heartless ploy, and Cassandra berates herself for considering otherwise for a moment.

She cannot afford to question her position now. She is on the path of her forebears, one of victory, conquest, and justice. So many of her people are relying on her for strength, and her mother --

You and I both know you’re better than what she wants you to be.

Cassandra growls and rises to her feet, shredding the parchment into jagged pieces and throwing them to the ground. No one else gets to decide who she is, and who she should be, not ever again. For the first time, Cassandra is in charge of her own destiny, and she is done waiting for the chance to seize it. This is what she wants. This is her path, her place in history.

This is what she wants.

Rapunzel paces the length of Peter Caine’s home, completing the circuit from the living room to the kitchen more times than she could possibly count. The others have all gone -- Peter and Xavier must tend to their apothecary business, while Lady Caine has taken Lance and Eugene to resupply on food in town. She has only the girls for company, but they sit on the couch in heavy silence, unsure what to say to the fretting princess. Even Pascal perches on a cushion, watching his friend with concern.

Rapunzel rubs her thumb on the smooth glass of the vial containing Cassandra’s blood, clutching it close to her chest to ensure that it’s safe at all times. The moment when she will be able to heal Cassandra’s arm with the Sun Drop Invocation looms nearer, and Rapunzel’s nerves fray a little further with each swing of the pendulum in Xavier’s grandfather clock.

Her grasp on the daunting spell is shaky at best; she has been studying and practicing with Peter every hour he can spare, and by his evaluation she is nearly ready in terms of ability. But the way that Rapunzel’s magic seems to quiver like a muscle overwhelmed with weight the moment she attempts to extend it too far has planted doubt deep within her mind. The stakes could not be higher, and Rapunzel teeters on the edge of despair whenever she even begins to consider what might happen if she fails. So many lives hang in the balance -- not just hers and Cassandra’s, though that risk alone is terrifying enough. A full scale war between Diadem and Corona, with all the military might and resources at each nation’s disposal, would wreak unimaginable havoc throughout the Seven Kingdoms. So many lives lost, so many families torn asunder, if Rapunzel cannot avert this catastrophe in the next few days.

“If only I had more time,” she mutters with her thumbnail between her teeth.

“Princess, you’re starting to make me dizzy. Please sit down for just a minute?” says Keira as Rapunzel passes the couch again.

“Oh, I’m sorry, girls, it’s just...” Rapunzel says, forcing a reassuring smile. “Do you know when you’re having so many thoughts that you just can’t sit still?”

“Maybe it’ll help if you talk about them,” Catalina says. “Sometimes you just need to let your thoughts out so they have somewhere to go. What are you thinking about?”

Rapunzel smooths her hair against her neck and barks a desperate laugh. “What am I not thinking about? It just...it feels like I’m the only one with a chance to stop this war, and I have no way of knowing what’s even happening on that front. I’m a fugitive in my own kingdom, a political enemy in this one, and I hate being locked up and forced to hide from the world once again. And the messed up thing is that I’m almost grateful that my family drove me out, because otherwise they would be alarmed about me going missing and I’d have to worry about that, too!”

She collapses in a heap on the couch between the two girls, folding over towards her knees with her face buried in her hands. Pascal crawls up her arm and pats her shoulder awkwardly.

“Well, your parents are probably worried about you, anyway,” Keira says.

“Keira!” Catalina hisses, gesturing with her chin to Rapunzel’s broken posture.

“Well, it’s true! Parents are supposed to worry about their kids, right?”

Rapunzel sniffles and sits up, looking at Keira with concern. “I’m so sorry, I never thought to ask about your family. Your parents must be worried that you left Corona so suddenly.”

The girls exchange a glance, and Keira says, “Actually, we...don’t have parents, only each other. We grew up together in an orphanage in Old Corona, up until we turned ten and Catalina’s magic started showing.”

Rapunzel looks down at Catalina, her expression tight. “They threw you out?”

Catalina nods. “But I was okay, because Keira stayed with me. Even when we had to live on the streets and steal to survive, we have always been together.”

“And then Lady Caine found us,” Keira says. “She took us in and told us about the Nightingale, and how there’s a home for mythics in Corona if you know where to look. So you don’t need to worry about us, Princess. Our family is right here.”

Rapunzel’s face warms with her first genuine smile in hours. “Your family are the people who accept you as you are. I didn’t know that for most of my life, but my mom showed me that it’s true.” She sighs, her eyes falling to her lap. “I’m certain that she’s worried about me, at least. I didn’t have time to explain everything to her...she probably thinks I’m safe in Antipe with her side of the family.”

“You’ll see her again soon, and you can tell her everything then,” Keira says.

Rapunzel bites her cheek, keeping her gaze down. “I hope you’re right.”

A few minutes later, the front door slams open and Eugene bursts into the entryway, looking like he’s just run a mile while being pursued by wild dogs. Lance and Lady Caine stumble in after him, heaving against the doorframe.

“Rapunzel, we’re out of time!” Eugene gasps, and Rapunzel bolts up from the couch to support him and guide him to a seat.

“What? What do you mean?” Rapunzel asks.

“We got here as fast as we could,” says Lady Caine between breaths, scraping a hand through her tangled bangs. “The marketplace -- it’s chaos out there -- a herald came to announce the news.”

“The invasion is starting,” Lance rushes to say, his voice strained and his face ashen. “The troops at the southern border fort are being deployed in the morning!”

“What?! But...that means…” Rapunzel gasps. “Cassandra must already be there to lead the army. There’s no way I’ll get close enough to her for the spell before tomorrow.” She feels her knees give out, and she sinks to the floor, staring blankly at the rug. “It’s...it’s over. I’ve lost her.”

A heavy pause casts a shadow over the room, and Eugene puts an arm around Rapunzel’s curled shoulders. He looks at her with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “It’s not over ‘til it’s over, Sunshine. Since when do you give up so easily?”

Rapunzel sniffles. “Cassandra doesn’t even want my help. I don’t think my heart can take it if she turns me away again, Eugene.”

“Well, I didn’t want your help when you met me, either,” Eugene says. “If anyone can get through to her, it’s you.”

“You know, he has a point,” says Lady Caine, stepping forward with her arms crossed over her chest and a smirk on her face. “You have a knack for accomplishing the impossible, Princess. No one’s ever convinced me to see past my anger before you did. I had accepted that I’d never see my father again, and then you came along.”

“And I’ve been working at the Snuggly Duckling for years, but it was always just a bunch of miserable jerks who’d given up on their dreams so they could take others’ away,” Lance adds. “We have you to thank for lighting up the place. Literally! I never thought I’d see the day when old Hook Hand took the stage and started playing for charity. And I’m willing to bet good money that he’s a good deal crankier than your girl, Princess.”

“You bring out the best in people,” says Keira, a smile warm on her face. “You can bring Cassandra back, too.”

“You guys…” Rapunzel hiccups an uneasy laugh, swiping at the tears on her cheeks. “I’m so grateful that I could help you, but I’ve never been more scared than I am now. What I fear the most is losing Cassandra forever, and that’s just on the horizon. What if I can’t find her? What if the spell fails? Or what if it works, and she still walks away?”

“She won’t,” Eugene says, patting her hand.

“But how can you be sure?”

Eugene shakes his head. “We can’t be, not until we try.”

“You’ve come this far, kid,” Lady Caine says, raising an arched eyebrow. “You’re not just going to drop out of the race when the finish line is right in front of you, are you?”

Rapunzel sets her jaw and rises to her feet, drying her tears. “No, I’m not. I didn’t risk so much just to lose her now. But how are we going to get Cassandra away from the army at the border fort?”

Lance strokes his goatee, pondering. “We could try -- AACK!!” He ducks just in time for a dark shape to swoop past his head on broad wings, and points with a shaky finger as it circles the ceiling and hovers for somewhere to land. “S-spider! Giant flying spider!”

“Ugh, we must’ve left the door open!” Lady Caine groans. She unsheathes her sword and points it at the airborne intruder, shouting at it to try and scare it away. “Shoo! Get out of here, you dumb bird!”

Hoo!” says the offended creature, staring her down with wide yellow eyes. Pascal runs from Rapunzel’s shoulder to her neck, clinging to her and hiding under her hair in reptilian terror.

“Wait, stop! I know him!” Rapunzel cries as she recognizes her friend, urging Lady Caine to put her weapon down.

“You know him?!” Eugene exclaims. He rushes to shut and bolt the front door, holding his forearms over his head as he ducks back into the living room.

“Yes, it’s Owl, Cassandra’s hunting companion,” Rapunzel clarifies. She slowly approaches Owl where he flies in circles around the ceiling’s far corner. She offers out her wrist, and Owl eyes her for a moment before coming to a perch on the edge of her arm, hooting gratefully. Rapunzel scratches the top of his head, and Pascal cautiously peeks out from behind her neck. “He must have followed us out of the kingswood yesterday. It’s been a while, hasn’t it, buddy?”

Owl fluffs his feathers, puffing up as he gets comfortable on Rapunzel’s arm. Everyone else in the room stands stock-still, staring at them.

Lady Caine clears her throat. “If he’s Cassandra’s pet, shouldn’t we be worried that he might...y’know...peck your eyes out, or something?”

“Yeah, what is he doing here?” Eugene asks. “Why isn’t he with Cassandra?”

“I’m not sure,” Rapunzel says, tilting her head in thought. Owl mirrors her, tipping his head ninety degrees and blinking. “Maybe he’s worried about her, and thinks we can help?”

“He’s a bird, Sunshine.”

“Well, Pascal’s a lizard and he gets worried about me sometimes!” Rapunzel protests, nuzzling her cheek on Pascal’s scaly head. He squeaks in agreement. “In any case, he’s here now, and he’s very intelligent. If we can get to the southern border fort tonight, I think he might be able to solve our problem.”

Eugene frowns for a second, then shrugs with an exasperated sigh. “Well, it’s not the craziest thing this plan hinges on. What do you have in mind?”

The ceiling of Cassandra’s quarters at the southern border fort is less interesting to look at than her bedchambers in the palace. It’s far less intricate, lacking the carved, patterned moulding at the edges and the imposing chandelier hanging from the center. She has had a lot of time to study each of them as she lies on her back at night, completely out of reach of sleep. She is scrutinizing a dark spot in the corner by the door, trying to figure out if it is a shadow or a stain, when something collides loudly with her window. Cassandra bolts out of bed, grabs the dagger she stows under the pillow, and walks cautiously toward the rays of moonlight streaming through the glass.

The window rattles violently again as a dark shape flies into it, startling Cassandra backward a step. Scowling, she lunges for the windowsill and lifts it in one motion, poking her head out to look for the source of the racket. The dense trees surrounding the fort make it difficult to make anything out, and as she squints into the middle distance she feels something tug a strand of her hair and whips around with her dagger bared.

Owl releases her hair to hoot at her and settle onto the windowsill. Cassandra drops her blade and grins wider than she has in weeks, feeling her heart lift at the sight of her best friend. “Owl! Where have you been? What are you doing here?”

Owl pulls at the ends of her hair again before flying out in a circle and landing on the sill again. His hoots sound agitated, like he’s trying to tell her something urgent.

“You want me to go outside?” Cassandra asks. “What, did you catch prey that’s too big for you to eat again? I’m telling you, you have to stick to the small guys. I can’t always be there to cut a rabbit into pieces for you.”

Owl hoots again, providing little clarification to Cassandra’s questions. She purses her lips, then sighs. “Well, I wasn’t getting sleep anyway. Let me get my boots on and I’ll be right out.”

Cassandra buckles her gauntlet onto her right hand, then pulls on a pair of sturdy leather boots and straps her black sword to her side. She won’t be long, but she can’t take any risks the night before she must lead the army to war. She grabs her hunting knife and dons a navy-blue cloak before slipping out the door and descending the ramparts to meet Owl outside.

Owl circles above her when he sees her reappear, then flies ahead to lead Cassandra into the woods. He flits from branches of towering pine trees, staring down with those huge yellow eyes at Cassandra as she treads warily through the stifling darkness, her hand clenched tight around her sword hilt. Cassandra follows until she catches sight of a hooded figure at the edge of the shadows in a small clearing, where Owl flies overhead and into the looming foliage. She draws her sword, stepping closer, her stance wary. “Who’s there?” she calls.

The stranger mutters something that Cassandra cannot hear, and she sees the flash of pale hands dancing in time with the words. A ribbon of brilliant blue glows between the hands, stretching like taffy as it lengthens, and Cassandra turns on her heel to run back toward the fort and away from more ominous magic. But she stutters to a halt when the ribbon shoots out and erects a barrier up from a small circle on the ground that Cassandra had stepped into. Another light barrier flares out of the dirt a few feet away, enclosing both Cassandra and the stranger in a larger ring together.

“What...what is this?” Cassandra demands, striking the barrier fruitlessly with the pommel of her sword. “Release me, or I’ll have your head!”

The stranger ignores her. They stretch out a hand, palm facing the ground between them, where Cassandra notices an intricate sigil in the shape of a lily has been etched. She sees the stranger’s shoulders heave with a deep breath, and then they start speaking again. “Flower, gleam and glow. Let your power shine.”

Cassandra recognizes the voice instantly, and when the sigil lights up warm gold, she sees Rapunzel’s face illuminated under her hood. The panic that has been steadily tightening in her gut suddenly clenches with force, and she screams as she beats on the magic wall with her fists.

“Make the clock reverse, bring back what once was mine,” Rapunzel continues in a tone heavy with resolution. As she goes on, her face and hands brighten, and Cassandra realizes that it’s not solely her skin reflecting the light of the sigil. Something from within Rapunzel is glowing like the core of a star, bleeding out of her pores and turning her into liquid gold.

“Heal what has been hurt,” Rapunzel chants. “Change the Fates’ design.”

Cassandra’s right arm starts to tingle, like the uncomfortable pricking of a limb that’s been asleep. It’s a sensation she hasn’t felt since before the decay curse, and Cassandra hastily unstraps her gauntlet with mounting alarm. Just like Rapunzel’s body, her forearm is suffused with a golden glow, the withered edges of her skin slowly being restored to their unharmed state. Cassandra’s mouth falls open in shock, watching mutely as the feeling and strength return to her arm.

The hand held over the sigil starts to tremble, and so does Rapunzel’s voice as she speaks the rest of the spell: “Save what has been lost. Bring back...what once...was mine,” she finishes, and staggers as she drops her hand. The magic barriers around her and Cassandra fade, while the outer ring remains intact.

Cassandra should seize the chance and strike her down. She feels stronger and healthier than she has in a long time, her arm somehow completely healed and her body thrumming with energy. Rapunzel, in contrast, looks weaker by the second. She collapses to her knees and pants shallow breaths, and Cassandra finally sees the way the sigil is conducting the line of magic between the two of them. The bright energy pulses as it flows out of Rapunzel and into Cassandra, as the essential life-force sustaining one woman restores the wounded body of the other.

If Cassandra does nothing, Rapunzel will be dead in minutes.

Her brain flails in desperation to understand. All this time, Cassandra has believed that she was led on and tricked by a cunning assassin, who manipulated her and then mutilated her in an attempt to kill her. Rapunzel pursued her to Diadem, where she attacked her twice but spared her life despite leaving Cassandra defeated and helpless both times...which could be explained by more mind games, attempts to get behind Cassandra’s guard and control her. But this...not only has her enemy gone to great lengths to heal her, but she has willingly put her own life at Cassandra’s mercy. She is trusting Cassandra to decide whether she lives or dies in this moment. What could possibly be the tactical advantage of such a risk?

Mortification turns Cassandra’s stomach to ice and numbs her fingers as she realizes the truth of what she’s done, what she’s put Rapunzel’s heart through. The reality of what’s happening hits her all at once, knocking the wind out of her lungs.

She stumbles forward, and drops her sword. “Raps!”

Rapunzel lies on the ground, motionless and pale. The trail of magic trickling out of her is thin and slow.

Tears gather in Cassandra’s eyes. “Raps! No, no, no, no, please!”

She scrambles across the dirt between them, destroying the carefully-drawn lines of the sigil in her haste. She kneels and scoops Rapunzel’s limp form into her arms, her healed hand coming up to search for the pulse at her neck. She holds her breath until she feels the faint, slow pressure beating against her fingertips, and then lets it all out as a sob. Her shoulders curl forward as she cradles Rapunzel against her chest, biting her lip so hard it bleeds.

“Please, don’t die,” Cassandra begs in a rasp whisper. “I know now that I can’t do this without you. I should have trusted you like you trusted me, instead of letting all of this happen. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, Rapunzel. Don’t leave before I can try to make it up to you.” She smooths a thumb over Rapunzel’s ashen cheek, and bends down to touch their foreheads together. Cassandra’s shoulders tremble as she starts to cry, hot tears falling onto Rapunzel’s still face like summer rain. “Wake up. Please, wake up. It can’t end like this. You don’t have to forgive me, but I need you to know that I’m sorry. I need you to know that...that I love you, Raps.”

The words dissipate into the cool night air, the silence following them empty and hollow. Rapunzel sags motionless in Cassandra’s arms, and Cassandra rests her ear on her sternum so that she can listen to the weak heartbeat beneath it. She clutches Rapunzel close, shedding tears onto her chest, hearing nothing but the sound that she clings to like a lifeline. She will stay like this all night if she has to, war be damned. She’s not leaving Rapunzel’s side again.

It feels like an age before Cassandra feels shaky fingers come up to thread through her hair, and she snaps her head up so abruptly that the crown of her head nearly collides with Rapunzel’s chin. She watches with rapt attention as Rapunzel’s eyes blink open and focus on her. “I love you too, Cass,” she whispers with a fragile, but warm smile.

“Rapunzel!” Cassandra exclaims, diving forward to crush her in a hug that pales in comparison to the force of the relief overwhelming her. Rapunzel’s hands wind around her and she squeezes with all of her feeble strength. Cassandra buries her face in the side of Rapunzel’s neck and murmurs, “Oh, you’re okay. Why did you do that?”

Rapunzel strokes her hair. “It was all I could think of to show you that I would never hurt you.”

Cassandra exhales a shuddering breath, raising her head to meet Rapunzel’s eyes. “I shouldn’t have let it come to this. Rapunzel, if you had -- I would never forgive myself if --”

Rapunzel stops her with a hand to her cheek. “It’s alright, Cass.”

“How can you forgive me so easily?”

“Because...even after everything we’ve been through, no matter what we’ve done to each other, I still see the eyes of the prince that I fell in love with, the first person to show me the beauty of true freedom. You changed my life, Cass, and I would sooner give it up for you than give up on you.”

Cassandra smiles through her relentless tears. “I’m sorry I didn’t see that sooner. My life is yours as well, Raps. I promise to guard yours more carefully.”

Rapunzel reaches up to thumb a tear away, and then pulls Cassandra down to meet her in a kiss that bridges the distance between them once and for all. They clutch at each other, pressing their lips together again and again until they are both dizzy from the breathlessness, and when they part Cassandra can’t help the joy that escapes her as laughter.

She feels talons land on her head with a soft hoot, and Rapunzel beams. “Owl is glad to have you back, too.”

Chapter Text

Rapunzel’s not sure that she isn’t dead, somehow. The most salacious romance novels in Corona’s royal library have taught her the idea that a particularly spectacular kiss can make a woman feel like she’s died and gone to heaven. But she has seen stars swirling behind her eyes, has drifted into dreamy lightheadedness with every touch of Cassandra’s lips in the past, and it never came close to this.

Cassandra’s arms are tight around her waist, a lifeline saving Rapunzel from sinking back into the cold depths. Her steady hands and warm lips upon Rapunzel’s face anchor her consciousness to reality, even as it slips away each time Rapunzel grasps it, like a fish that won’t be caught. In the truest sense, the world has narrowed down to their kiss, and a part of Rapunzel fears that it will blink out entirely if they part.

She survived the Sun Drop Invocation, but only barely. If Cassandra acted only moments later, if she hadn’t unintentionally disrupted the sigil in her haste to reach Rapunzel, she would have been powerless to overcome the spell’s grip on her life. Even now, though she feels the stable beat of her heart as it reaches out for Cassandra’s, she knows that her body is unsteady as a makeshift raft amidst a tempest. She had come so close, during the moments when she watched her magic leak out of her like blood from a wound that should have been fatal, during the fluttering heartbeats when her vision blackened and her limbs buckled beneath her. Each breath she takes now, in defiance of death, is nothing short of a miracle.

And with Cassandra here, returned to her arms at last, enveloping her like a blanket that welcomes her back in from the cold...Rapunzel is afraid to believe that she still lives and that this is real, in case it is an illusory wish granted by merciful death.

It can’t last forever. Rapunzel does not have the time to savor any wondrous illusions.

“Cass...Cassandra,” she whispers against the other’s lips. “What are we going to do?”

Cassandra pulls back, her eyes shuttering to steel. “The war. If you were framed all along, it must be some kind of ploy.”

“People are going to die, Cass,” Rapunzel says, the words choking her as they come out. She may have won Cassandra back, but she still has plenty left to lose.

“No, they aren’t,” Cassandra says. “There’s still time to abort the invasion. I just have to get back to the capitol before the troops leave from the border, and...and…”

“And?”

Cassandra chews her cheek, frowning. “My mother has always wanted an excuse to declare war on Corona. I can’t say anything to her that would convince her to call it off. More likely she would have me immediately detained for abandoning my post.”

Rapunzel furrows her brow, concentrating with the small remainder of her energy. “Your mother has been looking for an excuse to go to war? Could she have been the one to frame me?”

“No, she couldn’t have. She...she didn’t know anything about you, or our meetings, until after the decay spell injured my arm.” Cassandra grips her healed right wrist, as though remembering the burnt flesh. “She deployed...extreme measures to find out.”

“Cass, she didn’t hurt you, did she?” Rapunzel asks, reaching a hand to Cassandra’s cheek.

“She didn’t have to,” Cassandra says, unable to meet Rapunzel’s gaze. “She ordered a mage to cast a truth spell over me. I told her everything, Raps. I’m -- I’m so sorry.”

Rapunzel wraps her arms around her shoulders and pulls her to her chest. “That must have been awful,” she whispers into her hair.

Cassandra emits a strangled laugh. “It certainly wasn’t easy. But it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve done recently.” She pulls back to look at her face. “I still can’t believe you don’t hate me.”

“I could never hate you, Cass,” Rapunzel says. “You know that, right?”

“I do now,” Cassandra answers, her eyes softening. “But I’m still going to make it up to you, Raps. There is a lot I have to fix before I can forgive myself.”

“I understand. We can fix things together,” Rapunzel says. “Starting with this mage who put you under a truth spell. Who did that to you?”

Cassandra blinks. Strangely, it takes her a second to recall. “It was one of the royal mages, Zahn Tiri, but she didn’t have a choice. She’s...a friend.”

Rapunzel raises an eyebrow. “A friend?”

“Why do you sound so skeptical?”

“Well...the men who have been sheltering me in the capitol told me a bit about Diadem’s royal mages,” Rapunzel says, sitting up in the dirt. “They seem convinced that they have been working to bring about the war between our kingdoms for generations, as a way to punish Corona for the mythic accords. Has Zahn Tiri said anything to you about something like that?”

Cassandra rubs her chin. “I’m not sure I’d put my faith in conspiracies at a time like this, Raps.”

“Has she or hasn’t she?” Rapunzel insists, leveling her gaze to Cassandra’s.

Cassandra lowers her brows. “So what if she has? I would be more suspicious if our spymaster had no such sentiments at all. Zahn Tiri has gone out of her way to support me, I really don’t think --”

“Hold on. Spymaster?” Rapunzel gasps.

“...Yes?”

“Out of all the people in Diadem, wouldn’t the spymaster be the most likely individual to know about my magic before your arm was hurt? I don’t know how we could have let that information slip, but if anyone could dig it up, it would be the spymaster of my father’s enemy, right?”

Cassandra eyes her. “Just say what you’re thinking, already.”

“The person who framed me for casting the decay spell on your arm. What do we know about them?” Rapunzel ticks off the criteria on her fingertips. “They’re a powerful mage. They want Diadem to go to war with Corona. They must have known about my magic beforehand in order to frame me, and about our secret meetings, too. And they’re probably close to you, to make sure the only one who could set things right continues to believe their lie. It all fits, Cass.”

Cassandra swallows, casting her gaze to their surroundings as though she could find clarity among the dark branches. “...One of you is trying to manipulate me,” she says at length. “You can’t both be telling the truth. Zahn Tiri has told me countless times that you’ve had me under a spell from the start, that you’re using me as a pawn. And now you’re telling me that Zahn Tiri is the one I can’t trust.”

Rapunzel can feel the uncertainty in the wavering of her tone, and she aches to soothe the turmoil that Cassandra has been through without her. But Rapunzel knows what it’s like to be manipulated, led to believe that her own judgment is too frail to be reliable. She looks at Cassandra and sees her young self, belittled mercilessly over entreaties to leave the tower just for a day, dismissed as too gullible and naive to know what’s best for her. Rapunzel sets a hand on Cassandra’s wrist, catching her gaze. “I won’t tell you who you ought to trust, Cass. But I will tell you that I trust you. If your heart tells you that Zahn Tiri is innocent, then we will take a different approach.”

Cassandra’s dark eyes snap open with alarm. “You -- really?”

Rapunzel strokes her cheekbone with the pad of her thumb. “No one else gets to tell you who you are, Cass. Right?”

The words that Cassandra threw at her like pointed darts that day in the arena, returned back to her so gently, push a shuddering sigh out from Cassandra’s chest. She puts her hand over Rapunzel’s on her cheek and squeezes. Some battle that was playing out behind her eyes is won, and her expression relaxes. “Right. You’re right, Raps. And you’re right about Zahn Tiri, as well -- that’s too many coincidences to ignore.”

“I think so, too,” Rapunzel nods. “But we don’t have much more than conjecture right now. If she were hiding the dark sigil somewhere on her body, now that would be evidence. But you would have noticed something like that, wouldn’t you?”

“All of our mages wear many layers and heavy robes, a mark on the skin could easily be concealed,” Cassandra says, chewing her lip. “Although...there was the time I saw --” She cuts herself off, averting her gaze.

Rapunzel frowns. “Saw what?”

“This is going to sound bad.”

“What? Just tell me!”

Cassandra takes a deep breath. “The other day, my arm was in terrible pain, and Zahn Tiri took care of me while I was bedridden. I can’t be certain about what I saw, because she’d given me a lot of sedative, but when she leaned over me, I thought I could see bandages covering something on her chest.”

Rapunzel is silent. After a moment, Cassandra drags her gaze to meet hers, and it is blistering with indignation. Rapunzel’s face is pale as a sheet, her lips drawn in a tight frown.

“Uh, Raps?” Cassandra says. “What’s with the look?”

“You’re telling me…” Rapunzel says in a dangerously low voice. “That this…woman. Drugged you...so that she could lean her bosoms over your face?”

Cassandra’s cheeks blaze as red-hot as a stoked bonfire. “It...sounds much more inappropriate when you put it like that.”

Rapunzel huffs like a spurred horse. “‘Inappropriate’ is the mildest of the terms I could use to describe that scenario! Oh, when I get my hands on her, I’ll --”

“Rapunzel! Take it easy!” Cassandra interjects. “Nothing...untoward...happened between the two of us, I promise. I was still -- I mean...I never stopped thinking of you, Raps. I couldn’t if I tried.”

The hard lines of Rapunzel’s face melt with affection, and she presses a kiss to Cassandra’s cheek. “Alright. I trust you. But Zahn Tiri has officially fallen out of my good graces,” she says, and then sighs. “Anyway, your soldiers are going to come looking for you if you stay out here much longer.”

“They’re probably only moments away from raising the alarm,” Cassandra says, hanging her head. She pushes a hand through her hair. “I have to go back. But I think I know what to do now.”

“What is it?” Rapunzel asks. How can I help? is what she means.

Cassandra smirks and presses her thumb to Rapunzel’s chin. “You’ll have to trust me again. If I’m not locked in the prison tower in the castle for abandoning my post, come find me at noon tomorrow in the kingswood where we met before. I have to stay here tonight, but will you be safe to ride back to the capitol?”

Rapunzel nods. “Eugene rode with me, he’s with the horses just outside the clearing. We asked Owl to alert us if anything went wrong.”

“And you’re...stable? You’ll be okay until I see you again, right?” Cassandra asks, reaching behind her to grab her strange blue gauntlet.

Rapunzel chuckles, turning her head to press a kiss to Cassandra’s palm. “I’m fine.”

“Hey, you scared me, okay? Just...be careful.”

“I will. And if you do get locked up in a tower, remember that breaking out of tower prisons is kind of my specialty,” Rapunzel says with a grin, grabbing Cassandra’s hand to rise to her feet. Their gazes meet, heavy with longing, palms pressed together tighter instead of letting go. Rapunzel steps in close, brushing a dark curl behind Cassandra’s ear. “I love you,” she whispers.

Cassandra makes a soft, vulnerable sound in the back of her throat, then presses their lips together in a kiss that conveys how desperately she wishes she could stay. They linger there for as long as they dare, until Cassandra finally pulls back. “I love you, too,” she says, and turns to go back to the fort, with Owl swooping down to following her into the darkness.

The last thing that Zahn Tiri expects to happen during Diadem’s war meeting is for Prince Cassandra to breeze confidently through the door and call an immediate halt to the invasion plans. She gapes like an ill-mannered boor until the prince’s sudden presence registers, and her mind grasps desperately at the tattered edges of her senses in an effort to understand why she is here.

“Cassandra!” exclaims Queen Edith, adorned in her full ceremonial regalia, gleaming breastplate and all. “What in the Seven Kingdoms do you think you’re doing?”

“Pardon me, Mother,” Cassandra answers, though she certainly doesn’t look desperate for pardon as she brushes off the shoulder of her cape. “A matter arose that could not wait.”

“Explain yourself immediately!”

“I intend to.”

Cassandra’s flushed countenance as her unflinching gaze settles on Zahn Tiri prompts a thought: the traditional practice of Diadem knights of declaring passionate love at the cusp of a decisive or perilous battle. Many of the legends passed on through the stone halls of the palace feature scenes where a hero’s heart flares with strength after obtaining the favor of their beloved, to embolden them on the field of battle. Recollections of the way Cassandra’s curled form clung to her in bed feed Zahn Tiri’s expectations, romantic intent suddenly reflected in the warrior prince’s determined gaze.

“Zahn Tiri,” Cassandra addresses her in a low, even voice.

Zahn Tiri’s heart rises into her throat, and she hopes her lips are not quivering as she smiles and dips into a shallow curtsey. “Your Highness.”

Cassandra narrows her eyes. “Would you explain to your queen the reason you cast a decay curse on my arm in order to frame the Coronan princess for assassination and provoke a war between our two kingdoms?”

The council chamber falls deathly silent. Zahn Tiri’s heart plummets through her stomach like a brick, suppressing her powers of speech for an incriminating few seconds.

Queen Edith rounds the corner of the table, looming imposingly over her daughter. Her words slither through grit teeth: “What is the meaning of this?”

Cassandra ignores her, her impassive eyes fixed on Zahn Tiri’s blanched face. She steps closer, out of her mother’s shadow. “What’s the matter, Zahn Tiri? You always seem to have answers at hand in times of uncertainty. Yet now you have nothing to say?”

Zahn Tiri swallows, balling her fists at her sides so hard that they tremble.

“It’s alright, don’t answer that then,” Cassandra continues in her level tone of voice, waving a hand. “I have other questions for you. How about an easier one?”

Zahn Tiri opens her mouth, feeling like a gasping fish. She tries to speak, but the dryness in the back of her throat catches her words. She clears her throat and tries a little louder. “Certainly, Your Highness.”

The corners of Cassandra’s lips twitch up in the slightest of smirks. “Would you be so kind as to show the council the sigil that you carved into your chest, in order to gain access to more powerful magic?”

She’s bluffing. She has to be. She was out of her senses when she glanced under Zahn Tiri’s robes, and she would have seen only bandages regardless. Zahn Tiri feels the eyes of her family’s elders, of Diadem’s queen, burning into her the longer she hesitates, and shakes her head. She restores the complacent smile on her face. “Forgive my impertinence, Your Highness, but there is no such wound.”

Cassandra,” hisses the queen, gripping her daughter’s elbow in one steel-clad fist. “Leave us at once. We will speak outside when we’ve finished here.”

Cassandra whips her head around and glares directly into her mother’s face. “I’m not leaving until my suspicions are either confirmed or condemned. Your war waits for Zahn Tiri, now.”

Queen Edith looks up from Cassandra to Zahn Tiri, squinting. She seems on the verge of an order when she’s cut off by an elder mage from Zahn Tiri’s family, standing up in defiance. “Your Majesty, the prince does not grasp the gravity of her accusation! This is an indignity, an outrage--”

“A clan such as ours would never deign to such unspeakable evils,” interjects another elder. “It is ludicrous to even suggest such a thing!”

“Prove it then!” Cassandra demands, finally raising her voice. “If it’s so impossible, then prove me wrong, Zahn Tiri! It should be right beneath your left clavicle, correct? If there is no such wound, then show me and I will depart at once. I will lead the army into Corona, or go willingly to a prison cell, as long as I see evidence with my own eyes.”

Now backed into a corner, Zahn Tiri curses her inwardly. Her relatives are conveniently taciturn now, and all eyes are on her once more. She sighs, steps forward, and sheds her outer robe, setting it on her seat. She keeps deliberate eye contact with the prince as she unlaces her high-collared bodice, tugging the mauve fabric aside to reveal the patch of bandages over her heart. Gasps are drawn from around the room, and the queen staggers back in surprise, but Zahn Tiri raises a calming hand. “Please don’t be alarmed. The prince’s wartime paranoia has clouded her judgment, showing her dark sigils behind mundane injuries. I botched a potion recipe a few days ago and gave myself a chemical burn, nothing more.”

The elder who first spoke up smacks his staff on the stone tile. “You see? Baseless accusations.”

“Why did you not simply heal it?” says another.

“Yes…” says someone else, approaching Zahn Tiri. “Why not show it to your family and have it healed up rather than risking infection?”

“How can we know if she’s telling the truth?”

Cassandra chuckles, the sound standing out starkly in the grim council chamber. All eyes snap to her, and she shakes her head. “How, indeed? If only there were some way to pry the truth out of an unwilling speaker.”

The queen’s posture stiffens. “A truth spell. Somebody cast a truth spell this instant, then let us be done with this matter.”

Zahn Tiri panics, bile rising in her throat and choking her. Even with all her power, she could not resist a truth spell. If it has to come out now, then it will be without the price of her dignity. She slams her hand on the table and rips the bandage off of her chest, exposing the angry, raw slashes in her flesh.

“I did it for Diadem!” she shouts over the distraught muttering in the room. Cassandra stares at her with wide eyes -- clearly she did not anticipate such boldness -- and Zahn Tiri stabs a bony finger in her face. “Your weak-willed whelp would have sabotaged everything we’ve sacrificed so much for, would have brought the heights that we struggled to reach with bloodied claws crashing down. And for what? Love?!” she scoffs. “Love is treachery!”

“You’re wrong,” Cassandra shoots back. “Love is the only thing worth fighting for. Love is the greatest of our powers.”

Pain is the greatest of our powers!” Zahn Tiri shouts, and her voice crackles with unholy shadows thrumming at her edges. “I did what no one else had the gall to do, in order to protect the legacy of our forebears. The only price was pain, and I’d rather endure it a thousand times over than let a foolish, besotted prince endanger everything that matters. I control you, Diadem, all the Seven Kingdoms through pain! ”

“Not anymore,” Cassandra declares, and casts her cape aside to evince her right arm, miraculously restored to its former strength. Zahn Tiri’s mouth falls open in abject shock, and she backs away as though the sight could poison her.

“Zahn Tiri, you have made an attempt on the royal heir’s life, and that seems to be the slightest hint to the depth of your treason,” says Queen Edith. “You are a danger to our kingdom. Guards! Seize Zahn Tiri, and place her under arrest!”

The air in the room seems to compress, everyone’s breath drawn to a single point and converging on Zahn Tiri. As they all watch, the space surrounding her is bled of light and a voice that sounds like the static of thunder utters a spell from Zahn Tiri’s mouth. Cassandra reaches for her sword hilt, but in the instant before she draws it, the strange tension snaps like a wicked whip. She flinches at the sharp noise, and when she opens her eyes, Zahn Tiri has vanished.

Cassandra hastily tacks up Fidela and rides to the kingswood just as the sun reaches its highest peak in the sky. She should have anticipated that her mother would have a lot of questions for her, considering the withered limb that was previously declared incurable was dramatically revealed to be recovered. The relief perfusing her mother’s demeanor was just on the unnerving side of genuine -- in case Cassandra needed a reminder that her concern always stemmed from regret over losing her prized racehorse, rather than her child’s wellbeing. Once her mother was sufficiently assured that Cassandra could fight, she begrudgingly granted her permission to take care of some undisclosed business before meeting her again to discuss the war front.

Cassandra catches sight of Rapunzel waiting for her with Eugene in tow, and dismounts as she approaches. Before they even come within earshot of each other, Rapunzel is running toward her in great bounds, launching into a hug that squeezes the air out of Cassandra’s lungs. A laugh is startled out of Cassandra, and she pulls Rapunzel in close, pressing her face against her golden-brown hair.

“Good to see you not locked in a tower,” Rapunzel says breathlessly when they part. “What happened? What did you do? Is your mother angry? Where is Zahn Tiri?”

“Good to see you, too, Raps,” Cassandra says through her smile. She guides them back to where Eugene is huddled behind some moss-covered boulders, far from the dirt path. He stands abruptly when she approaches, his jaw clenched and caution behind his eyes. Cassandra gives him a curt bow. Not everyone is as instantly forgiving as Rapunzel; in his place, Cassandra would never again trust one who had put somebody she cared about through so much suffering. “Thank you for meeting me here. I’m going to need your help to stop Zahn Tiri, since she disappeared before anyone could apprehend her.”

“So she is guilty!” Rapunzel exclaims. “Oh, I knew it!”

“She admitted to it?” Eugene asks.

“I didn’t give her any other choice,” Cassandra confirms. “I confronted her in front of my mother, the war council, and members of her family. She said that she did it all for Diadem.”

Rapunzel scoffs. “Tell that to the citizens and refugees living here. They don’t need a war, they need resources and support.”

“Um, speaking of which…” Eugene says. “About that war…”

Cassandra sighs. “It’s complicated. My mother agrees that there is no honor in fighting a war based on deception. She would negotiate peace, but she already turned down Corona’s plea for parley. If we sent a messenger to Corona now, they would be identified as a spy and killed on sight.”

Rapunzel hesitates, pinching her brows. “Then the messenger will have to be someone my father wants alive.”

“No,” Eugene counters instantly. “No, no, absolutely not, and I cannot emphasize this enough, no.”

“Don’t be obstinate, Eugene. It’s our only chance!”

“You’re still a wanted fugitive in Corona, remember? Who’s to say that your father would even trust anything you have to say on Diadem’s behalf, when he set the royal guard after you? We’re talking prison, Rapunzel, prison. As an intermittent denizen of Corona’s dungeons, I can assure you you’ll want to stay on this side of those bars.”

“Hold on, what?” Cassandra interrupts, deeply perturbed. “Wanted fugitive? Royal guard?”

“Yeah, I guess I didn’t tell you yet,” Rapunzel says sheepishly. “I hope Diadem has the space for one more mythic seeking asylum, because my magic sort of accidentally exploded in the palace, right in front of my mom and dad. He’s, um...not pleased.”

Cassandra stares at her for a dumbstruck moment. “Okay, yeah, actually, I think I’m with Eugene on this one.”

“Cass!”

“It’s too dangerous! I’m not sending you off to meet your doom over my mistakes!”

“Then come with us!” Rapunzel says. “If they see us coming in peace together, they’ll have to know it’s not a trick.”

“That’s...not a bad idea, actually,” Eugene says. “The whole provocation hinges on you two allegedly trying to kill each other. If they see that disproved in front of their own eyes, the rest might be easier to believe. But I still don’t think it’s smart for a mythic fugitive and a political enemy to just walk into Corona.”

Cassandra takes a deep breath, squinting in deliberation. “We’ll have to go through Antipe first, quickly to outpace the troops,” she says.

“Oh! Antipe!” Rapunzel chirps, clapping her hands together. “The queen is my grandmother, if we ask her I’m sure she will send an escort of Antipean guards with us to Corona. Their banner is neutral, no one would attack us then.”

Cassandra grins. “Now that is a plan I can work with. You’re a genius, Raps.”

“Aww,” Rapunzel coos, then leans over to press a hearty kiss to Cassandra’s cheek.

Eugene clears his throat. “Very cute guys, but we’re kind of on a tight schedule, here.”

Cassandra rolls her eyes. The world could come crashing to a halt, if it means she gets to kiss Rapunzel again. She sighs and smoothes her hair back from her face. “I’ll need to speak with my mother again before we leave, and stock up on supplies for the journey. Is there anything specific you’ll need?”

Rapunzel hums. “If it’s alright, I know somebody who would like the chance to speak with your mother, as well. Now that she knows I’m not an enemy, could you bring me to her?”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? She would hardly be welcoming to you, regardless,” Cassandra asks.

“If we really want peace, it has to start with uncomfortable meetings,” Rapunzel says. “I’m sure.”

The guards lining the threshold of Diadem’s palace watch Rapunzel closely as she makes her way up the steps to meet with the queen. She knows she can’t blame them for being vigilant -- Corona is still, technically, a hostile nation, and Rapunzel is still, technically, its princess. And considering what Cassandra described of the war council and Zahn Tiri’s ominous disappearance, it must seem that enemies threaten the crown from every direction.

She passes through in unsteady silence, with her friends in tow. When she asked Peter Caine if he would like to speak with Queen Edith directly, he and Xavier leapt at the opportunity. Lady Caine, the girls, Lance, and Eugene came along too, so that everyone could depart for Antipe together as soon as possible. Cassandra promised to be waiting for them in the audience chamber, having debriefed her mother regarding Rapunzel’s innocence and their plans to petition Antipe for safe passage into Corona.

The walls of the palace’s grand hall form a great arc, lined by towering statues of monarchs looking down on all newcomers with steely stares. Braziers blaze at their feet, casting imposing shadows up on the dark stone. At the apex waits a familiar figure, a tall woman with white hair bound in intricate buns.

“It’s you!” Rapunzel gasps, quickening her pace at the sight of an ally.

“You must mistake me for another, Your Highness,” says the woman in her cool, low voice. “I would remember meeting Corona’s crown princess.”

“But you --” Rapunzel starts, but she is cut off by Eugene seizing her by the elbow, staring urgently into her eyes and shaking his head the slightest degree. She clears her throat and tucks her hair behind her ears. “Excuse me, I was mistaken. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The woman bows. “The pleasure is mine. I am Adira. I was instructed to guide your party to the queen’s audience chambers, if you would follow me.”

Adira doesn’t wait for them to catch up, turning and leading the way without wasting a moment. Rapunzel can’t stop herself from trotting up behind her -- something about her mysterious demeanor draws her in. She wants to ask her why she risked so much to let them go that day in the tunnels below the palace. How did she know she meant Cassandra no harm? Where exactly do her loyalties lie? But she bites her tongue, and the questions gnaw at her. Adira does not look back or speak again, until they reach their destination.

She opens the doors, and the audience chamber yawns before them. The high, pointed ceiling and the armed guards lining the edges give Rapunzel the distinct feeling of walking into a great beast’s waiting maw, with the queen of Diadem seated at the back of its throat. But the sight of Cassandra standing dutifully beside her loosens the fear in Rapunzel’s chest, and she breathes it out before striding inside.

She curtsies as low as her etiquette tutors ever managed to teach her. “Your Majesty, Queen Edith. It is an honor to meet you. These are my friends, your subjects, Peter and Xavier Caine.”

The queen regards them with an impassive gaze, as though evaluating them. “You are returning to Corona to call off the attack. You will need my signed entreaty, and I will provide you with supplies for the journey.” She waves a gauntleted hand, and Cassandra steps forward with a roll of parchment sealed with silver wax. She gives Rapunzel a tiny but encouraging smile before retreating back to her place.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Rapunzel says, curtseying again. “Peace and cooperation between our nations will bring us prosperity where conflict would ruin us. It will be work, but I have to believe it’s worth it.”

The queen scoffs. “Your kingdom has antagonized mine for many generations. Don’t presume to preach to me about working for peace.”

“You don’t trust me, and that’s fine. But maybe you will listen to your people,” Rapunzel says. “Peter and Xavier are activists, they know intimately the suffering that plagues your kingdom. They know what people need, and they have come to offer their help and their wisdom.”

“What expertise can commoners offer me, that my noble court cannot?”

Cassandra scowls, provoked to outrage. “Your noble court has willfully blinded you and led you into this meaningless catastrophe. Our people struggle, while the nobility plays at war like chess. Something must change if Diadem is to survive, mother.”

Queen Edith eyes her daughter, contemplating. The silence hangs heavy in the air, until her voice, uncharacteristically soft, breaks it. “I always hoped you would become like me, Cassandra. But you continue to grow away from the stakes I plant for you.” She looks down. “Perhaps that will be what saves us.”

Cassandra stands speechless, mouth gaping wordlessly. Rapunzel beams up at her, so much pride glowing through her face that she has reason to hope it isn’t her magic bursting forth.

The queen agrees to hold an extended audience with Peter and Xavier and work with them to address the needs of the mythics throughout her kingdom. But stopping the war is the more pressing matter, so travel arrangements are made in short order, and the group gathers in the royal courtyard to set off for Antipe together.

While Rapunzel is double-checking that the caravan Queen Edith lent them is ready to go, she catches sight of Lady Caine clinging to her father like a child.

“Are you sure you won’t come with us?” she mumbles into his chest.

“Gertrude, my darling girl,” Peter says, laying a broad hand on her hair. “This is where I can do the most good.”

Lady Caine sniffles and looks up at him. “I have to go back to Corona. I can’t abandon the girls, and there’s work that needs to be done there, too. Having a capable member of the Nightingale would change everything for us.”

“It seems to me that they already have one,” Peter says with a fond smile. “And if the princess does manage to establish peace, then I will be able to correspond with you if you ever have doubts. I’ll visit you as often as I can, my Gertie, I promise you. No matter what happens, I won’t let go of you ever again.” He tilts her chin up under his knuckle, meeting her eyes seriously. “But I am needed here.”

Lady Caine steps out of his embrace, straightening up and putting on a brave smile. She takes a deep breath. “I’ll make you proud, father.”

“You already have. I have every faith in you, and in the people you have found to guide you. I would not have the strength to part with you if I did not,” Peter says, catching Rapunzel’s eye over his daughter’s shoulder.

Suddenly self-conscious of her eavesdropping, Rapunzel turns on her heel and gives them space to say their goodbyes. She marches up to the front of the caravan, where Cassandra sits in the driver’s seat. She has brought Fidela along with another horse to pull them, and Rapunzel can tell that she feels more confident with her best friend along for the journey. She pulls herself up into the seat beside her, pressing close to Cassandra’s side. Cassandra smiles as she puts an arm around her, and in that moment Rapunzel’s heart swells with the conviction to finally overcome the hollow divide between their kingdoms.

Chapter Text

The caravan drives through the night, quietly crossing the border into Antipe several hours before dawn. Lady Caine suggested stopping to camp earlier in the night so that everyone could take a break, but Cassandra volunteered to steer while the others rested within the spacious trailer, knowing that sleep would not have found her if they stopped. Even if the invasion were instantly halted by some swift messenger with orders from the queen, Zahn Tiri would still be out there, preying on Cassandra’s peace of mind. After the astonishing display she put on in the war council chamber, it is clear that Zahn Tiri’s magic has reached new heights of an unknown, ominous magnitude. No one in Corona is safe, Cassandra is not safe, until the threat she poses is accounted for.

Cassandra sighs, letting the chill of the night air stretch her lungs to wakefulness. The frogs and crickets that sang summer up the road to Corona during her previous journeys through Antipe have quieted, leaving a stillness in their wake that warns of the oncoming winter. The hooves of the horses pulling them along beat out a rhythm that Cassandra can count the passing seconds to. She turns her eyes to the night sky and thinks of Rapunzel, of what she owes to her.

Part of the reason that she clung so tightly to Zahn Tiri’s lies, she now realizes, is that abandoning them would have meant facing the degree of suffering she needlessly inflicted on the one she loves. Rapunzel had to be her enemy, had to be using her for her own gain; otherwise, what Cassandra told herself was self-defense was actually unfathomable cruelty. It was an impossibility in her manipulated mind, so unthinkable she could not allow herself to even consider it. She was trying so hard to prove that she wasn’t just a willing tool to be used and discarded that her desperation made her easy to maneuver into that very fate.

The relief that came with learning of Rapunzel’s loyalty is shadowed by shame in Cassandra’s heart. Rapunzel deserves that trust, that selfless devotion, returned to her in equal measure. But instead Cassandra had repaid her by doubting her, attacking her, minimizing everything that they’ve been through together. Rapunzel’s friends have, understandably, kept one eye trained on Cassandra at all times, not eager to trust her after what she put them through. Cassandra is beginning to wonder whether it would be best if Rapunzel followed suit.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the rooftop panel’s hinge squeaking open behind her, as someone pushes their way up and out. She glances back, and sees Rapunzel yawning before she settles her gaze on Cassandra with a smile.

“Can’t sleep?” Cassandra asks, as Rapunzel settles down beside her.

Rapunzel shakes her head. “Catalina snores so much louder than you’d think. I thought I’d come get some air for a bit.”

Cassandra chuckles, then sighs. “Are you sure there’s not anything else that’s keeping you up?”

“I can’t hide anything from you, huh?” Rapunzel says. Her eyes turn to her hands on her lap. “I’ll sleep better once this threat is dealt with and behind us.”

“...Yeah,” Cassandra murmurs, frowning.

Rapunzel reaches a hand to her cheek, pulling their gazes together. “Cass, you know I don’t blame you for any of this, right?”

Cassandra barely resists the urge to look away from those eyes, wide with honest adoration. “I know, Raps. But maybe you should.”

“What?” Rapunzel asks, tilting her head and drawing her brows together.

She should take her words back, put Rapunzel at ease with platitudes. But the sentiment can’t be retracted -- the least she can do is explain. “Look, this would not have happened if I had been sure of myself and trusted you. That’s not just self-effacing talk. I could have fought harder for you, believed in you and refused to let Zahn Tiri’s warmongering delude both me and my mother. But I chose not to, I chose to give in.”

“No, Cassandra,” Rapunzel rushes to say. “You were hurt and scared after what happened. Anyone would have been. Zahn Tiri saw that vulnerability and used it against you.”

Cassandra scoffs. “Yeah, and I let her do it.”

“Let her -- ?! Cass, she maimed you, lied to you, used her magic to force you to do things against your will, manipulated you with drugs and with pain, and that’s just the stuff we know about! Whatever you’ve done that you’re ashamed of...it wasn’t you.”

Cassandra jerks her head away from Rapunzel’s touch, snapping, “But it was me! Zahn Tiri didn’t make me swing my sword at you; I did that. Eugene knows it, too. He looks at me like I’ll stab you in the back the moment he turns away, and he’s right to be suspicious. I betrayed you, and no one in their right mind would trust me after what I did to you.”

“Well, I do. And that’s not about to change,” Rapunzel asserts.

“Then maybe you’re too trusting for your own good,” Cassandra says. She holds her tumultuous gaze for a moment, then hangs her head with a sigh. “Rapunzel, when this is over...maybe we should part ways.”

Rapunzel gasps as if she’s been slapped. “...You don’t mean that,” she whispers.

“It’s not easy for me to say,” Cassandra admits.

Rapunzel shakes her head with force. “No. No, I thought -- you told me...Back at the border, you said…” she swallows the rest of her sentence, squeezing a tear from the corner of her eye.

Cassandra brushes her knuckles against Rapunzel’s jaw, swiping the tear as it falls. “I do love you, Raps. I meant it then, and I always will. But I also promised to guard you and your heart more carefully, and it might be that the best way for me to do that is...to give it back to you.”

Rapunzel stands suddenly, looking down at Cassandra with glistening eyes. A silence hangs between them, heavy with unsaid words brimming with emotion. But instead of speaking any of them, Rapunzel turns and goes back inside the caravan, leaving Cassandra alone again with the night.

Cassandra drives the caravan until they reach the Antipean palace, ceaseless and solemn as a vigil. The sun is high overhead when they arrive, and throughout the morning the others offered to take over for her so that she could rest. Cassandra refused; she would rather go without sleep for another day than give up her excuse to avoid facing Rapunzel.

Rapunzel dismounts the caravan when they pull up to the gates, and the guards recognize her instantly with astonished gasps and frantic bowing. One man scrambles to open the gate, while another rushes to the palace to alert the crown prince. Cassandra notices Eugene regarding her with even less warmth than usual while they wait in the courtyard.

A middle-aged man, whom Cassandra recognizes as Prince Oleander from their brief meeting at Rapunzel’s homecoming festival, stumbles down the front terrace, nearly tripping over his feet in his haste. His eyes widen when he sees Rapunzel, and he runs toward her with arms outstretched. He squeezes his niece tightly for several moments, the Lost Princess returned once more.

“Thank heavens you’re alright!” he exclaims when they part. “Your mother has been sending me urgent messengers almost daily concerning your whereabouts! She was convinced that you fled here, with us, after your outburst at the castle.”

Rapunzel looks aside. “She told you about that, then?”

“She did. Oh, my dear, you must have been so frightened!” He hugs her again. “You disappeared from Corona, and there was nary a trace of you here...we were beginning to fear the worst. Poor Arianna is nearing her wits’ end, she’ll be so relieved to hear that you’re alright. Where have you been?”

“I was in Diadem,” Rapunzel says. “Correcting the misunderstanding that’s led to this war.”

“You were -- where? What misunderstanding?” Oleander inquires. He looks up and finally notices Cassandra for the first time, straightening up suddenly and then offering a halting bow. “G-Good gracious, Prince Cassandra!”

“Your Highness,” Cassandra returns his greeting. “I come in peace on behalf of my kingdom. I seek parley with King Frederic to stop the war.” She pauses to rummage for the scroll inside her jacket, handing it to the prince. “This is an official document from Queen Edith, calling a halt to hostilities.”

Oleander rubs his jaw as he scans the parchment, tension melting from his brow after each line. “This is most welcome news, Prince Cassandra. It seems we have much to discuss. Please, come inside, all of you, and let’s get matters sorted.”

The group is ushered through the great entryway of the palace, and the interior is a far cry from the harsh architecture that surrounded Cassandra growing up. Bouquets of flowers spill from vases lining the halls, grand windows allow in abundant sunlight, and there are few visual reminders of the kingdom’s reputation as a nation of warriors. The reception hall, with its long banquet table and warm braziers, feels actually welcoming, rather than built for the purpose of intimidating visitors.

An elderly woman is waiting for them in the hall when they arrive, pacing with her fingernails between her teeth. When she sees them enter, she leaps forward and pulls Rapunzel into a crushing hug so suddenly that Cassandra’s hand reflexively finds her sword hilt. She relaxes when Rapunzel laughs, patting her shoulders apologetically.

“It’s okay, Grandmother, I’m fine!” she says.

“Don’t you ‘it’s okay,’ me, you cheeky young upstart!” Queen Louisa scolds, still encasing her granddaughter solidly in her arms. “You just came back to us, don’t you ever go disappearing like that again!”

“I’m sorry for worrying you. I didn’t intend to disappear,” Rapunzel soothes. “I’m afraid that, under the circumstances, I had little choice.”

Louisa pulls back and opens her mouth to offer her opinion on that stance, but Oleander cuts her off. “Mother, why don’t we save the scolding for after we hear Rapunzel’s explanation? Let’s all have a seat.”

It is a lengthy explanation, but both the prince and the queen withhold their interruptions as Rapunzel tells it. Cassandra fills in the spaces with what she knows from Diadem’s side, and about Zahn Tiri’s machinations. Cassandra catches the entirely unsubtle waggle of Queen Louisa’s eyebrows when Rapunzel speaks of their romance, and it only serves to compound the awkwardness weighing on her. Rapunzel leaves out recounting the two times Cassandra tried to kill her, which spares them both from scrutiny. Prince Oleander chews his lip in thought when they detail their plans to diplomatically reason with King Frederic.

“On that point, Uncle, I should tell you that part of the reason we came here was to ask you for a favor,” Rapunzel says. “Would you be willing to spare some of your guard to escort us to Corona? Between my father’s search for me and Cassandra’s former status as an enemy general, we don’t want to take any chances.”

Oleander blinks twice. “Of course, Rapunzel, readily. However, the Coronan guard’s search for you was halted some time ago. You should have no trouble reaching the capitol yourself.”

“Halted? Why? How?” Rapunzel asks.

“Well, after Arianna -- oh my, I suppose you would not have heard,” Oleander says, then takes a deep breath. “Soon after your disappearance, your mother assumed the throne of Corona. She judged Frederic unfit to rule.”

Rapunzel’s jaw hits the floor. “What?!

“We were surprised to hear it, as well,” he says.

“I wasn’t,” Louisa says. “I never cared much for that man. Too bossy. Good for Arianna, I say.”

“Bossy? He’s a king, Mother.”

“A king with no manners.”

Oleander shakes his head and returns to Rapunzel. “Regardless, your father’s been put out of power. Arianna aborted the pursuit. She wants you home and safe, but she won’t have you arrested.”

“What about the warfront?” Rapunzel asks.

“Corona is preparing for an invasion, and I have been overseeing protections to minimize collateral damage from the Diadem troops here in Antipe. All defensive, to my knowledge. Arianna will be relieved to hear your declaration, Prince Cassandra.”

Cassandra nods. “I am pleased to deliver it. Nobody needs this war.”

“Succinctly stated,” Oleander agrees. “I will arrange your escort. In the meantime, please rest and eat, and do let us know if there is anything else you may need.”

“Thank you, Uncle.”

Oleander puts a hand on her shoulder. “And, Rapunzel? If anything should go wrong, anything unexpected or dangerous...come back to Antipe immediately. You will be safe here.”

Rapunzel swallows, and nods. “I will.”

She turns to leave the chamber without meeting Cassandra’s eyes once.

Judging by Rapunzel’s wordless dismissal of her after the audience, Cassandra figures that she ought to give her space for the time being. Being around her family and friends will offer her the support she needs to bear her evident pain after Cassandra’s suggestion. Though Cassandra is hounded by her own grief and sorrow, and is left on her own once more to deal with it.

It has always been this way for her. She tries to convince herself that she got by alone before meeting Rapunzel, and she’ll survive again without her. But in her heart, she knows that Rapunzel has touched her spirit, changed her irreversibly. A dormant bulb buried in soil is safe from the frost, but becomes vulnerable once bloomed. Yearning for the light of the sun has put her at risk of being wiped out by the cold.

It doesn’t matter. Cassandra will face solitude, face the harshest the world has to offer, if it means Rapunzel will get a chance at happiness.

While the others are off stocking up on snacks for the road or visiting with Queen Louisa’s prized tortoises, Cassandra brings an apple out to the front courtyard for Fidela. The mare is freed from the caravan’s equipment, enjoying a moment of reprieve with the lush grass nearby. She looks up when Cassandra approaches, snorting affectionately and devouring the fruit out of her hand. Cassandra smiles and digs a curry comb out of her bag in the caravan, and sets about grooming her loyal friend.

It’s easy to lose herself in the task, and it soothes Cassandra to have something to focus on that she can control with her hands. The Prince of Diadem is almost never caught unaware, but today she jumps a foot in the air when someone clears their throat right behind her. She whips around and faces Eugene, who raises his eyebrows at her.

“Whoa, sorry to startle you,” Eugene apologizes, his hands raised in front of himself. “Can we talk?”

Cassandra smoothes her hair back and straightens. “About what?’

Eugene frowns in disapproval of her attempt to play ignorance. “Look, we both know I’m not exactly the president of your fan club. You come off as cold and humorless more often than not, and it plainly defies reason that someone like Sunshine sees something in you. But whether I understand it or not, it’s abundantly clear to me that she loves you, maybe more than she’s ever loved anything.”

Cassandra suspects that her endeavor to suppress her blush is a futile one, and she looks away. “...I know she does. But she deserves better. She’ll see that one day, and thank me.”

“And is this how you thank her?” Eugene scoffs. “She went through hell for you. She risked her life over and over for your sake. She refused to give up on you, even when we all told her that she should.”

“I didn’t ask her to do anything for me.”

“And yet, here you are! Freed from under that mage’s thumb, your arm back to its old self. Because of Rapunzel.”

“And I’m thankful for that!” Cassandra says, stepping away and looking to the sky. “I owe everything to her kindness and bravery. My arm, my life, my kingdom...everything. Which is why I can’t let myself take advantage of it just because I want her. The best thing I can do for her is to set her free, don’t you understand?”

“Breaking her heart and walking away isn’t the selfless gesture of gratitude you seem to think it is,” Eugene says, glaring at her back.

Cassandra turns to scowl at him. “Well, what would you have me do? You want Rapunzel to be with the person who hurt her so much?”

Eugene holds her steel gaze for a moment, then sighs and shakes his head. “You feel guilty. I get that. It would be troubling if you didn’t. But this isn’t the way to move past it, Cassandra. If you want to make it up to Rapunzel, show her that she’s worth all the effort she made for you. I can’t just tell you to get over it, because I don’t understand how you feel. It can’t be easy. But don’t you think it says more to work through the hard stuff with the person you love, than to just leave when things get uncomfortable?”

“I…” Cassandra falters, biting her lip.

Eugene puts a hand on her shoulder. “She’s in the rose garden. Go talk to her. You owe her that much.”

A servant guides Cassandra through the palace’s marble halls, and she knows they’re nearing the rose garden when the air takes on a faint floral perfume. She rounds the corner and finds herself on a veranda separated from the courtyard by arched pillars. At one end of the garden is a rose quartz fountain of crystal water, with an arc of stone benches around it. Roses of every shape and color bloom from abundant bushes, and wisteria vines pour out from the balconies of the second tier above. The sun is bright and warm for the season, and the honeybees buzzing lazily between blossoms seem drunk on it.

Rapunzel kneels on the neatly-trimmed grass, leaning her back against one of the stone benches near the fountain. Her hair catches gold in the light, her freckles seeming to bake like they’re saving the sunshine for later. She looks up from the book in her lap when Cassandra crosses over from the veranda, her emerald eyes unreadable.

“Hey, Raps,” Cassandra says with a sigh. She rubs her elbow through her satin shirt, pursing her lips. “May I join you?”

Rapunzel nods, scooting over so that Cassandra can lean against the bench beside her. Rapunzel does not return to her book, and the silence between them grows exponentially more awkward with each passing second.

“I wanted to --”

“I’m sorry for --”

They both breathe embarrassed laughter, and it eases some of the tension between them. “Go ahead,” Cassandra says.

Rapunzel ducks her head. “I’m sorry for avoiding you,” she says. “It was immature of me. I just...didn’t know what to say.”

Cassandra waves a hand dismissively. “It’s alright. I said some rash things and tried to make decisions for you. It should have been a conversation...one that I was hoping you’d be willing to have with me now.”

Rapunzel’s softened gaze shines with guarded relief. “Of course, Cass. Talk to me, please.”

Cassandra reaches for her hand, and Rapunzel twines their fingers together. She breathes deeply, clutching to the words she thought of in advance after Eugene’s less-than-gentle suggestion. She swallows, focusing on a point ahead instead of on the woman beside her. “Rapunzel...I don’t know if I can ever truly express my gratitude for what you’ve done for me. From the day we met and every moment since, you have saved me. Not just from that decay spell, or whatever Zahn Tiri had planned for me, but from becoming someone I never wanted to be. I owe all that I am to you, and it’s hard for me to see myself as worthy of that kind of devotion. Especially after what I put you through. So...my instinct was to push you away.” She turns to face Rapunzel, holding her gaze for a moment. “I’m sorry that I hurt you.”

Rapunzel hums in understanding, squeezing her hand. “You are worthy, though, Cass. I was willing to risk so much for you because you saved me, too. Before I met you, I was burdened by so much self doubt, and I felt like I’d escaped my prison only to wind up in a fancier one. But then you showed me freedom, and taught me to love myself and my magic when no one ever has before. You are worthy of my trust and my love, of everything I have. Zahn Tiri couldn’t have changed that with all the power in the world. You came back, after all, didn’t you?”

“I did come back,” Cassandra says softly. “You’d still have me, after everything?”

“I didn’t come all this way just to lose you now,” Rapunzel says, a smile on her lips.

Cassandra sighs. “I don’t want to lose you, either.”

“Then stay with me,” Rapunzel says. “Whatever it is that you’re going through, I want to carry it with you. Please let me.”

Cassandra’s face melts into a weary smile, and she raises a hand to tuck Rapunzel’s hair behind her ear. “I know that the guilt I feel will linger in me for a long time. But it is worth the work of managing it if it means I can remain by your side. I won’t push you away anymore.”

“I will be with you for as long as it takes,” Rapunzel says, and pulls Cassandra forward into a kiss. Cassandra feels tears burning behind her eyes at the tender touch, and she seals her lips against Rapunzel’s like an oath.

It’s only been a week since Rapunzel fled from her home with Lady Caine and the others, but she feels the same heart-dropping anticipation she experienced the day she arrived on the terrace of Corona’s royal palace nearly two decades after her disappearance. She has no idea what to expect -- the homesick part of her is looking forward to her return with excitement, but the last time she saw her parents, she was running from them in abject terror. Though Uncle Ollie says that the royal guard is no longer looking for her, because the king has been deposed by his wife for unclear reasons. What happened in Corona while Rapunzel was away?

She can only hope that the answers will be clear soon, as the caravan and its Antipean entourage cross through Old Corona and approach the great bridge to the floating capitol city. At least her worries about Cassandra have been soothed, after she was scared witless by the prospect that all her painstaking efforts in Diadem would leave her helplessly alone in the end. The days ahead will be the most challenging of Rapunzel’s life, she knows, and she needs Cassandra to rely on to get through them.

The hatch in the ceiling of the caravan pops open, interrupting Rapunzel’s journaling, and Lady Caine’s face appears as she leans over from the driver’s seat. “Guardpost coming up,” she calls down to Rapunzel. “You better get out here, Princess.”

Rapunzel steadies herself with a breath as the caravan slows to a halt. She exchanges a glance with Cassandra across from her, who opens the side door and follows Rapunzel onto the pale grey stone of the bridge. The guardpost is considerably more fortified than the usual two soldiers, with the thirty-foot, iron-reinforced gate to the city pulled all the way shut and protected by artillery and several dozen troops. Groups of soldiers patrol along the bridge and the shoreline, and Rapunzel spots lookouts and archers at the top of the ramparts. Rapunzel is suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude that she had the foresight to request an escort from her uncle -- the show of defensive strength certainly would have intimidated her if she came alone.

A pair of Antipean guards ride ahead on their mounts, one man bearing the standard of their kingdom and the other bearing a white flag of peace. Rapunzel watches as they meet with the captain in front of the gates, too far away to hear their exchange of words. She clings to Cassandra’s hand, holding her breath, until the Coronan captain turns back toward her troops and the gates are drawn open. Heavy chains rattle and groan as the city’s main square peeks through the gap inch by inch, and the guard in front of the gate part away to admit passage to the newcomers.

The Antipean soldiers ride back to the caravan. “Princess Rapunzel is welcomed to the city. A messenger has been sent ahead to alert the queen of your return. Everyone else must submit to the guardpost’s security measures, and I’m afraid Prince Cassandra has been denied entry until further orders from the queen allow it.”

Cassandra groans with frustration. “I don’t like the idea of sending you in there alone, Raps.”

“I know,” Rapunzel sighs. “But it can’t be helped. We are here to instill peace, and fighting to get in wouldn’t help our case.”

“You’re right, you’re right. I’ll come find you as urgently as I can, and Eugene and the others will be through to follow you soon,” Cassandra says.

Rapunzel nods, biting her lips. She reaches for Cassandra, holding her tightly. Before they part, she whispers the shielding spell that Peter taught her to protect her from Cassandra’s sword, and a gentle glow flares around Cassandra’s body with a soft ringing sound like silverware tapping on glass. Rapunzel steps back. “To protect you,” she explains to Cassandra’s bewildered gaze.

Cassandra furrows her brow. “I don’t think I’m in any danger from the guard, Raps,” she says.

Rapunzel brushes her thumb against Cassandra’s cheek, and leans in for a swift kiss. “It’s not them that I’m worried about.”

Cassandra seems to grasp her meaning, resolution set in her hazel eyes as she nods. Zahn Tiri is still a threat, and Rapunzel would rather not take any chances. She has just lost her status, her family, her control over Cassandra and Diadem. After the cruelty she has already inflicted on Cassandra, there’s no telling what brazen atrocities that kind of desperate rage will drive her to.

Rapunzel steps back, resting her forehead against Cassandra’s for one more heartbeat. “Be safe,” she whispers, and then squares her shoulders as she turns to go home.

The soldiers and townspeople gawk at her as she passes, and she tries to suppress the nerves jumping higher up her chest with every step. Despite her infrequent trips to town, she knows her way, and soon she arrives at the towering wrought iron gates in front of the palace.

“Rapunzel!”

Rapunzel hears her mother before she sees her, calling out to her with the edge of tears in her voice. The guards by the gates pull them open in time for Queen Arianna to fly down the front steps and past the gate to wrap her daughter in a tight embrace.

“I’m back, Mom,” Rapunzel says, breathless. She feels her mother’s shoulders heaving and shaking with relieved sobs. “I’m okay.”

“I was so -- so frightened,” Arianna stammers. “After Frederic drove you away, I feared that we lost you for good this time.”

“What happened to Father?” Rapunzel asks. “Uncle Ollie told us that you removed him from power.”

Arianna pulls away, drying her tears. “Rapunzel...he--”

Her words are swallowed by a tremendous commotion: a crack like imminent thunder followed by a resounding splash, like something the size of a house fell from the sky and into the water by the bridge. Rapunzel jumps and turns around toward the source, the city gates from where she’d come. It’s too distant to see, but she can hear bellowed orders from the guards drowned out by the panicked roar of screams. As she watches, her breath trapped in her chest, a huge shape is flung high over the ramparts, slamming down into a shredded crater on the cobblestone streets of the city beyond.

It’s one of the towering gates from the guardpost, wrenched and torn from its hinges.

Chapter Text

That wretch. That vile, despicable, hateful, purulent, treacherous prince. Zahn Tiri feels the pulse of her heart flicker and jump with unmitigated loathing, her core imploding like a collapsed star, unstable and volatile under the suffocating pressure of her raw fury. Tufts of yellow grass wither and crackle under her step as she stalks through the outskirts of some village miles from Diadem’s capitol. She had to act fast when Queen Edith ordered her arrest — though she’d never bidden the unmade entities now tethered to her soul for such sudden power, she could not allow herself to be detained. There was no time to consider a destination, as long as it was beyond the reach of Diadem’s royal guard.

She’s bought herself some time, and she needs to spend it thinking carefully on her critical next steps. But her mind is clouded by her anger, thrown far from the reach of reason by her consuming rage. Recollections of Cassandra’s smug expression, of the stunned silence among her family members, of raw sting on her chest as she ripped the bandage away swarm her thoughts like wrathful hornets. She is overcome, crumpling to her knees in the dry grass and leaning forward until her head touches the earth. A scream coils together in her gut and then rips its way out her throat, falling apart into hysterical wailing that racks her whole frame.

Zahn Tiri risked so much for this war, only for it to fizzle out uselessly a single breath from Corona’s doorstep. She had sacrificed what no one else was willing to give, she alone had the nerve to take the necessary steps to catalyze her family’s centuries-old dream into reality. They never would have come this close had Zahn Tiri not surrendered herself to the shadows, yet in their senseless fear they cast her aside like stripped bones. Queen Edith has been at full draw for decades in anticipation of unleashing Diadem’s might on their enemy, and now that the arrow has finally been shot, she blames Zahn Tiri for missing her target. After all this effort, thanks to that self-important lout of an heir, Diadem and Corona will shrug back into their useless truce. Everyone will band together in collective, performative condemnation of the only one who was fully committed to justice.

No. Zahn Tiri will not allow herself to be the scapegoat, the bad example, the black sheep. After everything she has risked to bring her vengeance to fruition, she would rather tip the balance of her dark magic than be tucked away in prison to rot in disgrace. Her fingers claw into the dirt beneath her, tendrils of roots snapping like threads against her fingernails, tiny bits of stone digging under her nailbeds. She shudders, feels her heart shake in her chest, and lets out a broken moan. The sigil branded in her flesh burns anew, the inflamed edges tearing back as though her skin is being flayed by some unseen knife. But instead of blood, her skin gives way to vaporized shadow, impossibly dark smoke curling outward like pleading hands grasping through a dungeon cell’s bars. Zahn Tiri feels compressed, the breath crushed out of her lungs to make room for something much larger — the pain overwhelms her, and she braces herself on her elbows and retches into the grass. Bile as black as ink erupts from within her, dripping past her lips and withering the grass to lifeless ash on contact.

The smoke pouring from the sigil spreads across her chest like a wildfire, reducing every inch of flesh to cracked charcoal. Whispers of spirits long contained grow louder, more forceful, as they claw their way out and claim their host. Zahn Tiri feels the layers of herself peel away, shedding her identity like jetsam tossed from a vessel. Memories, beliefs, ambitions all burn away and flutter to the sky as ash until all that is left is a core of wrath. She becomes a shade reduced to a single feeling, a visceral drive, consumed by her own offering. The borders that once contained Zahn Tiri crumble to dust, transforming into a monstrous leviathan, into agonized fury given horrible form. Light from the sky is sucked into her body, turning her into a dense, towering shadow wreathed in inescapable darkness. Jagged horns curl out from her head, her face lost to the flicker of inhuman spirits warping her identity. Her limbs become a storm, a whirlwind razing the land with every step she takes.

Corona will know she is coming. She hopes they watch her ruthless approach, and know in their hearts that this is the fate that they’ve earned.

“I like your owl.”

Cassandra blinks down at the young red-haired girl who has been traveling with Rapunzel. Cat...Catherine? Catrina? She’s never been good with names. Or with any other aspect of socialization. With Rapunzel inside the city, Cassandra feels bare and awkward now that her social buffer is absent. She gives the girl a curt nod without fully turning to face her. “Um, thank you,” she mumbles.

“He’s very well-trained.” She pauses to giggle. “Lance thought he was a giant flying spider.”

Cassandra furrows her brow. “Well, he’s not. He’s an owl.”

“Well, duh.” The girl hops around in front of her like she’s trying to catch her attention. “I like animals, too. Did you know that I have a wolf form? I grow fangs and get all hairy and --”

“Wait,” Cassandra cuts her off, squinting into the distance to the east, from where they came. She takes a hesitant step. “What...is that?”

“What is what?” the girl says, teetering on her tiptoes in an attempt to follow her gaze. “What do you see?”

Above the treetops of Old Corona, huge flocks of birds swarm up and away, screeching so loudly Cassandra can hear them on the other side of the bridge. “Birds only flee like that when there’s a wildfire. But...I don’t see smoke…”

The hand of dread in her chest clenches its fist and sinks to her gut. Diadem’s army couldn’t have come this far in such a short time. As she holds her breath and watches, the sky over the trees darkens unnaturally, like ink dropped into a glass of clear water. She hears the crack of tree trunks splintering under some massive force, and whips around to face the group.

“Get into the city!” she shouts, gesturing with one arm and drawing her sword with the other. “Get behind the walls, now!”

The small crowd of soldiers and civilians look up at her, milling about with no apparent indication of obeying. The Coronan guards regard her with looks ranging from suspicious to outraged that someone from Diadem would dare to attempt to issue orders. The only one to respond is Lady Caine: “What’s going on, prince?”

“Don’t you see it? Something’s co--”

She’s cut off by a sudden blast of wind so powerful that it knocks her to the ground, her black sword flying out of her hand and skittering across the bridge. Before she sits up, she already hears gasps and scattered screams, and they are abruptly drowned out by an ear-shattering roar sounds closer to thunder than the cry of any beast. It rattles Cassandra’s skull, and stones are shaken from the foundation of the bridge, falling into the water below. Mounted soldiers are thrown from their saddles, and panicked steeds shriek with terror as they take off toward the eastern shore.

They don’t make it to the other side. Otherworldly darkness coalesces to a stark point in front of the horses until a monstrous form takes shape, immediately swiping a colossal arm through the bridge and shattering the end of it, sending the poor animals tumbling into the bay. Another roar pierces the sky, and Cassandra shields her eyes from the debris whipping around her to get a look at the nightmare she now must contend with. It can only be some kind of demon, composed of shadow and fire instead of flesh, unstable points of light like supernovae burning in its head instead of eyes. Its face is framed with jagged horns and split by a gash of pointed teeth, and despite its lack of definite features, its rage comes across as bright and strong as lightning.

On its chest glows a sigil in an inflamed red -- just under its left collar.

Cassandra swears, and stands to find her sword.

Eugene accosts her as soon as she gets a hold of her weapon, his eyes wild with naked fright. “What in the name of all that is good in this world is that?!” he shouts over the wind.

“It’s Zahn Tiri,” Cassandra says with a calmness she does not feel. “She’s here for me. Take the others and get into the city. I’ll organize the soldiers and hold her off for as long as I can, if I can get them to listen to me.”

“Hold her off? Until what?” Eugene demands. “That’s like trying to hold off a hurricane!”

“Are you always this dramatic?” Cassandra snaps. “You’re wasting time! Go, now!”

The dark-haired girl (Kora?) suddenly appears at Cassandra’s side, brandishing a dagger. “Catalina and I can fight! We’ll stay and help you.”

“Like hell you will,” says Lady Caine, scooping her up by the waist like a child, much to the girl’s dismay. “If the prince wants to die a hero out here, then by all means. But I’m inclined to keep you and your sister alive.”

Cassandra gives her a stern nod. “Good. Protect the civilians, and see if you can direct any other soldiers to hold the fort,” she says, waving them on toward the gates. She watches as Lance grabs Catalina and runs into the city with Lady Caine on his heels.

Eugene hasn’t moved, standing and staring at her with a grave expression. “You don’t stand a chance, Cassandra,” he says.

Cassandra levels her gaze to his. “Make sure Rapunzel is safe. Don’t let her come for me.”

If Eugene has more protests, they are interrupted by Zahn Tiri sweeping toward them, bringing her unnatural storm too close for safety. Eugene cuts his losses and sprints for the gates, making it inside mere moments before Zahn Tiri reaches a massive claw overhead and rips one of the great gates from its hinges. She drags it sideways, scraping the nearby screaming soldiers off the bridge like bread crumbs. The gate is flung out onto the water, colliding with its surface in a deafening splash that creates waves so high that Cassandra can feel the spray from atop the bridge.

“Soldiers, to me!” Cassandra shouts at the top of her lungs, gesturing wildly with her sword hand. “Phalanx formation, shields at the front! Hold the fort! Protect the city!”

Most of the remaining soldiers are either scrambling for the walls -- some attempting to scale the ramparts themselves in their panic -- or dazed by shock, their spears limp in their hands. A few dozen manage to heed Cassandra’s voice, lining up behind her to block the path with their armor and shields.

Unfortunately, they can do nothing to stop Zahn Tiri from prying the other gate from its iron hinges and sending it sailing past the walls, crashing to a halt within Corona. Cassandra’s mind reels as she helplessly beholds such senseless violence -- this will turn into a massacre in minutes if she doesn’t do something.

“Push her back toward the shore, draw her away from the people!” she calls to the soldiers over the howling wind. “I’m going to try to get closer!”

Bracing her arms against the wind, Cassandra inches forward on the bridge, toward the towering demon that’s become of Zahn Tiri. Forceful gales, spouts of fire, and slanting rain threaten to throw Cassandra sideways from the edge of the crumbling edifice the closer she gets. She hopes desperately that she can taunt Zahn Tiri into a monologue to stall for time, or else she really will be out of options. Eugene was right about one thing: fighting her head-on is nothing short of suicide.

“Hey!” she shouts so loud her throat strains. “Zahn Tiri! Didn’t think you’d show yourself again so soon, though I can’t say it’s good to see you!”

The flames burning in the monster’s eye sockets flare to white-hot fury. “You!” Zahn Tiri bellows, and her tone is distorted to sound like the menacing rumble of an earthquake, backed up by the echoes of countless voices that have long been silenced. She raises a clawed hand, summoning great amber spikes out of the water to try and skewer Cassandra, but her target manages to dodge and roll out of the way.

“I can’t help but wonder --” Cassandra calls, then ducks below a fist-sized chunk of rock flying toward her head. “-- at how childish this course of action is! You always struck me as someone who values --” She leaps over the swipe of an arm the size of a tree, “-- craftsmanship! What exactly is your plan, once you’ve had your tantrum here?”

“Silence, you vile insect!” Zahn Tiri roars. “Do not speak to me of plans, not when your bull-headed idiocy sabotaged the one that would have saved your wretched kingdom!”

“Through war? War of that scale would have laid Diadem to waste along with the other kingdoms!” Cassandra counters.

“It would have been the fire that purifies the overgrown wood! Burn the Seven Kingdoms to a cinder, and rebuild upon the ashes. That was our only chance at salvation, and you and your fool mother are too stupid to see it!”

Cassandra smirks to herself -- Zahn Tiri has swallowed the bait as she hoped. The longer she can keep this from advancing to an honest exchange of blows, the more time she can give the army to organize and the people to evacuate. The more time Rapunzel has to flee to safety. She tilts her chin up at the terror looming above her and shouts, “Then do enlighten a simple prince! What exactly were your plans for me, had I not strayed from the path you laid?”

“Fool! You would have prospered,” Zahn Tiri says, clenching a fist in anger. “Does it gratify you to learn you surrendered a future of ruling as an untouchable warrior queen, with the most powerful mythic on the continent at your side, for the sake of the status quo?”

“Well, at least I can say I still have a future!” Cassandra retorts. “Look at what you’ve become! Even if you kill me and destroy Corona today, you’ve still lost, Zahn Tiri!”

Zahn Tiri shrieks like stone scraping on stone, dragging her palms up to the sky to heave more spikes from below. A whole row of them burst forth like pointed teeth, crashing through the bridge in front of Cassandra’s feet. The structure beneath her crumbles, and before she can attempt to regain her balance, she is falling down toward the churning waters. She barely manages to catch the edge of the ruptured stone, but the wind around her is whipping too strongly to pull herself up.

Zahn Tiri’s laugh sounds like the horrible snapping of a proud tree falling to the axe. A shadow blots out what’s left of the sun above Cassandra as an enormous fist is raised over her head, poised to strike.

The sky over the palace courtyard darkens to a sickly purple, and raindrops the size of arrowheads abruptly begin to pelt the ground. Townspeople shout in dismay, rushing for the gates to get home, where they feel safe. Rapunzel stands still on the steps of the terrace, staring at the black clouds gathered just outside the now-ruined gates, where she left Cassandra and the others. Her magic begins to boil in her chest, heated by panic that is just barely under control -- her fingertips flicker like wicks of flame, and she clenches her fists closed to contain them.

“Rapunzel, come, get inside!” her mother orders, tugging her by the elbow. “We must instate a lockdown in the event of an attack.”

Rapunzel’s gaze snaps to her, brows pinched. “Lockdown?”

Arianna pulls her through the front doors and into the foyer. Armored guards march past them in the opposite direction, bearing halberds and crossbows. “Yes, dear, everyone must get to shelter as quickly as they can. I am needed at the war table to organize a defense and counterattack Diadem’s forces. It’s going to be fine, Rapunzel, we have prepared for this.”

Rapunzel wrenches her arm from her mother’s grip and shakes her head with force. “Wait, no. It’s not Diadem. Queen Edith withdrew her troops -- she sent me here with Prince Cassandra to deliver a message of ceasefire.”

Arianna blinks. “Excuse me?”

Rapunzel groans. “It’s a long story, so you’ll have to trust me! We are not prepared for what’s out there. We are up against something far more destructive than an army. Whatever measures you have planned, please reconsider. We need to get everyone out of Corona, it’s the only way they’ll be safe!”

“Rapunzel, I don’t understand,” Arianna says. “And I’m afraid we don’t have time to discuss. Please, I need you to --”

“Your Majesty!”

Both Arianna and Rapunzel whip their heads toward the entrance, where Eugene is fighting against the current of soldiers, his face whiter than ash. He shoves past a few armored shoulders, panting breathlessly when he reaches their side. He leans his hands on his knees and wheezes, “I...got here...as fast as I could.”

“What’s going on out there? Is it Zahn Tiri?” Rapunzel demands, eyes wide.

Eugene heaves a breath, and nods. Rapunzel’s stomach plummets through her gut.

“Is Cassandra…?”

Eugene stands up straight and looks her in the eye. “She’s in trouble, Sunshine. I’m afraid she’s gonna get herself killed.”

“Take me to her,” Rapunzel commands, clenching her jaw to quell the tremors.

She starts to leave, but Arianna catches her hand. “Rapunzel, no! You mustn’t go out there, it’s too dangerous!” she says.

Rapunzel hesitates, then squeezes her mother’s hand. “Mom, please, I have to help. Someone I love is out there risking her life to protect us. I’ll bring us both back to you, I promise, but you have to let me go!”

“I lost you once, and I thought I lost you a second time,” Arianna pleads, her face tight with emotion. “Please, I can’t lose you again. My heart cannot bear it.”

“Mom…” Rapunzel says. She wraps her arms around Arianna’s neck and buries her face in her hair. Arianna clutches her close as Rapunzel murmurs, “Do you still believe there is more in me?”

Arianna’s breath hitches, and her embrace tightens for a heartbeat before she slowly lets her daughter go, bracing her by the shoulders. She sighs, face solemn. “There is always more in you, Rapunzel. I trust that it will keep you safe.”

Rapunzel’s face alights with a grateful smile. “I’ll come back to you, Mom, I promise. Try and get as many people off the island as you can!” she calls, and wastes not a moment longer before following Eugene down the palace terrace and through the chaos of Corona’s streets.

The thrown gate tore up half a mile of land as it skidded to a messy halt, destroying the main square along with many other homes and shops. Stoves that had just been cooking dinner minutes earlier were smashed by the collision, and the resulting explosions created fires that are now scattered throughout the town. A few people are attempting to organize to contain them, but most of the townsfolk are too far beyond their wits to help. Many of them are injured, wandering around in search of aid, or crying for anyone who can help free trapped family members.

Rapunzel looks around at her people and thinks, the threat hasn’t even breached the city walls yet.

Eugene pulls her along through the more unobstructed streets, and if not for his guiding hand she would be tripping over her feet as she stares slack-jawed at the furious, electric storm clouds gathered above the ramparts. Her forehead bumps into his back when they come to a sudden stop, and she looks up to see the sweaty, tense face of Lance.

“Princess! You’re okay! The girls were so worried about you,” he says, putting a concerned hand on her arm.

“Are they alright? Where is Lady Caine?” Rapunzel asks, peering around his shoulders at the hectic street beyond.

“They’re all fine. Catalina and I have been busy rescuing people that are trapped by debris -- that little girl can turn into a pretty strong wolf. Keira and Gertrude are running around healing as many wounded people as they can with those spells Papa Caine taught you two. I’m sure they could use your help, Princess.”

“I’m going to do what I can to keep anyone else from getting hurt,” Rapunzel says. “If I don’t try to stop her, Zahn Tiri is going to decimate our people, as well as countless others.”

Lance looks at her like she just told him she has plans to teach a fish to juggle. “What are you going to do?”

Rapunzel shakes her head. “I don’t know,” she confesses. “But whatever it is, I don’t have time to lose.”

Lance steps aside, ushering them on. “Well then, good luck out there,” he says, in a tone that sounds more like it was nice knowing you.

Eugene presses forward with Rapunzel close behind, and when they reach the gaping maw where the gates once stood, Rapunzel feels her heart rise up and stop her throat. The bridge -- what’s left of it -- is strewn with shattered shields, bodies of soldiers, and the crumbled foundations of buildings. A towering demon wreathed in shadow looms over the bridge’s fractured edge, and lying forlorn and abandoned on the stone before her is a shining black broadsword.

Cassandra’s sword.

Rapunzel’s mind blanks to white and then brilliant red at the sight. She looses a heartrending scream, instinctively lashing her arms out toward Zahn Tiri’s face just as the monster’s fist is raised to strike. A beam of blinding white light shoots from Rapunzel’s open hands and hits Zahn Tiri in the face so hard that she staggers backward and collapses into the water with a tremendous splash.

“Rapunzel, wait --!” Eugene calls, but Rapunzel is out of reach in the blink of an eye as she sprints to the edge of the bridge. Tears are already streaking down her cheeks, but as she draws closer, she sees a pair of gloved hands clutching at the edifice. She gasps and drops to her knees, crawling to the edge with as much caution as she can muster. A relieved sob tears from her chest when she sees Cassandra hanging there, bruised and exhausted, but alive.

“Cass!” she exclaims. She feels nearly lightheaded with the visceral shift of her emotions; only the space of one heartbeat had stood between unutterable despair and ineffable joy. She extends a hand, and Cassandra grabs onto it. The feeling anchors her, and she heaves her up to safety.

Cassandra kneels on the stone for a moment to catch her breath. “You...shouldn’t have come for me,” she pants.

Rapunzel barely resists the urge to roll her eyes. “Like you wouldn’t have done the same thing.”

Cassandra breathes a chuckle, then shifts to stand, picking up her sword. “You shouldn’t have come, but I’m glad you did. Come on, Raps, this bridge is going to give out any second.”

Rapunzel takes her hand and they hurry together back to the city, chunks of grey stone tumbling from the bridge’s structure at their heels. She glances back over her shoulder just in time to see the waters of the bay boiling before bursting up like a geyser, followed by the hunched shoulders of a very angry demon.

They are crossing the ruins of the main square when a thunderous roar bellows loud enough to shake the ground, and Rapunzel looks back to see Zahn Tiri tearing after them, demolishing every structure in the way. Rapunzel skids to a halt, facing Cassandra with adrenaline-fueled alarm thrashing in her chest.

“What are we going to do?” she begs. “We can’t fight her, Cass. She’ll tear us to pieces before you can even raise your sword. That blast was the strongest defensive magic I’ve ever summoned and she shook it off in seconds!”

Cassandra frowns, lowering her brows with focus. “There is one thing we could try, but I don’t know if it’ll work.”

Townspeople flood from their houses, screaming as Zahn Tiri gets closer. Rapunzel bites her cheek and looks back at Cassandra. “I’ll try anything,” she says.

Cassandra nods. “That healing incantation you used to heal my arm -- it lost power when I crossed that sigil, right?”

“I don’t think we have time to invoke that spell, it needs a lot of ingre--”

Cassandra waves her hands, cutting her off. “Did you see the dark sigil glowing in her chest? It’s the same one that I saw in the war council.”

Realization dawns on Rapunzel, her mouth falling open wordlessly. “If we can disrupt the sigil, do you think -- ?”

Cassandra shrugs desperately. “I don’t have a better idea, do you?”

Rapunzel frowns in consideration. “But how would we even reach it? She’s so huge, it must be five stories off the ground!”

Their scheming is cut short as the air turns dense overhead. Whips of harsh wind rip at their skin as Zahn Tiri emerges in the demolished plaza, menacing sparks of lightning crackling around her limbs. “End of the line!” she screeches, her manifold voices echoing the words.

Rapunzel reaches for Cassandra on instinct, clutching her upper arm as she beholds the towering behemoth terrorizing her kingdom. She catches Zahn Tiri’s hellish eye, and the monster cackles. “Back together, are you? How convenient -- this way, I can destroy you both in one strike!”

Before either of them can respond, Zahn Tiri raises a clawed hand and swats it across the plaza. Rapunzel freezes, still stiff from shock at seeing the horrifying result of dark magic, but before Zahn Tiri squashes her like a bug, Cassandra tackles her out of the way and they roll several feet to the side. Rapunzel’s head is tucked safely to Cassandra’s chest, with her strong arms protecting her body like armor. Cassandra releases her and springs back to her feet, sword drawn and face darkened by rage.

In a heartbeat, Cassandra is sprinting for Zahn Tiri’s arm where her open palm would have crushed Rapunzel. With a fierce cry, she raises her sword and stabs downward with all her might, digging the blade deep into the charred flesh. Zahn Tiri utters a high-pitched shriek, so grating that it could rupture eardrums. With her other hand, Zahn Tiri lunges at Cassandra to grab her, and Cassandra abandons her sword still stuck in her enemy’s hide and leaps backward out of the way.

She lands back by Rapunzel’s side, and glances at her with an intense expression of combined fright and exhilaration. She smirks and remarks, “You know, in Diadem warrior tradition, two people fighting an epic battle side by side like this is more romantically significant than a marriage ceremony.”

Rapunzel shakes her head and blinks hard. “What? No way. You are making that up.”

“No, it’s true! There are some famous historical ballads about it in the royal library.” She lowers her stance, glaring at her foe. “Ask Zahn Tiri if you don’t believe me.”

“Enough!” Zahn Tiri commands, thunder booming as spikes shoot up from beneath the earth to further wreck the square. Rapunzel and Cassandra weave around them to get back in Zahn Tiri’s way.

“I need to get my sword back,” Cassandra says, lowering her voice. Rapunzel glances up, catching sight of the hilt sticking out like a thumb tack as Zahn Tiri waves her fist around.

She swallows. “Leave it to me. Stay away until you see your chance.”

Cassandra nods once and heads off toward the edge of the square, leaving Rapunzel with Zahn Tiri’s full attention. She breathes in an attempt to steady herself, then steps forward into the winds ripping at her skirt and hair. Raindrops fall into her eyes, but she blinks them away and stares resolutely upward. “You wanted to destroy me, so here I am!” she shouts above the din. “You did come all this way, after all!”

“Do not deign to taunt me, brat!” says Zahn Tiri. “You think yourself a hero? You are not even meant to be here!”

“What, you thought I’d run and hide? You don’t scare me!”

Zahn Tiri scoffs. “It was meant to be so simple! Spirit the heir to Corona’s line away to stoke the king’s paranoia and raise tensions with Diadem. With you out of the picture, our path was clear! But your worthless keeper could not handle the simplest of assignments, letting you escape so you could become a nuisance to us now!”

Rapunzel scowls. “What are you talking about? You can’t mean...all this time, the one who kidnapped me and kept me prisoner was...like you?”

“If she were anything like me she would not have failed!” Zahn Tiri shouts, fire spouting upward from her eye sockets. “At least she had the sense to go into exile rather than come back to a clan that would have sentenced her to far worse!”

“Exile? To where?” Rapunzel finds herself asking. All those nights worrying that her “mother” would come back for her call out for answers, and for a second she forgets the peril of the present moment.

“Silence!” Zahn Tiri bellows, swinging both fists over her head toward the princess below. Rapunzel seizes the opportunity and breaks the dam containing the magic within her, allowing pure light to flood forth and pierce through the forced night. The sudden brightness blinds Zahn Tiri, and her attack misses its target, her fists pounding hard into the cobblestone street.

Cassandra recognizes her chance when it comes and darts forward, lunging for her sword and heaving it out with a powerful twist of her shoulders. Zahn Tiri’s roar rattles the ground, and Cassandra is caught suddenly across the torso by the monster’s sweeping hand. Zahn Tiri sends Cassandra flying across the square so hard that the magic shield Rapunzel placed on her earlier splinters and bursts when she hits the wall of a building.

“Cassandra!” Rapunzel wails, starting to move toward her. She takes one step before the flaming pits of Zahn Tiri’s eyes turn on her, and some unseen force blasts her off her feet and sends her skidding across the stone. Her head slams into a pillar with a painful crack, and her vision turns fuzzy. She vaguely hears Cassandra’s voice, strained with distress, drowned out by Zahn Tiri’s deafening cackle, but she’s too dizzy to sit up. She feels something wet dripping down the back of her neck, coming to the detached realization that it’s warm blood oozing from her head.

Cassandra’s arms find their way around her torso, pulling her upper body off the ground and frantically brushing hair out of her eyes. Rapunzel sees her lips moving, but can’t make out what she’s saying. As she stares at Cassandra she notices the sky behind her growing even darker, and gathers that it’s not just the sky but the air itself bleeding a noxious rot. Cassandra startles, her eyes widening and face paling.

“Raps, she’s trying to cast another decay curse,” she says, clutching Rapunzel’s face between her hands, desperate to communicate. “I recognize the energy around us -- but it’s so much bigger, more powerful. If we’re going to do something, it has to be now.

A rush of adrenaline chases away the lingering fog from Rapunzel’s head, and she struggles to her feet while Cassandra supports her around the waist. She squints around the square, looking for anything that could help them reach the sigil high on Zahn Tiri’s chest. Her eye catches on one of the slanted amber spikes that split the ground, and she traces the slope of it with her forefinger.

“Cass, do you trust me?” Rapunzel asks, staring wildly into Cassandra’s eyes.

Cassandra nods without hesitation. “I do.”

Rapunzel smiles. “Okay, I know this sounds crazy, but I think we can use one of those spikes to get you into the air, high enough to reach the sigil. Do you remember when my magic accidentally blasted you across the room in your underground training ring?”

Cassandra winces at the recollection. “Yeah, you launched me like a cannonball.”

“Sorry about that,” Rapunzel says, a twinge in her brow. “But if I do it on purpose with you at the base of one of those things…”

“I’ll go flying straight at her heart,” Cassandra finishes under her breath, tracing the same trajectory with her eyes.

“I said it was crazy,” Rapunzel repeats. “You don’t have to do this.”

Cassandra turns her eyes on her, steel resolution set in their depths. “And I meant it when I said I trust you. Let’s finish this, Raps.”

Rapunzel nods, heart racing both with fear and affection. She grabs Cassandra’s wrist and maneuvers her along the spike with the best slope -- too slight, and they’ll miss; too steep, and Cassandra goes soaring straight up with no safe way down. Rapunzel tells her to crouch down with her sword drawn, that she’ll only have a fraction of a second to land the blow. Despite the unthinkable danger, Cassandra is calm, resolute, as though this is routine for her.

Anxiety gets the better of Rapunzel, and before she can rethink it she rushes forward to press a hard kiss to her lips, squeezing her face between her hands. Cassandra reaches for her knuckles when they part, kissing them as she backs away into her stance. “You got this, Raps,” she says, eyes unwavering.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath, focusing as much as she can with the unfinished decay spell swirling around her in menacing tendrils. She centers her consciousness on the thrill of magic pulsing in her veins, drawing her power from the depths to the surface. A glow gathers around her, spinning like dust around a star. She feeds it with each beat of her frantic heart, and soon the pressure builds to a breaking point.

“Get ready!” she cries, focusing her bright golden eyes on Cassandra.

“Do it!” Cassandra shouts, her sword poised to strike.

Rapunzel screams, accelerating the cloud of light into an explosive starburst that catches Cassandra’s back like wind catching a sail. She soars away with astonishing speed, extending from a crouch to a nearly horizontal lunge with her swordpoint bared. Time slows down as Rapunzel watches with her breath trapped in her chest, as Cassandra’s sword arm rears back, as Zahn Tiri realizes what’s happening and rushes to cover the sigil with her forearms.

She is a split second too late. Cassandra’s blade plunges deep into her chest, and she hangs on as gravity drags it straight down through the glowing red emblem.

Zahn Tiri howls with a hundred tormented voices, lighting flashing furiously around her as the edges of her form burn and flake off into ash. The shadows comprising her body splinter apart, shredding away as the darkness shrinks. Rapunzel runs over to catch Cassandra as the flesh around her sunken sword dissolves into nothing, and she falls the rest of the way down. She lands in Rapunzel’s arms and they tumble together to the ground, holding each other in disbelief.

The storm abates, the sky lightens, and Zahn Tiri’s body returns to its earthly form. She lies broken on the ground, held up by one elbow, heaving laboured breaths as the horrendous gash in her chest bleeds out. Rapunzel stands up and crosses over to her, though still keeping a safe distance.

Zahn Tiri raises her bloodshot eyes to Rapunzel’s face, vitriolic hatred simmering behind them. “You...have ruined...everything,” she manages through rattling breaths.

“It doesn’t have to end like this,” Rapunzel says, her voice gentle. “You want to right the wrongs of history and see mythics restored in the Seven Kingdoms, and so do I. Your power doesn’t have to destroy you -- it can be a force for regrowth and restoration.”

Zahn Tiri spits out the red blood that has filled her mouth. “You speak as though you haven’t just killed me,” she says.

Rapunzel shakes her head. “You were taking innocent lives. We had to stop you, but we can save you, too.” She hesitates. “...I know the Sun Drop Invocation.”

“Rapunzel, no,” Cassandra whispers behind her. “You would put your life at risk for her, after everything she’s done?”

Rapunzel squeezes her eyes shut. “It was wrong. But my kingdom pushed her to this. She deserves a chance to heal.”

“She forfeited the chance to heal when she carved that sigil into her chest,” Cassandra counters.

“Save your breath,” Zahn Tiri interrupts. She is too weak to keep holding herself up, and lays her head down on the ground. Violet hair matted with blood spreads out around her, like a dark halo. Her eyes are glazed and lidded as they face the sky. “You think I will beg...a Coronan...for salvation?” She utters a chopped cackle that decays into wet, bloody coughing. “I…would rather…”

Her voice is lost to one last agonized convulsion of her limbs, and then she stills.

Rapunzel releases her breath all at once and falls to her knees. A weariness overtakes her, and all she wants to do is rest. She feels Cassandra kneel down beside her and wrap a secure arm around her shoulders. Rapunzel stares at the motionless body in front of her and whispers, “It’s over.”

Cassandra sighs, her voice close to Rapunzel’s ear. “It’s over.”

Chapter Text

They are still holding each other when the others find them huddled up among the debris of the demolished plaza. Eugene and Lance come upon them first, then call for Lady Caine and the girls, who come tripping over themselves with haste. Lady Caine instantly sees the remains of Zahn Tiri, and turns Keira and Catalina’s faces to her sides so that they don’t see.

“Are you two alright?” Eugene says, his voice gentle as he approaches them. “Everything was so loud and flashy, we were worried you got caught in some sort of explosion.”

Rapunzel sighs and meets his eyes. “We’re...okay. Despite plenty of bruises and scratches, we’re okay.”

“Rapunzel hit her head pretty hard,” Cassandra corrects her. “There was bleeding and she still seems pretty dazed. But yes, that’s about the worst of it.”

Lady Caine ushers the girls into Lance’s arms and strides over to kneel beside Rapunzel and probe the tender wound at the back of her head. She breathes and starts preparing a stargazer healing spell, the warm glow of her hands instantly relieving the pain. “I’m astonished you didn’t come away with worse,” says Lady Caine. “I’ve seen so many horrific injuries today, and you went toe to toe against the cause of it all without taking much more than a bump on the head. I’ve gotta say...I’m impressed.”

“We relied on each other. That was what won the day,” Rapunzel says, her eyes meeting Cassandra’s with a weary smile. Cassandra returns her fond look and squeezes her hand.

The moment of peculiar serenity is interrupted by the rhythmic clang of a squad of armored soldiers marching into the square, parting like a curtain for the queen to rush forth. She looks like the past few hours have aged her ten years, her almond-brown hair limp and greasy from running her fingers through it. Tears flow down her cheeks the moment she sees Rapunzel safe.

“I’m okay, Mom,” Rapunzel hurries to say. “I promised I would be, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Arianna sobs, though a proud smile beams through her tears. “Thank you for reminding me of my promise. And for everything you’ve done to protect our kingdom today.”

“I didn’t do it alone. Eugene helped, and so did Lance, his friend from childhood. And this is Lady Caine, and Keira and Catalina. They’ve been working to protect our kingdom long before today,” Rapunzel says, gesturing to each of her friends. Finally, her gaze comes to rest on the person beside her, who gives her an encouraging nod. Rapunzel takes a deep breath and faces her mother. “And you remember Prince Cassandra of Diadem, right? She’s...we’re...we’re together. I couldn’t have gotten through this without her by my side.”

Arianna’s expression gentles, like she isn’t the least surprised to learn what Rapunzel considered her greatest secret until a few seconds ago. “Hello again, Prince Cassandra.”

Cassandra bows her head. “Your Majesty. I come on behalf of my kingdom to deliver a message of peace. My mother, Queen Edith, has withdrawn her troops and called off all hostilities.” She rummages within her battered jacket and withdraws the scroll containing the declaration, handing it over.

Arianna narrows her eyes as she reads. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am to receive this news,” she says, putting the scroll down and looking back at Cassandra. “But...why? What changed? And what was just attacking us, if not Diadem’s army?”

“A lot has happened, most of it instigated by a mage from Diadem’s court named Zahn Tiri,” Cassandra says. She inclines her head to where Zahn Tiri’s body rests, and a soft gasp emits from the queen when she sees her. Cassandra continues, “She deceived me into believing your daughter made an attempt on my life, in hopes of spurring our nations to war. Her family was exiled from Corona by the mythic accords, and...this was her idea of retribution. She invoked dark magic to wreak havoc on this kingdom.”

“I see,” Arianna says, her tone solemn. A heaviness seems to settle on her shoulders, her gaze falling to her hands. “Retribution, indeed.”

“Mom?” Rapunzel probes. “What are you thinking?”

Arianna meets her eyes, then stands and extends a hand down for Rapunzel. “Come with me, dear. I’d better show you where your father is.”

Rapunzel has never seen the dungeons below Corona’s palace, and it has always troubled her to know that there are people locked up in squalor below the room where she sleeps. Perhaps it is because of the trauma she endured, but Rapunzel feels that lifetime imprisonment is an exceptionally cruel sentence, and struggles to imagine a crime that would warrant such a punishment. Only the most heinous atrocities Rapunzel can think of come to mind, and the thought that such perpetrators could be so close to her is hardly a comfort.

To think that her own father could have done something to merit being confined, even temporarily, within these dim, musty depths...it sends a shiver down her spine.

Queen Arianna, flanked by two royal guards, leads her daughter down the narrow stone steps into the row of holding cells. The torchlight is sparse, casting long shadows over the corridor like fingers reaching out to passersby. Most of the cells they pass are unoccupied, but a few contain weary-looking people who turn their heads with interest as the queen and the princess walk by.

They pause in front of a set of heavy doors, closed securely with an intricate iron lock in the center. Arianna turns to Rapunzel with a grave expression, and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Rapunzel, I want to prepare you for what you’re about to see. After your magic was revealed the day you disappeared, Frederic rapidly became...unstable. He had difficulty making sense of what he saw. Mostly, he was alarmed that he hadn’t found out about it sooner.”

Rapunzel rubs her arm. “I was going to tell him...eventually…”

Arianna shakes her head. “No, honey. I am now very grateful that you didn’t. He saw your magic as evidence of a conspiracy, of some kind of spy network of mythics that had infiltrated his palace. He believed that if his own daughter could conceal her mythic status from him, then anyone around him could be hiding something.” She sighs, frown lines deepening around her mouth. “I...tried to reason with him. But he was so paranoid about what he perceived as an imminent threat that he wasted time and resources on rooting out any other hidden mythics in his court, when we all knew that war was coming.”

“So you…”

“I deposed him,” Arianna confirms. “Our people were at risk, and their king was not preparing for the threat. I had hoped I could get through to him, that over twenty years of marriage would mean he’d trust my advice, but it went on so long that I had no other choice.”

Rapunzel is quiet, chewing her lip in thought and staring at the ominous door in front of her. She isn’t sure how to feel -- her heart is dismayed, but perhaps not as much as it ought to be. King Frederic may be her father, but she also just met him, not two years ago. She hasn’t bonded with him the way she has with her mother; while Arianna has continuously made the effort to meet Rapunzel for the person she is, Frederic always seemed more inclined to assert his own expectations over her. Learning that her father could so easily abandon his trust in her is not all that surprising when Rapunzel considers that she never placed much trust in him, either.

Still, his actions have consequences that weigh heavily on Rapunzel’s mind. She thinks of Lady Caine, of how she once told her that mythics never left Corona completely and are still here, forced to hide because of the crown’s intolerance. Of the account she told of King Frederic, and how his mythic paranoia in the wake of Rapunzel’s kidnapping inflicted so much suffering on innocent people. She swallows thickly, clenching and unclenching her fists as she struggles to process the situation.

“Honey?” Arianna interrupts her thoughts, concern apparent in her wide eyes. “You don’t have to go through these doors, if you don’t want to. We can come back another day, or not at all.”

Rapunzel breathes out, steadying herself. She looks up at her mother and nods. “No, I want to. I need to see for myself.”

“I understand,” says Arianna, motioning for one of the guards to come forward with the key. “But if you want to leave for any reason, just call for me, alright?”

“Alright,” Rapunzel says. She squares her shoulders as the two guards unlock the doors, each of them pulling one aside to make way for the princess. Rapunzel steps forward into a dimly lit cell that is larger but not any more accommodating than the others she saw on the way in. There is a narrow bed shoved up against one stone wall, as well as a chamber pot in the corner near a basin of clean water. There are no torches, and the only light comes from a narrow window high up on the wall, far out of reach. At her feet as she enters are a few plates of untouched food: bread rolls, roasted potatoes, slabs of salt-cured ham. The oldest among them is starting to grow mold, and Rapunzel scrunches her nose up as she toes the plate out of the way.

Frederic is pacing along the far wall, beneath the tiny window, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. His beard has grown out of its meticulously-manicured shape, with overgrown stubble darkening his face. He is dressed in a stained shirt of royal blue and linen pants, once-fine clothes that Rapunzel suspects came out of his own wardrobe instead of being standard-issue prison garb.

He looks up when Rapunzel enters, the whites of his eyes flashing with suspicion. He stops in his tracks, but says nothing, and Rapunzel wrings her hands. “Hi, Dad. It’s me,” she says awkwardly.

For a moment, he only glares at her through narrowed lids. “And who exactly are you?” he responds at length, his voice low and gravelly with disuse.

Rapunzel frowns. “I’m still Rapunzel. Still your daughter.”

“So it would seem,” Frederic mutters.

His words land strangely, like a dissonant chord that leaves Rapunzel uneasy. “I...I didn’t know how to tell you,” she tries. “I’ve only known about my magic since I escaped the tower, myself. I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”

“Hmm, yes. The unreachable tower. The kidnapper that conveniently vanished.” Frederic turns his cold eyes on her. “The changeling that took my daughter’s place.”

“Changeling?” Rapunzel gasps, shaking her head. “Are you saying...after all this time, you don’t believe me?”

“Would you expect me to believe a stranger who showed up out of nowhere one day? Who attacked and destabilized my court right as Diadem declared war? Who deluded my own wife into turning against me just in time to leave Corona defenseless?” he seethes. “You would expect me to blindly trust a mythic, when I am well aware of Diadem’s network of mythic spies?”

As he speaks, he steps closer to Rapunzel until he looms over her, casting a stifling shadow across her. Rapunzel feels her confidence wither as she is abruptly reminded of her kidnapper, and of the way Rapunzel would shrink to nothing under her frigid gaze. The feeling comes on with a force as compelling as it ever was. It overpowers her like a riptide that drags her spirit inexorably back, leaving her body hollow and vulnerable. Frederic is still speaking, and Rapunzel hears the sound of his words, but she can neither understand nor respond to them. She can’t even focus on his face, and drops her blank gaze helplessly to the floor.

Despite her strong reaction, her magic doesn’t burst out to defend her. In fact, she doubts she could summon an ounce of it if she tried -- that part of her feels so distant, and that disconnected feeling is frightening. She doesn’t realize that she’s backing up until she stumbles into the door, and the guards must interpret the soft knock as a signal to retrieve her. Rapunzel sways as the door gives way behind her, and her mother’s arms sweep her away, escorting her back out of the dungeons.

The diplomatic negotiations went about as well as Cassandra could’ve hoped; Queen Arianna’s advisors accepted the documents that she delivered on behalf of her mother, and made no demands for reparations in light of the aborted war effort. Cassandra is grateful that it didn’t turn into some exhausting, tumultuous affair, but she’s not quite sure what to do with herself while she waits for Rapunzel to return from wherever her mother has taken her. This is the first time she’s been inside Corona’s royal palace as a friend, and she keeps having to remind herself that no one is going to question or apprehend her just for being there. It’s unusual not to be on guard. She’s not used to being welcomed anywhere.

She’s examining a hand-painted vase in the foyer when the queen returns with Rapunzel in tow, and she straightens up as they enter. She immediately notices that something is wrong -- Rapunzel’s face is crestfallen, blank in a way that Cassandra has never seen her. Her skin is pale, freckles suddenly standing out against a starker background. She moves slowly and deliberately, as though she’s afraid of stepping on something with each move. Cassandra is by her side in an instant.

“What happened?” she asks, taking one of Rapunzel’s hands. Her fingers feel cold and limp against her palm.

When Rapunzel doesn’t answer, her mother steps in. “I think you should take her upstairs, to her room,” she suggests, adding that a servant will show them the way.

When they arrive at the regal white doors, Cassandra guides Rapunzel to sit on her extravagant plush bed with a gentle hand on her back. Through her concern, the thrill of seeing Rapunzel’s bedroom for the first time is not lost on Cassandra, and she takes in all the colorful, quirky details that reflect Rapunzel’s character. The decor is so perfectly opposite that of her own bedroom that she can’t help smiling to herself at it, but she quickly returns her attention to Rapunzel as she sinks down beside her.

Rapunzel is still unnervingly catatonic, staring ahead without moving or speaking. Cassandra rubs circles between her shoulder blades and tries, “Do you...want to talk about it?”

Instead of replying, Rapunzel simply opens her arms, and Cassandra does not hesitate to scoop her up and lie back with Rapunzel cradled to her chest. The princess rests her head over Cassandra’s heart, with her arms wrapped around her waist, and Cassandra secures her arm around Rapunzel’s shoulders. She strokes her hair with her other hand, hoping that it comes through as comforting. This is another new thing that she’s not used to.

After a few minutes, Rapunzel heaves a great breath. “I...I think I can talk now. I don’t know what came over me.” She stretches her neck up to kiss Cassandra’s jaw. “Thank you for being patient.”

Cassandra returns the kiss to the top of her head. “Of course, Raps. I admit I was a little worried -- you were so out of it, it kind of reminded me of the time you performed that divination. For a second there I was scared that something had happened to you.”

“No, I’m okay, I think,” Rapunzel says slowly. She extracts herself from Cassandra’s arms to sit up and look at her. “I just saw my father in the dungeons.”

Cassandra rises up on her elbows. “The dungeons? What’s he doing down there?”

“I’m not sure I fully understand it, myself,” Rapunzel admits. “My mom warned me that he was unstable and wouldn’t listen to reason, and I thought he was just confused. But when I went in to see him, it was like he didn’t even recognize me. He thought I was...some kind of imposter. A spy sent by Diadem.”

Cassandra’s brow twists with confusion. “Why would he think that?”

“He made a lot of strange accusations, but…” Rapunzel sighs. “It all boiled down to my magic.”

Solemn understanding settles on Cassandra’s countenance. “I should have known. I’m sorry, Raps.”

Tears finally start to well up in Rapunzel’s eyes, spilling over all at once as her pain makes itself known. “I thought that he would change -- that Corona could change -- when he learned that I was a mythic,” she sobs.

Spurred forth by the sight of Rapunzel’s tears, Cassandra reaches out and draws her back to her chest, tucking Rapunzel’s head under her chin. “Some people don’t change, no matter how many chances you give them.”

Rapunzel shakes her head, her nose bunched against Cassandra’s collarbone. “I just can’t believe that, Cass. I can’t make the world a better place by giving up on people.”

Cassandra takes a deep breath, then gently pushes Rapunzel’s shoulders back so she can meet her eyes. “Raps, look at me. I love you. I love that you are so kind, and forgiving, and earnest. I wouldn’t be here if not for your compassion in reaching out to troubled people, and I know that I have a lot to learn from you. But there’s a limit to how far you should extend the benefit of the doubt, you know?”

Rapunzel sniffles and shakes her head. “What do you mean?”

Cassandra searches the ceiling. “Like -- with Zahn Tiri, back there. You offered to risk your life for her, when she had just tried to kill you, and me, and everyone you know and care about. She put me through physical and emotional torture, and she single-handedly nearly demolished both our kingdoms. I know that letting her die doesn’t sit well with you, Raps, but think about all the people she willingly put in danger. At what point does her right to heal and prosper matter more than their right to live in peace? Or even my right to heal, from what she put me through?”

Rapunzel is quiet, staring at her hands and worrying her lip. Cassandra can tell she is deep in thought, and slides a hand down to rub circles on Rapunzel’s wrist with her thumb.

“It’s like that healing spell you used on me,” Cassandra whispers. “There’s only so much energy you can give toward healing someone else before there’s nothing left for you. I won’t tell you what to do about your father, but...would he break the sigil and stop the spell for you? Or has he already shown you that he wouldn’t?”

Under the cucumber slices placed on his eyes, Eugene scowls, then groans theatrically. “I never thought I’d say it, but...I think Cassandra is right,” he says.

“You do?” Rapunzel asks, sitting in the chair beside him in the royal spa. It’s hard to take him seriously with the beautician rubbing some pale green yogurt mask on his cheeks in circles, but Eugene seems unbothered.

“I mean...look, I’ve spent my whole life trying to stay out of jail, right? It’s a crappy place, and it’s not the solution to crime and violence that people want to believe it is.” Eugene says, pausing to sip his lemon-infused water through a straw. “But even thieves have lines we don’t cross. Terrorism is definitely one of those lines.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Rapunzel says. She hopes her disappointment doesn’t show on her face; Cassandra’s advice was hard to swallow, and part of the reason she came to Eugene was that she was counting on him disagreeing with her. She’s always believed in the power of rehabilitation, after seeing how brightly people who are dismissed as “thugs” could shine if given the chance. Eugene was once seen as a scourge on society, and now here he is getting beauty treatments in the palace. Rapunzel was sure he would see it her way.

“Some people are just plain dangerous,” Eugene muses. “I have my opinions about the practice of punishing criminals, and I’m sure you know them already. But there’s punishment, and then there’s...er...what’s the word, Helmut? When you do bad stuff and you don’t get away with it?”

The beautician, Helmut, doesn’t even blink as he massage’s Eugene’s eyebrows. “I believe you mean ‘accountability,’ sir.”

Eugene snaps his fingers. “Accountability! Yes,” he exclaims. “People who put others’ lives at risk ought to be held accountable. That’s what I think. No one wants jerks like that running around, not even us criminals.”

Rapunzel hums, pursing her lips, then stands up. “Thanks, Eugene. I...I think I know what I have to do.”

“You got this, Sunshine,” Eugene says before lying back with a deep sigh as Helmut’s fingers work through his scalp. “Man, I missed you, Helmut.”

“Yes, I missed you too, sir.”

Rapunzel focuses on keeping her back straight and her chin high as the sentencing proceedings begin. She stands beside her mother and Cassandra in front of the throne, at the head of a room full of nobles and citizenry here to see what will come of the imprisoned king. Lady Caine is up on the dais as well -- she has been meeting with Queen Arianna and her council all week, discussing the state of mythics in Corona and reparations owed by the crown. Her insight and perspective have been deemed invaluable for the oncoming restoration, and she is present as an official representative of the Nightingale. She’s cleaned up for the occasion, and Rapunzel suspects that Keira and Catalina helped her with the braided updo that her auburn hair is spun into.

Rapunzel catches sight of Eugene near the foot of the dais, and he gives her an encouraging nod and a thumbs-up. He motions with his hands a reminder to breathe, and Rapunzel sucks in a deep breath through her nose just as the doors to the throne room are pulled open. King Frederic is led in by armed guards, his wrists shackled together and his hair falling into his eyes. He raises his head and glares up at Rapunzel in front of him, and she feels her heart plummet when those bruised, sunken sockets turn on her.

Her mother clears her throat and speaks from a scroll in her hands, “King Frederic, today you face judgment for a history of abuse and subjugation against the mythic population of your kingdom. Many have suffered as a result of your anti-mythic rule; families have been torn apart, lives have been lost, innocent people have been forced into hiding for their own safety. You took advantage of a mythic healer in secret, and repaid her for her assistance with death. You have lied and hidden the extent of your violence from your court, your people, and your family. You put your entire kingdom at risk when invaders threatened us, dragging everyone into a senseless mythic search instead of defending Corona.” She pauses, rolling the scroll back up and casting her gaze down on Frederic. “What have you to say to these charges?”

“Why bother with a defense? You will not hear it,” Frederic growls. “You have turned from me already.”

Arianna narrows her eyes. “I have done what was necessary to protect our people and our daughter.”

“How can you be so blind?” Frederic demands, his shackles rattling as he tries to point an accusing finger at Rapunzel. “That witch is not our daughter, Arianna! You dishonor her memory by playing into this liar’s hands!”

Cassandra’s leather gloves creak as her fists tighten at her sides, but she holds her tongue. Arianna responds, “Does your defense against these charges, therefore, hinge upon your claim that Princess Rapunzel is an imposter?”

“Do not speak her name!” Frederic shouts.

“Answer the question.”

“Open your eyes, Arianna!”

“Enough!”

All eyes turn to Rapunzel after her exclamation, her hands stretched out as though she is holding something back. Her chest heaves, and she smooths loose tendrils of hair back from her forehead before straightening and facing her father. “Enough. It doesn’t matter if you believe my story or not. It hurts me, but it doesn’t change what you’ve done. You are here today because of all the lives that your choices have endangered. Can you say that anything that I’ve done has forced your hand?”

“I have done nothing but uphold Corona’s legacy from those who would tear it down,” Frederic asserts, simmering.

“You have torn it down, yourself,” Arianna counters. “Corona is weaker and more divided now than it has ever been.”

“Your crusade against the Nightingale twenty-two years ago left Coronan mythic communities devastated,” Lady Caine adds. “If anything, your recent unhinged witch hunt only shows that nothing has changed since then. You victimized vulnerable mythics during a time of strife then, and you have done it again now.” She pauses, sweeping her gaze across the room slowly and deliberately. “Leaves me feeling doubtful about what a third chance would result in.”

“I have reacted to what Diadem provoked!” Frederic says, raising his voice. “Diadem kidnapped my child, and Diadem supplanted a mythic imposter in my court. Only a weak fool would not retaliate!”

“The antagonism between Corona and Diadem has taken a toll on both of our peoples, but laying the blame at my kingdom’s feet is both wrong and incriminating” Cassandra says, stepping forward. “If Corona is to pursue peace with Diadem, it must also pursue peace with mythics. Our nations’ tension was borne of the mythic accords, and only abolishing them can ease it.”

Frederic looks around, brows twisted in a scowl. “Why is she even here?” he demands, to no response.

“And so, King Frederic…father,” Rapunzel says. “Restoring you to the throne of Corona just wouldn’t be fair to the people you have hurt over the years. It...wouldn’t be fair to me. I want to believe you can learn to do better, but you can’t be given power over others in the meantime. The restoration that’s to come…” She shakes her head. “You’ve lost the chance to be a part of it.”

“I’m inclined to agree with the princess,” says Arianna, and the spectators in the room murmur their general assent. Lady Caine nods, folding her arms over her chest, and Cassandra’s expression as she regards the king is void of any mercy.

“So what are you to do with me, now?” Frederic mutters through ground teeth. “Execute me? Banish me? Your restoration will stink of rot if it is built on the corpse of the former king.”

“No, Frederic,” Arianna says. “What have you always done with those who pose a threat to the kingdom? You are to spend your days in the dungeons, stripped of your title, with the ghosts of everyone you sentenced there for company.”

Frederic’s shoulders sag as guards take hold of his arms to bring him back to his dungeon cell. “So be it,” he seethes, and he shoots one final vitriolic glare at Rapunzel before he turns to go.

When the doors are shut again and the members of the gallery dissipate into the halls, Cassandra approaches Rapunzel and guides her to a seat. “How are you feeling? That couldn’t have been easy,” she says.

Rapunzel sighs. “It still doesn’t sit well with me, but...it doesn’t feel like a mistake,” she says, squeezing Cassandra’s hand. “I think these choices will always be hard.”

“Maybe so. But that might be a good thing,” Cassandra says, raising a hand to caress her cheek. “If Corona’s rulers were always as compassionate as you, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Rapunzel smiles, leaning into her touch. “There’s still so much work to be done to fix this,” she says.

“There is,” Cassandra agrees. “But now we can do it together.”

Chapter Text

Rapunzel’s not sure why Antipe’s mythic relic museum was built at the summit of the kingdom’s tallest mountain, but she forces a smile on her face through the copious sweat pouring down from her forehead as she drags herself to the top. Cassandra puts her hands on her hips and huffs, like she’s fully accustomed to this level of exertion. Rapunzel would be indignant, but Cassandra did carry her for half the trek with only a few complaints, so she owes her some measure of merit.

“Here we are! The Spire awaits!” chirps Rapunzel’s aunt Willow, who happened to be home from abroad when Rapunzel and Cassandra decided to visit. When she heard they were interested in seeing the renowned vault of mythic history, she leapt at the chance to guide them. Not because she has any particular interest in history or museums, but because she apparently has been looking for a reason to test her personal best time scaling the mountain. She insisted on moving fast even while Rapunzel was heaving for breath, so it had better be her new record.

“You might be wondering why it’s called the Spire,” Willow says, grinning expectantly.

“Uh, not really,” Cassandra says, gesturing at the massive oblong structure towering above them. It gleams a shining blue in the midday sun, with wave patterns twisted around its cylindrical walls. “It’s pretty clearly shaped like a spire.”

“It’s pronounced ‘spi-yerr!’” yells a squat barrel of a woman with graying hair wrapped in a bun so tight it pulls at her forehead wrinkles. She stands at the entryway of the structure, her round glasses reflecting the white sunshine, with a ring of about a thousand keys in her hand.

Willow guides them over to meet her. “Rapunzel, Cassandra...this is Miss Calliope. She is the keeper of the Spire, managing the inventory and directing the anthropological research on the artifacts.” Willow stoops to whisper behind her hand, “She’s quite the fun little character, don’t you think? Like an angry hamster!”

Rapunzel chuckles under her breath, then reaches to shake Calliope’s hand. “I’m Rapunzel, and this is my partner, Cassandra,” she says. “We’re looking forward to learning from you.”

“As you should be!” says the keeper, twirling her key ring and then hitting the rim of her glasses. She adjusts them and clears her throat. “Magic is the most exciting, most interesting, most unique topic the world has to offer! Scholars have been captivated over the millennia, though I consider myself more than a mere scholar. You might call me a magic connoisseur. That’s French.”

Rapunzel gasps with delight, clasping her hands in front of her chest. “Oh! You can use magic? Are you a mythic too?”

Calliope blinks at her, frowning. “Huh? What makes you say that?”

Willow snorts, laughing gracelessly. “Classic Callie.”

Cassandra takes a deep, grounding breath -- know-it-alls are not her favorite people. “Let’s just get this tour started,” she says.

Rapunzel takes Cassandra’s hand as they cross the threshold. The huge central pillar, with stairs carved in a spiral around it and small exhibits inset along its wall, goes up so high that Rapunzel can’t see the top even with her neck craned all the way back. Doors line the curved outer wall, which Calliope informs them lead to more artifact storage as well as labs and offices for the scholars that work here.

They make slow progress through the museum, because Rapunzel stops to examine every enchanted item and read every primary account. She is fascinated, transfixed, and her mind whirrs with ideas -- ways she can use these invaluable resources in her ongoing effort to educate ignorant Coronans of mythic history and culture. The more the public learns about the lives of mythics, from the mundane to the fantastic, the less tightly they will hold on to their fear and hostility toward the people around them. And Coronan mythics deserve to learn their own stories, too. Rapunzel knows what it’s like to suddenly learn all about a society that was concealed from her all her life, so she faces the task of guiding others through it with enthusiasm. It won’t fix everything, but it’s a necessary step in the long journey to recovery.

“Come look at this one, Cass,” Rapunzel says, motioning her over. Cassandra peers over her shoulder at a series of yellowed journal pages behind protective glass, squinting at the cursive writing.

“What is it?” she asks.

“It’s the account of one Evar the Chronicler,” Rapunzel says. “He was here in Antipe when the large groups of mythics were traveling from Corona to Diadem. These pages have interviews with children that had been separated from their families.” Rapunzel touches the glass, sighing. “There was so much suffering.”

Cassandra puts a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Rapunzel says, straightening up. “It’s just...it’s just humbling, to think of how much work we have ahead of us. I wish that all this could just be undone, but it can’t.”

“No, it can’t. It happened, and nothing’s going to change that,” Cassandra says, squeezing Rapunzel’s shoulder. “All we can do now is learn from it, and try to do right by those who have suffered.”

Rapunzel nods, looking down at the journal pages, biting her lips.

“We’ll get there, Raps,” Cassandra says, gently. “One day at a time.”

Rapunzel turns under Cassandra’s arm, stretching up to kiss her. Tension evaporates from her, and she feels hope unfurling in her chest like tea leaves in water. Cassandra holds her around the waist, supporting her, grounding them both.

A pointed cough interrupts them, and Rapunzel jumps when she sees Calliope scowling and tapping her foot. “As I was saying, the study of mythic artifacts is a deeply time-consuming effort.”

Cassandra’s face is tight with a look that makes Rapunzel think it was wise to leave her sword at the bottom of the mountain, and Rapunzel laughs from her heart. She tugs Cassandra by the arm, pulling her after Calliope’s uppity footsteps.

Roasted sweet potatoes mingle harmoniously with hot buttered corn and honeyed ham in Cassandra’s belly, and she leans back in her chair around Peter and Xavier Caine’s kitchen table, truly relaxed for the first time in ages. Keira and Catalina are in the living room, wrestling with Lance, while Lady Caine helps Eugene clean up the dishes from their dinner. Rapunzel sits beside Cassandra, listening with rapt attention to Xavier as he holds his husband’s hand and tells the story of how they fell in love.

“Peter just had so much to talk about that he stayed too late, and I let him sleep on my couch,” Xavier says through his smile. “When I made us breakfast in the morning, I found myself thinking that I would be happy doing just that for the rest of our lives.”

“How could you expect me to go home after having dinner with the most knowledgeable, most handsome man I’d ever met?” Peter laughs, and Xavier pushes his shoulder, rolling his eyes. “You were the first part of Diadem that felt like home, and that’s how you’ve felt ever since.”

Rapunzel sighs, her chin on her hands as she leans forward on the table. “Twenty years of marriage is so remarkable,” she says. “Really, congratulations to you both!”

“Well, thank you, young lady,” says Peter. “And thank you for coming all this way to celebrate with us. Now that the borders are open again, it’s nice to have family over for special occasions like this. And you and Prince Cassandra are welcome here any time, of course.”

Cassandra inclines her head in gratitude. “After all you have done for me, please just call me Cassandra,” she says.

Peter smiles, and nods. “Cassandra, then.”

It feels strange, the first time she has forsaken her title outside of the nobility. But it’s strange in the same way that stretching out after being cramped in a small space for hours is strange; it will take a moment to shake off the stiffness, but the freedom is a relief. Rapunzel looks at her with a look of stunning adoration, and Cassandra’s heart swells with warm affection.

Lady Caine collapses back into her seat, resting her feet on the table and tilting the chair back as she sinks down. Lance strides over from the other room, and plants a kiss on her upturned forehead. Lady Caine hums and says, “Your turn to contend with the dishes, hon.”

Lance scoffs. “Your turn to contend with those miniature ruffians!”

“Hey! We heard that!” shouts Keira, pausing in her imaginary sword fight with Catalina to shoot a dirty look over at their adoptive parents.

Lady Caine waves them off with a chuckle. “So how have things been with the Nightingale in Diadem, Father? Making any progress?”

“Actually, yes,” Peter says. “Meetings with the queen have been fruitful of late, ever since she started connecting us with the court’s elder mythic families. We have been working together to address each of our grievances, and Queen Edith has been remarkably receptive.”

“Honestly, I’m astonished at her change of heart,” Cassandra says. “I’ve never known her to value someone else’s opinion on how she should rule. I guess there’s still room for her to grow, as long as she keeps at it.”

“Well, I think everyone, including your Lady mother, can come together and agree that what happened with Zahn Tiri should never happen again,” observes Xavier. “Even her own family is mortified.”

Cassandra nods. “I think that investing in resources for the people instead of in the military might prevent deluding others into thinking war is the solution to our problems,” she says. “Chipping away at our kingdom’s warrior legacy is no simple endeavor, but...you know, I’m doing my best.”

“Your efforts will pay off,” says Lady Caine, regarding Cassandra with pride. “You’re doing the right thing, Prince. Trust me, people aren’t used to the ruling class working with us instead of against us. If you keep it up, we may have a real turning point ahead of us.”

“Thank you, truly,” Cassandra says, ducking her head to hide her bashful smile. She feels Rapunzel pat her back and rest her cheek against her shoulder, and the tension in her chest eases, like a flowing stream freed of debris.

“Who wants dessert?” proclaims Eugene, shattering the moment.

Keira and Catalina trip over each other in their haste to grab at the strawberry cupcakes in Eugene’s arms, shouting with glee.

Rapunzel knows the way to the palace courtyard by heart, and sweeps into the garden wearing a pale, light sundress to meet her mother for tea. Arianna stands from her seat when she enters, greeting her with a hug and pressing a fresh cup of raspberry leaf tea into her hands. The gardenia shrubs are blooming in tandem with brilliant pink azaleas, their stray petals swirling on the breeze and dancing on the white marble floor of the pavilion.

Songbirds chirp in the branches of the dogwood trees dotted throughout the royal garden. Arianna’s teacup clinks softly as she sets it down and smiles at Rapunzel across the table. “So, do you want to address the elephant in the room, or shall I?”

Rapunzel looks up, an unexplained blush coloring the tips of her ears. “What do you mean? What elephant?”

Arianna tilts her head, a mischievous shine that she inherited from her mother behind her eyes. “What do you think I mean?”

Rapunzel’s mind reels as she searches through the endless catalogue of potential answers. Her choice of dress? Her persistent guilt over her father’s sentencing? The way she tripped in front of a duke from Galcrest in of polite company the other day? “Umm…” she mumbles, scratching her chin. “Did you not like the painting I made you for Mother’s Day?”

Arianna laughs, shaking her head. “No, dear, your painting is a treasure. I meant your relationship with Prince Cassandra,” she says, raising her eyebrows. “I understand why you kept it from me before, but now I am quite curious about the object of my daughter’s affections.”

“Oh!” Rapunzel peeps, her blush spreading fully across her cheeks. “Oh, yeah, I suppose you would be, huh? Wow, where to start…”

Her mother listens patiently as Rapunzel tells the story from the beginning, from their first dance to their midnight meetings to their fateful battle side-by-side. She talks until the teapot runs dry, her body warmed by the tea and the memories both. Arianna regards her, saying, “You sound so happy, my dear.”

“I am,” Rapunzel says. “I am happy with her. It feels like I was waiting to meet her all my life, and now she’s here and I never have to be lonely again.”

“Do you feel that you can trust her?” Arianna asks. “To be there for you, to be honest with you? To provide for you as you grow?”

“Yes,” Rapunzel says, without an ounce of hesitation. “With my life. With all that I am.”

“Then that’s all I want for you, Rapunzel. And I can’t think of a better way to heal the rift between our kingdoms than a marriage borne of love.”

“M-marriage?” Rapunzel splutters. “Wait a minute. I don’t know if I want to settle down yet. There’s so much of the world I still want to see, and I want to see it with Cass, but…”

Arianna chuckles. “You can still do that, dear. Marriage doesn’t have to be about settling down — it can be a joining promise between two people to be together and support one another, come what may.”

Rapunzel’s heart leaps with the thought of swearing her love to Cassandra, of binding themselves together for the world to see. She thinks of Peter and Xavier, of finding home in another person who adores you as you are. She raises her eyes to her mother across from her. “But what about the throne? I have a duty to Corona, and she to Diadem.”

“You won’t have to worry about taking the throne for a long time,” Arianna assures her. “And anyway, there has been talk of phasing out the monarchy in both our kingdoms in favor of something more representative. But think of it this way: you and Cassandra have already overcome the barrier of birthright to be together, haven’t you? Why let it stop you now?”

Hope blooms in Rapunzel’s chest as bright as the flowers around her. “Thanks, mom.”

A firework sparkles overhead, raining shimmering filaments down over Corona’s repaired central plaza on the clear night of Rapunzel’s twenty-third birthday. Laughter and music drift up over the rooftops like prayers, mingling with streamers dotted with tiny bulbs of light magic hung between the lamp posts. Rapunzel guides Cassandra by the hand through the crowds, pulling her between the variety of kiosks that fill the cobblestone streets. She wears a dress that looks like it’s made of spun gold, her hair flowing loose and free between her shoulder blades and pinned with fresh flowers by her temples. Cassandra feels dull in comparison, despite the finery of her embroidered velvet vest and billowing silk shirt. She bumps into people every few seconds, blind to her surroundings as she watches Rapunzel, shining so brightly in front of her.

“Cass, come here and taste this!” she calls, stopping in front of a stand selling marzipan molded into whimsical forms. Rapunzel hands over a coin for a sweet in the shape of a paper lantern, and presses it to Cassandra’s lips. Cassandra opens up for her, filling her mouth with almond-sweet dough that doesn’t taste all that good, but Rapunzel’s expectant smile makes Cassandra melt with affection.

They pass other vendors selling everything from pinwheels and blown glass to hot pretzels and mulled wine. Rapunzel leads them to the square, thanking every townsperson who wishes her a happy birthday along the way. She glances over her shoulder at Cassandra, promising, “Don’t worry, we’ll get a good spot to see it!”

A huge bonfire blazes in the center of the plaza, with dozens of people dancing around it to the ebullient tune of fiddles and accordions on the periphery. Rapunzel turns her pleading gaze on Cassandra, but before she can open her mouth to ask, Cassandra laughs, “No, Raps.”

“Oh, come on!” Rapunzel says anyway. “All the times we’ve danced together, and this is where you draw the line?”

“There’s so many people! And I only know how to do ballroom dancing,” Cassandra protests.

“Pleeease? For my birthday?”

Cassandra rolls her eyes. “You’ve pulled that card so many times today.”

Rapunzel huffs like a spurred horse. “Fine. I’ll just dance without you, then!”

“Raps, wait -- !”

Rapunzel breaks away from her without another word, folding into the crowd, swinging children’s arms as they rush forth to dance with the princess. Cassandra sighs and folds her arms across her chest, smirking as she watches the firelight dance on Rapunzel’s golden skin. Cassandra thinks she fits right in with the decor of the night, from the bonfire warming the dancers to the fireworks piercing the sky. She could be a fragment of a star, split from the heavens to bring light to earth. Sometimes Cassandra thinks she is more star than human.

After Rapunzel flits around the plaza a few times, she loses patience and grabs Cassandra by the elbows, dragging her in and swaying alongside her to the music. Cassandra can only pretend to be bothered for a single heartbeat before a beaming grin splits her face, and she finds herself laughing in harmony with the one she loves as they turn and turn.

Rapunzel stops suddenly, her wide eyes turned to the sky. “Oh, look! It’s starting!” she exclaims, pointing up at the single glowing lantern floating up from the palace terrace. Before Cassandra can blink, Rapunzel is running off to the edge of the square, pulling herself up onto a stack of crates to scramble onto one of the rooftops. Cassandra darts after her, making sure she gets to the top safely before joining her in a few confident bounds.

The rooftop affords a surprising amount of privacy and a significantly better view as more lanterns begin to rise up after the first. It’s nearly indescribable, and Cassandra’s mouth falls open in awe as she watches hundreds of lights journey upward and cast the whole evening in a golden hue. The waters of the bay reflect the glowing fleet, effectively doubling their numbers and giving the distinct impression of a surrounding, encompassing night sky.

“It’s so much prettier up close,” Rapunzel whispers beside her, reaching for Cassandra’s hand as she snuggles into her shoulder. “I used to watch them every year from the tower, but I was so unprepared for what they look like from the city.”

“I think I still like your version better,” Cassandra comments, and Rapunzel smiles before leaning up to kiss her.

When they part, Rapunzel looks particularly flustered, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear and blushing. “You know, I was thinking about the woman who saved me and gave me my magic. I realized something that didn’t occur to me before, because I didn’t understand what it meant.”

“What is it?” Cassandra asks.

“That sorceress...she must have used the Sun Drop Invocation to heal my mother, and let the spell complete the transfer of magic from her soul to mine,” Rapunzel says. “It’s the only magic with that kind of power.”

“That’s the spell that you used on me, that day,” Cassandra says.

Rapunzel nods. “Yes. Just as she once gave me her life, I used the Sun Drop to give you some of mine. But you know what’s interesting?”

“What?”

Rapunzel shifts to sit up and meet Cassandra’s eyes. “I don’t feel like I’ve lost it. It feels like I’m sharing it with you.”

Cassandra’s chest aches with overflowing fondness. “Raps…”

Rapunzel searches a pocket of her dress, her hand coming up enclosed around something. She swallows, takes a deep breath, and opens her hand to reveal a silver ring set with moonstones in her palm. “I was wondering, then...if you might want to share your life with me, too.”

Cassandra inhales sharply, a hand flying to her mouth as she fully realizes what Rapunzel is asking. She is struck for words, staring helplessly at Rapunzel’s expression of shielded hope. She chokes on a sob, and reaches out to take Rapunzel’s face between her hands and press a desperate kiss to her lips. She rushes forward like the unrelenting tide, clutching Rapunzel to her body and kissing her with blind, heated fervor. In stolen gasps, she proclaims her answer: “Yes,” she breathes into Rapunzel’s mouth. “With you, I will.”

The lanterns soar overhead, merging ever upward until they are indistinguishable from the heavens themselves. When they are finally out of sight, Rapunzel pauses to spin her own floating lights, defying the stars to stretch the night on into an endless peace.