Rapunzel pulled out the shawl she’d been carrying with herself the whole day and wrapped it around her shoulders the moment she was hit with the breeze. Evenings were growing cold, this time of year; the castle’s elevation and its proximity to the sea did nothing to mitigate wind-chill, either. She looked beyond the walls, over the vast expanse of water and sky, listening out for the echoing cries of that squabble of gulls or another, and licked the salt carried on the wind from her lips.
“You look magnificent, my dear,” her father commented.
“Thanks. Eugene helped me pick.”
“The boy has excellent taste,” King Frederic admitted. His moustache twitched in a discreet smile. “But then again, we’ve known that since he set his eyes on you.”
Rapunzel laughed a little, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear against the wind. It was going to get tousled again so very soon, she knew, but couldn’t bring herself to care. No matter how much easier it would be to keep her hair in order if it was long enough to be tied back or plaited again, the thought of growing it out even to the shoulders was abhorrent, and she would hear none of it.
They walked together towards a table that had been carried into the castle gardens for this meeting, set with a fat teapot and a few platters of snack foods both sweet and savoury. And across the way, Rapunzel could see the herald leading two more people there, one keeping a respectful half-step behind and to the right of the other, their dress tastefully modest but made of expensive fabrics and leathers, high boots and broad belts shiny with some sort of waterproofing agent. Though sleeveless and bare-headed, they were clearly comfortable in the early autumn wind, and accustomed to such weather as well—with their hair bleached and their faces tanned from long hours in the sun, their lips cracked with the sea’s wind and salt, their steps a listing walk of sailors on dry ground.
Squeak, Pascal said as he stuck his head out from under the dark gray shawl around Rapunzel’s shoulders.
“Who’s the second person?” Rapunzel asked, leaning to her dad.
“A personal protector, I believe.”
“Huh.” She glanced to Pascal. “Stay underneath to keep warm, if you like, but I don’t think you should change colour.”
Squeak, Pascal acquiesced easily, and reverted to his usual vibrant green.
“Your Majesty, your highness,” the herald spoke formally as soon as the two groups met. “May I present: Prince Erling of Ingvarr.”
“I trust Corona has been treating you well?” King Frederic said, shaking the prince’s hand.
“Well enough. The embassy’s guest chambers are quite spacious, compared to a shared bunk on a ship,” Erling said with a chuckle, his youthful face crinkling in a grin, his voice a tenor dropping into a baritone in his lower register. “And you must be Princess Rapunzel. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Pleasure to meet you as well,” Rapunzel replied, delighted with this new person before her.
Erling gestured to the woman who stood silently beside him, an elaborate knife sheathed at the front of her belt and a gray fur half-cloak thrown across her shoulders, buckled at the chest with a massive pin made of an entire fox skull, it looked like. “My huskarl, Dagny.”
“Your Majesty. Your highness.” The warrior nodded to each of the Coronians in turn, rather than bow. Her eyes lingered on Pascal for a moment, a keen examining look, but she made no remark and posed no question of him.
With pleasantries exchanged, all four of them settled into chairs, the corpulent figure of one of the older handmaidens materializing as if from thin air to pour the tea and wait the table. Ethel, Rapunzel remembered, fairly quickly compared to when she had first started living in the castle.
“It is perhaps a trivial matter, or a circumstance too undeveloped as yet to be entirely certain,” the Ingvarrdian prince was saying to King Frederic’s question about why he had requested the meeting, and Rapunzel reminded herself to focus. “But we have been seeing a rise in piracy in the recent months. A small uptick, to be sure, but nevertheless the trend has been constant—and only with ships of continental make.”
“You must be suspecting something sinister to make that distinction,” King Frederic remarked.
“I am suspecting that this rise in piracy is, in fact, not a rise in piracy, but in privateering,” Erling said calmly. “A foreign power seeking to disrupt the prosperity Ingvarr and Corona bring to each other with trade by sea, and to itself profit from such disruption while keeping its hands clean, would be wise to issue letters of marque to a few dozen independent shipowners. And if I recall, Corona employs some of its decommissioned ships-of-the-line as prison barges, does it not? It might be time to consider sailing them into safer waters, or replacing them with prisons built on the mainland.”
King Frederic nodded, a considering frown marring his forehead now. “Your warning and your advice are greatly appreciated, Prince.”
“I hope none of your sailors have gotten hurt,” Rapunzel spoke up.
Erling looked to her with a smile. “We are far from the only ships to have been attacked, and I am pleased to say we have yet to lose a single vessel to those miscreants—boastful as that may sound. Our sailors are mostly recruited from among warriors who seek a simpler life, one of work aboard a mercantile or fishing vessel instead of a short one on the fields of glory, and we provide sorcery training to those who have not received it prior.”
Rapunzel sat up slightly. “Wait, so all of your sailors can do magic?”
“In so many words,” Erling chuckled, then inclined his head to the warrior seated beside him. “Dagny would be the one to ask about that, as she is the one with hands-on experience.”
The huskarl glanced to him over her half-eaten miniature spinach quiche, then to Rapunzel, and seemed taken off-guard somewhat with the curiosity and excitement in her eyes. “It’s a simple incantation that makes sure they do not drown at sea. Those who come from warrior backgrounds may know other spells, but it isn’t universal policy to teach further uses of magic to those who do not know them already. Each of the major ships does, however, employ one rather more accomplished sorcerer like myself.” She paused for a moment, tilting her head slightly in confusion at how Rapunzel still looked thrilled rather than uncomfortable. “...It is mostly for the safety of the crew and the vessel itself. There is little use for titles and birthrights aboard a ship three weeks of travel away from shore, and with my Prince fulfilling the role of navigator, the importance of my role as his huskarl fades in comparison to what I can contribute to the crew at large. I’ve passed six sorcery trials—I can set wounds to heal more easily and more cleanly than they would without my aid, I can go underwater for longer periods of time than the crew and suffer no ill effect, or in times of dire need, I can scatter fields of mist or sing a storm to a standstill.”
“That sounds amazing,” Rapunzel burst out, leaning forward in her chair now. “I’ve had some experiences with magic, but I’ve never seen anything like that! How do you do these things?”
“Ingvarrdian sorcery derives its strength from the practitioner’s own virtue and from deep, intimate understanding of the world and one’s own place in it,” the huskarl said smoothly, then inclined her head to King Frederic. “And knowing Corona’s... recent history, particularly concerning matters of magic, I think it may be best not to explore the subject any further.”
“Thank you, madam. Your kindness is noted and appreciated,” King Frederic said studiously, with a slight tell-tale tightness to his jaw—a subtle giveaway that he was finding the subject a painful reminder of the past.
“Oh. Okay.” Rapunzel sat back, trying not to look disappointed, and thought quickly of another way to keep the conversation alive and stay in the company of these strange, fascinating, new people for that much longer. “I’ve heard the term 'huskarl', but I’ve never had the chance to ask an Ingvarrdian if my understanding of it is correct—a close friend and personal protector?”
“It’s a word for a free man or woman, particularly of the warrior persuasion, who willingly enters the service of another. More specifically, the other is most often of noble birth, and the servant is not only a companion and protector, but very nearly a sibling in all things, a second-in-command and an implicitly trusted advisor,” Dagny explained easily. “It brings my Prince great honour that one such as myself would choose to call themself his servant.”
“And let it never be said otherwise.” Erling raised his teacup to the warrior beside him as if it were a tankard or a drinking horn, and she bowed her head to him, if with a hint of amusement in her eyes at how the porcelain turned the gesture far daintier than they must have been used to.
“And—I hope you don’t mind me bringing it up—Prince, you mentioned these privateer ships are of continental make? You are able to distinguish the origin of a ship at a glance, then?”
“The shipbuilding method’s kingdom of origin, more reliably than the ship’s own,” Erling corrected slowly, considering his words. “It isn’t uncommon for an independent vessel to be built with Kotoan methods, yet sail under Equisian or Pittsfordian colours, or for small, single-family boats that sail far warmer waters to sport Neserdnian rigging, yet fish in Kotoan waters. But, I wouldn’t want to bore you with a seadog’s unreasonable fondness for such details.”
“I love learning new things,” Rapunzel said earnestly.
Erling grinned, a delighted if surprised look on his face. “I’ll be certain to pass that along to my aunt when it comes to presenting you with wedding gifts, then. One of the easier ways to recognize a vessel’s purpose and through that, often its origin, is the rigging—the shape of ropes and sails as they’re arranged upon its masts, to put it simply. Another is the hull’s own shape, and the way it is constructed; the hulls of Ingvarrdian ships, for example, are traditionally built with planks lined to overlap at the edges, or clinker-built. A contrasting method, of carvel-building, is most notably used by Koto, where the planks are fitted smoothly against each other instead...”
From there, the conversation continued on and on about small boats and ships-of-the-line, about shipbuilding methods across the Seven Kingdoms and beyond them, about Kotoan caravels and clippers and Coronian galleons and barques and Ingvarrdian longships and more, about the advent of cannons and how their introduction had changed everything in naval warfare, about ropes and knots and canvas fabric, with the Ingvarrdian sailor-prince dressing even complicated concepts into layman’s terms and Rapunzel listening intently only to ask follow-up questions—and before long, a second pot of tea had been brewed and then emptied, the platters of food held little but crumbs anymore, and the afternoon had grown into a swiftly-darkening late evening.
“You must forgive us for taking so much of your time,” King Frederic said eventually as he was shaking the Prince’s hand goodbye.
“Oh, not at all, it was delightful to enjoy your company for quite this long.” Erling turned to Rapunzel then. “And yours, Princess—I’ve heard so much about you, and yet no story can hold a candle to meeting you in person.”
Rapunzel smiled, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “Hopefully the stories have set up only a few disappointments?”
“I can say with confidence that it must be quite impossible find oneself disappointed with you. My best wishes for your future with the heir of the Dark Kingdom.”
And once the Ingvarrdians were off, led by the herald through the castle’s halls and back to their lodgings in the embassy, Rapunzel finally rubbed her hands together and huffed into them against the evening’s cold.
“Well, that was certainly an uneventful teatime. And a lengthy one,” King Frederic said, somewhat pointedly, but not in a scolding tone, not just yet.
Rapunzel pushed away the urge to duck her shoulders and smile and say sorry. She didn’t have to apologize for enjoying another person’s company. Not anymore. Instead she said, “I liked him a lot.”
“He did seem quite taken with you,” her father admitted as they walked back into the castle. “He’d make for a good potential suitor, were you not already involved.”
“He’s a nephew of the Queen of Ingvarr, right?” Rapunzel asked thoughtfully.
“That is correct. Why?”
“I think I read somewhere during my classes that the Queen’s brother had daughters, but not sons.”
“Ah. The records must not have been revised. I’ll tell Nigel to see to it,” King Frederic said calmly. “The prince had been born a princess.”
“Huh.” Rapunzel looked around, hoping to spy Eugene somewhere, but instead only spotted one of the younger handmaidens hurrying towards them. Doris, Rapunzel thought, but then caught herself as that was a mistake she kept making. Not Doris. Gertrude.
The castle had employed three new handmaidens once it became clear in no uncertain terms that Cassandra wasn’t coming back, Rapunzel recalled, and pushed away all over again, as she still didn’t know how to feel about that. Oh, certainly, part of it was that another had apparently been unable to work for several months while Rapunzel’s group was away following the trail of black rocks to the Moonstone; part of it was that she was expected to choose a replacement lady-in-waiting, still, and Eugene was doing what he could to delay the necessity of that decision for as long as at all possible. When you’re about to be hanged, use your last wish to ask for a glass of water, he had said of it, and Rapunzel smiled at the memory.
But another part of it was that apparently, Cass had been completing the amount of work that everyone else thought would be fair to expect of two other people put together. And that was before her lady-in-waiting duties. Or her ceaseless attempts to earn a place on the royal guard. And it felt profoundly wrong to only realize that once she was gone.
“Your Majesty.” The handmaiden curtsied to the king, before turning to Rapunzel. “Your highness, the Queen had requested that you come see her at your earliest convenience.”
One unfortunate event in the past had been enough to teach Rapunzel rather profoundly that 'at her earliest convenience' typically meant 'immediately' and not, in fact, her earliest convenience. She looked to her father, who patted her on the shoulder.
“Go. There are some documents I must attend to before retiring for the night, I believe.”
“Okay. Goodnight, dad.”
She followed the handmaiden down the corridor, recognizing the route soon enough as one leading to the Queen’s private study—adjacent to the rooms her parents shared, but not quite part of them. It didn’t take five minutes for her to clear her throat in the silence.
The handmaiden smiled. “Yes, your highness.”
“We’ve accidentally kept Ethel out in the cold with us for hours,” Rapunzel admitted sheepishly. “Could you make sure she’s able to keep indoors and in warmth for the rest of the evening?”
“Of course, your highness.” Gertrude stepped back with a bow, and hurried away.
“Thank you,” Rapunzel called out after her, and continued on towards her mom’s chambers. Sighed as she realized she was walking more and more slowly, and took a deep breath to calm herself down.
Squeak, Pascal said in an encouraging tone.
“I know I’m not about to speak to Gothel,” Rapunzel told him quietly. “I know mom is everything that Gothel never was. I know she’d never belittle me, or mock me, or– or cage me like Gothel had. She’s the one who gave me the journal. She’s the one who encouraged me to find adventure and find out who I am, instead of saddle me with a battalion of guards or lock me in another tower 'for my own safety'. I know she’s not going to be angry with me about a problem if she can focus on solving the problem instead, and on teaching me how to do it, too. I know she’s not going to scold me when she can just talk to me instead.”
She stopped walking, and took another deep breath against how hard and fast her heart was beating, against a pervasive sense of unease slowly growing into a bristle of anxiety scraping through her belly, and lifted her hands to find them shaking slightly.
“I haven’t even thought about Gothel for weeks,” Rapunzel said with a calm she did not feel, testing if she had control over her voice at least. Thankfully, she did. “Why am I so scared again?”
Squeak, Pascal said tenderly, tugging on a strand of Rapunzel’s short hair with one hand.
She brushed it back behind an ear. Then pulled it to beside her cheek again and started twirling it onto a finger. Even now, months since it had been cut again and months during which she’d already had it trimmed once or twice, sometimes she felt unbalanced for the lack of its weight. Almost two years of wearing her hair in a winding braid almost as thick as the entire breadth of her shoulders; almost the whole of her lifetime of wearing it loose and trailing against the tower’s floors, a length only ever increasing as she grew older and her hair grew longer.
So much had been wrapped up in that weight. It was why she had been born at all; it was why Gothel had stolen her and sequestered her in a hidden vault like an object of immeasurable wealth; it was why Gothel had abandoned a four-years-old Cass to the whims and mercies of chance. Why she and Eugene hadn’t drowned, and why she had been able to bring him back from the brink. Why the black rocks had torn through Corona, across the sea, all over the uninhabitable Dark Kingdom lands, and why Varian’s father had spent a year encased in amber. Why she had gone on the greatest adventure of her life, and why Cassandra had taken the Moonstone. Why Zhan Tiri had used Cass like Gothel had been using Rapunzel. Why everything she’d ever known, everyone she’d ever loved, had almost been destroyed. And why she had been able to bring Cass, too, back from the brink.
It was an old weight—one that was now long since lifted away and gone. One carried in its entirety within a short, I have magic hair that glows when I sing.
But the chafing wounds that carrying it for her entire life had left across her shoulders were far from scarred over and gone.
Rapunzel rubbed her hands together. Squeezed them against each other, hard. When her knuckles turned whitish, when it hurt a little to keep tightening the grip, she counted to ten and relaxed it, and brought her hands towards one of the lamps in the castle’s corridor, open to its light.
The flash-burn scars over her palms, from when she had grabbed at the Sundrop and Moonstone in their reunited form, were rarely even visible: splotches and curving waves seared with the fury of a thousand suns transitioning smoothly into jagged lightning patterns and crystalline blooms carved with the pitiless, unforgiving glare of a full moon laying all of her misdeeds bare and leaving no greyness, no shadow, no excuse to hide herself behind any longer. The scars were rarely even visible, but Rapunzel wouldn’t mind if they showed against the unmarred skin more clearly.
She used to think about them as a badge of honour, at first. A proof of how far she would go, for her loved ones, for her kingdom. When it came to the choice of saving Cass or sparing herself, it was not a matter of choosing, but of acting on the only decision there was—the right one—the one her heart had been set upon months and years prior. There had been no single breakthrough event to lead her there, no blinding revelation or great secret unravelled to point to as the source of it. There was only Cass.
Cass, who did not get a say even on whether she lived or died, because Rapunzel wouldn’t let her be heeded even if she spoke.
Oh, it wasn’t that she regretted bringing Cass back. It wasn’t that she thought it had been the wrong decision. Seeing Cassandra draw another breath and open her eyes again was the last thing she would ever regret. It may have been the first thing she had done right for Cass, even in denying her a repentant martyr’s death and the forgiveness of her home that such an act—such an end—would have bought her, as it gifted Cass the chance to choose freely now, the chance to build herself a life she wanted, the chance to live long enough to heal. But from the perspective of these two months, months she had spent just barely beginning to prune her way through the overgrown nightmare of a blackberry patch that her own heart and mind were lairing inside, Rapunzel was slowly coming into an understanding of how sometimes it was possible to make the right decision for the wrong reasons.
Cass was alive because Rapunzel had wanted her back. Cass was a courtier and subject of Corona again because Rapunzel had wanted her back. Cass was suffering from a unique, chronically painful, untreatable injury because Rapunzel had wanted to do something differently than she had been advised. Cass could not have anything for herself, for as long as they’ve known each other, because Rapunzel had wanted those things as well.
And maybe Rapunzel wouldn’t have minded if the Sundrop and Moonstone’s scars slashed across her palms in a looping stripe stood out more, because it would mean that she could never forget again how prone she was to taking without moderation and without thinking.
Squeak, Pascal said worriedly as he watched comprehension and dread dawn across Rapunzel’s face like the morning star fading against the sunrise.
“Is that why I’m thinking about Gothel again,” Rapunzel said faintly, and couldn’t bring herself to care about how hollow her voice sounded even to her own ears. “Because I’ve acted as selfishly as she had?”
SQUEAK, Pascal said aggressively, furious against such a comparison, and Rapunzel lifted a hand to stop him mid-tirade.
“No. That isn’t– I can’t think about it yet. I’ll sit with it when I have the presence of mind to. Now we’re going to see my mom and see what she wanted to talk to me about.”
Mom. It had always been 'mom', a distinction from 'mother', one that had never been distorted. And even then, Rapunzel had slowly trained herself out of thinking 'mother' and into thinking 'Gothel', to deny the ghost of her jailer even that much, even the familiarity she had usurped for herself right alongside the Sundrop’s power fettered in Rapunzel’s long-gone golden locks.
Her hair was short, now, and didn’t glow, and she didn’t sing. Her hands were scarred, and not scarred enough. She was the Crown Princess of Corona, heiress to the throne—not the Sundrop, not anymore, and good riddance.
And right now, she was also unexpectedly angry, but at least her hands weren’t shaking anymore.
She knocked on the door leading to the Queen’s study to announce herself, and came inside. “Hi, mom.”
“There you are.” Queen Arianna capped a fountain pen and set it aside before looking up from over one of a small stack of letters she was scribing. As soon as she did, the tired look on her face immediately gave way to worry. “Honey, are you all right?”
“I’m okay.” Rapunzel sighed as she caught herself on the reflex to lie. “...I’m working on it. You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, I did. Sit with me, please.” Queen Arianna gave a nod to the handmaiden at her side. “That will be all for today, Friedborg, thank you.”
The handmaiden stepped away with a bow, and withdrew from the room. Rapunzel looked after her, before pulling herself a chair and sitting next to her mom’s scribing desk, close enough to rest an elbow on the pulpit.
“I know you’re tired of hearing this, but you need to choose a new lady-in-waiting already,” Queen Arianna said as she cleaned ink stains from her fingers with a soaked handkerchief. “It’s been long enough. I understand that you aren’t entirely comfortable with this, but it is a function that needs to be fulfilled, and has been left neglected for entirely too long by now.”
“Eugene is getting better at it,” Rapunzel defended weakly, not even trying to really argue.
“Eugene,” her mom said slowly, “learns remarkably quickly, especially considering his upbringing and his lack of familiarity with court etiquette. But the amount of his regard for decorum is equally remarkable in how miniscule it is, and there are only so many ruffled feathers I can smooth out. You need someone who knows what they are doing, and cares for what they are doing, fulfilling this function. Eugene does neither, sweet as it is of him to find ways to support you with no regard for his own personal pride.”
Rapunzel looked away, and said nothing. There wasn’t anything she could say, really. She knew that Eugene didn’t care for a lot of rules that the Coronian courtiers were following. She knew he didn’t have to care, because he was her boyfriend, and that meant there was a lot he could get away with. She knew that she had been missing classes, or meetings, or other duties for months now, because Eugene had decided they were less important than a good amount of downtime or a regular date night. And she had known the entire time that the longer he was doing the job of a lady-in-waiting, the higher this backlog would pile up, and the more of it would be pushed onto other people’s hands.
With a sigh, Queen Arianna removed her crown and set it aside before rubbing at her eyes in an uncharacteristically tired gesture, then looked at her daughter with open concern. “Honey, what is it that you find so painful about this?”
“It feels like replacing Cassandra,” Rapunzel said quietly. “And it’s... I did everything wrong with Cass. I know that much. But I haven’t figured out yet what was the wrong part in some of those things, and I’m scared I’ll repeat the mistakes with another person, without even knowing that I did.”
“Problems are for being solved, not to fret about endlessly,” Queen Arianna said warmly as she reached to place a hand over Rapunzel’s and squeeze gently. “Do you mind talking about it a little?”
“No. No, I don’t mind.” Rapunzel looked down at their hands, and folded both of her own around her mom’s. “I’ve been doing that a lot lately.”
And she hadn’t expected to speak for quite that long, but by the time she was done pouring her heart out, a crescent moon was peeking into the room through the window framed with delicate curtains, a ray of white light mingling with that of the lamp on her mom’s desk. And as she spoke, on and on and on, she watched a realization form rather quickly on her mom’s face—and progress into an unexpected sadness, as if her daughter’s failing had been her own.
“Honey,” Queen Arianna said softly once Rapunzel was done recounting past events. “I’m sorry we’ve never addressed this before. For all the hardship each of us had endured after you were taken, it has been all too easy to forget you had not grown up in court, and matters that seem so obvious to myself and your father may need to be pointed out and explained to you.”
“So... you know what I did wrong?”
“I’m afraid there is no kind way to say this, but...” her mom hesitated for a moment, then gave her another sad, deeply understanding look. “Did you want her love, or her obedience?”
Rapunzel blinked at the question. Shook her head slightly, almost sure she heard wrong, or maybe just wishing that she did. “What?”
“People of our standing tend to lead very lonely lives,” the Queen of Corona said gently to her only daughter. “When entering relationships—professional or personal—with those of lower standing, there are... boundaries, to be observed. Doubly so when the matter concerns your servants.”
“Cassandra is my friend,” Rapunzel heard a note of warning slip into her voice, unbidden.
“Cassandra is a servant girl, and she had always known that perfectly well. As well as that being the Captain’s daughter meant little to those her equal or lesser than her, and nothing to those above her—only moreso for being adopted by him rather than sired,” Queen Arianna said calmly. “If you told her to do something, even asked it of her, she did not have the freedom to say no. If you chose a course of action that would imperil you, she did not have the power to stop you, only to suggest and advise a different one—and if you chose not to follow these suggestions and advice, all she had left to do was to follow and attempt to minimize damage, mitigate or destroy danger, and bodily throw herself in harm’s way rather than allow it to threaten you. I am not saying that Cassandra did not come to care for you more deeply than a handmaiden does for her sovereign—I don’t believe you would have been quite as hurt and furious with each other if that were the case—I am saying that your relationship had been unequal from the start, and with yourself never realizing that fact and, consequently, never acting with respect of it, you could not have built a lasting relationship with Cassandra no matter how much you both tried.”
Rapunzel chewed on that for a moment, silently.
Squeak, Pascal said gently from her shoulder, still partway underneath the stormy-gray shawl.
“Sometimes I miss how simple things were when it was just you and me and a window and a room,” Rapunzel said quietly. Then rubbed her eyes with a sigh, and looked at her mom again. “So every time Cass had told me, 'I don’t think that’s such a good idea,' or 'that place creeps me out,' or 'that’s too dangerous'—”
Queen Arianna nodded, a sympathetic look on her face.
“And when you asked me just now whether I had wanted her love or her obedience...” Rapunzel clenched her fists, feeling her fingertips come against the coarse burn scars across her palms. “I had tried to have both, hadn’t I.”
“To have someone’s love, you must accept that they will disagree with you and go against your wishes, sometimes. To have their love, you must give them the freedom to be as your equal, at least in private settings,” Queen Arianna said softly. “To have their obedience, you must assert the differences between the two of you, and their inferiority to yourself, without belittling them if at all possible. You cannot have both of the same person at once.”
“Cass had said once,” Rapunzel stumbled a little on the memory, painful as it was. “She told me once that I’ve never let her ignore that we had always been standing on the opposite sides of a divide between the beggars and the choosers.”
“That is a somewhat uncharitable assessment,” her mom admitted with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, well, she had a lot of reasons to be angry and... uncharitable... with me by then. And she wasn’t wrong, either.”
Queen Arianna sighed. “There isn’t a way for that divide to no longer exist between the two of you, and that is something you must accept. And, now that you know where you’ve erred, you have all that you need to not err in this way again.”
“And with another person.” Rapunzel leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes for a moment. “What do you think I should do?”
“That will depend on the person of your choosing, to a certain degree—on fitting your temperament against theirs.” Queen Arianna rested her head on a hand, one finger at her chin and another at her lips in a thoughtful gesture. “I would not advise you to choose any of the newer servants, both because we do not know them well enough yet to let them so close to the sole heiress of Corona and because it would be a slight to the loyalty of those who had been with us for years and decades now. Ethel is significantly older than yourself—by the time you take the throne, she will be advanced in her years enough for such an increase in workload to be quite a strain on her and possibly beyond her. Joanne... is a dear, but lacks... hm. Certain quickness of wit, I would say, at the risk of sounding uncharitable myself.”
“Faith, then,” Rapunzel said with resignation.
“That would be my suggestion,” Queen Arianna confirmed. “She had requested the honour of the position in rather passionate terms, as well, shortly after the Saporian insurrection.”
“And I’ve already been... not great to Faith, at that time.” Rapunzel rubbed at her forehead, both tired and embarrassed now. “I was trying to force her to be like Cass.”
To her surprise, her mom laughed quietly. “Forgive me, I was trying to imagine a sweet thing like Faith attempting to emulate a lion-hearted little bundle of audacity like Cassandra.”
Rapunzel smiled, for what felt like the first time in years. Cass was lion-hearted. And she was a bundle of audacity.
And unlike Rapunzel, she came to a realization as stark as it was obvious in hindsight, Cass had grown up in court.
She looked up at her mom again. “What was Cass like? When she was little?”
“I can’t claim to have been present enough in her life to be an influence, but... it had been comforting, in the most bittersweet way, to catch sight of her every now and then. To see her grow up, and grow stronger and sharper and only ever more steadfast, year by year,” Queen Arianna admitted, an old pain mixed with melancholy in her eyes now. “The Captain brought her in on the night you were taken. I’m not certain whether I believe in fate, but even on the nights I don’t, I think there is poetry to be found in such events. And on the nights I do...” she placed a gentle hand against Rapunzel’s cheek. “Well, if there is a cosmic spinner of destinies out there, then no one had felt the touch of their loom if not the two of you.”
“She saved my life,” Rapunzel said quietly, but with a stoic certainty of having realized as much over the months and weeks she had spent learning candid self-examination. “When Cass took the Moonstone, she saved my life. Everyone tiptoes around it or flat-out accuses her and calls her a traitor, but if I had touched the Moonstone back then, I would be dead. She took it so I wouldn’t have to. And I know it was also because she was already being lied to by Zhan Tiri, but I saw her panic when she accidentally lashed out with the rocks. She didn’t want to hurt anyone—and she didn’t want to watch me get hurt with my own stubbornness all over again. She didn’t try to fight us. She just yelled at me a lot, and defended herself when Adira attacked her to take the Moonstone back. All she tried to do was to leave. And, I’m realizing now, she had only yelled as much as she did because she was making her one last attempt to get me to listen, and she only left after I didn’t.”
“Perhaps it would be wise not to push Faith quite as hard, then,” her mom suggested with a smile.
Rapunzel laughed despite herself, the tension and gravity of the conversation breaking. “Do you think I can still make friends with Faith? If I say sorry for wanting her to be someone else, and don’t try to take so much from her as I had done with Cass?”
“I think it will be quite impossible for you and Faith to work together smoothly if you do not grow fond of each other,” Queen Arianna pointed out, if not unkindly. “But I don’t think you should view this situation as making a friend. Becoming your lady-in-waiting will mean an uptick in Faith’s status, but also in her responsibilities, and I think it would be wise to let her adjust before anything else. But... if you are determined to have more than a strictly professional relationship with her... it will require you both to, eventually, come to an understanding about what is necessary in public and what is permissible in private—only the latter space can accommodate displays such as informal ways of address, or honesty overruling politeness, or gestures of affection that would be seen as disrespectful in official settings. The sooner you understand where the difference between public and private spaces lies, for both of you, the easier it will be to maintain the necessary divide between you in public without letting it sour and injure your closeness in private. From what you’ve told me, it seems as if that was sorely lacking between you and Cassandra.”
“It was. It is. I’ve never thought about things between us like that, not until right now,” Rapunzel said with a sigh.
Squeak, Pascal reminded from her shoulder.
“...And I haven’t because I didn’t have to,” Rapunzel agreed reluctantly.
“I believe you have now discovered what privilege is,” her mom said gently. “The freedom to not even be aware of some matters, because they do not already affect you every minute of every day.”
Rapunzel trailed a thumb against the burn scars on one of her palms again. “I wish I could take so much back. I wish I could make it all up to Cass, one day. But I’ll start with not letting things get nowhere near as bad with Faith. I’ll talk to her first thing in the morning.”
“Excellent,” Queen Arianna said with no small amount of relief. “I’m glad you let me help you. And sweetheart... I know there is always work to do, and that as such, it is always a convenient excuse. But there is no point in postponing difficult conversations for when there is less work—there will never be less work. If you are struggling, I want you to remember than you can always ask to speak with me, and I will make time for you. We’ve been robbed of so many years together already. We can’t let a sense of duty rob us of any more.”
Rapunzel stood up from her chair and stepped closer for a hug. “I love you so much, mom.”
“I love you so much, too.”
Even after all this time, each embrace Rapunzel shared with her mom felt like they were making up for all they had been denied, all they had missed out on—like every hug was the result of thousands that hadn’t happened, of their ghosts laid to rest, of their echoes coming home.
“Well, you should probably get some rest,” Rapunzel said finally, and reluctantly stepped away. “There was one last thing I’d wanted to look at before bed, as well.”
“Burning the midnight oil so young?” Queen Arianna asked with a smile. “Don’t let the habit build. You’ll never escape it otherwise.”
Rapunzel laughed a little, even as she headed for the door, but hesitated and let her arm drop instead of pull on the handle. “Mom?”
“You always say that problems are for being solved,” Rapunzel said slowly. “And Adira has been helping me with seeing the problem before I can solve it. But what about when I can’t see it? When I don’t know what I’m feeling, other than that there’s a lot of it?”
“That is certainly an obstacle,” her mom admitted, taken somewhat off-guard with the question, and considered quickly before speaking again. “You’re remarkably inclined towards working with imagery and with your hands—making things, particularly artwork. Have you tried drawing whatever it is that you feel so strongly? Perhaps that would aid you in examining the issue.”
“I haven’t, but...” Rapunzel imagined flipping through her journal a few years from now and looking at messy, dark, disturbing illustrations of her inner demons right next to the record of everything she loved, and winced at the very thought. “I don’t think I want to put those things in my journal.”
“Then start a second journal,” Queen Arianna suggested. “A journal of recovery, rather than life itself? Something you can close and put away when you no longer need the aid of its mirror.”
“...Huh.” That, Rapunzel realized, did sound better. A lot better.
“I know you’ve spent a lot of time, recently, very focused on your past. It is sometimes necessary to address one’s faults and failings in such a manner, and I couldn’t be more proud of how readily and how diligently you focus on work so difficult,” her mom said softly. “But it wouldn’t do to let yourself fixate on what you can’t undo, to get bogged down in guilt and blame. It is not the purpose of such endeavours to flagellate yourself, and they are not a punishment—you should not seek one, not within the endeavour and not elsewhere—quite the contrary, I believe you should find small ways to reward yourself for your persistence, and ways to look forward to the effort of it. Try out something new, perhaps. A different art style, or method, or medium. It could further help maintain a distinction from your regular journal, as well, if such a separation is something you want.”
“I think I know what the front page will be.” Rapunzel smiled at her mom again. “Thank you. I’ll try it out as soon as I can.”
“Be sure to let me know if it helped, honey. Good night.”
“Good night, mom.”
The door thudded closed behind her, and Rapunzel yawned as she headed towards her own room.
Squeak, Pascal said sleepily.
“Soon. Thank you for staying up with me this long, Pascal.” Rapunzel scratched his cheek with a finger. “I feel braver when you’re with me.”
Squeak, Pascal demurred, and made an inquisitive noise while moving his hands as if to open a book.
“I think it’s a great idea. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself, just—a second journal. It’s so simple.” Rapunzel scoffed at herself, a dozen ideas already milling through her head. “And you know, I think mom is right, I should try something new. I know it didn’t work out for me before, but that art teacher was an acolyte of Zhan Tiri, so what did she know?”
Squeak, Pascal said, the very sound of it derogatory.
Rapunzel laughed a little. A second journal, she thought again, and found herself smiling. Sturdier covers, though. No cheerful embellishments across them. Maybe metal fittings at the corners. A bookmark ribbon, deep red or dark gray. And, she decided as she remembered how it had felt to realize that someone she trusted—her father, no less—had read her journal without asking, a lock.
It’s not like a lock could not be pried off or picked, she knew perfectly well for dating a reformed thief. But just the fact that it was there, as opposed to simple cords of leather to be wrapped around the covers and hold them closed, would spell out that this one’s contents were even more private.
And if she painted some of these feelings, some of these fears and nightmares, maybe she could finally stop thinking about them, as well.
Rapunzel entered her room and closed the door behind herself, noticing that a single-candle lamp was alight at her desk. Next to it, a few scuffed albums had been left in an uneven stack, piled atop an atlas almost twice as large—and beside the books sat a cup of hot chocolate, long since gone cold and too thick to actually drink anymore. She smiled. Chocolate mousse wasn’t so bad, either, and she could eat it with a spoon.
She lit a second candle and replaced the nearly burnt-out one inside the lamp, all but one of its inner surfaces lined with mirrors to allow for an adequate amount of light for reading from a single little flame. Then, with Pascal’s help to unlace, she changed into a more comfortable nightgown, and sat with the books to wind down from the day before bed.
Came out near the Equis-Koto border, Cassandra’s letter had said—but not on which side of that border.
Rapunzel looked at the short note and the three mundane treasures sent with it. For most of her life, there had been only three books in the world—one about geology, one about botany, and one about cooking. Cass had sent a stone, a flower, and a feather from a game bird she had presumably caught and cooked for herself. She couldn’t remember whether she had told Cass of the tower’s three books, and consequently, whether this was intentional. But if it was, then it was yet another reason to love Cass dearly, and to miss her so much. And if it wasn’t, then it was yet another way to understand implicitly what her mom had meant about the nights on which she believed in fate.
It had taken a while spent with the atlas, even knowing that she was only looking at the border territories of Equis and Koto, before Rapunzel leaned closer to it with a feeling of triumph. A small mining town, built around a silver mine—both of which had been on the Kotoan side of the border when the cartographer was doing their work, but with the text beside the maps stating that the area was engulfed in a lasting conflict between the two kingdoms, and with an editor’s note scribbled in since then stating that the mine had been exhausted and shut down some seven years ago, now.
Rapunzel trailed her fingers over the map. What had she been up to, seven years ago? She would’ve been thirteen, back then. Cass would’ve been seventeen going on eighteen, she thought with a sad smile, and probably planning to apply for the royal guard on the morning after her birthday. Eugene would’ve been nineteen or freshly turned twenty, dodging the royal guard in turn. All lives that had seemed so clearly defined and so obvious with what their futures would hold—tower, service, adventures—all lives that had been so static and untested, from perspective. Seven years, and how many times each of their worlds had been upended? Seven years, and it barely merited a single note beside a cartographer’s work.
She took the dried flower’s stem into her fingers, carefully, to examine it in the firelight again. Eighteen years with the same book about botany, the same she had learned to read on and the same she would idly flip through every other day, and she could still recite most of its contents from memory. It did have a section on herbs—not a very large one, but still—as did the cookbook, with entirely different herbs.
Neither taught her about this particular plant, nor had the travels and classes she had taken since leaving the tower behind.
Rapunzel glanced to Pascal, fast asleep on her shoulder. Then to Owl, snoozing atop a chair in the corner of the room, an emptied bowl of choice cuts of raw meat nearby. She wiped a hand over the unopened herbariums piled atop her desk, then blew the lamp’s candle out and finally headed to bed. She would have to take this one victory at a time.
Silver was usually mined from ore, she thought sleepily as she drifted off, and Cass’ stone had a vein of native silver rather than a vein of ore. There was no way a mine would shut down on the pretence of depletion when there was still native metal to be found in its shafts.
Morning came all too quickly, but at least it came heralded with Eugene’s chipper voice, and Rapunzel sat up in bed with a broad yawn before calling out to him, “Come in!”
“Oh, someone’s sleeping in today, huh?” Eugene crossed the room while Rapunzel was rubbing at her eyes, and sat at the edge of her bed. “Well, I have excellent news: no holding court today, and no one to meet.”
“One person to meet. Send Faith in as soon after breakfast as you can find her,” Rapunzel said with another yawn. “I talked to my mom until very late last night, and I think I’m ready after all.”
“New lady-in-waiting?” Eugene asked.
Rapunzel nodded. “I hope you don’t mind?”
Eugene laughed. “Sunshine, we always knew this was going to be temporary. I don’t know what I’m doing! And it wasn’t about starting to know, but about faking it for long enough to buy you time. Don’t get me wrong, I’d do it again, but I’m a little relieved that it’s over. I’ve been thinking about a bit of a project, recently, and I’m glad I’ll have the time to really sit down with it, too.”
“What kind of project?”
“Well, I’ve been on the wrong side of the Coronian justice system a few times—maybe a few more than a few—I know that, you know that, everybody knows that. And it doesn’t work,” Eugene said simply. “The prisons are about as secure as a sieve. And getting punished for crime is all fine and dandy, but there’s not really an alternative for ex-convicts than going back to crime. You know the pub thugs: they’re good folks, under the grime. Lance, me, Angry and Catalina, we’re all doing good enough with the whole making an honest living thing, ever since we were given the chance to. I think we could get rid of a lot of crime in the kingdom if more people had the chance to, or if they knew that there were more options than to just... ruin someone else’s life.”
“That,” Rapunzel said slowly, “is certainly a project.”
“All the more reason to start early, am I right?”
“You are.” Rapunzel stretched, and got out of bed. The window was rain-streaked, she noticed as she walked past it, meaning there would not be a shared breakfast out in the gardens, this time. She came to a stop in front of Owl, who was idly cleaning his feathers in the corner of the room. “Do you think you’ll be able to fly back to her tomorrow?”
Hoot, Owl said, disgruntled.
“What about the day after?”
Hoot, Owl said in a considerably more favourable tone.
“Okay.” She turned back to Eugene. “There’s actually one last errand I’d like to ask you to run, as my... gentleman—”
“Up-up-up-up-up.” Eugene raised a finger. “I’ve decided to stick with 'valet', for my resume.”
Rapunzel laughed. “Can you take a note to a bookbinder from me?”
And maybe it ended up more of an incredibly detailed and specific order, rather than a note, but there was no way she wouldn’t be particular with a new journal. With breakfast not a communal affair this time, on account of some pressing matter or another having demanded her parents’ time, Rapunzel took the meal in her room, slowly reading through the stack of herbariums as she ate, Cass’ dried flower kept in sight for easy reference. There were no entries so far to reference it against, though.
Rapunzel looked at the book to have failed her first, frowning. The Complete Herbal of Corona. Either not as complete as it could be, or the plant didn’t grow in Corona at all.
She was halfway through a second album, still fruitlessly, when a knock came against the half-open door to her room, and she looked up to see Faith the handmaiden standing there nervously.
“You’ve asked for me, your highness?”
“I did. Come on in, sit.” Rapunzel pushed the album away, and only just noticed that her breakfast platter was still more than half-full. The perils of reading at breakfast. “So, uh. I’m sure you’re aware I was supposed to pick a new lady-in-waiting about half a year ago.”
Faith nodded, a cautious look on her face now.
“And I know we’ve... tried, and that had been a disaster,” Rapunzel looked away with a sigh. “I wanted to say sorry, I’ve been trying to force whoever took that place to be like Cassandra, and it was unfair to all of you. But if you’re still interested, especially when I don’t do that anymore, well, the position is open and I need someone in it.”
“I– yes, of course, it would be a great honour,” Faith blurted out immediately, the conversation obviously taking a turn very different from what she had been expecting. “As soon as you’ll have me, your highness.”
“Today?” Rapunzel hazarded, and was rewarded with an enthusiastic nod. “Look, Faith, I don’t– I don’t know you very well yet. But, I was hoping that rather than just work together, we could be friends? After we figure out where we stand with each other? If we took it slow, and were careful about it?”
“I’ll do whatever you ask of me, your highness, to the best of my ability,” Faith said slowly, that cautious look back in place. “But if I’m not mistaken, that is not what you’re asking.”
“It’s not. It isn’t... something I can order you to do.”
“I’m not opposed to the idea, but it might be prudent to establish,” Faith paused for a moment as she weighed her words. “Ways, to communicate whether we’re acting in an official or unofficial space, or to swiftly correct from one mode of conversation into the other as the situation changes?”
Rapunzel smiled a little, trying not to get too overwhelmingly excited. “Like code words?”
“That would be a way,” the handmaiden agreed easily. “Perhaps something to start with.”
“Then, do you think you could call me anything other than 'your highness' in an unofficial space?”
Faith leaned back a little with an uncertain, slightly overwhelmed expression. “Oh. Hmm. I’m not... quite certain if I could get used to anything overly familiar, that would go against everything I’ve been taught of in court. But, if 'princess' would suffice...?”
“I’ll take it,” Rapunzel said immediately, and felt relief washing away months of stressing over the matter from her soul when she caught Faith on trying not to smile. “Like I said, I won’t try to make you be Cass. You don’t have to call me by my first name, just not... that, when it’s not necessary.”
“Very well,” Faith glanced at the closed door, then inclined her head, “princess. And if I may speak candidly, from however little I’ve known Cassandra, I feel quite certain in that no one in the whole world can be like her. Though, Lord Hector certainly tries.”
“What do you mean?” Rapunzel raised a hand as she heard her own tone. “Like, 'how so', not 'I am offended with the comparison'.”
The newly-minted lady-in-waiting discreetly let out a sigh of relief before answering. “At his, um... sunniest disposition, he is somewhat reminiscent of Cassandra at her most aggravated.”
Rapunzel burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, I just—Hector, sunny—oh but that’s good...”
She bit her tongue before she could ask if she had mentioned that Hector had tried to kill her and all of her friends and companions on multiple occasions in the past. The Dark Kingdom’s last knights were all sharing a rather peculiar status in Corona; King Edmund was a guest of honour at the court, and would remain one until the end of his days, especially for the part where his heir was dating Rapunzel and had been for a while now. Quirin had returned to his farm in Old Corona with little fuss, to the life he had built since the mass exile, and with the respect of both of his kings. Adira was still in Castle Corona, despite having initially implied that she’d only hang around for as long as it would take Xavier to forge her a new sword, though half the time no one knew where to find her. And Hector had been a problem that no one seemed to know what to do with—except for Adira, who tirelessly pelted him with smug looks and 'I told you so's as thoroughly delighted as they were, in fairness, well-earned. He was too brutal for the guard, too volatile to become a knight-errant or an outrider, a diplomatic incident waiting to happen if he were to encounter an allied kingdom’s envoys and treat them like potential threats. And now he was also, apparently, growing restless in his boredom.
Rapunzel dragged her mind back to the matter at hand, and sent Faith away to prepare however she needed for the new function she was about to embrace. Finished her breakfast properly, and looked at the herbariums again before leaving the current one open next to the atlas beside the stack. She re-read the note Cass had sent, though she already had it near-memorized, and could imagine hearing it in Cassandra’s voice. Then she stacked the books away to make room for a few pages of stationery, and stared at the blank paper for a very long time as she thought about what to write—and how to write it, how to not push so hard anymore and how to still speak her mind well enough, but in a gentler way—and about what to keep silent, what would be unnecessary or too painful to bring up. And for the next two days, in-between testing the waters with another, in-between tending to her duties and her needs, she wrote. Thought about how much she missed Cass, and how Cass had a staying presence in her life even while absent from it, and she painted. Thought about how the puzzle Cass had given her to solve was proving unexpectedly hard, but how regardless of its answer, she knew that Cass was doing a lot where she was, even when no one knew her well enough to expect such actions, and she sewed. And when the two days have passed, Rapunzel made sure Owl was ready to go, about to carry a response that was maybe perhaps possibly a little disproportionate in comparison to Cassandra’s bare-bones note. But then again, that had always been true of the two of them—and maybe, Rapunzel hoped, it could be tamed into becoming a good thing.
“Look after her, okay?”
Hoot, Owl said primly, very clear on that she did not have to tell him so.
And once he was on his way, Rapunzel stared after him until he disappeared against the sky, before she sighed and went back to work.