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.”
“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!”
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.”