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?”
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.