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Mother Knows Best

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If Arianna had been more than a grieving mother

 

-18 years ago-



The tension in the room was hot with grief and fierce anger.

Amidst an overflowing desk of documents, troop arrangements and an extensive map of Corona and the immediate land beyond, King Frederic der Sonne of Corona stared down his Captain of the Guard as if the man had told him the world was coming to an end. The king stood in his royal attire, but even the greenest pages could see that the jacket was askew and his shirt was rumpled. His normally calm, soft-spoken demeanor was pale and stiff from the many sleepless nights he had endured through a time that should have been his happiest. The captain, on the other hand, stood his ground, body erect in salute, impassive in the face of his liege’s rage. He too, was broken in a way, for he had sworn his King a service but failed in his quest.

“What do you mean , captain. How can she be gone!? ” The King bellowed, his chest rose and shrunk in large gasps as his knuckles turned white against wood by pure force. His eyes were bulging as he towered over his most trusted soldier and friend. 

The captain’s gaze was downcast, then he explained again. “We identified and found the culprit’s home and gave chase. She cut us off by sabotaging a bridge however, and took off with the princess. When we finally made it across, she was already gone.”

Were there no reinforcements!?

“The troops are still searching, your majesty. We are covering the woods beyond, and will be doing so through the night.”

“Answer my question, soldier!” 

“... The secondary teams were not in time to intercept her, sir. I am truly sorry.”

A cry, bordering wail, broke from the man. A thunderous crack made all present cover out of instinctual fear as the King hit his large fists against the desk, sending paper, inkwells and other royal accessories to the floor with a mighty shattering sound. For a few long moments he stood, a great, hulking shadow, simply breathing and daring anyone present to move.

A small, pitiful whimper broke the ominous silence.

“The girl?” The King demanded, motioning to the tiny dark-haired figure in the corner. Huddled on the floor with her knees pulled tightly to her chin, as if she was trying to make herself disappear. 

The captain paused, hesitating for a moment on how to proceed. He looked over at the child nervously, his face mired in sympathy. 

“We believe her to be the culprit’s own child. She was left behind when the kidnapper chose flight.” He said, and regretted it instantly when his words were met with a quiet, heartbroken sob.

“Lock her up then. Maybe we can use her as bait, if the kidnapper should return to collect her own brood. Send out word that we have her.” The King hissed and glared at the small shadow in the room. The captain looked aghast.

“Your majesty, surely you can’t mean to- ? Sir, while we all grieve for the loss of the princess surely this cannot be the way? She is a chil- ”

“You will do no such thing, Frederic.”  

The escalating argument was cut at the root by the new voice. Both men turned around to the sight of the queen who had quietly entered the room. Arianna, with red, slightly swollen eyes, and looking as stricken as her husband still looked every bit the queen. Composed and calm, she walked to the center of the room and stood in front of her husband, angry defiance in her face.

“Dear, I understa- ”

“No, Frederic. This is not a discussion.” 

“But-”

“We will not cast hurt and punishment upon a child to recompense for the loss of our daughter. ” Arianna commanded with a finality so severe the captain felt like he had been struck across the face. 

Husband and wife stared at each other. The captain swallowed looked between them in tense trepidation. 

“So be it then.” The King let out a deep sigh and backed away, he stormed out of the office. The captain let out a deep breath of relief and nodded to the queen before excusing himself to follow his King. 

The room fell quiet, the tension evaporating like the snuff of a candle and Arianna now stood alone in her husband’s vast study, reports and stationary littering the floor.

Well, almost alone.

She turned to the small girl in the corner, and while her heart sank with the weights of a thousand sorrows she somehow managed to choke out a brittle if not genuine smile. The child, a girl, was small for her age. Dark, unruly hair crowned a pale, apple-cheeked face.

“Hello, little one.” The girl let out another wet sob, covering her face with tiny hands. “It seems like we both have been doing a whole lot of crying today.” Arianna said gently. She reached out her arms and lifted the small, warm body into her arms. “Why are you sad, my sweet?”

“I lost my mama.” The girl sniffled, not meeting her eyes.

“And I lost my daughter.” Arianna said, letting the worry and grief cut through her like knives.

“Oh.” The girl replied after a few moments, then started crying anew.

“What a pair we make.” The queen mumbled and tucked the girl against her shoulder, letting both their heartbreaks have its due.

 

***

 

The outer garden of the castle was empty enough for a leisurely stroll at mid-afternoon as the sun broke through the clouds. Most of the castle’s inhabitants were busy with their daily tasks. Queen Arianna stepped through the well-kept gravel path with brisk, determined steps, followed by the dour, hulking figure of second-governess of the court. Unlike the governess however, the queen was doing her best to hide a small smile behind a practiced mask.

“Your majesty, I am sorry, but I simply do not know what to do about her.” The older woman sighed with great trepidation. “Her work is excellent when she applies herself, but every second day, we have to expend at least two maids to look for her.”

“I see, thank you Grete.” Arianna answered. “Leave this to me then, I shall not keep you away from your duties. I suspect it will not be as hard to find her as to convince her to come along, and I’m confident about my own skills in that.” 

Grete looked uncertain for a few seconds, the lines in her face tensed with uncertainty before speaking up. “I know your worry, my lady. She is as of yet doing well with the other children. I will relay her updates directly to you as you wished.”

Arianna nodded, grateful for the older woman’s discretion as they parted ways. She entered an older part of the garden, with tall hedges and stone paths lined with tall balustrades overhung by thick roses. It was a place with less open spaces, with plenty of shade and excellent for hide-and-seek. It was also conveniently located right by the barracks where the soldiers trained.

“Cassandra?” She tried tentatively, unsure of her own foresight as she listened closely to the wind. A small ruffling sound of moving leaves gave her adversary away.

A dishevelled, dark head matted with green from leaves and dust darted straight at her from the shadows. Arianna spun around with her practiced grace and raised a fan she had been carrying just in time to block the wooden tip of a practice sword.

The child peered up at her with a slight disappointed face, which quickly transformed into worry as she realized she had been caught at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Not sneaky enough.” Arianna stated, smiling in reassurance that she was not in trouble. 

“You’re just too good.” Cassandra pouted. “You’re like a Koto-shadowwalker.”

“Am I now?” The queen gathered the child to her in a hug. “Then you just have to be better if you want to escape your lessons. I’ve heard the Shadows of the East can catch hawks using nothing but silence. And I do have some sound opinions about you skipping class, young lady.”

“I finished the work. Madame Grete just wants us to sit nicely and pretend as if we’re doing nothing.”

“You mean hold polite conversation? Cassie, that’s what one should expect of a young lady.” Arianna scolded, brushing a few stray straws of grass from Cassandra’s green clothes, trying to make her slightly more presentable. Hadn’t she started the day in a dress? It was so hard to know with this girl. Cassandra returned her hug, relaxing and seemingly at ease in the Queen’s arms. 

“But I won’t be a lady.” She mumbled in defiance.

True. That much was clear from the six years she had been Arianna’s ward. Needlework and poetry would never be on Cassandra’s list of great accomplishments. Her spirit belonged to the wind.

“I want to be a soldier, a shadowwalker, or a knight.” 

The girl stepped back and looked up at the queen, stormy eyes resolute with a certainty only the young could possess.

“I will be all of those, and then I will search every land and bring your daughter back.” She said stubbornly.

A sting of sorrow cut through Arianna’s otherwise jovial mood, but as she had during the weeks after Cassandra’s arrival when every morning was as heavy as the night, she found her strength. Unlike Frederic, she chose to see that horrible, painful day as the day she gained Cassandra rather than the day she lost Rapunzel. One day, she would have her daughter back and until then it would hurt no one to show kindness to a girl who was nothing but earnest and good.

Arianna leaned down and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, giving them a light squeeze in encouragement.

“Then we’ll need to train you properly, won’t we?.”

Cassandra’s smile could have lit the sky.

 

-Present Day-

 

The Kingdom of Corona had always stood out as an emerald jewel atop a crown of white and sandy rocks. It’s city, with its white spires and viridian domes, was a feat of great marvel upon the far end of the Coast of Eversun. Famed for its bountiful harvest and well-constructed harbor, it was beseeched by merchants from the far reaches of the seven kingdoms and beyond. One could get lost in the forest of masts and bulging white sails, flying an array of national and private colours, as one approached the city by the sea.

Cassandra took a deep breath at the sight as her ship cleaved through fast, frothy waves, at the colours and smells of home

The ship, Issa , landed against the dock with the might groan of oak as its crew pulled the oars and downed its blue-striped sails which had given her journey life for half a moon. She swung herself onto dry land as quickly as it was physically possible, having caught sight of her expected company. On land, she paid the dockmaster to have her belongings delivered to the castle, and had little time for anything else before she was swept up in a hug.

“Dad,” She groaned into his civilian clothes and fumbled a bit with her satchel and sword before hugging him back. “I can’t breathe.”

The captain of the royal guard chuckled deeply and pushed them apart and held her at an arm’s length. As long as Cassandra could remember, he had always been a man of few words and even less affectionate gestures. She had learned to treasure the ones she received. Two guards in their golden armor stood a bit away, providing security for their leader on his rare moments off duty.

“You look well. Did you grow taller?” He asked, his otherwise stoic facade breaking into a rare look of happy contention, a man looking at his only child. “What did the Ingvarri feed you over there?”

“Meat, mostly. And obscene amounts of milk.” She said, non committedly and shrugged when her father gave her a pointed look. It had been good food, a bit light on the spices compared to their home fare but she had found no reason to complain. “Their smoked fish is really good.”

They made their way towards the castle, filling the air with small talk as the guards brought up their rear. Cassandra thought their presence made their party rather conspicuous.

“I can’t believe it’s been six years since this was your home.” The captain said when they finally entered the gates. 

“I haven’t seen you since the Battle of The Seven Kingdoms. For the better or worse.” She grimaced. That had been a painful memory for Coronians, as the princess had still been missing. It had been a battle of six kingdoms, and she would never forget Queen Arianna’s chiseled, ashen face overlooking the festivities while giving away none of her pain. Queen Signe had brought her along in her entoure to visit her family, a kindness Cassandra would not soon forget.

“I sent away a girl to study the sword, and look at what the sea brought back to me.” Her father chuckled fondly. “You look strong.”

“Were you expecting a fair maid with frills in her dress? I can’t stay a beanstalk forever.”

“Just saying that you’re a child no more. And I’m glad you’re home.”

“Corona will always be my home, dad. Especially now, when the Queen has summoned me.” 

“Ah about that.” He said, something unreadable twinkled in his eye in good humour. “You should go to her. However, I would see it more as a suggestion than a summon. Don’t take this the wrong way, but we would not have called you home if we did not know you had finished your studies.”

“I had half a mind to go to Koto this spring.”

“That you would.” He sighed. “Go get changed and don’t keep her majesty waiting. You stink like the seaweed stuck in the gulf.”

 

***

 

The castle remained much the same as she remembered, and a few friendly words with the guards sent her to the east wing. She strode into the terrace where the Queen awaited, fresh from a wash and in her good set of casuals, a pair of Ingvarri trousers with tightened calves and a comfortable, loose fitting shirt in mossy and dark green. Her sword belt was now clasped with Corona’s sun emblem. There were two tables set apart. One carrying a significant trove of what looked like court documents and proceedings with what looked like Arianna’s personal ink set. On the other, what could only be called a small banquet was spread out, fruits and greens she hadn’t seen in years together with cold cuts of meat, bread baked to golden crisp and ah, of course, black berry buns.

The queen stood with her back turned, browsing through a report.  A few of her handmaidens lingered nearby. Her head perked up at Cassandra’s approach. There was no sneaking up to Arianna, even after all these years.

“Your majesty.” Cassandra said, trying to keep her voice steady, despite her elation to see the woman who had always treated her as her own. She bowed deeply when Arianna turned around, no longer the child who would run by her side with toy swords.

She did not see the Queen’s face until she felt a hand gently cusp her cheek, tilting her up. She did however hear the curious gasps of the maids as her face was suddenly covered by a veil of purple velvet and brown hair as Arianna pulled her into her second hug for the day. This time, she did not complain. 

“Welcome home, child.” Arianna said breathlessly.

Cassandra’s chest contracted at her words. She simply hugged the queen back, no longer trusting her own voice.

 

***

 

The day was way past noon when her father joined them. By then, she had relayed several anecdotes of her life, from her time as a swordling in Ingvarr, to her trip across the northern kingdoms. She had also managed to consume a venerable amount of food, enough to feed two men and some more. Her father looked at her critically. He was back in his uniform, holding his helmet under an arm and looking every part his command. Arianna lifted her hand, sensing the incoming reprimand.

Cassandra had the dignity to look a little embarrassed and gave him a wry look. It had just been so long since she had Coronan food, and the taste of home had been to much of a temptation to resist.

“Cassandra,” Her father cleared his throat. “I think it's time you hear why we called you back to Corona.”

“We both knew you wanted to further your journey, but circumstances have changed quite drastically at home.” Arianna continued, her face falling into something akin to worry.

Cassandra nodded, she had spent some time rereading both their letters on the ship. Together with the regular news at the Ingvarr capital, she had fit the pieces together rather easily.

“Your letters said the princess has been found. I assume this is somehow connected.”

“Correct. Rapunzel has had some difficulties adjusting to castle life and needs a bit more oversight than we expected. As it stands now, the royal guard lacks a soldier with the right... acumen to be her personal security detail. The ones we have tried simply cannot keep up with her.” Her father explained, looking a bit uncomfortable. Cassandra raised an eyebrow at this. “We were hoping you would take the job. We are asking because you’re not officially part of the military, and as your father, I don’t want to order you.”

“What the good captain is trying to say is that we have no female royal guards who is skilled enough to take the job. Rapunzel is, despite her rather delicate situation, a crown princess and we can’t have male soldiers running in and out of her room while she’s... up to her activities. I trust your father’s men, but the decorum simply doesn’t allow for it.”

Cassandra shot her father a smug told-you-so look, she had written to him on several occasions, arguing about the benefits of having a more gender balanced force. Father and daughter swapped knowing looks. Arianna leaned towards her and put up her hand to enclose hers.

“Cassie, listen, I know you wanted to enlist with the naval forces after coming home-”

“She does?” The captain blinked.

“I wrote it in my winter solstice letter, dad.” 

“-but I wouldn’t ask this of you if I didn’t think you would be the best for the job. I want to entrust my daughter’s safety to you, for a while, until Rapunzel is… more accustomed and we can lighten security.” 

“So, a short time arrangement huh?” She mused, looking between the two people who had always been there for her. It did sting a bit that she would have to delay her own plans, but it did feel good to be home, even if the open seas called her.

“Cassandra, please be respectful, this is still the Queen.”

“Well, respectfully then, after six years abroad, you already knew my answer didn’t you.” She smiled widely, and reached for another blackberry bun.

 

***

 

Over the course of her life at the castle, Cassandra had been to the princess tower numerous times. The first time had been during exploration, when she was still young enough to be carried. The queen had found her with such a face of heartbreak that she didn’t dare to venture to the chambers for years. Later, she had found the chamber a respite when the other castle children grew old enough to ask about her parentage. She remembered sitting by the window, imagining the princess who should have lived there beneath its beautifully painted roof, wondering if they could have been friends. 

She was still reminiscing when she pushed the large, wooden doors open and realized she had forgotten to knock. What previously had been an empty chamber with a few stray details had been refurbished into a proper room with a queen sized bed, a desk seemingly overflowing with art supplies, bookshelves crammed with colorful tomes, a chiffonier, a vanity, a floor-full of books and a… pillow fort?

She blinked at the colourful monstrosity at the center of the room, mounds and piles of silk and chiffon arranged in a circular construct. A head of earthy brown hair stuck out from it’s ‘door’, lying flat on the side as if resting while the girl browsed through a book at random. She was wearing a dress of royal purple, but seemed ill at ease in it, with one shoulder sticking out from beneath its collar. A spread of paper and colorful pens were strewn around her.

“I don’t think I’m up for more princess stuff today, your majest-... mother.” The princess mumbled with a sullen, defeated voice, clearly not expecting her present company. 

Cassandra raised an eyebrow at the sight of the long-lost Coronan crown princess.

“I… hope not, since I have no princesserly things to share.” She replied with some humour.

The princess bolted up to a sitting position, knocking down half of the pillows of her fort. Surprise was written all over her face as her eyes widened at the sight of the other. She pulled the book to her chest in a defensive gesture. Surprise transformed to awe to curiosity in flashes of seconds, her eyes paused at Cassandra’s sword.

Cassandra kneeled and glanced up, meeting the other’s eyes. Large, forest-green met her back, prodding her gently.

“Greetings your highness, I am Cassandra and I have been assigned as your personal guard, starting this afternoon.”

Rapunzel blinked. “You’re Cassandra?”

“I am. You have heard of me?” She was genuinely surprised.

“The queen told me a few things. She was very happy about you coming home.” Rapunzel pursed her lips, looking a bit uncertain as she pulled herself into a cross-legged sitting position, completely foregoing that Cassandra was still on her knee in her royal presence and needed to be excused. “Though I guess I need to call her mother now.”

The word seemed to become lead in her mouth as Rapunzel tried it, and it was easy to understand why. The happy meeting between her father, Arianna and herself had taken a more serious turn as she was informed by the fate of her own birthmother, a woman who Rapunzel had called mother for all her life. Cassandra remembered Gothel as a dark-haired spectre that would sometimes visit her from the deepest recesses of her dreams. Some memories were cold while others were of firelight and pleasant. Her feelings about the witch who had left her behind however were complicated, and she did not want to tackle them at the present. Right now, she was home, and her father and Arianna had need for her service, and Cassandra had waited all her life for a chance to prove herself. 

“Aren’t you uncomfortable like that?” Rapunzel looked her hunched form up and down, a little confused.

So maybe she had expected a little more swashbuckling with pirates, but that would come in due time. Right now, the woman who was her mother in all but name needed and trusted her, and Cassandra would rather jump off a mast than let Arianna down.

“You need to acknowledge my service, your highness. Then I will stand.” Cassandra pointed out.

“Oh! Oh well, your service is acknowledged? It’s very nice to meet you. I am Rapunzel.” The princess pulled herself up straighter and nudged closer eagerly, she didn’t stand however and just continued to stare at Cassandra with rapt fascination. “Um… do you want to sit down? My waiting-lady gave me cookies and you’re welcomed to some. I have a lot of books if you want to see, do you like reading? Or will that get in the way of your bodyguard duty?”  

“Lady in waiting?” Cassandra corrected, smiling. She sat down and put her sword over her knees. She would check the princess’s chambers for vulnerabilities later, right now, she needed to get to know her charge.

“Yes, ugh, I’m not very good at this am I?”

“I don’t think there’s a playbook in how to be a princess.” Cassandra offered. “Princesses can be different depending on the kingdom.”

“Would have been helpful though. The governess they send me is nice, but there’s just… so much.” 

“Well, if there isn’t a rulebook maybe you can make some things up as you go? Since no one can tell you it’s wrong.”

The princess raised one of her eyebrows and shot her a lopsided smile. “Is that what you do? While guarding?”

“While fighting, yes. Part of it is always intuition.”

Rapunzel hummed thoughtfully at Cassandra’s suggestion. Her face seemed to want to break into half a dozen of expressions at once, yet settled for none. Then she smiled widely and pulled herself even more closer, clearly ignoring, or being ignorant of the concept of personal space. Which was bad. Because while Cassandra could overlook the delicate, slightly freckled features of someone half-buried in pillows it was harder to not appreciate the same face leaning close, flush from excitement and hair pushed back over her ears, revealing the pale of a slender neck. 

No one had bothered to tell her Rapunzel was pretty. Very pretty.  

Oh well. That was a complication, but it wasn’t like Cassandra hadn’t stood around in royal courts with lovely women before. She sent Queen Signe’s youngest a fond thought and felt heat creep up her throat.

“Tell me about fighting, and your journeys and the other countries you’ve seen.” Rapunzel requested blithely. “I want to hear all of it. I want us to be friends.”

“I am to be your guard, your highness.” Cassandra tried, hating at how soft her voice had gone. “A friendship might be... a complication.”

“Didn’t you just tell me to make some rules my own, Cass?”

She blinked. “Cass?”

“My rule. No take backs.” Rapunzel grinned. “It’s intuition.” 

 

 ***

 

In the garden, Arianna and the captain finished the last of their daily briefings  before the guard had to report to the King. The Queen noticed how the man kept sliding slightly worried glances at the tower above.

“Is something wrong?” She asked conversationally, knowing very well what occupied his mind.

“Just…” The man stopped, shook his head and sighed. “Nothing your majesty, silly worries of a man getting on in his age.”

She nodded and followed his gaze. “You’ve done well by her, you know.”

He chuckled in response, and for a moment they were not a Queen and her soldier but two parents sharing the pride over a daughter grown and well-raised.

“I could say the same about you, your majesty. I couldn’t have done it without your support and insight. She takes after your kindness, and spirit for adventures.”

"As if I could have disciplined all that energy into her skill with a sword." She scoffed fondly. "Did I tell you what Queen Signe wrote to tell me about her? How she disarmed two men with some cutlery?"

"You did." He grinned. "Atta girl."

“We’ve done what we could, Gustav. Let’s have faith in her, and let's see if our child can take on my wildling of a daughter before the whole castle goes mad. And who knows what destiny has in store for them both.”

 

* Part 1 End *